Just How Good Are These Rookies? (Part 2)

Last Wednesday I took a look at rookies from the past 15 seasons and tried to determine exactly what a “good” rookie class meant. You’ll have to read last week’s article for all the details of the quick-and-dirty study, but in the meantime here are a few of the key facts:

  • The top rookie in a given year had an average Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of 54.9—a number that would have been good for 42nd among all big leaguers last season.
  • The second-best rookie over the past 15 years has averaged a 45.5 VORP, while rookies three through five check in at 39.2, 36.3 and 33.0.
  • On average, the top five rookies in a season combined for a 208.9 VORP, with the best class of the past 15 seasons (2001) at 261.8 and the worst class (1991) at 161.4.
  • With those basic facts in mind, let’s take a look at how this season’s rookies stack up with about two weeks left to play…

    HITTERS               VORP        PITCHERS              VORP
    Jonny Gomes           34.2        Joe Blanton           40.7
    Tadahito Iguchi       26.3        Gustavo Chacin        40.6
    Robinson Cano         24.7        Huston Street         32.7
    Ryan Howard           22.7        Scott Kazmir          28.1
    Jeff Francoeur        22.6        Zach Duke             25.7
    Dan Johnson           20.4        Jesse Crain           24.4
    Ryan Church           17.5        Andy Sisco            23.9
    Garret Atkins         17.4        Chris Young           22.4
    Clint Barmes          16.5        Gary Majewski         22.0
    Russ Adams            16.1        Felix Hernandez       18.6

    This year’s rookie pitchers have been a lot better than this year’s rookie hitters, although the hitters are hurt by the fact that Joe Mauer (42.6) and Chris Shelton (29.3) miss out on their rookie eligibility because of too many days on the active roster last season. Mauer being ineligible despite just 107 at-bats last season makes two years in a row in which a Minnesota hitter narrowly missed out on leading all rookies in VORP because of too many days on the active roster. (Lew Ford’s 44.0 VORP last season would have ranked first among rookies, and he had only 73 career at-bats coming into the year.)

    However, even if Mauer and Shelton were in the mix, this year’s rookie crop would be pretty weak. It is unlikely that any rookie will top 50 VORP, let alone get up to the 54.9 VORP that the top rookie has averaged over the past 15 seasons. While Joe Blanton, Gustavo Chacin, Huston Street and Tadahito Iguchi have put together solid full seasons, most of the top performances among rookies have come from players who have only played partial seasons. For instance, Ryan Howard is hitting .289/.355/.549, but he had to wait until Jim Thome went down with a season-ending injury in late June to get a regular spot in the Phillies’ lineup. Because of that he’s been really good, but it’s only been for 76 games.

    The same thing goes for Jonny Gomes (.285/.383/.540 in 90 games), Jeff Francoeur (.315/.349/.580 in 60 games), Dan Johnson (.280/.365/.458 in 97 games), Zach Duke (1.84 ERA in 11 starts) and Felix Hernandez (2.95 ERA in nine starts). Even Robinson Cano, who has played for nearly the whole season while hitting .294/.319/.451, misses out on padding his VORP totals because he was in the minors while the Yankees messed around with Tony Womack for the first month of the year. Now, it makes sense that the fewer games a rookie (or any player) plays the better his chances are of putting up gaudy rate stats, but it seems to be a lot more prevalant with this season’s rookie crop.

    So, who has been the best rookie this season? Well, there are a couple different ways to approach that question. Going strictly by VORP (which I wouldn’t recommend), Blanton and Chacin are ahead of the field and in a two-man race to the finish line. Of course, VORP doesn’t account for defense, where position players like Iguchi, Cano and Francoeur make up significant ground, and even guys like Gomes and Howard close the gap a bit.

    Turning to Win Shares Above Bench (WSAB), which does account for defense, we get the following rookie leaderboard:

    Huston Street       9
    Gustavo Chacin      8
    Jeff Francoeur      8
    Jonny Gomes         8
    Joe Blanton         7
    Tadahito Iguchi     7
    Chris Young         6
    Jesse Crain         6
    Zach Duke           6
    Scott Kazmir        5

    What happens here is that Street, thanks in large part to the high-leverage situations he has pitched in as Oakland’s closer, vaults ahead of the competition and into the top spot. Chacin, Gomes, Blanton and Iguchi stay close on his tail, while Francoeur moves up quite a bit from his VORP ranking due to a nice boost from his defense in right field (which includes an ungodly number of assists).

    Street being at the top of the heap seems right to me. He has not only been fantastic (1.58 ERA, .190 opponent’s batting average, .528 OPS against) and put in a full season (62 appearances, 74 innings pitched), he has done so while closing games for a playoff contender. His line for the season is simply a thing of beauty:

     G       IP      ERA     W     L     SV     SO     BB     HR     OAVG
    62     74.0     1.58     5     1     21     70     24      3     .190

    It doesn’t get much better than that for a reliever, rookie or otherwise, and Street has also allowed just nine of the 34 runners he has inherited to score (which makes his performance out of Oakland’s bullpen look even better than the raw numbers would indicate). As for Francoeur being the top rookie in the National League, I’m a little uneasy with that title because he’s going to end up playing less than half a season.

    His main competition, however, comes from fellow partial-season rookies like Howard, Duke, and Clint Barmes. In fact, aside from a few middle relievers, the only full-season rookies in the NL this year are Willy Taveras, Jeff Francis, and Garrett Atkins. Taveras is a good defensive center fielder and one of the fastest men in baseball, but he’s also getting on base at a .325 clip and slugging .341. Francis has the disadvantage of being a pitcher on the Rockies, but Coors Field or not he still has a 5.79 ERA (including 6.46 on the road). And Atkins, even with the aid of Coors Field, is slugging just .430.

    Of course, with a couple weeks left in the season the Rookie of the Year races are just slightly less wide open than the pennant races. Huston Street may have to close out both down the stretch.

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