When rookies have the kinds of season that Aaron Judge had with the Yankees, or that Cody Bellinger had with the Dodgers, they tend to earn a lot of attention.
Setting rookie home run records—Judge set the major league record with 52, while Bellinger set a new National League mark with 39—while playing in the nation’s two largest media markets, for two of the game’s most storied franchises, can obscure the work of other rookies.
Not that other rookies didn’t try. I’m fascinated by Paul DeJong, who hit 25 homers while becoming the Cardinals’ everyday shortstop. For those of us who followed DeJong as an amateur, the home runs are no surprise—but shortstop? No one saw that coming, not when he played catcher, third base, second base and right field for Illinois State.
But two of the rookie stories that jumped out at me were the Orioles’ Trey Mancini and the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins, who set an MLB record for being the fastest player ever to hit 10 home runs, needing just 17 games.
Mancini, who burst on the big league scene with three homers in five games at the end of 2016, slugged 24 in a steady season for the Orioles and ranked second on the team in OPS while playing left field and first base. Neither Hoskins nor Mancini was a high draft pick, and as righthanded-hitting, righthanded-throwing players who were primarily first basemen as amateurs, that’s par for the course.
We write about some draft biases a lot, chief among them the fact that no high school righthander ever has been drafted No. 1 overall. But the right-right first baseman may be a bigger bias.
Derrek Lee, a first-round pick back in 1993, is the last first-round first baseman to be a big league all-star. And even from a bigger picture look, Frank Thomas stands out among Hall of Famers as the first right-right first baseman of the Integration Era who never played another position. Jeff Bagwell played only one game elsewhere, in the outfield, but was a third baseman in the minors.
Stars of the 21st Century like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera came up as third basemen; Paul Konerko was a catcher and third baseman in the minors. Will Myers was a catcher and outfielder, while Edwin Encarnacion was a third baseman.
The exception is Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, who also proves the point. The Diamondbacks star lasted until the eighth round of the 2009 draft. Being a righthanded-hitting first baseman was a factor, according to every scout I’ve talked to about the subject over the years.
Draft results bear out the bias as well. C.J. Cron is the last right-right first baseman drafted in the first round, back in 2011, and he had catching in his college background at Utah as well as big league bloodlines with his father Chris. Prior to that, Matt LaPorta in 2007 was the last of the genre, but the Brewers went out of their way to announce him as an outfielder, even though he was a first baseman at Florida. The only other recent first-rounders—if 1994 and 1996 qualify as “recent”—are Brian Buchanan (Yankees, 1994) and Danny Peoples (Indians, 1996), the latter of whom never reached the majors.
Goldschmidt’s success stands out significantly, but now Hoskins and Mancini have joined him as having big league success. Mancini has long since eclipsed his Notre Dame teammate Eric Jagielo, a Yankees first-round pick in 2013, when Mancini was a Baltimore eighth-rounder. Their stats as juniors were nearly identical, but Jagielo hit lefthanded and played third base; that apparently was worth seven rounds in the draft.
For the 2018 draft, we’ll have to see how the bias affects Luken Baker, who has starred for two seasons at Texas Christian but has injury issues and is a right-right first baseman. If Brent Rooker can dominate the Southeastern Conference and still last until pick 35 in 2017, Baker likely will have to wait past the first round, too.