Septembers to Remember

Taylor Teagarden isn’t the first player to have a hot September only for it to not translate to future success. (via Keith Allison)

The final month of major league baseball’s regular season gives teams a chance to try out younger talent and give their veteran players a rest. Every year, rosters expand on September 1 from 25 to 40 players, although most teams don’t fill their roster completely. Still, they will normally have more than 30 players on the big-league roster by the end of the season, giving opportunities to a plethora of players who otherwise wouldn’t be seeing big league playing time.

This season marks the last time September call-ups will be done this way. Next year, MLB’s regular-season roster limit will grow to 26 men and teams will be allowed to call up only an additional two players in September, per an agreement between MLB and the MLBPA. Under the current format, a number of star major league players got their first chance to shine at the big league level at a young age, as Bleacher Report points out. It’s how Cy Young Award-winning pitcher David Price first got his shot with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and helped them win an American League pennant. It’s how longtime closer Francisco Rodriguez earned his spot on the Anaheim Angels’ playoff roster in 2002, winning a World Series ring at 20 years old. And it’s how speedster Billy Hamilton made his presence known in the majors, swiping 13 bases in 13 September games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2013. Granted, these players were all top prospects, but the system provided them with their first tastes of big-league action.

Many of the players called up in September, though, simply serve in case their team needs an arm in garbage time or someone to take an at-bat in a meaningless game. Still, some of these anonymous others have shined during the month of September (and early October), only to fade back into irrelevance right after they are unable to replicate anywhere near the same level of success over the course of a full season. Here are some of the top September call-up one-hit wonders of the past 25 years.

New Yankee Clipper

In terms of power production, the 1998 season is best remembered for the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who clobbered 70 and 66 respectively, becoming first and second on the all-time single-season home run chart. But September 1998 was also the month when Shane Spencer was the top hitter for the eventual World Series champion New York Yankees. The rookie had power potential, lifting 30 home runs for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers one year prior, but few would have predicted his September campaign.

In September, Spencer blasted eight home runs in just 42 plate appearances over 14 games for the Yankees, including three grand slams. Over those few weeks, he batted .421 with a 1.581 OPS. He earned a spot on the Yankees postseason roster and homered in his first two playoff appearances.

Although Spencer showed pop over the course of his career, he was unable to play his way into a starting role with the powerhouse Yankees teams he was a piece of from 1998 to 2002. Over the course of seven big league seasons, which included stints with the Texas Rangers, New York Mets, and Cleveland Indians, Spencer, a right-handed hitter, never hit more than 12 home runs in a season, partially because his bat was below-average against right-handed pitching (.709 OPS) for a corner outfielder.

Catching On

If one looked at the numbers of the star rookie catcher for the Texas Rangers in 2008, and the standout behind the backstop for the New York Yankees in 2011, and did not know anything else, one would likely assume both teams developed superstars back there. Not quite.

Taylor Teagarden, whom the Rangers called up in 2008, showed promising power in the minors, blasting 27 home runs in 110 games in 2007. He showed this first-class power in his initial big league tenure, launching six home runs in 16 games for the Rangers. He also hit five doubles and had a 1.205 OPS.

However, the top prospect’s lack of plate discipline made him an offensive liability. Over parts of eight seasons, he did hit 21 home runs in 563 plate appearances, but had a .260 on-base percentage and .637 OPS as well as 194 strikeouts.

Jesus Montero’s career met a similar fate. The right-handed batter who was dubbed major league baseball’s No. 3 prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2011 season did not disappoint in his debut campaign. He hit .328 with four home runs and a .996 OPS in 69 plate appearances over 18 games for the Yankees.

Following the season, he was traded to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Michael Pineda. There, he was plagued by weight and behavioral issues, a lack of plate discipline, two suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use and an inability to hit right-handed pitching. The catcher ended his major league career with 28 home runs in 226 games with a .293 on-base percentage and .693 OPS. Like Teagarden, Montero’s career WAR was negative every season but his first.

Promise in the Outfield

Statistically, right fielder Rudy Pemberton’s 1996 season with the Red Sox might not ever be matched. He raked in Triple-A (.322 batting average, 29 home runs, .940 OPS) and kept it going in the majors. He collected 21 hits in 41 at-bats, hitting .512 with a 1.336 OPS in 13 games for the Red Sox thanks to a staggering .556 BABIP.

