Injury to Rays Top Prospect Hak-Ju Lee Reminds Us How Quickly It All Can End
By Robbie Knopf
It looked like Hak-Ju Lee had finally broken through. Everyone knew about Lee’s defensive talents, his ability to make dazzling plays look routine. If you came to the ballpark to watch him you play you were almost certain to see at least one play that would leave you stunned. But when he was at the plate, it was tough to watch. He had little power, which was fine considering he was a top-of-the-order type of hitter anyway, but his problems were compounded because he didn’t do a great job making contact. At his best, he was a very disciplined hitter who drew a lot of walks, but other times he was entirely lost and swinging at everything. And even on the basepaths, he had terrific speed yet got caught stealing far too often. No one disputed Lee’s defense, but was he ever going to hit enough to be more than a bottom-of-the-lineup type of hitter in the major leagues? If he didn’t hit at all, would he end up as a utility player? Lee still has to answer those questions, but at the beginning of 2013 he did as much as he possibly could in a two-week span to assuage the doubts against his offensive game.
In his first 15 games of the season, Lee’s offense impressed just as much as his defense, and maybe a little more. Lee began the year batting 8th in the Triple-A Durham Bulls’ lineup, but before we knew it he was batting second because pitchers simply could not get him out. He hit to an incredible .422/.536/.600 line with 3 doubles, 1 triple, 1 homer, 7 RBI, 6 stolen bases in 8 attempts, and 11 walks versus just 9 strikeouts in 57 plate appearances. The hot streak was going to end, but it seemed like his entire offensive game had come together, with Lee seeing the ball better and hitting it with more authority. Before we knew it, though, it didn’t matter. Lee’s season was over.
Some people say that baseball isn’t a team sport. Only one batter goes to the plate at a time and all focus is placed on them while all the other players fade into the background. Double plays, however, are some of the most teamwork-involved plays in all of sports. When a groundball is hit to the second baseman, he has to throw to the shortstop in the right place at exactly the right time to let him not only catch the ball, but avoid the incoming runner and throw to first base. If the timing is off, the ball could go into the outfield, or even worse, a scary injury could occur. Unfortunately, the latter was the case on Saturday.
The clip of the injury has been deleted by MiLB.com, likely because it was downright scary the way Lee reacted after his injury. Here’s a clip of it nevertheless if you want to see it.
The batter, L.J. Hoes, did not hit the ball very hard, and if Tim Beckham and Lee had managed to turn this double play, it would have made the highlight reels. But Beckham made two critical mistakes: he forgot the game situation and he didn’t realize how little time he had. The Bulls were up 5-0 when this play was made, and like a quarterback seeing a throw that might expose his receiver to a big hit, sometimes it has to be done but there’s no point taking a risk in a game that wasn’t close. Then he decided to flip the ball instead of planting his feet and making a throw, and after his flip was mediocre and since Lee still didn’t have the ball in the hands as the runner, Travis Ishikawa, bore down towards him, he was entirely hung out to dry. We’re so used to seeing double plays turned smoothly that we take them for granted when a groundball is hit to one of the middle infielders. But we don’t appreciate just how dangerous turning a double play can be if any one of several things is only slightly off. For all the publicity made about catchers blocking the plate, double plays can be just as terrifying and maybe even more so.
Was it Beckham’s fault that Lee got hurt? We can’t say he’s completely blameless, but at the same time, it was just a tough play that went wrong in the worst possible way. After the game, Wil Myers lamented Beckham’s decision to go for the force, but then acknowledged “Beckham tried to make an aggressive play and get the force. It’s just bad luck.” Beckham also happens to a player in just his first full year at second base, and while he has all the physical tools to be fine at the position, his instincts are not quite there yet. The vast majority of the time, that isn’t a huge deal, especially playing next to a defensive wizard like Lee. In this case, though, it made all the difference and left Lee wondering where his career goes from here.
Hak-Ju Lee is a very talented player who is just 22 years old and has a promising career ahead of him. If his recovery goes well, hopefully he’ll return to action for the Arizona Fall League and challenge for a spot on the Rays at some point in 2014. The Rays wanted Lee to spend a full year at Triple-A, and if they keep to that after this injury, Lee’s estimated time of arrival in the major leagues will be delayed quite a bit. At the same time, though, Lee enters the recover for this injury seeing just how good he can and as motivated as ever to prove that he truly can be a lot more than an all glove, no bat shortstop, and that additional motivation might change everything. Lee’s injury was extremely unfortunate for everyone involved, but Lee can and will overcome this and remains a player firmly a part of the future of the Tampa Bay Rays. It leaves everyone from Lee to Beckham to Rays fans and baseball fans everywhere with a new perspective, but when Lee recovers, hopefully it will go down as nothing but a bump in the road in his journey to become a productive major league player.