Ugh. Do they have to rub it in?
On ESPN.com's front page headline:
http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/insider/ ... id=2405170
Sorry, for those that aren't insiders
During Detroit's home opener Monday, with a Comerica Park-record crowd of 44,179 in the stands, the American League announced that Chris Shelton had been selected as American League Player of the Week. With good reason, too, as the Tigers' first baseman hit a gaudy .583 (14-for-24) in Detroit's first six games, lashing two doubles, two triples and five home runs, while scoring seven runs and driving in nine. In doing so, Shelton beat out a trio of big-name sluggers -- Travis Hafner, Hideki Matsui and Jim Thome.
The Tigers went a surprising 5-1 in the first week, creating a tsunami of good feeling about the team as fans, starved for years for good news, let their feelings run roughshod over their logical faculties. After all, Detroit also opened the 2004 season with a 5-1 record, yet that team lost 90 games before it was over.
One of the biggest reasons for the virtually unrestrained optimism in Detroit this year is Shelton, who has quickly become a Motown fan favorite.
Fans everywhere love Horatio Alger stories, and the youngster came to town as an unheralded prospect despite his excellent batting record in the low minors. After being drafted in the 33rd round by Pittsburgh in 2001, Shelton made his professional debut with a .305 batting average and .415 on-base percentage in short-season ball, then followed it up with a .340 average and .425 OBP in his first full season in the minors. He was chosen as Carolina League MVP in 2003 after hitting .359 with a 1.139 OPS before being promoted to Double-A, where he experienced a rough patch and hit only .279 with no homers in 35 games at the end of the year.
In a classic NL-style move, the Pirates left Shelton exposed to the Rule 5 draft at the winter meetings in 2003. Why? Possibly because they read too much into his disappointing performance in the limited time he spent in Altoona. But mostly because Shelton had already shown that he wasn't capable of becoming a big league catcher and looked pretty bad around first base as well. Young players who get tagged as not having a position often get prematurely dumped by impatient NL teams, often to the enrichment of more tolerant AL clubs that have 700 DH plate appearances per year to fill.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Shelton has played better than expected at first base.
So one downtrodden club made a mistake that another downtrodden club jumped on. Detroit chose Shelton with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft and thereby started the Tigers' slow recovery from their 119-loss debacle. In 2004, the Tigers could afford to keep Shelton on their major league roster all year (as required by the Rule 5 process), giving the 24-year-old only 46 at-bats in Detroit and 62 in Toledo on a rehab assignment.
Finally, after a long summer of inaction, Shelton got a chance to show that Altoona was a fluke, that the Pirates were wrong and that he has a future in the major leagues. And he did so with a flourish, winning the MVP Award of the 2004 Arizona Fall League after hitting .404 with a 1.137 OPS.
Still, stuck behind Carlos Pena at first and veteran Dmitri Young at DH, Shelton was forced to start 2005 in Triple-A. But Pena's early-season struggles and Shelton's .331 BA/.986 OPS in Toledo resulted in his late-May promotion to Detroit and the soft-spoken overachiever seized the opportunity, hitting .299 with an .870 OPS, 18 homers and 59 RBI in 107 games.
Shelton went 1-for-4 on Monday against the White Sox, the first good club Detroit has faced in 2006. He doubled in a run in the fifth inning, ripping a 3-0 pitch down the third-base line. He also fanned in the second against Freddy Garcia and leading off the ninth against Bobby Jenks.
After the game, Shelton stood in front of his locker forever, still answering a barrage of questions from the media pack more than 90 minutes after the game had ended without the slightest trace of impatience or irritation. The back-and-forth gave a good idea of how well grounded Shelton is, as banal banter that would seem carefully crafted to avoid controversy if coming out of the mouth of a cynical veteran seemed refreshing when coming from the newfound center of attention -- mostly because there is no doubt that he meant every unassuming word.
Question: "Any of this attention getting to you at all? Are you pressing at all because of everything that's gone on in the past week?"
Answer: "I'm definitely not used to all this attention, but it's going to come with the territory, I guess. I'm going to kind of get used to it, even though I don't want to."
Q: "You don't like it?"
A: "No, I don't like it at all. I'd just as soon come in here and shower and go home. But I guess it's part of the job."
When asked the predictable question about his hot streak, Shelton quipped, "If you guys think I'm going to hit .700 on the year, you're nuts." Which was followed by more loopy talk about the possibility of his hitting 300 or 500 home runs in his career.
Q: "What if I said they were expecting 300 home runs?"
A: "You're nuts," Shelton said again, quietly.
When one of the most respected members of the Detroit press corps opined that it was "no big surprise" that Shelton had been given the green light on 3-0, he didn't miss a beat. "It was a surprise to me, because I told Skip that I didn't like hitting 3-and-0."
Despite his success, Shelton does not exactly fit the profile of a top athlete. At 6 feet and 215 pounds, he doesn't turn many heads in the clubhouse with his physique. If you saw Shelton in street clothes exiting the ballpark, you might reasonably assume that he was a front-office employee or a friend of one of the players, because great hand-eye coordination and good bat speed aren't exactly visible to the naked eye.
Nor, apparently, is conventional wisdom, which had him pegged as a designated hitter after he washed out as a catcher and struggled defensively at first base. But Shelton refused to accept that limited role and has worked diligently to improve himself in the field, so much so that the Tigers now consider him adequate at first.
If Shelton had been sent to Triple-A by the Tigers for a full season with the message that he had a big league bat but needed to improve his fielding to become a regular in the show, that would be understandable. But it is a tribute to Shelton's character and his determination that he continued to work hard on his defense even as he rusted away on the end of the bench for a full season.
That shouldn't have surprised anyone, though. Shelton has been exceeding expectations his whole career. His maturation was a big reason the Tigers decided to release Pena this spring, despite Pena's huge power and his 15 home runs in the last two months of 2005. The scouting report on Shelton in 2005 rated him as outstanding at hitting for average with plus power. He has classic pull power on inside pitches but is also smart enough to adjust to what the pitcher gives him, and he's getting better as he gains more experience.
One of Shelton's biggest assets is what one member of the Detroit organization called "controlled aggression." The key element of controlled aggression is good plate discipline, but Shelton also is restrained enough to not get too pumped up when he comes to bat in a key situation with runners on base. Too often, good hitters will unconsciously change their approach when they get the opportunity to drive in the go-ahead or winning runs. In their anxiousness to help their club, they end up helping the pitcher by swinging at marginal pitches and getting themselves out.
A power bat that could hit consistently for a .300 average. Good plate discipline. Excellent work ethic. Overachiever. Shelton's modesty and ordinary-guy personality make him especially appealing in a blue-collar town that is struggling with a massive retrenchment in the auto industry, the core of the local economy.
That combination of attributes has Shelton positioned perfectly to become a big star if he continues to tattoo AL pitching.