August 31, 2015
In A Pickle
Rookie of the Year Fun Facts
The only facts worth knowing are fun facts. I was recently struck that 2015 Rookies of the Year Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant are both very good baseball players, the one a no. 1 overall pick (Correa, 2012), the other no. 2 (Bryant, 2013), one topping out as our no. 3 overall prospect (Correa, 2015), the other as our no. 5 (Bryant, 2015). These aren't flashes in their respective pans, like Pat Listach or Ron Kittle. You don't expect 50-WARP careers out of anybody, but if you're going to put those expectations on any rookies currently playing, it's Correa and Bryant.
So here's the question I will answer using a spreadsheet built for me by the wizard Rob McQuown:1 What are the best and worst Rookie of the Year classes in terms of career value, and how does the Correa-Bryant pair look to fit in? (To be completely clear: Everything discussed in this piece is about career WARP. The goal isn't to talk about whether Rookie of the Year votes were "bad" or "good." Sometimes the legitimate best rookie in a season just BABIP'd his way into a career year; sometimes it's a precursor to greatness. These are their stories.)
Right at the top, we've got an interesting fun fact: The current best ROY class of all time is 1956's pair of Luis Aparicio and Frank Robinson, who combined for 164 career WARP. The second-best, though? That's 2001's Ichiro and Albert Pujols, at 159.5. Ichiro is, in substantial part, done adding to his career WARP totals: From 2011 to present, he's contributed only 1.9 WARP to his bottom line. Just this year, Pujols has beaten that total, with 2.6 WARP so far. Pujols is "done" also, just for a different definition of "done"; his fall from grace is as steep as Ichiro's in the sense that he's putting up mere fractions of his peak performance, but his peak was so high (an insane 12.8 WARP in 2009, sandwiched by two other 10-plus-WARP seasons) that his merely above-average performance now feels crude and unworthy.
What that performance means, though, is that at Pujols' current rate, the 2001 ROY team will pass the 1956 pair in total WARP sometime in the 2017 season. "At his current rate" is an awfully risky phrase for a 35-year-old who runs like your grandpa chasing those punk teenagers down the street, but given that Pujols is signed through 2021, I suspect he'll push the total up by the needed 4.5 WARP eventually, even if he does continue to degrade.
Expecting Correa and Bryant to reach those levels is foolish. It might happen, but, hell, it might happen with Wil Myers and Jose Fernandez, too. Wishing and hoping for the stars leads to nothing but disappointment and despair. Don't dream, kids.
Let's look at something more achievable: Can they beat the median ROY pair? That would be, in a weird parallel to the Ichiro-Pujols team, 2000's class, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Rafael Furcal. The former came to the U.S. at 32, pitched three good years and one bad year for the Mariners before returning to Japan, giving up the last year of his American contract, either because he felt like it or because of his "indiscreet philandering". The latter (meaning Furcal, not philandering) had an excellent 13-year career (excluding his nine-game cameo in Miami in 2014), the kind that gets you into the Hall of Nearly Great, with an MVP-caliber peak (18 WARP from 2004 to 2006) but not the longevity you need to be an immortal. Furcal is carrying the load here, and the pair summed to a career 52.6 WARP.
Reasons why Correa-Bryant can get there:
Reasons why Correa-Bryant can't get there:
Furcal, as I said, is carrying Sasaki in their pairing: The gap between their career WARPs is 44.2 wins. That is a big gap! But it is actually only the 10th-biggest gap in ROY-pair history. The others:
This raises another fun question. Forget whether Pujols can add 4.5 WARP to catch Robinson-Aparicio for best pair of all time; can he add 9.5 WARP to catch Robinson for biggest gap over his co-conspirator?
If you've any sense at all, you've already started wondering about 2012's absurd Bryce Harper–Mike Trout team-up. The pair have already combined for 55.7 WARP, tied for the 29th-best ROY team of all time. You'll notice that, at ages 22 and 23, Harper and Trout have already passed the median ROY pair. They're tied with Bake McBride and Mike Hargrove, 1974's winners, and it's entirely conceivable they could jump to 27th this year, as the two pairs ahead of them have 56.8, just 1.1 WARP ahead.
Back-of-the-envelope math has Harper and Trout combining for 14 WARP per year for their careers so far. At that pace, they would leap up the leaderboards as follows:
Harper's seasonal age in 2023 will be 30; Trout's will be 31.
Correa and Bryant are currently quite close in WARP, though they've got decades to grow apart in either direction. Which pairs of ROYs finished their careers weirdly gap-free in WARP?
No, seriously, Fidrych and Zachry finished with 8.3 WARP apiece. The complication, the unfortunate tangle, is that the NL ROY was tied that year between Zachry and Butch Metzger, who finished his career with 0.5 WARP. If we average Zachry and Metzger's careers together, they're at 4.4 WARP, and the gap from Fidrych is 3.9, still close, just not hysterically so. Therefore, let us not average them together.
The thing is, this absolute-gaps approach isn't capturing something essential, because look at some of the names in the list of biggest gaps: Knoblauch, Sax, Ichiro, Aparicio. Even Bahnsen, of whom you've never heard, put up 18.3 career WARP. It's just that their counterparts are Hall of Famers, some of the greatest players ever. So let's look at the question of mismatches again, but with ratios: Who beat his co-ROY by multiples?
That number at the end really stands out, and here we've come to the main problem with doing an article like this: Inevitably, we reach tragedy. When I waded into the data, I hoped that the worst "tragedy" I'd find would be a torn labrum that derailed a promising career. It was not. (Herb Score won a Rookie of the Year Award, after all.)
Instead I learned about Hubbs, who won the ROY with 0.2 WARP, fueled by a .232 TAv and a Gold Glove at second base; Donn Clendenon, a first baseman with a .310 TAv but just 80 games played for the Pirates, was the only other rookie receiving votes. The best option was probably Tom Haller, a Giants catcher who played 99 games and tallied 3.3 WARP behind a .261/.384/.515 line. One is left to suppose that Hubbs playing every day (715 PA) put him over the top; the next-most plate appearances by an NL rookie that year was 477, by Lou Brock. (Unless it's Bob Aspromonte, with 596, but he had 69 nice major-league games under his belt, spread over three years, with just 119 PA, so I'd suppose he was either officially not a rookie or else the writers didn't consider him one.)
All of that was a long detour to avoid returning to the subject of Hubbs, who, after his age-20 rookie year, had essentially the same season in 1963, albeit without the Gold Glove, which returned to Bill Mazeroski. Then, just a few weeks before training camp would start for the 1964 season, the airplane Hubbs was piloting crashed outside Provo, Utah. He had earned his pilot's license the month before as the culmination of an effort to defeat a fear of flying.
So we have come, again, from fun facts and baby ballplayers to, in 1,761 words, death.