A long list of the game’s brightest young stars—including Justin Verlander, Ryan Howard, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Scott Kazmir, Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Cain, Prince Fielder and Russell Martin—made both 2005 and 2006 the Years of the Rookies.
So it surprised us when the rookie class of 2007 was on par with, and perhaps superior to, the two that had come before. What makes this year’s group especially noteworthy is . . . well, read on to find out.
As always, * denotes a lefthanded batter or pitcher, while # denotes a switch-hitter.
POWERFUL AND SWIFT
|20 HOMER-20 STEAL ROOKIES
|Chris Young, Diamondbacks||2007||23||32||27|
|Carlos Beltran, Royals#||1999||22||22||27|
|Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox||1997||23||30||20|
|Marty Cordova, Twins||1995||25||24||20|
|Devon White, Angels#||1987||24||24||32|
|Ellis Burks, Red Sox||1987||22||20||27|
|Mitchell Page, Athletics*||1977||25||21||42|
|Tommie Agee, White Sox||1966||23||22||44|
Young narrowly missed becoming baseball’s first 30-30 rookie, falling three stolen bases short. Note that six of the eight 20-20 rookies did it in eras of high offense—in 1987 when everybody was hitting homers or post-1994 when run-scoring climbed to near historic heights.
All in all it’s distinguished company Young has joined; only Cordova and Page did not go on to bigger and better things. Both were essentially done as above-average players after their sophomore seasons. Agee was all over the map during his 12-year career, but he had four well above-average seasons and played center field for the World Series-winning 1969 Mets.
|ROOKIE HOME RUN LEADERS
|1.||Mark McGwire, Athletics||1987||23||49|
|2.||Wally Berger, Braves||1930||24||38|
|Frank Robinson, Reds||1956||20||38|
|4.||Al Rosen, Indians||1950||26||37|
|Albert Pujols, Cardinals||2001||21||37|
|6.||Hal Trosky, Indians*||1934||21||35|
|Rudy York, Tigers||1937||23||35|
|Ron Kittle, White Sox||1983||25||35|
|Mike Piazza, Dodgers||1993||24||35|
|10.||Ryan Braun, Brewers||2007||23||34|
|Walt Dropo, Red Sox||1950||27||34|
|12.||Jimmie Hall, Twins*||1963||25||33|
|Earl Williams, Braves||1971||22||33|
|Jose Canseco, Athletics||1986||21||33|
|15.||Chris Young, Diamondbacks||2007||23||32|
|Tony Oliva, Twins*||1964||25||32|
|Matt Nokes, Tigers*||1987||23||32|
It’s hard to believe with the great rookie classes we’ve seen recently, but Braun and Young became just the second and third rookies to swat 30 or more homers in a season since 1987, when both McGwire and Nokes did. Pujols was the first.
McGwire and Robinson went on to hit 580-something career home runs, while Piazza established a home-run benchmark for catchers, with 396 of his 427 longalls coming as a backstop.
Pujols has hit 282 home runs after seven seasons. Canseco hit 462. Berger, an overlooked star of the ’30s, smacked 282 homers. Oliva finished with 220, at a time (’60s and ’70s) when home runs were not as easy to come by.
|200-STRIKEOUT ROOKIES, SINCE 1946
|1.||Dwight Gooden, Mets||1984||20||276|
|2.||Herb Score, Indians*||1955||22||245|
|3.||Hideo Nomo, Dodgers||1995||26||236|
|4.||Kerry Wood, Cubs||1998||21||233|
|5.||John Montefusco, Giants||1975||25||215|
|6.||Don Sutton, Dodgers||1966||21||209|
|7.||Gary Nolan, Reds||1967||19||206|
|Bob Johnson, Royals||1970||27||206|
|9.||Mark Langston, Mariners*||1984||23||204|
|10.||Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox||2007||26||201|
|11.||Tom Griffin, Astros||1969||21||200|
Though Matsuzaka’s season seemed like a mild disappointment because he went just 5-6, 5.19 in the second half, he became the 11th rookie since 1946 to strike out 200 batters in a season.
