May 2, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
Why Rookies of the Year Fail
It’s been a rough, rough ride for Coghlan ever since his 2009 season, when he hit .321/.390/.460, riding a .372/.472/.523 second half right to the National League Rookie of the Year Award. In 2010, Coghlan had slipped to just .268/.335/.383 in 91 games, then hurt himself attempting to hit Wes Helms with a pie after a walk-off win, missing the rest of the season. In 2011, he slipped even further, then in June was sent down to Triple-A, where he spent the remainder of the season, He opened 2012 with Miami, but wasn’t taking any time away from Logan Morrison, Emilio Bonifacio or Giancarlo Stanton, hitting .118/.143/.147 in just 36 plate appearances before Monday’s demotion.
The team line is that Coghlan is being sent down temporarily, just to give him a chance to play every day. Still, though, he’s hit just .245/.310/.365 from 2010 to today, and he doesn’t add a lot of defensive value. He had a WARP of 2.9 in 2009, and has managed just 0.8 since. He didn’t even hit particularly well in the minors in 2011 (.271/.374/.355 across three levels). Coghlan will turn 27 in June. Nothing against Coghlan, who seems like a fine young man and will probably get to spend several more years getting to play baseball for a living, but at this point, he’s not going to be a star, and a season or two as an average regular would be a pretty significant victory. It feels safe to say that Coghlan is something of a bust, vis-a-vis the expectations one might normally have of the league’s top rookie.
And he’s not alone, of course. The “bust” rate for Rookies of the Year is pretty alarmingly high, actually. What strikes me about Coghlan is that there are basically four ways in which Rookies of the Year become busts, and Coghlan arguably meets all of them:
1. He didn’t have any more room to develop. Coghlan was 24 in 2009; not exactly ancient, but on the old side for a star rookie. He wasn’t someone in whom scouts saw a lot of development potential to begin with; he made none of the league-wide top prospects lists, and Kevin Goldstein listed him as the Marlins’ ninth-best prospect heading into both 2008 and 2009 (and that was when we still thought he was a middle infielder; the Marlins clearly felt differently).
2. He probably got awfully lucky. Coghlan hit .365 on balls in play in 2009; since, he’s been at a much more reasonable .294.
3. He got hurt. We talked about the pie thing. Coghlan also reported a knee injury immediately after his demotion in 2011. It seems likely he hasn’t been quite right, physically, for some time now.
4. He probably wasn’t all that close to actually being the best rookie to begin with. His 2.9 WARP actually puts Coghlan at or near the top of the class, but other stats disagree. It’s hard to believe that Andrew McCutchen was really as bad in the field as FRAA made him look, for instance (-11.4 in only 108 games), and Tommy Hanson had been pretty outstanding, albeit in limited time. Virtually anyone could have told you that both of those players were better than Coghlan, both going forward and, quite possibly, in 2009 itself; Coghlan won the award because he got hot at the right time and impressed with his pretty batting average.
I would submit to you that that’s it. Four possible ways for Rookies of the Year to come up short going forward, and Coghlan hit all of them. That’s pretty impressive, when you think about it.
If Coghlan does wind up a confirmed bust, though, he joins a large, if not terribly distinguished, group. The 61 players named Rookie of the Year in the 30 seasons from 1979 through 2008 (see the English major’s version of a spreadsheet of them here) have averaged 22.3 WARP from the year after the award-winning seasons through the end of their careers. That’s not bad, overall (it’s roughly the full career of Jermaine Dye, for instance), especially when you consider that it includes a handful of guys, like Evan Longoria, Ryan Braun, Justin Verlander, and Dustin Pedroia, who are likely to add a lot more to their totals. But it also includes Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran, Scott Rolen, Derek Jeter, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, and Cal Ripken, all of whom who significantly outdid that 22.3 average, leaving a lot of room for a lot of other guys who didn’t really contribute toward it at all.
Arbitrary cutoff time: 25 of the 61 players on that list managed 12.0 or fewer career WARP after their Rookie of the Year seasons. That’s essentially the equivalent of two great years, three good ones, or six more or less average ones, which seems as good a cutoff as any for “bust” status. One of those players is Geovany Soto, who still has plenty of time to get the 6.9 WARP he needs to climb off the list, and five more were primarily relief pitchers, whose ceilings could only ever be so high to begin with. Here are the other 19 “busts,” and the categories from above that made them so:
3. Joe Charboneau, 1980: 3. Had great numbers in the minors in 1978-1979 and backed it up with a very solid first MLB season, then hurt his back and was never the same again.
4. Ron Kittle, 1983: 2, 5. A born DH who didn’t walk or make great contact, when the hits stopped falling in at quite the same rate and the batting average dropped from .254 in 1983 to .215 in 1984, that more or less did him in.
5. Alvin Davis, 1984: 1. This is cheating a bit, as Davis was just 23 as a rookie, but he kept hitting at more or less the same very high level for most of six more years. What really puts him here is his defense: FRAA has him as a -32.5 defender at first base after his rookie season.
6. Vince Coleman, 1985: 1, 2, 4. He won for his steals. 1985 and ‘87 were as good as it got, and that...wasn’t very good.
7. Chris Sabo, 1988: 3. Surprised to see him here: I still think of him as a minor star. He just couldn’t stay on the field, and couldn’t field his position, after 1991.
9. Sandy Alomar, Jr., 1990: 3. His apparent talent got him to six All-Star games; that’s two more All-Star games than he had 100-game seasons.
11. Pat Listach, 1993: 2, 3. A talented player (just probably not as talented as he looked in ‘92), simply destroyed by injuries.
12. Bob Hamelin, 1994: 1, 2, 3. Hit well in 101 games as a 26-year-old rookie to win the award—better than his minors record would suggest—and fell off dramatically immediately thereafter.
13. Marty Cordova, 1995: 1, 3. Won the award at 25, and you could kind of tell he had already peaked.
15. Ben Grieve, 1998: ?? Okay, so there’s one mystery. Grieve was a top prospect heading into ‘98, seemed to live up to it for most of three seasons, and then his abilities just evaporated, without him missing significant time to injuries. Perhaps there should’ve been a fifth, “huh?!” category.
16. Jason Jennings, 2002: 3, 4. Three solid years out of four following the ROY campaign, but his career was immediately derailed by injuries after that. Was viewed as kind of a default choice anyway.
17. Eric Hinske, 2002: 1, 2. Non-prospect kind of came out of nowhere to run away with the award, could never match that production again.
19. Bobby Crosby, 2004: 3. Good prospect with a very solid rookie year; wasn’t healthy enough to play 100 games again for four more seasons, and by then the talent was gone.
So there you have it. Rookies of the Year have been flopping on a regular basis, all for one or more of the same four basic reasons (except for Grieve, who seems to have flopped for no reason at all). But Chris Coghlan alone seems to be on track to fall victim to all four causes at once. So he’s got that going for him.