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July 13, 2010

Expanded Horizons

The Difficulty of Being a Rookie

by Tommy Bennett

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On April 5, 2010, the Atlanta Braves opened their season at home against the Chicago Cubs. The Braves were not the division favorites. Iconic manager Bobby Cox was set to leave at season’s end. Franchise third baseman Chipper Jones had entered his decline phase. For that Braves team, it was more like November than April—the time when storylines come to a close, players get their unconditional release, and everyone has a nice round of golf.

On April 5, 2010, Jason Heyward made his major-league debut. The left-handed hitting right fielder came to the plate in the bottom of the first inning to face mercurial Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano with runners at first and second and one out. Heyward looked big, really, bigger than his listed 6-foot-5, 240-pound proportions sound. Heck, he looked bigger than the Big Z. “My goodness,” Braves fans thought to themselves, “Is this the 20-year-old I’ve been hearing about?” When Heyward feasted his renowned batting eye on a 2-0 fastball down and in, he uncorked a generational torque weapon of tremendous proportions. When the dust settled and the ball landed (no, really) 471 feet away, a momentous storyline of momentum hurdled forward.

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On August 16, 1996, the Atlanta Braves were 74-46 and in first place. They were the reigning champions of Major League Baseball, and John Smoltz would toe the rubber that evening in search of his 20th win. Last year’s rookie and that evening’s shortstop, Jones, was looking like an All-Star, batting .321/.402/.558 with 25 home runs and a nifty 10-for-11 record on the stolen base attempts. These months are reasonable selections for the peak of the Braves’ franchise, one that knew three hometowns and countless promising rookies.

On August 16, 1996, Andruw Jones started the second major league game of his life. Of course, he played right field—only a great talent could unseat reigning Gold Glover Marquis Grissom in center field—and he batted second. In the bottom of the first, he stepped in against Pirates ace Denny Neagle (little did either of them know they’d be teammates less than two weeks later). Jones ripped a 1-0 pitch from Neagle into right-center and—hey, did you know this guy was fast?—legged out a triple. After a ground out, Jones faced Neagle again in the fifth. He pulled Neagle’s 1-1 offering down the left-field line at Fulton County Stadium for a home run to put the Braves up 2-0. It would prove to be Jones' first of (at least) 400 career home runs.

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On July 10, 2010, Marlins super-prospect Mike Stanton played his 27th career game. He went 2-for-4 and socked the fifth home run of his career. Even after that, his season line stood at .236/.274/.443. He had struck out in 40 percent of his plate appearances and walked in just 5 percent. He had already had four three-strikeout games, and another 10 games with two strikeouts. Oftentimes he looked overmatched at the plate, but those few times he made solid contact he showed why many scouts graded his power as a true 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

On July 10, 2010, Stanton’s fifth-inning at-bat ended well. He sat back on a 1-0 breaking ball from the Diamondbacks' Ian Kennedy and drove it deep into opposite field and the desert night. It was the promise of youth on full display: quick wrists and a flash of the bat like a shining dagger. Hitting towering home runs is nice work, if you can get it, but 20-year-old outfielders have to hack it the hard way.

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On July 23, 2003, Marlins super-prospect Miguel Cabrera played his 27th career game. He went 2-5 and hit his second career triple. Despite his fine play that evening, Cabrera’s season line stood at .232/.295/.474, and he only had four home runs. In fact, before that evening, Cabrera had just two extra-base hits in his previous 12 games, a streak that had dropped his season OPS from 921 to 746.

Cabrera finished the 2003 season with a .268/.325/.468 batting line—pretty good for a 20-year-old outfielder. By helping the Marlins sneak into the playoffs via the wild card, Cabrera even earned an MVP vote, receiving the same number of points as Jim Edmonds. Some of that, perhaps, might have been confirmation bias. “See prospect experience modicum of regular season success, vote for prospect,” is about as straightforward a syllogism as awards voters are likely to offer up.

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Cabrera is having the season of his career, and he leads the American League in two of the three Triple Crown categories (AVG and RBI) and is tied for second in homers. Stanton, on the other hand, continues to try to refine his approach at the plate. Andruw Jones has more home runs than Heyward at the moment (go ahead, check), thanks in no small part to the latter’s trip to the disabled list. Neither Cabrera nor Jones (who finished his debut season batting .217/.265/.443 in 113 PAs) came out of the high minors fully formed like Athena.

The lesson here is that being a rookie at any age is tough, but being a rookie at age 20 is nothing less than a baptism in fire. Hall of Famers have scuffled in their age-20 seasons, often looking lost or overmatched against older competition. When players like Heyward or Cabrera march year-by-year up the prospect rankings, their greatness appears inevitable, as though the major leagues are just one more step on the ladder. In the yawning gulf between Double-A and the majors, lesser players are gobbled altogether and great players are laid low. Fans would do well to remember that great players have walked this path before, and come out of it no less than as Hall of Famers.

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