Three things immediately jump out. First, just one Hall of Famer (Sutton) in the past 61 years managed to strike out 200 or more batters as a rookie. Not remembered today as a power pitcher, Sutton notched just four other 200-K seasons in a 23-year career.
Secondly, where are the active pitchers? The only post-1984 pitchers on this list were either, 1) 26-year-old Japanese imports (Nomo, Matsuzaka), or 2) Kerry Wood. And Wood’s case almost perfectly illustrates why teams no longer allow young hurlers amass the innings needed to compile 200 strikeouts. As a rookie, Wood threw just 166 2/3 innings, but figure in 233 strikeouts (including 20 in one game) and 85 walks, and that’s a lot of mileage for a 21-year-old arm.
Whether teams have it right or not on the pitch-count issue is debatable, but with the money invested in players today — not just pitchers, but players — one can understand their caution. Injuries can decimate a team’s playoff chances. And anecdotally speaking, all the post-WW II 200-strikeout rookies, except Sutton and Langston, dominated for relatively brief periods of time. To be fair, Nolan did re-emerge as a frontline pitcher for the World Series-winning ’75 and ’76 Reds, but not before overcoming serious arm injuries.
Thirdly, where are the lefties? Score was even better in his second season, whiffing 263 batters, but he was never the same after being struck in the face by a Gil McDougald line drive in 1957. Langston actually led the AL in whiffs as a rookie, and led again in ’86 and ’87 — with 262. He finished a 16-year career with 179-158, 3.97 numbers.
The year 1946 is used as a cutoff because without it, pitchers like Pete Alexander (1911) and Christy Mathewson (1901) enter the picture, and they threw 367 and 336 innings as rookies.
"The SABR Baseball LIst & Record Book" was invaluable in putting together the rookie home run and strikeout lists above.
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN?
Chris Young and Alfonso Soriano led off for the Diamondbacks and Cubs, respectively, in the teams’ NL Division Series matchup this season. Each is a righthanded batter who possesses a power-speed combo that has tempted his manager to use him in the leadoff spot.
But the similarities don’t end there. At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Young is deceptively strong, as is Soriano, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. Soriano finished third in 2001 AL Rookie of the Year voting — behind Ichiro Suzuki and C.C. Sabathia — and we now know Soriano at the time was actually two years older than his listed age of 23. He also was playing in Yankee Stadium, historically a difficult park for righthanded hitters.
Young was 23 in 2007. Just for fun, a statistical comparison of Young and Soriano as rookies:
|CHRIS YOUNG AND ALFONSO SORIANO, AS ROOKIES
|PLAYER, POS., TEAM||YEAR||AGE||PA||AVG||OBP||SLG||HR||SB||CT||ISO||SPD|
|Chris Young, cf, D’backs||2007||23||623||.237||.295||.467||32||27||75%||.230||6.1|
|Alfonso Soriano, 2b, Yanks||2001||25||611||.268||.304||.432||18||43||78%||.164||6.4|
CT = contact rate. ISO = isolated power. SPD = speed score.
Young struck out more than Soriano did, but he balanced that by hitting for more power and playing an excellent center field. Plus, he was two years younger.
Through much of 2007, it was an open question. Which total would be higher, Ryan Braun’s home runs or his errors at third base?
He finished with 34 homers in 451 at-bats, and 26 errors in 248 total chances, for an .895 fielding percentage. Obviously that’s a very low mark, but how low exactly?
