16 February 2004

Second Time's the Charm

Sophomoric (adj.): Exhibiting great immaturity and lack of judgment.

Well, pitchers and catchers don't all report for almost another week, but while we're all sitting around waiting for the snow to melt, let's look forward to 2004. What might we expect from this year, and more specifically, what might we expect from the substantial crop of players who will continue into their second year in the majors? Who will crack under the pressure, and who might flourish with another year of seasoning? Who will succumb to the dreaded Sophomore Slump?

I took the data for all of the rookies in 2003 who say significant playing time, everyone with at least 250 plate appearances, about half a season's worth. These guys will no longer qualify as rookies (I think the cutoff is 150 plate appearances) in 2004, and many of them have a starting job with their major league team this coming year. There were 30 players, but I threw out Eric Munson, Rob Calloway, Matt Kata, Jhonny Peralta and Kevin Witt because frankly, I don't think anyone really cares all that much what they'll do in 2004, except maybe their moms. And it made for fewer players for me to examine.

Anyway, here they are, ranked in order of Plate Appearances/Walk, along with some other stats:

1 Overbay, Ari 254 1 0 8.26 .276 .365 .402 .767
2 K. Ginter, Mil 358 1 1 10.68 .257 .352 .427 .779
3 H. Matsui, NYY 623 2 2 10.89 .287 .353 .435 .788
4 Podsednik, Mil 558 43 10 10.96 .314 .379 .443 .822
5 Phillips, NYM 403 0 1 11.33 .298 .373 .442 .815
6 M. Byrd, Phi 495 11 1 12.25 .303 .366 .418 .784
7 Teixeira, Tex 529 1 2 13.02 .259 .331 .480 .811
8 Broussard, Cle 386 5 2 13.06 .249 .312 .443 .755
9 Wigginton, NYM 573 12 2 13.46 .255 .318 .396 .714
10 Cabrera, Fla 314 0 2 13.56 .268 .325 .468 .793
11 T. Hafner, Cle 291 2 1 14.23 .254 .327 .485 .812
12 J. Gerut, Cle 480 4 5 14.71 .279 .336 .494 .830
13 J. Bard, Cle 303 0 2 14.77 .244 .293 .373 .666
14 Everett, Hou 387 8 1 14.82 .256 .320 .380 .700
15 X. Nady, SD 371 6 2 16.46 .267 .321 .391 .712
16 Monroe, Det 425 4 2 16.74 .240 .287 .449 .736
17 M. Olivo, CWS 317 6 4 17.68 .237 .287 .360 .646
18 K. Harvey, KC 485 2 3 17.72 .266 .313 .408 .721
19 C. Crisp, Cle 414 15 9 19.00 .266 .302 .353 .655
20 A. Berroa, KC 567 21 5 20.55 .287 .338 .451 .789
21 R. Johnson, Tor 412 5 3 21.60 .294 .353 .427 .780
22 J. Reyes, NYM 274 13 3 22.08 .307 .334 .434 .769
23 R. Baldelli, TB 637 27 10 22.23 .289 .326 .416 .742
24 B. Hart, StL 296 3 1 25.67 .277 .317 .395 .713
25 Phillips, Cle 370 4 5 27.43 .208 .242 .311 .553

I know it's a long list, but stick with me.

Some of the interesting things to note here:

Young and inexperienced Brandon Phillips, who was slated to be the Indians' starting SS in Spring 2003, spent three and a half months sucking, and lost his job in mid-July. He was replaced by even younger, even less-experienced Jhonny Peralta, who, while better than Phillips, also stank very much bad. Phillips, as I understand it, is the future at SS for the Tribe, so he's listed despite the sub-Neifi .553 OPS.

And speaking of the Indians, did you know that they had no fewer than seven rookies get at least 250 plate appearances last year? Peralta, Phillips, Ben Broussard, Travis Hafner, Josh Bard, Coco Crisp and Jody Gerut, who came out of nowhere to finish third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Also he has a blog. Cool. I wonder if all those at-bats by rookies (not to mention Alex Escobar, Victor Martinez, Angel Santos and Ryan Ludwick) is some kind of record? Amazingly, despite their relative lack of experience, they still finished 25 games ahead of the Tigers in the standings.

I could have chosen any of a number of ways to rank/list these guys, but I chose their walk rates because patience at the plate tends to be a better predictor of future performance than batting average or RBI, and on-base percentages can be artificially bolstered by an uncharacteristically high batting average. I also listed steals and caught stealing to show that some of these guys have skills that don't show through in the percentage numbers.

