Never before has baseball seen a group of rookies like the Class of 2015, one so rich in position players that with two months left in the season it’s on the verge of being more productive than every previous class in history. The Year of the Rookie is a real thing, though perhaps its designation is missing a word, because it’s really more the Year of the Hitting Rookie.
Sometime this week, everyday rookies are going to surpass every class from the last 100 years in Wins Above Replacement. Even if it is a flawed metric, this year’s group of rookies reigning supreme with a third of the season remaining speaks to just how much talent suffuses it – and how teams are relying on rookie position players more than anytime since World War II.
This season, rookie position players have accumulated 48.8 WAR, according to FanGraphs. Every hitter in baseball has a combined WAR of 386.8, meaning 12.61 percent of all offensive and defensive wins have come from rookies. Only war beget a greater percentage of WAR going to rookie hitters, as baseball struggled to fill its depleted rosters in 1943 and saw rookies account for 13.97 percent of offensive WAR.
By raw WAR, 2015 came into Sunday half a win behind the Class of 1987, a deep group with a member of the 3,000-hit club (Rafael Palmeiro), a home run champion (Mark McGwire), the greatest athlete in the last half-century (Bo Jackson), an MVP (Ken Caminiti), a team president (Kenny Williams), two managers (Matt Williams and Lloyd McClendon), a hitting coach (Kevin Seitzer), a New York hero (Paul O’Neill), a father of an All-Star (Mickey Brantley), a player agent (Keith Miller), two cult heroes (Billy Ripken and Sam Horn), the worst player in RBI Baseball (Al Pedrique), the inspiration for Baseball Prospectus’ preseason projection system (Bill Pecota), a bunch of catchers (Matt Nokes, Benito Santiago, B.J. Surhoff, Terry Steinbach) and some assorted All-Stars (Devon White, Ellis Burks, Ron Gant, Mike Greenwell). What it doesn’t have is a hitting Hall of Famer. Fred McGriff won’t ever get there. Edgar Martinez’s shot dwindles by the year. Greg Maddux is its lone representative in Cooperstown.
Considering most of this season’s class hasn’t even spent half a year in the major leagues, calling a Hall of Famer at this juncture is the epitome of foolishness. And yet every time …
1. Carlos Correa
’s name comes up, the plaudits rise. Within the first two weeks of his time in the major leagues, one general manager said he was immediately one of the 25 best players in the game. A few weeks later, another GM said “he’s top 10.” And this week, the first GM came back with a revised assessment: He was about 20 spots big. Correa, he said, is one of the five best players in baseball today.
Now, unquestionably, if you’re starting a team from scratch, Correa is among the first five players taken. He is 20 years old, the second-youngest player in the major leagues behind Toronto closer Roberto Osuna. He plays shortstop, considered the most vital position in the game, and is every bit the player of Brandon Crawford and Troy Tulowitzki. Teammates and Astros executives say he’s a tremendous teammate and leader, friendly and funny and strong-willed and bilingual in a sport that rewards all four.
Is he among the five best already? Well, Correa did come into Sunday with a .901 OPS, the best among shortstops by nearly 100 points, and his adjusted OPS – which accounts for his small home park and Crawford’s big one – still gives him a similar advantage. His glove has been plenty, too, quelling concerns that at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, he’d be too big for the position.
Everything about Correa thus far has been too good to be true, a sentiment expressed by one of the Astros’ former division rivals on a daily basis. It’s not that the Chicago Cubs thought …
2. Kyle Schwarber was going to be some scrubini. They drafted him fourth overall last season, a selection that history seems to forget was a significant overdraft compared to how the rest of the industry saw him – and big enough that Schwarber signed for $3.12 million, almost $1.5 million less than the assigned slot value.
All he’s done is hit, from Boise to Kane County to Daytona to Tennessee to Iowa to Chicago, six different levels, each of which he stormed with a batting average over .300 and slugging percentage better than .550. His first 100 plate appearances with the Cubs were particularly ridiculous: .352/.436/.625, most of them logged as a catcher, some in left field, where he’s likely to get more playing time with Miguel Montero back from the disabled list.
One scout this week dropped a great comp on Schwarber: a left-handed-only Lance Berkman. The swing path, he said, is very similar from the left side, where the switch-hitting Berkman did most of his damage. While neither was particularly agile or athletic, enough exists not to move the 22-year-old Schwarber to first base, which would lessen the impact of his bat. At catcher, Schwarber is a superstar. Even a league-average hitter at the position is hugely valuable, something …
3. James McCann is proving in his first full major league season. The 25-year-old took over full-time catching duties from perpetually injured Alex Avila and has been a more-than-pleasant surprise as the Detroit Tigers go about reloading under new GM Al Avila.
Before Friday, McCann’s contributions slinked under the radar, from his .289/.320/.434 line to a 45 percent caught-stealing rate, second only to Buster Posey among regular catchers. Then came the caught-on-tape dugout incident in which Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias shoved McCann after being confronted about a perceived lack of effort trying to turn double plays. Neither said a whole lot of anything about the incident, though one former teammate chimed in with high praise for McCann.
