August 23, 2007
Lies, Damned Lies
Rookies and Cycles
I attend perhaps two baseball games a month during the regular season. I really ought to go to more, because a lot of my column topics come when I'm sharing a couple of beers with a friend and exchanging ideas, enjoying the leisurely pace of live baseball without the distractions of TV or the net. On Tuesday night, I took in the Sox-Royals game with Josh Orenstein of the MLBPA, and one of the subjects that came up was how long a team can conceivably go without developing a rookie.
Intuitively, it ought to be very hard to go more than three or four years without placing a rookie in your everyday lineup. You're obligated to field eight or nine hitters depending on which league you play in, as well as four or five pitchers who take steady turns in the rotation. A player probably holds down a starting assignment with a team for an average of four or five years, which means that you're turning over about three jobs per season. Since the cheapest source for replacing those jobs is from your farm system, that means you'd have to be pretty rich, fortunate, or stubborn to avoid handing one over to a rookie before long.
The data supports this intuition. In fact, there are only 22 instances since World War II in which a team went at least three consecutive seasons without having a "rookie" graduate to an everyday role with the club. Let me explain why "rookie" is in quotation marks, because my definition for this article is somewhat specialized. By rookie, I mean a player who qualified for the batting or ERA title for the first time in his career. So Curtis Granderson's "rookie" year is designated as 2006, since that's when he became a regular, even though he nominally lost his rookie status in 2005. The only other restriction is that this "rookie" can be no older than 27. Once you get past that age, you're mostly dealing with organizational players that get into the everyday lineup for a couple years with a weak club, or perhaps a foreign import--not guys that are really the fruit of your scouting and development efforts. This definition necessarily excludes relief pitchers, who almost never qualify for the ERA title, but that's somewhat intentional since the turnover on relief positions is exceptionally high, and most relief jobs are fairly incidental to what the team is trying to accomplish.
As I mentioned, you need some pretty exceptional circumstances to go for very long without turning over a position to a young player. Around 75 percent of teams since World War II have fielded at least one "rookie", and there's essentially no correlation from year to year; you can't predict either positively or negatively how many rookies a team is going to field next year based on how many it's fielding this year. Just 22 teams went three straight years without a rookie. Of those teams, four of them had four straight rookie-free seasons, and another four went five consecutive seasons without a rookie. Nobody has managed to go longer than that.
There are essentially four sets of circumstances under which this might occur, and the 22 teams fall fairly neatly into these categories. These involve some common ground. A team's current stock of young talent is likely to be weak (though not inherently so if it has a number of prospects who are blocked or traded away). While the team might or might not be sacrificing the future for the present, it probably isn't sacrificing the present for the future. But apart from that, the cases are rather different, and reflective of the different places that teams can sit in their life-cycles:
- Perpetual Dynasty: Every general manager's dream is to one year field an entire lineup's worth of 21-year-old future stars, and to have those players develop in lockstep until they retire twenty years later. In practice, this never comes close to happening, and in fact there are some circumstances that tend to preclude it. Players that debut at the same time will get expensive at the same time, forcing teams to pick and choose between them, and it's hard to develop too many superstar talents at once because you only have so many high picks in a given draft class. Occasionally, however, a team can withstand a lull in its farm system; generally this would involve having a number of key positions locked down by players in mid-career, and the financial wherewithal to turn the others over to players outside the organization. In other words, the way that the Yankees tended to do business until recently.
- Land of the Lost: Sometimes, a team will encounter a circumstance where it has neither enough veterans to compete for a championship, nor a capable farm system. What ought to happen here is that it cleans out its front office and starts over, and throws what second-tier prospects it has into its lineup and sees what sticks. But sometimes, a team will decide to replace mediocre veterans with new mediocre veterans. Think Cubs.
