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Career Profile: Deion Sanders

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Career Profile: Deion Sanders

The recent election of Deion Sanders to the Football Hall of Fame makes him an intriguing subject for a baseball Career Profile.

Sanders was a football star at Florida State University, but he was a good baseball player too, exciting scouts with his extraordinary athleticism. He had actually been drafted out of high school, a sixth round pick in 1985 by the Royals, but didn't sign. Although considered a very good baseball prospect, he was better as a football player and was more committed to the gridiron career-wise, which dropped him to the 30th round of the 1988 draft, where he was selected by the Yankees.

He started off in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .280/.304/.387 in 17 games, swiping 11 bases in 13 attempts but demonstrating poor plate discipline with two walks and 10 strikeouts. He got into six games with High-A Fort Lauderdale (9-for-21, .429) and five more for Triple-A Columbus (3-for-20, .150). The general consensus was that Sanders' speed and athleticism would get him to the majors quickly, but no one was sure how good of a hitter he'd really be, how much power he would show, etc. There was concern that his attempt to play pro baseball and football at the same time would hinder his performance in both sports, particularly baseball. I really can't say what grade I would have given him back then, probably something like a C+-, "high ceiling/high risk".

Sanders played 33 games for Double-A Albany in 1989 (.286/.380/.361, 17 steals in 22 attempts), 70 games for Triple-A Columbus (.278/.333/.436, 16 steals in 23 attempts) and made his major league debut with the  Yankees (.234/.280/.404 in 14 games). His plate discipline was marginal but he showed gap power and blazing speed. I would probably have given him a Grade B-.

Sanders hit .321/.442/.500 with nine steals in 10 attempts in just 22 games for Columbus in 1990. He played 57 games for the Yankees, but was badly overmatched by American League pitchers, hitting .158/.236/.271. He did steal eight bases in 10 attempts, but as they say, you can't steal first base, and his persona rubbed a lot of baseball people the wrong way. He was released by the Yankees in September. He exhausted his rookie eligibility and wouldn't have received a prospect grade at this point. I would likely have given him a Grade C as an all-tools-no-skills type player.

The Atlanta Braves picked up Sanders as a free agent in January 1991, a move derided by some as a publicity stunt given that he was playing football for the Atlanta Falcons. He held his own in 29 games for Triple-A Richmond (.262/.312/.469, 12 steals in 16 attempts) but was again badly overmatched in the majors (.191/.270/.345 in 54 games, 110 at-bats). My recollection from  20 years ago is that no one really expected Sanders to amount to more than a reserve outfielder at this point, not unless he turned to baseball full-time and developed his skills.

Something clicked in 1992. Sanders played 97 games, 303 at-bats for the Braves, hitting .304/.346/.495 with 26 steals, with an excellent OPS+ of 130. He still showed poor plate discipline with just 18 walks, but he showed much more pop at the plate and looked like a better player in general. However, '92 was his peak season (3.4 WAR) as a major league player; he never had a season that good again. Playing for the Braves, Giants, and Reds, he settled in as a .260-.280 hitter, showing great speed and occasional pop to the gaps, but struggling with impatience at the plate. He did provide strong outfield defense. He swiped 56 bases in 115 games for the Reds in 1997, but his overall line of .273/.329/.363 that year was weak.

Sanders ended up playing 641 major league games over portions of nine seasons, hitting .263/.319/.392, with an OPS+ of just 89. His hitting WARs were negative most years, but he did play well defensively, finishing with a career WAR of 7.0.

Most Similar Players to Deion Sanders: Charlie Duffee (19th century player), Mike Kingery, Bud Stewart, Franklin Gutierrez, Junior Felix, Henry Cotto, Von Joshua, Jacob Brumfield, Lou Johnson, and Joe Marty.

What could Sanders have done if he had concentrated solely on baseball? Was his '92 performance a fluke, or was it a taste of what he was capable of? We'll never know.