TAMPA — Here’s what we know about the Tim Tebow baseball experiment:
He’s had his moments — the walk-off home run against Daytona, the leaping catch against Fort Myers. He’s gone on hot streaks and, at times, has sparked the St. Lucie Mets.
He’s drawn huge crowds wherever he’s gone, setting a few attendance records along the way.
But as Tebow comes to Tampa Bay this week, the baseball question remains: Can he play?
The answer is complicated. On offense, his cold spells have kept him low in the batting order. On defense, his inexperience shows. He’s playing with and against guys who were middle schoolers when he won the Heisman Trophy 10 years ago this season. And with his 30th birthday coming next week, he’ll need to get better fast.
“Father Time is undefeated,” said one MLB scout, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss Tebow. “(Tebow’s) got a small window to get a lot better.”
Tebow made a strong first impression with St. Lucie. H walloped a two-run homer against Palm Beach in his second game after being promoted. Through 28 games, playing the outfield and designated hitter, he was on fire, hitting .315 with a .400 on-base percentage and .522 slugging percentage.
Production like that would be impressive at any level. In the Florida State League — where the average slash line is .250/.321/.362 — it’s downright incredible.
“It’s actually really remarkable that he’s been as good as he is,” said Jarrett Seidler, a prospect writer for Baseball Prospectus who evaluated Tebow in the South Atlantic League. “He’s done a lot better than I thought he would.”
From the first showcase he held last year, when he launched massive home runs during batting practice, Tebow has shown an ability to clobber the ball. One scout said he’s “got huge raw power ? He’s super strong.”
That’s not his only tool. Throughout his time in the minors, Tebow has also shown a discerning eye, taking 35 walks in 397 plate appearances. Power plus patience can be a dangerous combination.
“He has fairly decent pitch recognition,” Seidler said. “He’s not going up there and hacking away at everything.”
Then there are the attendance numbers. At home, the Mets are drawing nearly 1,000 more fans per game with Tebow than they were without him; they’ve already set a franchise record for total attendance. On the road, opponents have seen their attendance double.
But despite everything he’s accomplished — the hot streaks, the homers, the sellouts — Tebow doesn’t have a clear path to the big leagues.
After dominating the FSL in his first run, Tebow’s fallen off the pace.
In his last 12 games, he’s just 5-for-45, which has lowered his batting line in St. Lucie to .248/.316/.416.
The raw power is still there — in batting practice, and occasionally during games. Too often, though, Tebow’s “stiff” swing has prevented him from tapping into it, one scout said.
“He’s got some bat speed, but it’s fair because … he’s not loose in his approach, in his stance,” the scout added.
Along with the walks have come strikeouts — 104 of them across both levels of the minors. Tebow’s swung through plenty of fastballs, and he “doesn’t really see spin all that great,” Seidler said.
Meanwhile, Tebow’s performance leaves less room for optimism. While he’s made some highlight-reel catches, he also has seven fielding errors in 59 innings in the outfield. His range there is limited, one scout said.
“He’s got a slow first step,” the scout added. “He looks kind of awkward out there because of lack of experience — it seems like he doesn’t read balls off the bat well.”
And Tebow’s arm has been, in Seidler’s words, “really bad.” He’s recorded just one outfield assist, while committing two throwing errors.
Tebow’s started 69 games in the outfield, mostly in left. Seidler said he’d like to see Tebow spend more time at first base, where he’s yet to play this season.
Players like this — “super-great athlete in A-ball that (the organization is) trying to teach how to hit” — aren’t uncommon, Seidler said. But most of them are in their early 20s and heading into their athletic primes, he added.
Tebow is already there.
While research on aging curves has reached different conclusions, most studies agree that hitters don’t improve once they hit 30. Despite all the magic moments that Tebow has brought to the FSL, the consensus among talent evaluators is that he’ll have a hard time advancing further from here.
“I absolutely love his message, I love who he is as a person, I love what he believes in, and I love the fact that he’s shown kids that are younger to chase their dreams,” one scout said. “But from a standpoint of, ‘can he help our team win a World Series,’ I do not see that happening. I do not see him making the major leagues as a productive player.”
Contact Ryan Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @triple_r_