As many as six rookie third basemen figure to get ROY votes this year, so let’s first compare them.
|FIELDING STATS FOR ROOKIE THIRD BASEMEN, 2007|
|Ryan Braun, Brewers||2007||23||112||61||161||26||12||.895||.954||1.98||2.25|
|Kevin Kouzmanoff, Padres||2007||25||136||91||209||22||12||.932||.954||2.21||2.25|
|Mark Reynolds, D’backs||2007||23||104||55||157||11||21||.951||.954||2.04||2.25|
|Josh Fields, White Sox||2007||24||79||47||159||9||13||.958||.957||2.61||2.34|
|Alex Gordon, Royals||2007||23||137||99||247||14||22||.961||.957||2.53||2.34|
|Akinori Iwamura, D-Rays||2007||28||120||79||197||7||17||.975||.957||2.30||2.34|
FP = fielding percentage. RF = range factor (A + PO / G). lg = league average.
Fielding percentage is not the end-all defensive stat, of course, because to commit an error, a player first has to get to a ball. But Braun also failed to record an average number of plays per game, meaning he posted both the lowest fielding percentage and the lowest range factor among everyday rookie third basemen.
Two things conspired against Braun’s range factor mark, however. First, he was often lifted for a defensive replacement late in close games, limiting his opportunities. Even looking at Braun’s range factor per nine innings, though, he was last with 2.11. And second, the Brewers had the third-most fly ball-oriented staff in the NL. Milwaukee pitchers allowed .94 groundouts for every fly out, a figure that trailed just Washington (.87) and Cincinnati (.91). Again this meant fewer opportunities for Braun and other Brewers infielders.
It would be dangerous to draw conclusions — other than Braun had a poor defensive season — from the above data. Let’s expand our sample to include all rookie third basemen since 1990 to receive at least one ROY vote. Note that Wright has been added because, while he didn’t receive a ROY vote in 2004, he did play more games at third than Cabrera, Fryman or Pujols.
Players are ranked by their difference from the league range factor.
|FIELDING STATS FOR ROOKIE THIRD BASEMEN, 1990-2006|
|Scott Rolen, Phillies||1997||22||155||144||291||24||30||.948||.946||2.81||2.19|
|Albert Pujols, Cardinals||2001||21||55||40||111||10||17||.938||.950||2.75||2.17|
|Kevin Orie, Cubs||1997||24||112||91||212||9||15||.971||.946||2.71||2.19|
|Chipper Jones, Braves||1995||23||123||81||254||25||19||.931||.946||2.72||2.33|
|Ty Wigginton, Mets||2003||25||155||117||293||16||27||.962||.955||2.65||2.36|
|Robin Ventura, White Sox||1990||22||147||116||268||25||32||.939||.944||2.61||2.32|
|Ryan Zimmerman, Nats||2006||21||157||152||260||15||30||.965||.954||2.62||2.37|
|David Wright, Mets||2004||21||69||39||140||11||10||.942||.956||2.59||2.35|
|Travis Fryman, Tigers||1990||21||48||23||95||11||12||.915||.944||2.46||2.32|
|Garrett Atkins, Rockies||2005||25||136||78||262||18||23||.950||.958||2.50||2.39|
|Leo Gomez, Orioles||1991||25||105||62||184||7||20||.972||.955||2.34||2.33|
|Eric Hinske, Blue Jays||2002||24||148||103||246||20||14||.946||.951||2.36||2.40|
|Ryan Bruan, Brewers||2007||23||112||61||161||26||12||.895||.954||1.98||2.25|
|Miguel Cabrera, Marlins||2003||20||34||17||53||1||2||.986||.955||2.06||2.36|
Most revelatory here is Leo Gomez, who had a few productive seasons before fading into oblivion. Otherwise, the lesson is, if a player hits (Hinske in ’02, Cabrera every year), he stays at third base.
But Braun isn’t alone here. Even though they’re not shown in the chart above, Kouzmanoff and Iwamura rated even with Hinske, and Reynolds was mere range-factor points ahead of Braun, leaving Fields and Gordon as the only two above-average third-base defenders in the ’07 rookie class.
The indispensable Baseball-Reference.com was used for historical and fielding data.
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