The highest profile rookie of 2003, Hideki Matsui, was not spectacular, but was one of the most patient of the rookies. Of course, a 27-year old who's been in a semi-major league for several years ought to be more patient than a lot of 22-year olds getting their first bitter taste of Major League Coffee. He didn't hit many homers, but 42 doubles helped him to a decent slugging percentage. At his age, I wouldn't look for him to take any huge strides in 2004, in either direction. He may improve a little, with a year of experience under his belt, but I understand that "Matsui" is a Japanese word for "grounder to second", so don't bet on him returning to the 50-homer seasons he had in Japan.

Jody Gerut actually had the highest OPS of any qualified rookie in 2003, but his walk rate (35 in 480 AB) was distinctly middle-of-the-pack, but his minor-league history shows that he used to be pretty patient. If he can regain some of the walks he used to get in the minors and keep his newly-discovered power (two big ifs), he'll be a pretty decent, non-Coors-inflated, Ellis Burks type of player, without so much batting average. Unfortunately, a torn rotator cuff may keep him either sidelined or inneffective for much of 2004.

Lyle Overbay, part of the trade that sent Richie Sexson to Arizona, will likely be the Brewers' starting first baseman. He's probably nothing spectacular, but he's patient and has a little power. Without Mark Grace there to compete for his job, he should get plenty of at-bats, and a .300/..390/.450 type of season isn't out of the question.

Milwaukee's two rookies, Scott Podsednik and Kieth Ginter, are not as bad as you might think, considering that they play for the Brewers. Podsednik probably should have won the NL RoY honors, hitting .314 and scoring 100 runs for a last-place team. His patience and speed should help him to remain an effective part of the Brewers (ahem) offense, but he's not young (28 on opening day) so don't expect any notable improvement. Look for his batting average to drop back into the ~.280 range, more in line with his minor league stats, and perhaps for him to lose some of those steals.

Ginter's got more power, but less patience, a lot less batting average and no speed at all. Still, a 2B with 15-homer pop is still kind of unusual, and he's not terribly impatient, but again, he'll be 28 in May, and is therefore likely already as good as he'll ever get. Think David Bell with 20 more walks and without the $3 million annual price-tag.

The Mets have three players on this list, Ty Wigginton, Jason Phillips and Jose Reyes. These are very different animals.

Wigginton should be a serviceable major league 3B. Baseball Prospectus projected him to hit .257/.319/.408, which rather nicely reflects the .255/.318/.392 line he did put up, albeit in twice as many at-bats as they expected, since the Mets never picked up a real option at third. He's not great at anything, but has a little patience, a little power, and a little speed, which, if I'm not mistaken, gets you a little over $4 million in annual salary once you hit free agency, right? Wigginton is as good an option as they have, is still cheap, and is young enough (25) to possibly improve in 2004. Don't bet on anything better than .275/.325/.425 though.

Phillips has always shown the ability to hit, with ~.280/.340/.450 kinds of numbers throughout his minor league career. Reportedly he's a decent defensive catcher as well, and his patience and ability to avoid the strikeout should help him to remain a solid (if unspectacular) hitter in 2004. Hopefully splitting time with Mike Piazza at catcher and First Base will help to prolong both of their careers.

Despite not being old enough to have a legal drink in 2003, Reyes hit .307 in almost 300 National League at-bats, having essentially been handed the job as the starting shortstop in July (why not, right?). But he sustained an ankle injury at the end of August that kept him out for the rest of the year. Everyone has raved about this guy's tools, and they're certainly there. He doesn't have much power, but is purportedly an excellent fielder, and has tremendous speed. Experience is helping that speed to translate into better success with stolen bases. (Despite 58 steals at AA and A in 2002, he was successful only about 70% of the time, but succeeded in 83% of his attempts at AAA and the majors in 2003.) Like a lot of 20-year old Dominican shortstops, he could stand to learn a little about plate discipline, but he seems to have all the tools and drive needed to get over that too. Look for him to suffer through a semi-slump in the early part of the season, but to make the necessary adjustments and continue to impress in 2004.

The Phillies' Marlon Byrd does a little of everything: a little speed (11 for 12 in steals), a little pop (39 extra base hits), pretty good patience (a walk every twelve plate appearances), batting average and solid defense. Rookies of the Year have been named after doing less than he did in 2003. Nothing's not to like, and as he matures, he should develop some more power. Perhaps a little drop in the batting average, but he should be a solid part of the Phillies' lineup in 2004.