This earned him a bench role with the team the following season, but he batted .238 with a .679 OPS in 27 games over the first two months of the season, so the Sox designated him for assignment. Pemberton then played for the Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball for parts of two seasons followed by stints in the Mexican League and Korean Baseball Organization.

One year before Pemberton’s debut, Dwayne Hosey was the Red Sox’ September standout. Hosey, who batted .333 with 27 home runs and a 1.052 OPS in 112 games for the Omaha Royals one season prior, showed he might be able to do something at the major league level as well. In 24 games for the Red Sox, the switch-hitting outfielder batted .338 with three home runs six stolen bases and a 1.026 OPS.

Beating the Odds: When Teams Outperform Their Projections
When it comes to outperforming projections, some teams are better than others.

Like Pemberton, Hosey regressed the following season. After all, he could not keep up his .408 BABIP forever. He lost his starting center field job in late April and his major league career was over by June 20. Hosey went down to Pawtucket and signed with the Yakult Swallows of the NPB following the season.

Fast forward to 2008, and the Tampa Bay Rays were the AL East team with the promising outfielder helping them win in September. Fernando Perez roamed center field as the Rays claimed the AL East title and won the pennant. The speedster swiped 43 bags in 129 games for the Durham Bulls and provided the big league club with a spark as well. Not only did he steal five bases in 23 games, but he hit .250 with three home runs, a .348 on-base percentage and a .781 OPS. It earned him a spot on the Rays postseason roster, but not in the big leagues the following season.

Perez injured himself diving for a ball in spring training, forcing him to miss most of the 2009 season. He appeared in 18 big league games at the end of the season, but never truly recovered or became the starting outfielder the Rays wanted.

Straight Perfection

It’s not as common to see pitchers shine for a month and not become anything special in the big leagues. Normally, teams have their rotation set by September and the bullpen arms brought up are supplementary, not to be relied upon frequently or in tight situations. There have been a few, though, who never let their team down for one entire month.

In 2008, Washington Nationals prospect Mike Hinckley became a full-time reliever after back-to-back minor league seasons with an ERA above 5.00. That season was a disastrous one for the Nationals, a rebuilding team that went 59-102. The left-handed Hinkley capitalized on this when called up, making 14 relief appearances adding up to 13 2/3 innings pitched. In that span, Hinckley did not allow a single earned run and just eight hits and three walks while striking out nine batters. He pitched in high-leverage spots, earning four holds.

Hinckley parlayed this success into a spot on the Nationals’ Opening Day roster the following season as a left-handed specialist, but was designated for assignment in early May after struggling with command—issuing 11 walks in 9 2/3 innings—and allowing runs in back-to-back appearances, ballooning his ERA to 4.66. That was the last time Hinckley pitched in the majors.

Seven years later, Evan Scribner accomplished the same feat as Hinckley. Scribner, now 30, had made 125 major league relief appearances over the past five seasons when he got called up to the Seattle Mariners, then contending for the AL Wild Card spot. Although the team fell short (86-76), Scribner worked his way back from a strained lat muscle in time for the final month of the season and it was the best he ever threw in the big leagues. In 12 games and 14 innings, Scribner allowed no runs on five hits and two walks while striking out 15. It helped him earn a spot on the roster for the following season, but he allowed nine runs in 7 1/3 innings in April 2017, prompting the Mariners to put him on the disabled list with a flexor strain. They released him in September, marking the end of his big league career.

No Hits Allowed

Rookies Bud Smith and Clay Buchholz each threw a September no-hitter in the 21st century—Buchholz as a September call-up and Smith not as one. Among the top September call-up one-hit wonders, though, there has not been an official no-hitter—but there have been two of those pitchers in recent memory worth noting.

With the 2006 Red Sox out of playoff contention on October 1, they gave the ball to call-up Devern Hansack, who fired five innings of hitless ball for an unofficial, rain-shortened no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles. He allowed one walk and struck out six batters. Rain had been an issue all day— Hansack took the mound after a three-hour 23-minute rain delay. With the Red Sox pummeling the Orioles 9-0 and more impending rain, the game was called. Hansack had a no-hitter, though not one recognized by MLB.

It was a success the then-28-year-old could never replicate. Although he was competent in Triple-A (3.86 ERA in 51 outings, including 48 starts), the Red Sox had little use for Hansack as they won the division in 2007 and the Wild Card in 2008. He made just nine major league appearances over parts of three seasons before the Red Sox released him in 2009.

