Not a Rookie: Casey McGehee
One of the most surprising rookies of 2009 was Casey McGehee, who came out of nowhere to hit .301/.360/.499 in 116 games for the Brewers. Who is this guy, where did he come from, and can he do this again? Let's find out.
Casey McGehee was a three-year starter at Fresno State, hitting .324/.380/.474 his freshman year in '01, .367/.412/.529 as a sophomore, and .346/.411/.444 as a junior. His power production slipped in his third season, which hurt his draft stock and knocked him down to the 10th round, where he was selected by the Cubs and signed to a $65,000 bonus. He was considered to be a decent line drive hitter with a workable glove, but questions about his power prevented him from rating as a top prospect. The Cubs gave him an aggressive assignment after signing, sending him to Lansing in the Midwest League, skipping the short-season levels. He held his own, hitting .272/.302/.391 with 10 walks and 46 strikeouts in 243 at-bats. I rated him as a Grade C in my 2004 book, noting that he had done okay in a full-season league right out of college and needed to be tracked. I wrote that he wasn't a hot prospect, but we needed to "keep an eye on him."
Moved to Class A Daytona in the Florida State League in '04, McGehee hit .261/.310/.394 in 449 at-bats. He hit 30 doubles and 10 homers, but his walk rate was below average and his OPS was exactly league average. The Cubs tinkered with his position, as he split time between catcher and third base. I saw him as an organization player at this point and did not put him in the 2005 book. In retrospect, he was young for a guy drafted as a junior, just 21 during the '04 season, and had more growth potential than I gave him credit for.
Promoted to Double-A Tennessee for 2005, McGehee hit .297/.354/.422 in 455 at-bats, pushing his OPS to +5 percent, still not great but a little better than the year before. He moved back to third base full-time and performed well, making just 13 errors and showing good range. I rated him as a Grade C prospect, but cut him from the 2006 book for space reasons.
McGehee continued his march through the Cubs system in 2006, moving up to Triple-A Iowa, where he hit .280/.336/.406 in 135 games, 497 at-bats. His walk rate remained fairly low, but his strikeouts weren't bad and he set a career best mark (to that point) with 11 homers. On the other hand, his OPS was actually below league average at -3 percent. He continued to play well with the glove. I saw him in person and he showed a quick-but-level swing that (in my opinion) wasn't going to project much power at higher levels. Again I gave him a Grade C in my initial rankings, and again I cut him from the book for space reasons, seeing him as a guy who was going to hang around in Triple-A for a long time but not get much beyond that.
The Cubs tried McGehee as a catcher again in 2007, seeing 48 games of backstop duty at Double-A Tennessee along with 52 games at the hot corner. His hitting remained steady at a combined .261/.325/.404 between Iowa (18 games) and Double-A, and it looked like the positional futzing was probably impacting his bat. Once again I gave him a Grade C, and once again he got cut from the book.
McGehee returned to Iowa for 2008 and saw time at third base (115 games), first base (8 contests) and catcher (17 games). He hit .296/.345/.429, but his OPS was again below average for the PCL at -3 percent. He got into nine games for the Cubs and went 4-for-24. Entering 2009, I didn't really see much hope for McGehee to get beyond where he was: a guy with some defensive versatility who could hit .280-.290 in Triple-A, but without enough power or a high enough OBP to force his way into a major league job.
The Cubs put McGehee on waivers in October 2008 and he was claimed by the Brewers. He ended up playing 116 games for Milwaukee, hitting .301/.360/.499 with a 127 OPS+. He hit 16 homers, drew 34 walks against 67 strikeouts, and showed more power than he'd shown at any level of the minors. His defense at third base rates poorly by UZR/150 and other advanced metrics, though the same systems mark him positively during his limited action at second base. Note that his minor league defensive metrics were always very good, so we need to see how the glove shakes out over the long haul.
So, was 2009 just a fluke? He was 26 last year, entering the window when peak performance spikes can occur. Although he's never been a walk machine and isn't going to become one, he's always made contact and kept his strikeout percentage under control in the majors (18.9 percent last year; it was between 18 and 19 percent each year in the minors). It's possible that he just added a bit more loft to his swing last year with maturity, or maybe he just got lucky. His platoon splits were close to even, but he was much more effective on the road (.927 OPS) than at home (.780 OPS).
Fangraphs reveals that McGehee thrived on fastballs and changeups, but had some problems with sliders and curves. Expect major league pitches to throw more breaking stuff against him this year. The optimist in me sees a good-makeup guy who got a well-deserved change of scenery and made the most of it. The pessimist in me sees a guy who had his career season at age 26, producing number way out of bounds to what his MLEs would lead us to expect, and expects significant regression as the pitchers get used to him. His best OPS+ in the minors was +5; he was at +27 last year in the majors, which just screams fluke. That said, I think we'll need another 500 at-bats from Casey before we know exactly what we have here.
My guess is that he did make some legitimate progress, but that his numbers last year overstate matters. Expect regression to something like a .260/.320/.420 mark this year, but with improvement in his defensive metrics, assuming he hits enough to hold his job. I like to root for guys like this, and I hope he exceeds my expectation.