There are two distinct paths that unheralded prospects can take when given a shot at regular playing time on the big stage. They can go the one minute and fifty-nine second “You Can Do Better Than Me” route, contribute moderately to the best of their abilities, and quietly fade away. Or, they take the eight minute and twenty-five second “I Will Possess Your Heart” path, exceed expectations, and make a memorable impact in the hearts and minds of a team’s fanbase, and possibly the baseball world at large. The Panamanian-born José Caballero’s introduction to the Seattle Mariners and their fans has been much like the more than four minute long build-up in the latter Death Cab For Cutie song; the lead in to the heart of the story is subtle, measured, and often overlooked (much of the build-up is cut from the still hefty 4:50 radio edit).
It is no fault of Mariners fans that they most likely hadn’t heard of the 26 year old Caballero until this season, or even the more casual observers who still might need an introduction. Last year he was on and off the Arkansas Travelers roster with injuries. At the start of the 2023 season he was assigned to AAA, wasn’t on the 40 man roster or any prospect lists, and it took Plans B and C going wrong to activate him and start collecting at bats, and plan A to go seriously sideways for him to get everyday starts. Plan B was Sam Haggerty, who was put on the injured list with a concussion on April 15th, when José was activated. Plan C was Tommy La Stella, technically rostered as an infielder, but unable to field, and ultimately unable to bat either. Plan A failing is where his greatest opportunity opened up. The primary plan coming into 2023 for second base in Seattle was for the newly acquired Kolten Wong and perennial utility man Dylan Moore to split a platoon. Dylan Moore hit the injured list before he could take a regular season at bat, and if I had to liken Kolten Wong’s season to a Death Cab For Cutie song it would be Grapevine Fires; you respect the history, but it’s still a tragedy. (This comparison is only to the content of the song, not the quality, as the song is a polar opposite in that regard.)
The vexation around second base was so strong that all Caballero had to do in order to be considered passable was to hover within kicking distance of league average with the bat, and simply be competent as a fielder. At first, that was roughly the production he presented. His sprint speed was quite good, his swing decisions and perceived eye at the plate passed the eye test surpassing what a rookie of his status would usually bring entering the league, the fielding was competent if unremarkable, and the contact looked promising at times but power was nowhere to be found. Still, there was something about his demeanor, about his playing style that was starting to grab fan’s attention. Many were in awe, sitting in the “Passenger Seat”, watching him calmly drive pitchers and catchers mad with his ability to expertly game the pitch clock, waiting until the last possible second to lock eyes with the opposing pitcher, and even rattling them enough to draw pitch clock violations and at one point, empty the benches.
The pitch clock antics were entertaining enough, but with the team offense struggling, followers of the team would need something more to latch onto if Caballero was going to be more than an occasional merriment. During the back half of April when he first joined the team he made 23 plate appearances across nine games, his wRC+ was at a paltry 20, his strikeout rate was at 30.4% against a walk rate of 8.7%, but he did manage to steal two bases. A small sample size of course, and results perhaps unsurprising with his previous prospect status, but still appreciably underperforming even that of the struggling Kolten Wong. What happened next, almost nobody would or could have seen coming. Wong continued to struggle, even against the opposite handed hitting he was brought in to platoon against. José Caballero however has been turning heads since the start of May.
His defense has continued to not only pass, but impress as well. He has yet to record an error, and in the last week he’s made some impressive plays as well. Last Friday when the Mariners played Atlanta, he launched all 5’10” of his body into the air to make an amazing grab of a ball that came 108.7 mph off of Austin Riley’s bat.
His speed has given aid to his range, and he’s made some good running plays, including a few in last night’s game against the visiting Oakland.
Even when he didn’t complete the play he had an impressive moment last night, when he dove on a ball hit by Esteury Ruiz, and while rolling was able to make the transfer and toss it accurately towards first base. He lacked the arm strength in that movement to fully get it there, but the situational awareness enough to aim it true and the effort to make the play at all are admirable enough on their own.
The improvement in fielding at the keystone was vital, but still not as vital as the aforementioned missing offense the team has been suffering from. Nobody expected serious contributions to come from Caballero, and yet... Since the start of May, over 47 plate appearances and 15 games, he has posted a wRC+ of 183. His strikeout rate in that time is only 19.1%, against a 12.8% walk rate, and a triple slash of .342/.447/.553. He still has a long way to go before we have a true picture of what his results will look like at this level, but at his current 70 total plate appearances his season numbers now sit at a 129 wRC+, an 11.4% walk rate and a 22.9% strikeout rate. As he has put up better results in on base skills, the only glaring hole has been his power. Until two days ago, he hadn’t even barreled a ball up yet. Then, two days ago, he did.
It was more than just a landmark moment for Caballero, notching his first Major League home run, but it was also a moment that went down in Mariners history. With that home run and the three stolen bases he had in that game, he joined Mike Cameron as the only Mariners player to do so in a game ever. One historic barrel only elevated him to trivia answer status though, he would need to do it again to show it wasn’t just a fluke. In his very next at bat, in yesterday’s game, he did just that, crushing a three run shot that would have been a home run in every MLB ballpark.
The song that that best represents José Caballero’s time with this team remains unknowable. It may ultimately be “The Sound of Settling”, a punchy and fun romp, if short and ultimately forgettable. So far however, his 2023 season numbers already stack up well with other rookies in the team history at his position, and against other lineup members from this year’s team. His six stolen bases are tied with Jarred Kelenic and trail only JRod’s eight. His 129 wRC+ is currently second only to Kelenic, and is the best ever posted by a Seattle rookie second baseman with a minimum of 50 plate appearances. He currently has a 0.9 fWAR that ranks fifth among Seattle rookie second baseman, and with less than one third the plate appearances of anyone ahead of him on the list. That 0.9 fWAR trails the current numbers for Kelenic, Raleigh, and Rodríguez, and is tied with J.P. Crawford and Eugenio Suárez, all of whom have played in roughly twenty more games.
The safe bet is to expect some regression in the overall numbers as he sees more playing time and the league adjusts to him. It may not be that simple though because, as Scott Servais noted in last night’s post game presser, Caballero tends to do all the little things right to help them win ballgames.
Hearing Scott Servais give José Caballero his well deserved flowers during the post game presser absolutely sparks joy. pic.twitter.com/SV4LiYrzgg— Bee Everfolly (@everfolly) May 23, 2023
Maybe the type of Death Cab that José will become is “The Sound of Settling”. Perhaps it will be the radio edit to “I Will Possess Your Heart”, or somewhere in between the two, a “Soul Meets Body”, if you will. We would be doing him a disservice to guess, or think ourselves prescient, so I won’t attempt that here. What has become clear is that his professional approach, confident and clutch playstyle, and seizing of the opportunity have at least earned him the chance to get a real and honest look. If he continues his current trends, he may just reach Seattle baseball folk hero status, a hearty full length “I Will Possess Your Heart” to Mariners fans everywhere.