- Don't Stop Believing: Perhaps the classic example of a team that goes rookie-less for several seasons is one that has had some recent success, but whose core is aging. It tries to make one more run at the playoffs rather than blowing things up. This can be either a passive behavior (failing to re-allocate resources to player development; failing to replace past-peak veterans) or an aggressive one (signing expensive free agents; trading prospects for veterans). The most obvious example is probably the Mets as of about 1989-1993. In the very worst cases, this problem can spiral out of control like credit card debt, because for each prospect it trades out of its farm system, the less incentive a team has to play for its future.
- The All-In: In contrast to the above case, this represents a deliberate choice to pool one's present and future resources together and take a run at a championship for a period of a couple of years. The team might hope to improve its resource base if it succeeds in this goal, but it's generally willing to accept the fallout if it doesn't. The 1997 Marlins are the classic example.
The 22 teams are discussed on a case-study basis in their respective categories below. For each team, I've presented its key players and their ages as of the last year of the rookie-less streak. I've also provided the names of its "bookends"--the players who broke the streak on either side--as well as key young players who were blocked or traded during the cycle. Finally, I've presented a brief summary of the present and longer-term consequences of the team's actions. You'll also see a set of four graphs, which tracks the median performance of teams in each category over a 15-year period, with Year 0 represented by the last year of the no-rookie streak. All performances are extrapolated over a 162-game schedule.
Key Players: Frank Robinson (35), Brooks Robinson (34), Jim Palmer (25)
Bookends: Mark Belanger and Jim Hardin (1968); Bobby Grich (1972)
Blocked/Traded: The best young player traded during this period was probably Dave May. The O's had several relatively young players in their starting lineup, as Earl Weaver was not especially predisposed toward veterans.
The Results: These were some of the better teams in baseball history; the O's had the luxury not to make many changes.
The Reckoning: None. The Orioles had a winning record in every season through 1985.
Key Players: Dave Winfield (29), Reggie Jackson (35), Ron Guidry (30), Willie Randolph (26)
Bookends: Ron Guidry (1977); Dave Righetti and Shane Rawley (1982)
Blocked/Traded: The Yankees generally came out ahead on most of their trades, but they made a few bad deals like flipping Willie McGee for Bob Sykes.
The Results: Four years, three division titles, two pennants, and one championship.
The Reckoning: They compiled the best record of the 1980s. The Yankees do employ rookies from time to time, but when they do, odds are that they're going to be long-term solutions, as Guidry and Randolph reflect.
Key Players: George Brett (30), Willie Wilson (27), Hal McRae (37), Larry Gura (35)
Bookends: Clint Hurdle and U.L. Washington (1980); Steve Balboni, Darryl Motley, Bud Black and Mark Gubicza (1984)
Blocked/Traded: Hurdle was traded in the 1981 season for a forgettable relief pitcher named Scott Brown.
The Results: The Royals were one of the best teams in baseball between 1976 and 1981, winning five division titles in six tries.
The Reckoning: As Steve Goldman and Kevin Goldstein describe in It Ain't Over, the Royals did a fantastic job of rebuilding on the fly, as Black, Gubicza, Danny Jackson, and Bret Saberhagen all came up at roughly the same time in 1984, while the offensive core remained fairly static. They won their first World Series in 1985.
Key Players: Derek Jeter (26), Bernie Williams (31), Mariano Rivera (30)
Bookends: Derek Jeter (1996); Alfonso Soriano (2001)
Blocked/Traded: Youngsters in the Yankee system don't get blocked--they get traded. The Yankees are pretty good about knowing which ones to give up, but they did deal Mike Lowell and Jake Westbrook during this cycle. On the other hand, they also pawned off a laundry list of underachievers including Ruben Rivera, Tony Armas Jr., Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, Homer Bush, Ed Yarnall, Ricky Ledee, Ed Yarnall, Drew Henson, Jackson Melian, Ben Ford, and Zach Day.
The Results: Three consecutive World Championships and a huge increase in franchise value.
The Reckoning: The Yankees brought Alfonso Soriano to the major leagues in 2001, breaking their streak, but picked up right where they left off�
Key Players: Derek Jeter (30), Bernie Williams (35), Mariano Rivera (34)
Bookends: Alfonso Soriano (2001); Robinson Cano (2005)
Blocked/Traded: By this point, the Yankees weren't producing much in the way of young talent. The two most noteworthy exceptions during this period, Soriano and Nick Johnson, were both moved.
