"This year is one of those that 15 years from now, a bunch of baseball people will be sitting around shaking their heads about because so much good talent came up all at once."
It's the goal of any general manager at the draft—maybe not in the collective sense, but certainly in each individual case—that, when their drafted talent finally makes it to the big leagues, baseball people will remember that time for years and decades to come. When multiple general managers reach their goal at the same time, it becomes a smorgasbord for baseball fans and quotes like the one above are uttered. Sure, they lack proper historical perspective at the time, but it certainly feels true to the speaker.
Just ask Tony La Russa, who spoke the words above sometime after the 1986 season. With Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Will Clark and many other rookies playing key parts that season, La Russa must have felt incredibly justified in speaking so highly of the rookie class. Twenty-five years later, however, the statement feels more like a prime example of just how difficult it can be to truly get excited for a rookie.
Clark, Bonds, and Canseco weren't the only rookies baseball fans were getting excited over in 1986. In fact, if the article that the quote was pulled from ("The Year of the Rookie" from the 1987 Street & Smith's baseball annual) is any indication, those three probably weren't even the biggest rookie draws of the season.
Let's start with Pete Incaviglia, as the article does:
It all began last February 24 in Pompano Beach. The pitcher was Texas manager Bobby Valentine. The hitter was a kid fresh out of Oklahoma State. There weren't 25 people in the old stadium the Rangers have since abandoned, but 10 years from now, every senior citizen on the state's east coast will tell you how he was there the day Incaviglia, aka "The Fat Kid" knocked a hole in the Municipal Stadium wall 380 feet from home plate. … The depth of the first year class was such that Incaviglia's 30 home runs and 88 RBIs weren't enough to get him a single third-place vote in the American League [Rookie of the Year] balloting. … The Inc Man had 185 [strikeouts], but he's going to wear corrective lenses in 1987, so pitchers, beware.
Phillies "superscout" Hugh Alexander called Incaviglia "pretty close" to Canseco, who did win the Rookie of the Year voting. "Pete improved his outfield play a little and his arm a lot. He's there to stay."
It wasn't until June that another pair of outfielders was called up from the minors, a duo that has all but been handed one-way tickets to Cooperstown. … Valentine may be biased towards Sierra but he isn't soft in his praise of Snyder. "He can probably throw better than anyone who ever played the game. I'm serious. I know he has a better arm than anyone I've ever seen. Both have that incredible power factor that Canseco, Tartabull, and Incaviglia have, but Snyder has that other tool. Ruben's tools are speed and defense, plus he's a switch hitter."
Alexander agrees that Snyder and Sierra rate a notch above the rest, but he adds Tartabull to the elite group too. … "In 52 years, I've only seen two players who can beat you five ways: throwing, running, fielding, hitting and hitting for power. That was Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. Mickey Mantle would have been in there but he had the bad legs. But I think Sierra can be in that class and Snyder will be close to it. And all Tartabull has to do is learn to field better."
Again, we're talking about Ruben Sierra, Cory Snyder, and Danny Tartabull.
Other American Leaguers to receive praise: Wally Joyner, who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, is called a "genuine All-Star" despite hitting only two home runs with a .257 batting average (and .664 OPS) in the second half. Bobby Witt, Dale Mohorcic, Mitch Williams, Mark Eichhorn, and Calvin Schiraldi were each singled out as well, despite Mohorcic being a "30-year-old rookie" and Eichhorn "a seven year minor league veteran, a guy who didn't have a major league save when the season began."
In the National League, which "didn't produce the quantity or quality of rookie hitters that the American League showcased," the biggest praise went to Rookie of the Year winner Todd Worrell.
Instead, Worrell pitched all year like he was still mad about the [Denkinger] call and shattered the rookie record by saving 36 games for a club that didn't have very many victories to preserve. A year earlier, he had been part of Whitey Herzog's bullpen-by-committee, but Worrell became the whole committee last year…
In the Bay Area, San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig called Robby Thompson "the team's MVP" while Will Clark was merely credited with giving "the Giants an all-new look on the right side of their infield." Future Giant Barry Bonds was shown some praise:
…Bonds hit only .223 but displayed power (26 doubles, 16 home runs), speed (36 steals, but only seven caught stealing), and an unusually discerning eye for a rookie (65 walks in 413 at-bats).
"If he has the right makeup—and that's something that we never know—he's going to be an outstanding player," said Alexander. "I foresee him getting 25, maybe 30 homers and stealing bases. His arm is average but his feet will allow him to get the job done in the outfield. If he had come up next season on Opening Day, he could easily have been Rookie of the Year for '87."
The "unusually discerning eye" sticks out almost as much as the 30-homer-a-year power prediction. Earlier in the article, when Snyder and Sierra were busy being called the next Mays and DiMaggio, the article explicitly states: "No one seems to be worried that neither showed the ability to walk."
In the end, Pete Incaviglia played 1,284 games in 12 seasons while accumulating 9.7 WARP. In nine seasons, Snyder managed 4.5 WARP (with 4.0 WARP in 1988 alone). Sierra played into the 2006 season, but actually accumulated negative WARP from 1993 on. Tartabull's career was much more satisfying, earning 26.3 WARP in fourteen seasons. Of course, one cannot underestimate the effect of working with George Costanza. Joyner totalled 30.2 WARP in his 16 seasons, while Worrell and Thompson reached 11.4 and 18.7, respectively.
With Clark, Canseco, and Bonds also included, the 1986 rookie class actually doesn't look that bad. Incaviglia and Snyder lost their luster pretty quickly, but most of the other players mentioned in the article had solidly productive careers. It's just that no one in 1986 was looking for a "solidly productive" career. La Russa predicted baseball people would be "shaking their heads" over the talent of these players fifteen years down the road; Hugh Alexander brought out the Mantle, Mays, and DiMaggio comparisons; Bobby Valentine called Cory Snyder's arm "the best ever"; even Tim Cowlishaw, the article's author, claimed "one-way tickets to Cooperstown" for some.
Baseball is a difficult sport. It's even more difficult to predict. It's okay to get excited at the play of young rookies—or even at the potential of newly drafted prospects—but, as Cory Snyder and Pete Incaviglia prove, it's always best to be patient when it comes to young talent.