Ramblings from a Talking Head 6/25/14

Welcome back to Ramblings from a Talking Head, a semi-regular blog that fulfills its title by bouncing between quick hits on recent sports happenings and short-form analysis of hot topics. Today’s post leans toward the latter in terms of content, so those of you looking for insights on the Cardinals and Rams can tune in to Makin’ The Play with Rob Johnson and myself from 4-6pm Monday-Friday on SEMO ESPN 92.9 FM and the SEMO ESPN app for the latest news involving those organizations! Now that I’ve worked my shameless plug for the show into this post, we can dive into today’s topic.

Major League Baseball is quickly approaching the All-Star Break and many teams have begun bringing up their top prospects from the minor leagues to observe how they can (and possibly will) perform in the top tier of baseball against the best talent. There has been a surge of high-quality and quick-starting prospects hitting our collective conscience and box scores thus far in 2015: Schwarber (who is already back in the minors), Soler, Russell and Bryant on the North Side of Chicago, Franco in Philly, Gallo in Arlington, Lindor for Cleveland, Buxton in the Twin Cities and Correa in Houston… and that is just an abbreviated list of offensive players.

We’ve heard for a few years now that the current crop of rookies would hit the scene, showing that they are the future of baseball and the current product on the field for many of the aforementioned players does not disappoint. This is not the first time we have seen a big player or set of players hit the scene in this fashion. Each time a wave like this hits, the same question is posed: How will this rookie class rank historically? Can this group become the best of all time?

The short answer is this: We will not know for a few years, if not longer. That being said, though, pushing forward expectations and predictions does not an interesting article make. We will instead look to rookie classes of years’ past and see how their productivity has held up long-term, as well as see which thresholds this class will need to reach in order to compare to the best rookie classes in recent baseball history.

Rookie of the Year voting can be a fickle task and is far from a fool-proof science. Many rookies start their MLB service time on an extended hot streak, raising hopes for their respective fan bases and shifting eyes toward future MVP award and championship appearances. Many of those same players, however, fizzle out almost as quickly as they heat up and a good number of Rookie of the Year vote-getters are out of the starting lineup within a few years, if not completely out of the league. Let’s use the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year votegetters as a recent example, listed in the order of finish:

1) Andrew Bailey: OAK CP
2) Elvis Andrus, TX SS
3) Rick Porcello, DET SP
4) Jeff Niemann, TB SP
5) Gordon Beckham, CHW 2B
6) Brett Anderson, OAK SP

Four of the six finalists are currently in the league, with Andrew Bailey still on a major league roster while not having pitched since 2013; Jeff Niemann’s last game was in September 2012.
Brett Anderson has had a laundry list of injuries, the first requiring Tommy John surgery, with 2015 being the first year of double digits starts for him since 2011. Gordon Beckham has been serviceable, but has only finished a season hitting over .235 once since 2010. Porcello performed solidly in Detroit, but has floundered since joining the Red Sox this season. Andrus, the 2009 runner-up, is the only member of this list to be voted to an All-Star team, his second appearance being in 2012.

The 2009 NL Rookie voting is somewhat better, with one standout:

1) Chris Coghlan, FLA OF
2) J.A. Happ, PHI SP
3) Tommy Hanson, ATL SP
4) Andrew McCutchen, PIT OF
5) Casey McGehee,. MIL IF

6) Randy Wells, CHC SP
7) Garrett Jones, PIT 1B/RF

t8) Everth Cabrera, SD SS
t8) Dexter Fowler, CHC OF

t8) Gerardo Parra, ARI OF
t8) Colby Rasmus, STL CF

Given the site where this blog is posted and the listening/viewing base, I feel I do not need to break down the last player on that list and his fate in the majors. Randy Wells has not been in the league since 2012, while Hanson has not made an appearance in the majors since 2013. Cabrera has only appeared in 29 games for the Orioles so far this year, and Jones is on the Yankees’ roster as a utility player of sorts. Coghlan and Fowler now patrol left and center field together for the Cubs and Parra has appeared in 70 games as utility player in Milwaukee; McGehee had a resurgence of sorts in Miami last year before falling off in San Fran this season, while Happ had a similar rebound in Toronto last year that serves as more of an anomaly than a true bounce back to his rookie form. The only player on this list that has shone since his rookie year is Andrew McCutchen, who has made four consecutive All-Star teams and sits at fifth in the most recent voting update for 2015 (as of 6/23/15, according to CBS Sports). Six years into their careers and the only person in either league’s 2009 ROY finalists that could even come close to a Hall of Fame spot is McCutcheon.

2009 does not stand as an outlier in terms of ROY voting finishes correlating to long-term MLB success. 2008 saw Geovany Soto win the NL award, while Joey Votto, Edinson Volquez and Jay Bruce finished below him. Joakim Soria finished last in the 2007 AL voting, with such stars as Reggie Willits, Josh Fields and Brian Bannister finishing ahead of him. 2004 saw Bobby Crosby win the AL award with Zack Greinke and Alex Rios finishing fourth and fifth, while Jason Bay won the NL award and Matt Holliday finished fifth. Mark Teixeira and Miguel Cabrera were fifth in their respective league’s ROY voting in 2003… Angel Berroa and Dontrelle Willis won the two awards that year. I could continue, but I feel the provided examples are ample evidence for my case. Rookies years can be quite deceiving in terms of the long-term performance levels that the young players could maintain. There is one recent example of a standout rookie class that reveals what the 2015 rookies could become with years of sustained success.

The Rookie of the Year voting in 2001 contained maybe the best collective class of rookies to arrive in Major League Baseball since the mid-1940s. Nine players received votes combined between the two leagues, and only Bud Smith was out of the league quickly (His last appearance for the Cardinals was in 2002, one year after his no-hitter). The other eight players receiving votes have combined for 42 All-Star appearances, 13 top 5 MVP finishes (with 5 MVP award wins), 10 Cy Young Award top 5 finishes (with one win), three LCS MVPs and one World Series MVP. These eight players have made varying impacts on Major League Baseball since entering the league, but many are names that even the most casual sports fan will know:

Albert Pujols
Ichiro Suzuki
C.C. Sabathia
Alfonso Soriano
Jimmy Rollins
Roy Oswalt
Adam Dunn
David Eckstein

Four of these men are no longer playing baseball (Dunn, Eckstein, Soriano and Oswalt), but are still names known by most to all baseball fans and are fondly remembered for their contributions to their respective franchises. Sabathia and Rollins are still in the majors, but are not performing at the levels they did in their prime (which is to be expected for players that are 34 and 36, respectively). Pujols, as of this writing, is having a resurgence for the Angels and Ichiro is continuing to contribute for the Marlins both on the field and as a mentor to the younger outfielders. All of these players had long stretches of success and high performance during their time in the league, even with Eckstein’s play never standing out but always helping his team. The other seven have varying levels of expectation to enter the Hall of Fame one day; Pujols and Ichiro are locks at this stage and the rest will receive some votes, albeit none of them likely entering Cooperstown. Despite many not receiving plaques, however, all will be remember as great contributors for the franchises they played for and most could be honored with retired numbers/specific team acknowledgement.

The continued success of the 2001 rookie class sets a high standard for the 2015 batch of young guns to reach, but many franchises and fans are hoping that this group can achieve the heights of players such as Pujols and Ichiro. Patience is a virtue, however, and could be one that is not rewarded over time. That’s for the future to show… for now, the 2015 rookies are bringing hope and excitement to a number of long forlorn franchises.

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from baseball-reference.com