Speedy Campana searching for more playing time
I asked Chicago Cubs outfielder Tony Campana how fast he runs from home to first. "3.5 on a bunt," he said. " I'm probably 3.6 to 3.7 in most cases."
I think he might be a bit too modest. There are probably times he's even faster. In fact, reports indicate he's been timed at 3.4. He told me he's heard about Mickey Mantle running 3.2 home to first. "And he was a bigger guy," he said, smiling.
Though there are copies of historical accounts listing Mantle's speed at 3.1 and 3.2 from home to first from the left-handed batter's box, the timing sophistication existing today was not available in the 1950s. Interestingly, Mantle is alleged to have had his best times while drag bunting, the same situation Campana noted about himself. Campana and Mantle used running starts out of the box.
Campana came to the Cubs in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. He was selected in the 13th round out of the University of Cincinnati.
He is a guy that can fire up Cubs fans. He is the type of player that can electrify a team with his aggressive base running and dedicated effort. When he plays, Campana gets tremendous positive fan reaction.
When he plays. More about that later.
As of today, Campana is leading all of Major League Baseball in stolen bases. Though he has already stolen 24 bases in 27 attempts so far this season, I believe Campana has untapped value to the Cubs.
It's widely believed the Cubs want hitters that can pound the ball and put numbers on the board with power and pop. That isn't Campana. Though power is not part of Campana's game, he does have the ability to bunt and leg out infield hits. He can also drive the ball to the gap on occasion. Last season, he hit an inside-the-park homer down the left field line, using his speed to circle the bases so fast he almost over ran teammate Starlin Castro.
The left-handed hitting Campana, 26, stands at only 5-foot-8 and weighs 165 pounds. He may even lose a couple of those precious pounds in the heat and humidity of the summer.
The Cubs are in transition. In fact, top Cubs prospect prospect Anthony Rizzo is said to be on his way to Chicago to assume the role as the team's permanent first baseman. That could move left-handed hitting first baseman Bryan LaHair to the outfield, which could mean even less playing time for Campana. Having another outfielder in the mix is the last thing Campana needs. If the Cubs face a numbers crunch, it may even impact his roster spot. Hopefully it won't. Time will tell.
Coincidentally, Campana and Rizzo have both overcome Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer that impacts the immune system.
As he pointed out when we spoke, Campana understands his role as a part-time outfielder and a component of the 25-man Cubs roster. However, like any motivated professional athlete, he would like to play more. He would like the opportunity to show what he can do.
I like that type of quality in a player. I'm sure the front office of the Cubs likes it as well. Campana is far from complacent or satisfied just to be part of the Major League club. He wants to contribute and prove his value.
Campana's playing time is also limited when the Cubs face a team with a pitcher known for holding potential base stealers close. He may sit when the opposing catcher has a reputation for throwing out runners. In addition, he has only 17 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.
In short, Tony Campana is currently a situational player.
As I watch Campana, I see a speed specialist -- a designated base stealing run producer. Even though he is at the age when many players' performances peak, I see a player with some upside remaining. I also see a player not totally finished with his development. When he gets more experience against quality pitching, I think he's a player with the ability to get on base, steal and score.
Getting on base is the key. It's a vicious circle. In order to get the experience, he has to play. In order to play, he has to instill confidence that he can consistently produce.
Campana has a similar on-base percentage (.313) to that of Brewers' outfielder Nyjer Morgan (.309), and a higher OBP than that of Dodgers' shortstop Dee Gordon (.272). They are players with speed often compared to that of Campana.
It seems teams are always searching for leadoff hitters. Campana could fit that role. If he can improve his plate discipline and draw more walks, he may be the ideal guy to set the table for bigger bats in the lineup. So far, seeing lots of pitches and working pitchers deep in counts has not been part of Campana's game. In fact, in 158 plate appearances this season, he has walked only eight times. That is insufficient for a top of the order hitter. It's also insufficient for a player with his extraordinary speed.
Compounding the problem is the fact that so far, Campana has struck out 36 times. That doesn't help his cause, and it certainly doesn't help the Cubs. I have seen a long loop in his swing that contributes to missing pitches.
My point? I think there is improvement ahead, but he has lots of work to do on his plate discipline.
Defensively, I have seen Campana play a very acceptable center field. His speed is an asset in parks with large gaps like Colorado and San Diego. That fact shouldn't be overlooked.
Tony Campana's blazing speed can be a tremendous asset to the Cubs. Currently, he is seeing most of his playing time as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner late in games. His challenge is to build supporting skills to best complement his greatest tool -- his game changing speed.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.