The Results: No 27th World Championship, but an average of 102 wins per season.
The Reckoning: It looked like the Yankees might suffer through one disaster season as a result of their spending habits, but they've not only rebounded from a rough start in '07, they also have a rejuvenated farm system that might be baseball's best. What these perpetual dynasty teams managed to do was to bridge two five-year cycles together into one mega-cycle, but after the second hump in that cycle, they started to run into trouble. The Yankees are in good position to string 3-4 such cycles together.
Key Players: Richie Ashburn (28), Robin Roberts (28), Curt Simmons (26) Bookends: Bubba Church (1951); Merv Blaylock (1956) Blocked/Traded: A 28-year-old catcher, Smoky Burgess, coming off a .368/.432/.510 season in which he made the All-Star team, was inexplicably dealt in 1955 for 34-year-old catcher Andy Seminick, who was coming off a .240/.325/.405 season.
The Results: Player movement was not so robust in these day, and the Phillies' primary fault was a tendency to sit on their hands. Roberts and Ashburn got older every year without ever reliving their Whiz Kid days of 1950. The Reckoning: Not the worst epoch in the history of the franchise, but the Phillies rarely finished in the first division, and bottomed out at 47-107 in 1961.
Key Players: Ron Santo (31), Billy Williams (33), Fergie Jenkins (28) Bookends: Joe Niekro, Adolfo Phillips, and Rich Nye (1967); Burt Hooton (1972)
Blocked/Traded: GM John Holland was an active trader, both acquiring and losing young talent at various points in time. The worst move was probably trading Oscar Gamble, who had had already reached the major leagues at age 19, for Johnny Callison. The Cubs also dealt Roger Metzger within 18 months of having drafted him in the first round, but considering his lifetime 584 OPS, that might have been a good thing.
The Results: They came close to a title in 1969, but a black cat crossed their path.
The Reckoning: The Cubs did not have another winning season until 1984. The primary theme was increasing directionlessness in the wake of an undervaluation of young players and some unproductive amateur drafts. Between 1965 and 1981, the Cubs made 18 picks in the first round of the Amateur draft. Those players combined for just 1319 career AB and 325 1/3 IP in Cubs uniforms--essentially three or four major league seasons out of 17 years' worth of draft picks.
Key Players: Tim Raines (25), Andre Dawson (30), Tim Wallach (27), Bill Gullickson (26)
Bookends: Tim Raines and Charlie Lea (1982); Mitch Webster and Floyd Youmans (1986)
Blocked/Traded: The Expos made a lot of trades, but in most cases they were the ones acquiring the young talent. The major exception was Scott Sanderson for Gary Lucas.
The Results: They bobbed around the .500 mark. The Reckoning: Like the mid-1990s Mariners, which we'll cover in a moment, the Expos never quite found the right formula or the right complementary players. They would actually have been well-served by an "All-In" strategy.
Key Players: Ken Griffey (25), Edgar Martinez (32), Jay Buhner (30), Randy Johnson (31)
Bookends: Tino Martinez, Omar Vizquel, Dave Fleming, and Jay Buhner (1992); Alex Rodriguez and Dan Wilson (1996).
Blocked/Traded: Mike Hampton, Bret Boone, Omar Vizquel, Tino Martinez, and Jeff Nelson were the principal young players traded, although only in the Vizquel deal (for Felix Fermin) was the team getting significantly older. They dodged a bullet when Marc Newfield, traded for 12 bad starts from Andy Benes, didn't amount to anything.
The Results: The best record that Ken Griffey Jr. ever experienced in Seattle was 90-72 in 1997.
The Reckoning: The Mariners continued to be a basically successful franchise, but for them to have squandered overlapping franchise talents like Griffey, Martinez, Johnson and Rodriguez without a single appearance in the ALCS is remarkable. They simply guessed (or scouted) wrong on a lot of trades, and their farm system was boom or bust, providing few fill-in players to complement the superstars.