James McCann WILL have a C on his chest like Varitek did...he cares and he is a leader!! He will do what needs to be done...
— David Price (@DAVIDprice14) August 8, 2015
Considering how Kansas City is running away with the division and Cleveland is freeing up money with the Michael Bourn/Nick Swisher trade to complement its superb rotation with some hitting, Detroit needs all the help it can get. And that’s not even considering Minnesota now has …
4. Miguel Sano hitting cleanup barely a month into his major league career. He has more than earned it. The 22-year-old is hitting .264/.383/.491 – and the former and latter numbers are about in line where he should find himself as he grows into a seasoned major leaguer. It’s the middle one that’s worth considering.
Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Sano’s walk rate of 16.8 percent ranks seventh in baseball. Nos. 1-3 are among the five best hitters in baseball this year: Bryce Harper, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt. It’s the highest rate Sano ever has posted – his previous best was 14.5 percent at Class A in 2012 – but isn’t so far out of line with his strong walk totals to suggest it’s some sort of anomaly.
And that’s what makes Sano so exceedingly promising. Yes, he strikes out a lot – more than 35 percent of the time thus far – but immense power and frontline patience is exceedingly rare in 2015. Even at designated hitter, where Sano likely will find himself for the entirety of his burgeoning career, there’s value in that. With just one of those attributes …
5. Randal Grichuk has thrust himself into the thick of the National League Rookie of the Year race. Grichuk’s .569 slugging percentage ranks ninth in all of baseball among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, and his .332 on-base percentage isn’t all that shabby, either. The answer to a trivia question – “Who did the Los Angeles Angels take in the draft one pick before Mike Trout?” – Grichuk, 23, is posing a new question: “Who did the St. Louis Cardinals steal in a trade for David Freese?”
Because of the disparity in playing time, Grichuk hasn’t for sure leapt the Cubs’ Kris Bryant in the eyes of voters. And Joc Pederson plays a far better center field and has more home runs and a higher OBP. Grichuk’s place in the discussion, though, speaks to the depth in this rookie class, which isn’t just loaded with high-end talent but reams of players who should stick in the big leagues for a half-decade.
Because there are only 10 degrees in this piece, Bryant and Pederson didn’t warrant one. Neither did Addison Russell, Francisco Lindor, Byron Buxton or Joey Gallo, a quartet more of kids with multi-time All-Star potential. Sorry, Maikel Franco and Yasmany Tomas and Preston Tucker and Delino Deshields, each of whom have impressed with their bats. Salutations, too, to Odubel Herrera and Billy Burns, Blake Swihart and Rusney Castillo, Devon Travis and Steven Souza on the offensive side and a load of rotation and bullpen staples: Eduardo Rodriguez, Nate Karns, Robbie Ray, Chi-Chi Gonzalez, Chris Heston, Nate Karns, Anthony DeSclafani, Carlos Rodon, Matt Wisler, Andrew Heaney, Daniel Norris, Mike Montgomery, Carson Smith and Chasen Shreve.
Because of the deluge, it’s easy for someone like …
6. Matt Duffy
to get lost in the mix. He isn’t exactly the most assuming sort: a 24-year-old career shortstop who, entering the season, had spent all of five games at third base. He was always a solid hitter in the minor leagues, around .300 with middling home run power but a strong approach and low strikeout totals.
One of the things that makes the San Francisco Giants so great isn’t just their ability to poach guys like Duffy out of college in the 18th round or develop him properly. It’s knowing when he’s ready. Joe Panik’s evolution into one of the game’s best second baseman took a few years, and the Giants sprung him on the league at the right time. And when the Casey McGehee experiment bombed early this season, San Francisco gave Duffy the job and once again have a third baseman hitting in the middle of the order.
While Pablo Sandoval slashes .257/.305/.383 – and is owed $75 million for the next four years – Duffy will play two of those at the league minimum and two more at arbitration-reduced salaries. And if he can be even a reasonable facsimile of what he has been this year – .307/.345/.465 with a solid glove – Duffy could log some All-Star appearances at a loaded position. In the meantime, he’ll make a good case for Rookie of the Year over Bryant and Grichuk and …
7. Jung Ho Kang, who, like Duffy has with the Giants, proved his organization well capable of crushing the little splashes that add up to big ones. Kang, 28, hasn’t exactly saved the Pirates’ season in his first year coming from the Korean Baseball Organization. Without him, the Pirates wouldn’t have the third-best record in baseball and a commanding lead on the NL wild card.
When Josh Harrison went down with a torn ligament in his thumb, Kang filled in for him at third base. Shortstop Jordy Mercer’s torn knee ligament pushed Kang about 50 feet to his left, and he’s been adequate enough there for the Pirates to consider sticking with him long-term even when Mercer comes back. Kang’s bat is too good to take out of a lineup that has come to rely upon it. He’s hitting .293/.364/.444, a line commensurate to Crawford’s, and that’s not someone who spends half the games on the bench.
