To say Lyle Overbay made waves in his first year as a professional is an understatement.
In 1999, wearing a Missoula Osprey uniform, Overbay didn't merely make waves. He didn't make a splash. He emptied the whole pool.
Picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 18th round of that year's Draft, Overbay hit .343 and amassed a Missoula record 180 total bases (broken this year by Paul Goldschmidt) while racking up a still-unmatched Pioneer League-record 101 RBIs in only 75 games.
From Day 1, one thing about Overbay was clear.
"He could really hit," said Joe Almaraz, who managed the Osprey to the Pioneer League championship in '99.
That summer was unusual in many ways for Almaraz -- his team was playing in a new city and he hadn't had the opportunity to meet any of his players that March.
"That year, we didn't have a Spring Training mini-camp. We all met in Missoula for the first time," he recalled. "We'd just moved from Lethbridge [Alberta, Canada], and the accommodations weren't that great. The facilities, well, where we were staying wasn't that great at first and they had us playing on an American Legion field."
The bat of a 22-year-old out of the University of Nevada, though, let Almaraz know there'd be plenty of high points that season, no matter where the Osprey played.
"I remember the first time I set my eyes on him. The first time I laid my eyes on Lyle Overbay. ... Boy, he could hit."
It wasn't a case of love at first sight, though. Watching Overbay at the plate initially made his new manager a little nervous.
"He had that toe-tap stance, which was awkward to me," recalled Almaraz. "Most guys who come up with that open, toe-tap stance end up too early [on the ball] or too late. But right out of the gate, he could really hit. The first half, especially, he really ripped the ball up."
Almaraz, now a scout in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, took the "if-it-ain't-broke" approach and resisted the urge to tweak Overbay's swing.
"At that level, the idea is usually to just let them play, at least in their first year; unless they're really struggling, then you might step in," Almaraz said. "But he never struggled. Our hitting coach, we'd talk about him all the time. We'd look at his swing and say, 'Don't even bother [to try to adjust it].' He had his own kind of style, but that style worked for him."
In his first three games as a pro, Overbay drove in eight runs and scored four. Later that season, he made that three-day RBI total look puny, plating 14 runs from July 16-19. Despite hitting only 12 home runs all year -- and never more than one in a game -- he had seven games with at least four RBIs, including a season-high six on July 10 at Butte.
Overbay's swing wasn't a problem for Almaraz, but when other players -- players who were performing well with their own swings -- started adopting Overbay's approach, it was time for the manager to speak up.
"He was hitting so well with that stance that other guys started to copy him," Almaraz said. "I nipped that in the bud, but only because they were all hitting fine already."
The influence went the other way, too. Many of Overbay's teammates were stealing bases left and right, and Almaraz loved to have the Osprey run. The lumbering first baseman was hardly a track star, but it wasn't long before he tried to work his way into the team's game.
"He came up to me one day and he said, 'I can steal bases, too.' So I thought I'd give him a shot and he showed me he could really read pitchers," said Almaraz. "He could run all right, but what he could really do well is read pitchers."
Overbay stole 10 bases in 13 tries over 75 games. His consistency and power at the plate strengthened those who hit around him, while the team's collective speed provided him with plenty of RBI opportunities.
"Orlando Sanchez, our hitting coach, had a nickname for him," said Almaraz. "He called him the slumpbuster because even with that open-toed stance, he never slumped, and that would pick other guys up."
Occasionally, Overbay got into trouble by swinging too aggressively, but Almaraz said the slugger would always take the time to make a mental adjustment after a troublesome at-bat.
"If he was trying too hard to knock the ball over the fence in the first or the third inning, he'd come back to himself later. For me, that was a sign of maturity."
Overbay also could adjust within a single at-bat.
"Inside fastballs, he'd pull up the line; outside fastballs, he'd drop opposite-field," Almaraz added. "On changeups, off-speed stuff, he'd stay back and just crush them. It didn't matter -- he hammered balls all over the field."