Key Players: Sammy Sosa (32), Kerry Wood (24), Jon Lieber (31)
Bookends: Kerry Wood (1998); Corey Patterson and Mark Bellhorn (2002) Blocked/Traded: Eric Hinske and Jon Garland were traded in this period for little return. Hee Seop Choi could potentially have been recalled sooner once Mark Grace left the club.
The Results: These were some goofy Cub teams, featuring a lot of players in the Ron Coomer/Todd Hundley/Eric Young mold. They were also not particularly good, although the Cubs reached the playoffs in 1998 and 2003.
The Reckoning: Garland (actually traded during the 1998 stretch drive) was the major casualty, but the bigger problem is that the Cubs never really learned that trying to build around mediocre veterans produces mediocre results.
1999-2001 Devil Rays
Key Players: Greg Vaughn (35), Fred McGriff (37)
Bookends: Miguel Cairo and Tony Saunders (1998); Steve Cox, Brent Abernathy, and Joe Kennedy (2002)
Blocked/Traded: The Rays generally did not make trades that made them older, but they committed a lot of time and money to mediocre veterans, slowing the progress of Aubrey Huff and Randy Winn and denying Bubba Trammell a serious opportunity.
The Results: No progress toward the .500 mark.
The Reckoning: Still no progress toward the .500 mark, but much improved scouting and organizational culture.
Key Players: Hank Aaron (27), Eddie Mathews (29), Warren Spahn (40), Lew Burdette (34)
Bookends: Ray Crone (1956); Bob Hedley (1962)
Blocked/Traded: The Braves tended to get older in their dealings, and they made one awful move, which was trading young pitchers Juan Pizarro and Joey Jay for no-hit shortstop Roy McMillan.
The Results: One commonality on this list is teams with two or three superstar talents who failed to capitalize on it, as they are prone to both complacency and raised expectations. The Milwaukee Braves are one such example; people forget that Hank Aaron's last World Series ring came when he was 23.
The Reckoning: See above.
Key Players: Mickey Lolich (32), Norm Cash (38), Al Kaline (38)
Bookends: Cesar Gutierrez (1970); Lerrin LaGrow (1974)
Blocked/Traded: Nobody in particular; the Tigers just weren't producing very much talent. John Hiller suffered a heart attack in 1971 and was released twice thereafter, but returned to the club in 1972 and assumed the closer's job the next year.
The Results: The 1968 World Series champs essentially just aged together, as average team age increased from 27.4 in '68 to 31.1 in '73.
The Reckoning: The Tigers bottomed out quickly, posting an ugly 57-102 record in 1975, but returned to their winning ways in 1978 with the rookie seasons of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell.
Key Players: Tom Seaver (31), Jerry Koosman (33), Jon Matlack (26)
Bookends: John Milner and Wayne Garrett (1973); Lee Mazzilli, John Stearns, and Nino Espinosa (1977)
Blocked/Traded: Nolan Ryan was traded to the Angels as part of a package for Jim Fregosi. Ken Singleton was traded to the Expos as part of a package for Rusty Staub.
The Results: The Mets had three very good pitchers in Seaver, Koosman, and Matlack, and that plus an unlikely pennant on an 82-79 record in 1973 led them into sort of a vicious cycle. They were producing some talent, but trading most of it away.
The Reckoning: It got ugly; the Mets went seven consecutive seasons between 1977 and 1983 without a winning record before moving back toward the top of the heap with the Doc & Darryl teams.
Key Players: Mike Schmidt (32), Steve Carlton (37), Pete Rose (41)
Bookends: Randy Lerch (1977), Charles Hudson (1983)
Blocked/Traded: Ryne Sandberg, infamously. Also Lonnie Smith, Julio Franco, Mike Krukow, and Keith Moreland. I did some fairly extensive work on the Phillies' trade record during this period as part of a prototype for a future project, and this was one of the most counterproductive periods in history for a team that wasn't dumping deliberately.
