While Texas Rangers reliever Neftali Feliz bested Detroit Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson for the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year award, he was one of just five pitchers to receive votes in either league out of 16 total candidates. In the National League, catcher Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants took home the award in what was a banner year for rookie position players. Some analysts believe it was possibly one of the best crops ever, based on the depth and quality of freshmen we saw hit the ground running last year.
A residual effect of last year’s rookie class enjoying so much success was heightened expectations for the class of 2011. Those are expectations they have failed to meet as we head into the stretch run of the season. Does their failure to live up to the performance of the previous season make this year’s class a failure? Or is it that this year’s crop can’t accurately be judged against last year’s because the talent simply isn’t comparable?
Looking at the 2010 class through the eyes of Baseball Prospectus and ESPN.com writer Kevin Goldstein shows seven hitters in the top 10 prospects, six of whom made it to the major leagues -- Jesus Montero was the lone holdout -- and five of those who played enough to expire their rookie status. (Desmond Jennings had just 24 plate appearances in a cup of coffee last year.) Those five players generated nearly seven times more Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs than the top five hitters to reach the majors in Goldstein’s 2011 list:
However, the discussion circles back to caliber of player, as only two of this year’s quintet comes out of Goldstein’s top 10 so it would stand to reason that this upper tier might perform at a lesser clip than their predecessors. But seven times worse, even factoring in the talent discrepancy, is pretty significant. Yet throughout the season whenever a top prospect has been called up, he has been expected to tear the league up, as we saw Stanton, Santana, Posey and eventually Alvarez (with his 147 wRC+ in September) do last year, while Heyward broke camp with the Braves and set the league afire immediately.
Admittedly that is a small sample of players from each year, so let’s look a bit deeper. It wasn’t just the top names performing in 2010. Rather, it seemed a new face was making an impact every other week whether they were in Goldstein’s pre-season list (like Austin Jackson, Ike Davis) or not (Neil Walker, Brooks Conrad). Last year there were 26 rookies with 150 or more plate appearances -- the cutoff at which a player loses rookie eligibility -- who registered 1.0 fWAR or more, and 19 of those also had a 100+ wRC+ (showing that the pool wasn’t inflated with glove or speed-only types). Only Peter Bourjos and Don Kelly make the cut exclusively because of their gloves (rating at 16.6 and 13.3 Fielding Runs Above Average, respectively, while both registered wRC+ numbers below 75).
The 2011 class does have 15 guys with a 1.0+ fWAR at this point, and another 10 or so on the cusp with about 45 games left to play, however the class lacks anything close to a Heyward, Posey or Stanton. Heck, it lacks even Davis and Jackson for that matter. Danny Espinosa is pacing the 2011 class with 3.0 fWAR thanks in large part to quality fielding and baserunning, as his wRC+ is a mediocre 101. He was the 92nd prospect on Goldstein’s 2011 Top 101.
Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest difference between the 2010 and 2011 rookie classes is the level of talent that hasn’t performed. The flops from 2010 who registered 150 plate appearances or more while underwhelming against expectations include Justin Smoak (ranked 17th on Goldstein’s list) with a minus-0.2 fWAR and 85 wRC+ and Brett Wallace (ranked 44th) with a 0.0 fWAR and 65 wRC+. That’s it, just those two.
The 2011 list is a bit more extensive, starting with Domonic Brown (Goldstein rank: 4th, fWAR: minus-0.6, wRC+: 53), Mike Moustakas (7th, minus-0.7, 35), Brandon Belt (22nd, 0.1, 90), Anthony Rizzo (69th, minus-0.1, 67), Dee Gordon (84th, minus-0.4, 50) and Hank Conger (85th, 0.2, 80).
By no means is this year-to-year comparison meant to bury the kids who have “failed” thus far. For one, I put that word in quotes because they haven’t really failed at all with respect to their career. Struggling as a rookie is a rite of passage for many players. Rather, this comparison is meant to further show just how good the 2010 class was as a whole and how it led to overreaching expectations for this year’s class.
The mixed bag of success we will see by year’s end from the 2011 rookies is relatively normal for a group of freshmen especially when they aren’t being compared to a historical class. Considering the minor league numbers those six “busts” have put up, you have just one more reason to take those performances with an entire shaker of salt.
Rookies can have a major impact right away, but expecting them to, whether as a baseball fan or a fantasy baseball manager, is a great way to make yourself unhappy in a hurry. Expect inconsistent play with the possibility of outright failure and that way you will be pleased when a Jose Altuve comes up from Double-A to hit .346 or a Josh Reddick makes Red Sox fans forget about J.D. Drew for a while with big walk-off hits and nearly 2.0 fWAR in fewer than 50 games.
Paul Sporer writes at Pitt Plank, the little piece of Piracy in the SweetSpot network.