Three years later, Oakland Athletics reliever Brad Kilby’s prowess as a September call-up also led to a no-hit start. The 26-year-old lefty had shown promise as a Triple-A reliever, posting a 2.13 ERA in 45 outings while striking out 77 batters in 63 1/3 innings. He continued to throw well in his 11 big league games, allowing one earned run on 10 hits and four walks while striking out 20 batters over 17 innings—good for a 0.53 ERA. His final outing of the season came on October 4 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He was the “starter” for what ended up being a bullpen game for the Athletics. In it, he pitched two innings—and didn’t give up a hit in his only career major league start.

Although Kilby made five relief appearances for the Athletics in 2010 and posted a 2.16 ERA, he tore his labrum, as he later revealed to The Connection, and would not throw another inning of professional baseball after that season.

Conclusion

Throughout the major league season, teams’ depth is constantly tested with injuries and slumps. The soon-to-be-obsolete September call-up structure gave more players the opportunity to shine and teams to capitalize on this depth in the major leagues. Moving forward, there will likely be fewer of these kinds of standouts if teams can bring up only two more players.

These rule changes may have an adverse impact on the game in the long run. Pitchers will have to throw more innings over the course of a season and fatigued position players will not receive as many days off, even if their team is out of playoff contention. This puts the players at added risk for injury. Triple-A depth players will have less of a chance of being paid the big league salary for one month out of the year. Last year, even a major league player being paid the league minimum earned $3,000 per day, far greater than the minimum $2,150 monthly Triple-A salary. It also means there will be fewer of these fringey players making it to the big leagues in the future. After all, there have been many players who made it to the majors only as September call-ups.

When a team is not contending, September roster expansion can also be a time for managers and front offices to see what the team has to work with the following spring training. And when they are contending, juggling a larger roster adds value to having a good manager. If one team can use its depth players properly, be it as pinch runners, defensive replacements or surplus relief pitchers, it can improve the quality of its team. With fewer players on rosters in the future, however, there will be less of that strategy. This is unfortunate for fans as well. They will not have a look at as many different players, including top prospects, at the end of the season.

As for why some players had one great September and could not turn it into a great career, a couple of factors seem to be at play. For starters, players are fatigued at the end of the season, so a fresher player might have an edge over the other person. And there are scouting reports that let teams to new opposing players. Once teams have big-league intel on the player, he can fall back into reality, the way Michael Chavis did for the Red Sox this season after a 1.186 OPS in his first 15 major league games.

The majority of September call-ups do not have a profound impact on their club, but those who do hold a minor place in their team’s history book. They are also a reminder to fans not to be overly invested in small-sample-size performances that are impossible to replicate over a 162-game span.

References and Resources

Adams, Steve. “Mariners Release Evan Scribner.” MLB Trade Rumors, September 5, 2017.

Baseball-Reference.com.

Caple, Jim. “Ice cream sandwich? Just say no!” ESPN, August 30, 2014.

Encina, Eduardo A. “Orioles sign former top prospect Jesus Montero,” Baltimore Sun, January 3, 2017.

FanGraphs.com.

Gould, Andrew.“Ranking the 10 Greatest September Call-Ups in MLB History.”  Bleacher Report, September 2, 2014.

Ilyas, Shafa. “Ex-pro brings knowledge to baseball team’s coaching staff.” The Connection, April 1, 2014.

“Jesus Montero suspended 50 games for use of banned substance.” Associated Press, September 29, 2016.

Johns, Greg. “Scribner activated after spending season on DL.” MLB.com, September 1, 2016.

“Orioles Go Out in Hitless Whimper.” Washington Post, October 1, 2006.

Passan, Jeff. “MLB tweaks some rules now, more coming in ’20.” ESPN, March, 4, 2019.

Tayler, Jon. “What Is Life Like for a September 1 Call-Up? Nervy, Exciting and Short.” Sports Illustrated, September 12, 2018.

“Transactions.” The New York Times, June 9, 1997.

“Washington Nationals designated Mike Hinckley for assignment.” PennLive, May 7, 2009.

Zaldivar, Gabe. “Jesus Montero Blames Weight Gain on Overeating, Mariners Management Displeased.” Bleacher Report, February 21, 2014.


Tom is a freelance sportswriter based in southeastern Massachusetts who has covered professional baseball since 2013. He has written for ESPN, The Boston Globe, Newsday, USA Today, and many other outlets.
newest oldest most voted
stever20
Member
Member
stever20

sorry but this is one thing that I’m not going to miss. 20 pitcher/9 inning games are no fun.