Kang’s emergence isn’t exactly a shock. Success, appropriately enough, comes to rookies with some version of “young” in their name, whether it’s Kang, Pederson (Yung Joc) or Brewers starter Taylor Jungmann (2.26 ERA through 71 2/3 innings), who at 25 is quite old compared to …
8. Noah Syndergaard and Joe Ross and Aaron Nola, who may well end up the class of the class as far as starting pitchers go. Each is 22, and the seasons they’re having range from spectacular (Syndergaard) to underappreciated (Ross) to promising (Nola).
As great as this hitting class is, the pitching looks to be dead-solid average, 49th in the last 100 seasons as far as the percentage of WAR coming from rookies. That doesn’t mean its impact will be minimal in the long run. Should Syndergaard stay healthy, he could be a No. 1 starter masquerading as a No. 3 or 4, depending on just how well Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and fellow rookie Steven Matz look going forward. For now, Syndergaard’s 3.01 ERA doesn’t by itself say how good he has been; his nearly 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio better illustrates that.
Ross’ happens to dwarf it. In 45 innings, he has struck out 47 and walked four. The offseason trade of Souza for Ross and the Nationals’ 2016 shortstop, Trea Turner, could end up one of those what-the-hell-were-they-thinking deals for San Diego (which gave up Ross and Turner for Wil Myers) and Tampa Bay (which flipped the pair to the Nationals for Souza). How good has Ross been? Washington sent Doug Fister and his career 3.44 ERA to the bullpen so Ross could stay in the rotation.
The beginning of Nola’s career hasn’t been quite as auspicious, and he’ll find himself with a Phillies team in the midst of a rebuild looking at him as a savior-type, which isn’t exactly fair for a right-hander whose fastball resides around 90 mph. Between his curveball and changeup, though, Nola comes equipped with a pair of strong secondary pitches, enough to find himself among the rare breed: a soft-tossing success. As …
9. Lance McCullers
showed, all it takes to survive these days is a pair of pitches with big velocity. When McCullers arrived in mid-May and signaled the Houston Astros’ intention of contention, he came with a mid-90s fastball and a curveball so hard and devastating hitters didn’t know what to do with it.
They still don’t. McCullers’ curveball may be the best in baseball, and his place in the Astros’ rotation is obvious: right behind Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir. At the moment, he’s in the minor leagues, resting his arm for the stretch drive, the Astros trying to keep his innings down and not overtax the 21-year-old, the youngest starter in the big leagues this year. They’re doing the same with rookie Vince Velasquez, cognizant that for all the splendor of young, big bats, teams need young, big arms to win, too.
It’s why, in 2012, the Astros got McCullers. With the No. 1 overall pick that season, they agreed to a deal $2.4 million below slot that allowed them to steal McCullers with the 41st overall pick and give him $2.5 million, nearly twice his allotted slot. That first pick, of course, was …
10. Carlos Correa, and he was paying dividends even before he got to the big leagues. Now he’s exceeding even the Astros’ hopes for him, which is difficult seeing as they knew he was going to be a star. When he came into spring training in 2013 as an 18-year-old, Correa was among the best of the Astros, and the team discussed – in a kidding-but-sorta-not-kidding way – just how crazy it would be to break camp with him.
It didn’t happen, and now they’ve got him through at least the 2021 season, by which time there shouldn’t be any doubt he’s among the five best players in the game. As for now, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper occupy spot Nos. 1 and 2, and Clayton Kershaw, Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Giancarlo Stanton and Max Scherzer all make great arguments in favor of themselves.
Perhaps it’s too early to be talking Hall of Fame, too. Let’s not forget another Astros wunderkind who debuted at 19 years old and by the time he was 22 was hitting .301/.348/.480 with Gold Glove defense in center field. And then, for Cesar Cedeno, came an incident with a mistress and a gun, an involuntary manslaughter charge, some jail time and a career that was never the same. At 29, his career OPS-plus was 130, with 158 home runs and 475 stolen bases, yet he wasn’t the Hall of Famer everyone saw in those first four years. Life rarely goes according to plan.
So while this soon will become the best rookie class of hitters baseball ever has seen, it will take another half-decade, maybe more, to understand just how transcendent it really was. The 2006 class, with nearly 12 percent of its hitting and pitching WAR from rookies, has stood the test of time. It’s the highest number aside from 1942 and ’43, and it’s easy to see why. Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain, James Shields and Anibal Sanchez, Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano. The hitters are almost as good, from Prince Fielder to Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia to Jose Bautista, Shin-Soo Choo to Hanley Ramirez, Russell Martin to Ben Zobrist. On and on it goes, loaded to the gills.
Some of those played just a handful of games and didn’t fully exhaust their rookie eligibility, but that doesn’t matter. Baseball got a glimpse of its future, just like it’s getting this season, and however many times people say the sport’s sky is falling, all it takes is one look at the names above to understand just how wrongheaded that conceit truly is.
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