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August 19, 2010
The Golden Generation
Earlier this week, the folks at Beloit College released their annual MindsetList, a document designed to explain the cultural differences between the incoming class of college freshmen and the older faculty hired to teach them. The idea is to highlight the small and large ways the world has changed in the last 20 years by mentioning things that were true during the life span of oldsters that were never true for those under 20, e.g., the existence of things like a telephone cord, a country called Czechoslovakia, and a baseball commissioner not named Bud. For me, a man who fervently hopes Jamie Moyer comes back next spring to ensure I won’t have to face being older than every major-league ballplayer, this is always a time to reflect on youth and age, both in life and in baseball—especially so this year, since the current Mindset List includes a reference to the term Annus Horribilus, which I happened to use in last year’s BP Annual, but which I now know dates me almost as much as saying “23 Skidoo.”
In that vein, this week I’m taking a quick look at baseball’s version of the freshman class: major-league rookies. The 2010 crop, highlighted by Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, and Buster Posey, seems especially good to me, but I was curious to see how they stack up against freshmen of the recent past, and how well other impressive rookie cohorts maintained their value later in their careers. To compare, I decided to look at WARP—our measure of total player value provided on offense and defense—to see how much of the league’s total production in a given season was produced by each “class” of player, as measured by years since they exhausted their rookie eligibility. The higher percentage of the league’s total WARP a given “class” of player produces, the better that group was that year when compared to their contemporaries.
The chart below shows what percentage of the total WARP-3 (the all-time version) earned by the entire league was scored by each player class in a given year:
Since the dataset I’m working with starts in 1986 (Moyer’s rookie year) and lists whether a player is a rookie that year but not otherwise how many years they’ve been in the league, I can’t properly place everyone in a class until 1994, when anyone who hadn’t been a rookie in the sample must be at least 10-year veterans. The final column is an aggregate of all 10+ year veterans to save horizontal space, but rest assured that each individual class included in that number makes up a small percentage of the total major-league WARP.
By looking diagonally down and to the right, you can use this chart to follow every rookie class from 1986 forward as they progress through their careers (“leaving the bay to move on to the ocean” is how my own high school commencement speaker, Dr. Dave, tweely described it). Note how each class tends to quickly increase their percentage of a full league’s value, peaking in Seasons 3-6, before gradually fading away.
By this measure, the 7.6 percent figure compiled by this year’s rookie class isn’t anything special, but take a look at the rookie class of 2006. In their rookie season, those players made up 14.4 percent of the entire league’s WARP—the highest of any class cohort that year, the highest of any rookie class in our sample, and the only rookie class in our sample to combine for a higher percentage of the league’s WARP than any other class that year.
When you follow the 2006 rookies through their careers, this group has continued to dominate the league each season, peaking at a full 16.3 percent of WARP so far this year. No other single rookie class in the last quarter century has been this successful compared to their contemporaries. The closest perhaps were the powerhouse rookie classes of 1986 (featuring Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Will Clark, Bobby Bonilla, Jose Canseco, and Moyer) and 1987 (with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff, and Matt Williams), who collectively rocked their frosted jean jackets while scoring a full 20-25 percent of WARP each year for the next decade. Even those groups, however, weren’t individually able to match the 15 percent of league WARP that the 2006 rookies have achieved each of the last three years (though admittedly since the 1986 and 1987 groups were contemporaries they perhaps drove each other’s individual percentages down).
Does the rookie class of 2006 include as many great players as those late-'80s cohorts?
The columns on the left show the top 20 rookies by WARP in 2006, while the columns on the right show the top 20 career WARP counts of players from the 2006 rookie class. Jonathan Papelbon, a topic of some recent discussion, led rookies in WARP in 2006 and is fourth overall in his class, while Hanley Ramirez is the career leader. Some of baseball’s best starting pitchers are on this list—Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright are already perennial Cy Young candidates, while Josh Johnson, Jon Lester, Jered Weaver, and Matt Cain are all among the 20 or so best starters in baseball. On the offensive side, an infield of Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Prince Fielder and Ryan Zimmerman can slug with the best of them, though at first glance it seems to me that the 2006 rookie class may be deeper than their late-'80s counterparts, but with perhaps fewer truly exceptional players.
What if we add in the next set of rookies, those from 2007, to make a two-year comparison?
Now we’re getting somewhere. The 2007 rookie class has earned around or above 10 percent of league WARP each year, which combines with the 2006 class for a combined 25 percent of WARP each of the last four years. This compares favorably with the 1986-87 cohorts, and allows us to add in names like Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Braun, Tim Lincecum, Josh Hamilton, and Yovani Gallardo, who bring with them two Cy Young awards and an MVP. That surpasses the major award count of the 1986-87 rookies, who by this point in their careers had only two (MVPs for Canseco in 1988 and Kevin Mitchell in 1989). It will be a challenge for the 2006-07 rookies to keep up with their elders, however, as the next six NL Cy Young Awards (Doug Drabek, then Glavine, then four in a row for Maddux) and four of the next six NL MVP awards (three for Bonds and one for Larkin) were awarded to the late-'80s group. Nevertheless, the 2006-07 group might very well continue to dominate baseball for years to come.
Since I have the data handy, here are the rookie year and career WARP leaders for the 2008-10 rookies—MLB’s freshman, sophomore, and junior classes—for comparison:
The junior class has been comparatively weak as a whole, posting under eight percent of league WARP each year, and is especially short on starting pitching. The upper tier of Evan Longoria, Joey Votto, and Carlos Gonzalez, followed by Geovany Soto, Martin Prado, and Alexei Ramirez, gives this list a classic “stars and scrubs” feel.
Of this class, I’d expect Trevor Cahill, David Price, Mat Latos, Andrew McCutchen and Colby Rasmus to have the most career articles containing the adjective “superstar” during their careers, though there is nowhere near the depth of star players here that can be seen on earlier lists.
And finally, this year’s rookie class:
Posey, Stanton, Heyward and Strasburg are obviously a fantastic top tier, but as a whole this group hasn’t been more productive than most of the other classes listed above—though it’s obviously way too early to know how deep this group will be in the years to come.