Overbay showed enough defensive prowess that Almaraz and the Diamondbacks considered moving him to the outfield. When the Missoula manager talked it over with his player and considered the poor field conditions, particularly the low-hanging lights that tended to wear on outfielders' eyes, he opted to keep Overbay at first.
"When I told him I was going to have him play in the outfield some, he just smiled, and I asked him what he was thinking. He said, 'I can play the outfield, but I'll be much better at first base.' Well, to play in the outfield there, it was bad.
"It was bad for your eyes and it was hard on a guy. He had a strong arm, but I decided it was better to let him loose, let him hit."
Hit Overbay did. He was named Pioneer League MVP and the following season was promoted by the Diamondbacks to the Class A Midwest League.
With the South Bend Silver Hawks, Overbay continued to swing a hot bat. He had a 20-game hitting streak early in the season, then posted a five-RBI game on May 27. By the end of June, he had nearly 50 RBIs and was hitting .332 to earn another promotion.
It's somewhat rare when a prospect makes it to Double-A during his first full season and it's rarer for a player to hit even better in Double-A than he did at the lower levels. But Overbay hit .352 with the El Paso Diablos in the second half of the season, knocking in more runs than he did with South Bend.
The next season, as if to prove his Double-A success was no fluke, Overbay batted a Texas League-leading .352 over 138 games. He also led the circuit in hits, doubles, on-base percentage and at-bats, ranked third with 100 RBIs and fourth with a .528 slugging percentage.
By now, it was undeniable: the Diamondbacks had an exceptional prospect on their hands. He went 1-for-2 for Arizona that September.
During the 2002-03 seasons, Overbay took his act to the Tuscon Sidewinders (now the Reno Aces) and tormented Pacific Coast League pitching in between stints in the Majors, belting 19 homers and driving in 109 runs in his first season in Triple-A. Over 86 games with the Diamondbacks in 2003, he batted .276.
Overbay was Major League-ready, but with Mark Grace and others occupying the corner infield positions, it was unlikely that Overbay was going to be an everyday player in Arizona.
On Dec. 1, the Diamondbacks dealt him and five others to the Brewers for Richie Sexson and Shane Vance. In Milwaukee, he would be given the chance to prove himself in the big leagues.
When Almaraz heard the news, he was happy for Overbay.
"I knew he probably wasn't going to get a chance to play for us that much in the big leagues, so I was happy for him. He deserved to be playing at that level."
In 2004, Overbay hit .301 with a league-leading 58 doubles in 159 games with the Brewers.
"He's got his own style of hitting. He was always a line-drive hitter, an RBI, doubles kind of hitter," said Almaraz. "Now that I'm scouting, and young scouts come up to me and ask how you can spot a true hitter, I always point out Lyle Overbay. I always say, 'Hitters hit. Right off the bus, hitters hit.' And that was Lyle Overbay."
Minor League career breakdown
1999: The 18th-round pick drove in a record 101 runs in 75 games while hitting .343 and leading the Missoula Osprey to a Pioneer League championship. Of his 105 hits, 44 were for extra bases.
2000: Overbay's first full season began with South Bend of the Midwest League. But it only took him until June 25 to prove he could play at a higher level. In his short Class A tenure, he hit .332 with six homers and 47 RBIs.|
2000: A promotion to Double-A didn't slow Overbay. He finished the season with the El Paso Diablos of the Texas League, collecting eight homers and 49 RBIs in just over two months. His .352 batting average was a career high.|
2001: Back with the Diablos for a full season, Overbay led the league in batting (.352), hits (187), doubles (49) and games played (138). His 100 RBIs ranked third and he was named a Texas League All-Star.|
2002: New level, same results for Overbay, who led the league in doubles (40) while finishing second in average (.343) and RBIs (109). He was named a Pacific Coast League All-Star.|
2003: In 35 games for Tuscon, Overbay proved he was ready for full-time Major League service. He collected 16 RBIs and 11 doubles while walking 28 times and striking out 19 times. |