The Results: This Philly team won its only Word Championship in 1980, but actually peaked in 1976 and 1977, when it finished at 101-61 in consecutive seasons. By 1978, their average age was 30.1 years, and they dumped an awful lot of talent in an effort to support Schmidt and Carlton.
The Reckoning: One more decent season (90-72) in 1983, then back toward the bottom half of the standings column.
Key Players: Dave Parker (30), Bill Madlock (30), Rick Rhoden (28)
Bookends: Don Robinson (1978); Tony Pena, Johnny Ray, Dale Berra, and Manny Sarmiento (1982)
Blocked/Traded: The Bert Blyleven trade was an unmitigated disaster, but he was not a youngster at that point. The Pirates actually traded for young talent in places (Phil Garner was swapped for Johnny Ray) and most of their problems stemmed from highly unproductive drafts in the late 70s.
The Results: Won the World Series in 1979, but were mediocre the next two seasons.
The Reckoning: The Pirates had a couple of awful years in the mid-80s that were overshadowed by the infamous drug trials. In many ways, it was the execution rather than the strategy was at fault; the Pirates received several young players in the Blyleven deal, but none of them amounted to anything.
Key Players: Jose Canseco (26), Mark McGwire (27), Rickey Henderson (32), Dave Stewart (34), Dennis Eckersley (36).
Bookends: Walt Weiss (1988), Mike Bordick (1992)
Blocked/Traded: The A's moved quite a bit of young talent (Darren Lewis, Stan Javier, Felix Jose, Scott Chiamparino, Eric Plunk) but very little of it developed.
The Reckoning: One more division title in 1992, followed by losing records until 1998. It's not clear whether the front office played its cards wrong, but there was a lot banked on the "Four Aces" draft in 1990, and when Todd Van Poppel and his cohort tanked, the A's had nobody to replace their aging pitchers. Meanwhile, McGwire was constantly injured, Canseco was traded for Ruben Sierra in a lose-lose deal, and by the time the franchise was ready to get back on its feet, Al Davis had ruined the Coliseum and relegated the A's to a small-market paradigm.
Key Players: Nolan Ryan (34), Jose Cruz (31), Cesar Cedeno (30)
Bookends: Terry Puhl (1978); Dickie Thon (1982)
Blocked/Traded: Floyd Bannister, Jeffrey Leonard, Johnny Ray and Joaquin Andujar were all traded and established themselves elsewhere.
The Results: The Astros brought their first division titles to Houston in 1980 and 1981. As a general note, the "All-In" strategy probably requires some use of the free agent market, so it's not surprising that these teams begin to appear right at the end of the 70s.
The Reckoning: Although the Astros had some success with the strategy, the talent they gave away could have pushed them over the top into a perennial title contender.
Key Players: Paul Molitor (26), Robin Yount (27), Cecil Cooper (33)
Bookends: Paul Molitor, Gorman Thomas, and Lary Sorenson (1978); Jamie Cocanower (1984)
Blocked/Traded: The Brewers went for broke in the 1980-81 offseason, trading Sixto Lezcano, Lary Sorenson, Dave LaPoint, and David Green to the Cardinals for Pete Vuckovich, Rollie Fingers, and Ted Simmons. Then, during the 1982 title run they gave up Kevin Bass and Frank DiPino for Don Sutton.
The Results: Building off a 95-66 record on 1979, the Brewers posted competitive results throughout the period, narrowly missing a World Championship in 1982.
The Reckoning: One of the clearer examples of the hazards of the "all-in" strategy. The Brewers would never have reached the World Series in 1982 without Vuckovich, Fingers, Simmons, and Sutton, but there wasn't much secondary talent left once the veterans washed out. Molitor and Yount prevented the Brewers from being truly awful, but they played sub-.500 ball between 1984 and 1989.