Ben Broussard and Travis Hafner, both 1B/DH types who've proven all they can in the minors, both hit for mediocre averages with some power and not much patience, as you might expect from guys getting their first real shot in the majors. Both should regain some of the patience and batting average they showed in the minors. Hafner's younger and is already better than Broussard, so expect him to make the greater progress.

Speaking of the Indians, Josh Bard and Coco Crisp are the only ones I haven't yet discussed. Bard is probably good enough to keep hanging around the majors for a long time, but he's not anything special as catchers go. No power, decent bat control. Crisp has plenty of speed, but hasn't been successful enough as a base stealer to really help his teams (only successful 69% of the time since he reached the Carolina league at age 21.) He's still only 24, and could learn to be more effective with some patience at the plate and some wisdom on the basepaths, but is not likely to be the second coming of Kenny Lofton in 2004. More like Tom Goodwin or Doug Glanville.

Adam Everett, the one-time shortstop-of-the-future for the RedSox, can't really hit, as you can see. That it's taken him until the age of 26 to nail down a more or less full time job, and that he only managed to hit .256/.320/.380 in said stint, is an indication that you shouldn't expect much. He's got no power, and doesn't really hit for average, but will take an occasional walk, and is supposed to be a slick fielder. Omar Vizquel without the steals?

Xavier Nady should probably have done more than he did in 2003, but missed some time with injuries and platoons. He always hit in the minors and is still only 25, so don't be surprised if he does something like .290/.350/.450 in 2004.

Craig Monroe, second to Dmitri Young on the dismal Tigers' "offense" with 23 homers, would probably be a decent reserve 1B/3B on most teams. On this one, he's the starter, so he gets to rack up a few more counting stats. Probably still decent power numbers in '04, but don't expect him to ever hit much more than .275, and in that lineup, won't get many RBI opportunities or walk enough to score many runs.

Miguel Cabrera made a nice splash as an OF and 3B during the latter part of the season and especially during the playoffs. He hit OK and is versatile and flexible on defense, but at this point, with barely more than 300 major league at-bats to his name, who knows? He didn't display fantastic plate discipline, or great power, or very much average, but to do even what he did, at the tender age of 20, provides a harbinger of perhaps great things. Maybe not the next Albert Pujols, but great things.

Miguel Olivo. See Bard, Josh.

Ken Harvey is not likely to be much more than a part-time player, if he can't prove that his egregious platoon split was a fluke. The trouble with players who show a limitation like that early in their careers is that they usually don't get a chance to prove themselves later. If you do pick him up for your fantasy team, don't start him against righties. Don't worry though, righties only comprise like, 85% of the pitchers in the majors. Wait a minute...worry.

The guys who may really have trouble continuing their success, or staving off an early retirement, are the guys on the bottom of our list, the guys who walked less often than once every 20 plate appearances. Angel Berroa won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, but he never hit much in the minors, and the numbers he did put up last year may have been artificially inflated by Kaufmann Stadium's recently aquired penchant for allowing runs to score. He's still a good defensive SS, by all accounts, which should help him keep his job, but it's highly possible that he'll never hit 17 homers or ~.290 again.

Reed Johnson hit at just about every level in the minors, with pretty good plate discipline, a little pop, and even some speed (42 steals in the Southern League two years ago). His only struggle came at his first taste of AAA, but ever before and since he's been rock-solid. He's a little old, but should be hitting his peak years now, so look for some moderate improvements across the board, maybe even a small power spike. A .300 average and 20 homers is not out of the question, if he can regain the plate discipline he showed at previous levels.

Rocco Baldelli, with more speed, more pop, and frankly, more talent than Johnson, having reached the majors and put up comparable numbers at an age of only 22. Sammy Sosa and Roberto Clemente put up similar numbers early in their careers, but then so did a lot of other guys you've never heard of. He's got the talent to make the necessary adjustments if he wants to, but he should really decide if he's gonna be a threat to swipe bases or not. His rate last year just made the break-even level for actually helping the team, and his minor league rates weren't even that good. Despite the plate discipline problems, he'll likely hit for a pretty decent average, numbers across the board slightly better than they were in 2003. But note that his lack of power, walks and success stealing bases make him overrated.

Bo Hart. See Baldelli, Rocco. Except for what I said about the speed. That and the stuff about improving next year.

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