Hessman having career year in Minors
Prospect has breakout season after 12 years in pro ball
TOLEDO, Ohio -- There aren't many players in all of professional baseball who have had as much success as Mud Hens third baseman Mike Hessman this season. That's the good news.Only three other players -- Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder and fellow Minor Leaguer Craig Brazell -- have more homers this season than Hessman's 27. Only Rodriguez and Double-A player Bubba Bell can top Hessman's 85 RBIs, which is more good news. It certainly has been a career year for Hessman, who entered this season with a .225 average and single-season highs of 28 homers and 80 RBIs. Now here's the bad news. That career has stretched over 12 years and has only resulted in a handful of games in the Majors. Two brief callups with the Braves in '03 and '04 have been the only rewards for Hessman, who turned 29 in March. But don't bother telling Hessman he's not a young prospect anymore. Of course he would like to make it back up to the big leagues, but he doesn't plan on leaving the game any time soon, even if he never gets another shot at the Majors. "I want to play this game as long as I can, until they rip the jersey off me," Hessman said. "I love it. I love coming out here taking [batting practice], messing around with the guys, taking groundballs, all of that stuff. I'm gonna stay in the game as long as I possibly can." So would that mean playing in the Minors for another five or six years? "It's not ideal, no. But if there are opportunities awaiting and I've got to be down there [in the Minors], if there's doors that will open in certain situations, yeah, of course," Hessman said. "It's one of those things where you can plug away and hopefully you'll get another chance." Hessman knows quite a bit about plugging away. He spent nine years with the Braves organization after he was drafted in the 15th round of the '96 First-Year Player Draft out of high school. To put into perspective how long ago that was, Marcus Giles was drafted in the 53rd round of that same Draft. Hessman and Giles became friends coming up through the system. Now, Giles is a seven-year veteran with 761 games played while Hessman has appeared in just 48 games. After those nine years with the Braves, they took Hessman off the 40-man roster after the '04 season. "[The Braves] wanted to sign me back, but I felt I had better opportunities elsewhere," Hessman said. Enter the Tigers, who signed Hessman before the '05 season. His first two seasons in Toledo were difficult, at best. Hessman's first season with the Mud Hens yielded 28 home runs and 74 RBIs, but also 154 strikeouts and a .214 average in 134 games. Those numbers were actually impressive compared to his disastrous '06 season, when he batted .165 with 129 strikeouts in 101 games. "A lot of times you see guys putting up those numbers and they get released and you really don't hear from them," Hessman said. Instead, the Mud Hens coaching staff, namely hitting coach Leon "Bull" Durham, continued to work with Hessman on his swing and mental approach. That approach includes sticking to balls up in the strike zone and retooling his swing path. Instead of a traditional uppercut swing that most power hitters use, Hessman is now swinging down on the ball, "like a golf swing," as he described it. The power hasn't suffered as a result of the new swing. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Hessman doesn't even need to try to generate most of his power. So he listened to Durham. He also took advice from teammate and best friend Kevin Hooper. The two roomed together in Spring Training this season and Hooper said the two had "a lot of heart-to-heart discussions" about things on and off the field. But it was Hooper's honest assessment of Hessman's game that has led to the biggest change. "I'm sure if you ask him, the first thing he'll tell you is that you need to put the ball in play more," Hooper said. "He's so big, I told him, 'Even with two strikes, if you make a decent amount of contact, you can put the ball out of the yard.'" The contact has been up, even if Hessman is still struggling with strikeouts. He leads the International League with 119 strikeouts. That's a concession Mud Hens manager Mike Rojas is willing to make, given the huge power numbers Hessman has put up. "Of course he's still gonna strike out, power guys are always gonna strike out," said Rojas, who has put Hessman in the No. 6 spot in the order almost exclusively this season. "But he's knocking in more than he's striking out." "He wants to get to that pedestal where everyone wants to be, and he's made the adjustments. Sometimes it takes a little longer for some guys." Even with Hessman's breakout year, the Tigers chose to promote Ryan Raburn when they needed a replacement for the suspended Neifi Perez earlier this month. There were no hard feelings when Hessman heard the news. "I honestly didn't even think about it like that," Hessman said. "When you hear that, all you can do is congratulate him. I never think the opposite, like, 'Oh, it should have been me.' I don't think like that." After all, Hessman still has the attention of manager Jim Leyland. He praised Hessman in just about every way possible while discussing the decision to promote Raburn. "We like Hessman," Leyland said. "That's why he was back down there [in Spring Training] this year. Everybody thought we didn't like Hessman. We liked Hessman all along, or he wouldn't have been back with us again in Spring Training. "Hessman's a good player," Leyland continued. "He's a very good defensive player. He's a very good first baseman and a very good third baseman, and he's got power. He's having another big year. He's having a huge year. He could have, if he stays on the same pace, maybe have the best year in the history of Triple-A almost, or close to it." The best year in Triple-A history? Hard to say, though he is on pace to near the club's records for homers and RBIs in a season. If Hessman were to continue on his current pace, he would finish with 41 homers and 129 RBIs. Both of those totals would challenge the records of Phil Hiatt, who hit 42 homers and had 119 RBIs in 1996, according to statistics compiled by the Mud Hens that date back to 1965. All of the extra attention can only help Hessman, who will be a free agent at the end of this season and is just looking for another shot at the Majors, wherever that may be. That could even include a coaching position, whenever his playing days are over. "It could be throwing BP, hitting groundballs, whatever. I like baseball, it's all I've been into my whole life," Hessman said. "To stay in the game somehow and coach, I'd see what doors would open in that aspect, as well." At the very least, Hessman could coach players on how to turn a season around, even if it took 12 years to figure it out for himself.
Tim Kirby is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.