Career Profile: Lyle Overbay
When people need the name of a decent-but-not-star-caliber first baseman when doing prospect comps, a frequent comparison is Lyle Overbay. I wrote a Prospect Retro for Overbay six years ago, but for some reason I've recently received several requests for another look at his career.
Lyle Overbay was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 18th round in 1999, from the University of Nevada. He had led the Big West Conference with a .420 batting average and 24 doubles, but was not considered a hot prospect. He continued ripping the ball after signing, hitting .343 with a .588 SLG and an incredible 101 RBI in 75 games for Missoula. But this was the Pioneer League, good for offense, and many traditionalists were still skeptical about him. I gave him a Grade C in my 2000 book, noting that we needed to see him against better pitching, but that his relatively low strikeout rate (53 K, 40 walks in 306 at-bats) was a good marker.
Overbay began 2000 with South Bend in the Midwest League, hitting .332 with a .498 SLG in 71 games. This earned him a promotion to Double-A at mid-season, where he hit .352 with a .533 SLG in 62 games for El Paso. These numbers were unassailable, but again there was some doubt among traditionalists. Baseball America rated him as just the 11th-best prospect in the Arizona farm system, behind such stalwarts as Jerry Gil, Chris Capuano, and Brad Cresse. I gave him a Grade B and rated him second-best in the Arizona system, admittedly behind future bust Jack Cust. (NOTE: When I wrote this in '05, Cust looked like a bust. He revived his career obviously).
Overbay spent all of 2001 at El Paso, hitting .352 with 49 doubles, 13 homers, and 100 RBI in 138 games. This earned him another Grade B from me. I wrote that I was "certain he'd hit .285-.300 at the major league level, though his power would be marginal for a first baseman." I now rated him as the best prospect in the D-backs system. Baseball America moved him up to number 4.
Overbay spent most of '02 in Triple-A, hitting .343 with 40 doubles, 19 homers, and 109 RBI in 134 games. I bumped him up to B+ based on this, ranking as the number 18 prospect in the game overall. I wrote that Overbay would hit "at least .285 in the majors, with frequent .300+ averages likely as he adjusts. I don't think he'll hit more than 25 homers in a season, and even that won't happen right away."
Overbay split '03 between Tucson and Arizona, then was traded to Milwaukee, where he blossomed last season, hitting .301 with 53 doubles, 16 homers, and 81 walks. He is 28 now, likely as good as he will ever get. That's still pretty damn good. Some of those doubles may become home runs eventually, but the projection of Overbay as a .285-.300 hitter looks spot on. (NOTE: Remember this was originally written in 2005).
Lyle Overbay was a great hitter in college, and he's been a fine hitter as a pro. Why did it take him so long to get respect? Traditionalists were skeptical about his defense, and his lack of big-time home run power for a first baseman. Statheads were concerned about his age-relative-to-league, and the fact that he put up his big numbers in environments (the Big West Conference, the Pioneer League, the Texas League, the PCL) that are conducive to gaudy statistics.
Comparable Batters through age 27 (based on Sim Score and PECOTA, not counting active players)
Overbay now has five additional years under his belt. He had a great season in '06 (.312/.372/.508, 125 OPS+), slumped in an injury-hampered in '07, then rebounded in '08. He's not spectacular but he gets the job done, posting a career .274/.358/.447 line, 111 OPS+. Career 14.3 WAR. At age 34, he is in the decline phase of his career, his WAR dropping from 2.0 in '08 and 2.4 in '09 down to 1.5 last year.
Overall he's been a solid, unspectacular, but useful player, a very good outcome for an 18th-round pick that scouts downplayed early in his career. As far as I can determine from looking back at old data, nobody else had Overbay ranked as highly as I did in my 2003 book at 18th overall. That was one "gut feeling" pick of mine that worked out OK.