Also the thought on top prospects. That might be nice, if this were 20-30 years ago. But we don’t see top prospects called up all that much right now in September anyways.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

The one thing I do like about the expanded rosters is getting to see lots of pinch hitters and pinch runners. I enjoy that. I miss that.

The problem is, as stever20 states, instead of that we end up with 19 man pitching staffs with 4-5 lefty specialists. That gets old quickly.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

We may not see as many stars making their Major League debuts in September anymore, but there are always plenty of AAA prospects who get called up after spending most if not the entire season in the Minors. Where else are they supposed to play between the end of the AAA season and the start of the Arizona Fall League?

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

well some of them will have been in the majors before Sep 1 with the extra roster spot.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

Do we really know that some of these players wouldn’t have been called up under the forthcoming roster limit of 28? Spencer, for example, had a slash line of .322 / .397 / .570 in AAA during 1998. He’d been up and down to the minors previously during the season: his splits show some appearances in games during April, June, July, and August 1998 as well as his September call-up. And, of course, he actually got a decent amount of playing time during the month of September: 42 PA’s over 14 games (9 of which he started). Some similar thoughts… Read more »

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

“When a team is not contending, September roster expansion can also be a time for managers and front offices to see what the team has to work with the following spring training.” I suspect that teams that are out of contention will have plenty of ways to create roster space if they really want to see what to see minor league players in September beyond the two extra spots that they’ll have. For example: it can be pretty easy to come up with an excuse to move a pitcher to the IL to free up a roster spot. They can… Read more »

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

But then you’re going to have veterans complaining about unfairly losing playing time, especially among upcoming free agents who could see their markets adversely affected without the extra time to add to their numbers as well as the stigma of being DFAed and/or released shortly before hitting the market.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

I agree that veterans wouldn’t like it, and I could therefore see something like your idea of 30 man September rosters. I assume that would have a limit on the number of pitchers, which is going to be set at 14 pitchers for the 28 player September roster and 13 pitchers for the 26 player roster for the rest of the year.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

That said, we already see some teams who are out of playoff races cutting bait on these sorts of veterans in July or August – e.g., the Royals this year released Duda in July and DFA’d Billy Hamilton (who was claimed off waivers by the Braves) in August.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

“And when they are contending, juggling a larger roster adds value to having a good manager. If one team can use its depth players properly, be it as pinch runners, defensive replacements or surplus relief pitchers, it can improve the quality of its team.”

The counterargument to that, of course, is that it’s odd to have teams play under one set of roster rules from Opening Day until August 31 and then dramatically change roster sizes in September. That particularly applies to teams still fighting for playoff spots in September.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

I expect we’ll see the September roster size expand to at least 30 within the next few years once all the complaints start pouring in about the new system mostly defeating the entire purpose of the September roster expansions in the first place: getting a better look at your AAA players after the Minor League season ends.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

except those AAA players are more AAAA players who have been shuffling back and forth from AAA all year long.

And teams aren’t using September to get a better look at AAA players. They are using September callups to get 20 man pitching staffs- making some September games unbearable.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

I agree with stever, and I’d be curious if someone has done a study on that point. I suppose that prospect ranking would be one way to measure how many September call-ups are legit prospects. It seems like legit prospects make it up before September – at least as injury replacements, or to otherwise fill holes – for teams who aren’t focused just on service time (such as contenders). Examples include Schwarber in 2015, Benintendi in 2016, and Devers in 2017. The huge September rosters seem to have more to do with massive bullpens and other tactical considerations: pinch runners,… Read more »

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

Or legit prospects are held back and aren’t called up until days into the following season to get that extra year of control.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Only some of them are like that. The majority are still legitimate prospects, and even the AAAA players deserve a place to play after the Minor League seasons end. Also, just because the privilege is commonly abused doesn’t mean the importance of the original intent isn’t still needed. You’re also highly exaggerating the effect on pitching staffs. There’s still only so many pitchers that are going to make an appearance in the large majority of September games. The extra pitchers on the roster serve mostly to ensure everyone gets enough rest as the playoffs approach and to provide sufficient coverage… Read more »

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

Red Sox have a 21 man pitching staff right now. And in their first 3 September games(all 9 inning ones) they’re averaging 5 relievers per game….. Sunday they didn’t have a guy throw more than 2 innings.

Also like we’ve said, the Injured list will be used more regularly in September. Now if someone gets shut down, they just remain on the active roster. Next year, that guy will be put on the IL.