Key Players: Cal Ripken (37), Roberto Alomar (30), Rafael Palmeiro (35), Mike Mussina (29)
Bookends: David Segui (1993); Sidney Ponson (1999)
Blocked/Traded: The Orioles had lost their respect for young talent, and had no problem trading it. In fact, things had gotten so bad that the Orioles were somewhat protected from themselves because they didn't have many premium prospects to trade. Armando Benitez and David Segui were two exceptions, but most of their guys turned out like Jimmy Haynes or Jeffrey Hammonds.
The Results: Just two playoff appearances in spite of an impressive veteran core, and they never advanced past the Wild Card round.
The Reckoning: Stuck in fourth place for the foreseeable future.
Key Players: Ken Caminiti (35), Greg Vaughn (32), Tony Gwynn (38), Kevin Brown (33), Trevor Hoffman (30)
Bookends: Joey Hamilton (1995); Matt Clement (1998)
Blocked/Traded: Derrek Lee was sent to Florida as part of the package for Kevin Brown. Dustin Hermanson was moved and found some success in Montreal. Raul Casanova and Melvin Nieves were traded to Detroit in a move that was criticized at the time, but they didn't amount to anything.
The Results: Kevin Towers' teams have their strength in their creativity rather than their ability to develop talent, and this period was no exception. Essentially every key member of the team save Gwynn and Hamilton was acquired in trade, while players like Hideki Irabu, Fernando Valenzuela, Rickey Henderson, and Roberto Petagine made their way into and out of the organization. As a result, the Padres cobbled together a pennant in 1998.
The Reckoning: Hamilton and Vaughn were traded after the 1998 season as the Padres' payroll caught up with them, and they averaged 72 wins between 1999 and 2003.
Key Players: Curt Schilling (34), Randy Johnson (37), Luis Gonzalez (33)
Bookends: Travis Lee, David Dellucci, Brian Anderson and Omar Daal (1998); Junior Spivey (2002)
Blocked/Traded: A whole host of players that were part of the Diamondbacks' inaugural team in 1998 were discarded. Travis Lee was included in the package for Curt Schilling. Karim Garcia was traded for Luis Gonzalez, and Tony Batista for Dan Plesac. Dellucci bided his time on the bench.
The Results: A World Championship in 2001, and some measure of long-term credibility for the franchise.
The Reckoning: The Diamondbacks were fortunate enough to get most of their losing out of the way in only one truly awful year (51-111 in 2004). In the schadenfreude department, Lee and Garcia turned out to be busts.
Have we found those elusive success cycles? I think in some sense that we have, by defining a set of circumstances (going at least three years without developing a rookie) that usually requires some deliberate strategy to come about. In some cases, of course--the "Perpetual Dynasty" and "Land of the Lost" teams--this circumstance can arise more or less accidentally in the natural course of business. However, when a team deliberately tries to compromise its future for its present, as in the case of the "Don't Stop Believing" and "All-In" teams, the results are quite predictable and quite profound. The median "All-In" team underwent a 16-win swing, from 92 wins at its zenith to 76 at its nadir, and took eight seasons to return above the .500 mark. The "Don't Stop Believing" teams generally paid for their excesses with about five seasons of 70-win baseball.
A more subtle result of our survey is that teams generally operate in five- to seven-year cycles; all categories of teams had gravitated back to the .500 mark by their Base +7 year, regardless of what strategy they'd adopted in the past. This coincides both with the amount of time that it takes to rebuild a farm system from the amateur draft up to the major league playing field, and the number of cheap seasons that a player has on his contract under reserve clause and arbitration rules.
Another compelling question is whether cyclical behavior begets cyclical behavior. Certainly, there are some franchises--the A's, the Marlins, the Tigers, and the Indians--that tend to be toward the top or the bottom of the standings at any given time, while others like the Dodgers and the Red Sox seem to behave more equivocally. If a team succeeds in aligning its resources in such a way that it has several players whose peaks coincide, that means that those players will decline at the same time, and will need to be replaced at the same time, starting the cycle anew. Generally, there is too much noise in both individual career paths and elective team strategy to see much in the way of success cycles. But those teams with limited financial resources that might have reason to prefer cyclical behavior can propagate waves into the future that may reinforce this behavior in their future generations.
Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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