Major League Baseball players, generally speaking, have reputations for being superstitious people. One of the more popular superstitions in baseball is that of the “sophomore jinx.” The dreaded disease has ruined the careers of many a promising young rookie. Over the next week or so, we’re going to take a look at how many of the 2008 rookies from around baseball are surviving in 2009 as they attempt to evade The Sophomore Jinx. The American League Central division is up first.
The Chicago White Sox club did not employ many rookies in 2008. In fact, Cuban defectee and middle infielder Alexei Ramirez was the only rookie to see extended playing time for the club. Ramirez, 27, had a fine debut season, although his walk rate was noticeably lacking with at 3.6 BB%. On the plus side, the lanky infielder has almost doubled that rate in 2009 to 7.0 BB% while maintaining an almost identical 12.8 K%. His triple-slash numbers has dropped from .290/.317/.475 to .252/.302/.345. Ramirez’ impressive power display from 2008, which resulted in 21 home runs in 480 at-bats, has bottomed out in 2009 with his ISO dropping from .185 to .093. His offense value has obviously decreased significantly, but he’s moved from second base to shortstop where his defense has been better than average, which helps soften the blow.
This may be more of a case of playing above one’s own head, than being bitten by the sophomore jinx. Shortstop Mike Aviles, now 28, burst upon the scene in KC in 2008 and was one of the club’s biggest offensive threats throughout the second half of the season. The infielder, who had a fairly undistinguished minor league career, hit .325/.354/.480 with 27 doubles and 10 homers in 419 at-bats. The walk rate at 4.1 BB% and a healthy BABIP of .359 were perhaps early warning signs that his numbers would see a dip in 2009. So far this season, Aviles has been a disappointment with his walk rate dropping to 3.2 BB%. His triple-slash line is just .183/.208/.250 in 120 at-bats.
The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, right-hander Luke Hochevar had a mediocre rookie season in 2008, even without considering his lofty draft status. He posted a 5.51 ERA (4.43 FIP) and allowed 143 hits in 129 innings of work. His rates were nothing special at 3.28 BB/9 and 5.02 K/9. Realizing he was far from dominating, KC sent him down to triple-A to begin the 2009 season but recalled him when injuries and ineffectiveness reared their ugly heads. In 29 innings, Hochevar has a 5.60 ERA (5.53 FIP) with 25 hits allowed. He has also walked 10 batters with just nine strikeouts (2.96 K/9). With a 56.7 GB%, Hochevar, 25, has at least been keeping the ball out of the air on a regular basis.
Outfielder Josh Anderson spent the 2008 season as a member of the Atlanta Braves organization where he was unable to break into a long-term, regular gig with the club (He played in 121 triple-A games) despite its lack of outfield depth. The speedy athlete hit .294/.338/.426 in 136 at-bats. He also stolen 10 bases in 11 attempts. Traded to Detroit prior to the 2009 season, the 26-year-old outfielder is hitting .250/.286/.325 with 10 steals in 12 attempts in 120 at-bats. It’s clear why he’s been in three organizations in three years; he’s a borderline fourth outfielder.
Every year the pitching-poor Texas Rangers organization seems to give up on a young arm too soon. In 2008, it was right-hander Armando Galarraga. That year, he posted a 3.73 ERA (4.88 FIP) with 13 wins while allowing just 152 hits in 178.2 innings of work. He posted rates of 3.07 BB/9 and 6.35 K/9. The low strikeout total was a minor cause for concern, as was the home-run rate at 1.41 HR/9. Galarraga has been a mess in 2009. He has a 5.56 ERA (5.93 FIP) with 80 hits allowed in 69.2 innings of work. He’s also walking one more batter for every nine innings, so there are a lot of batters getting on base. The right-hander’s HR/9 rate has jumped to 1.81 despite pitching in a spacious home park.
Despite a hot stretch in 2008, Ben Francisco‘s career so far has reeked of ‘tweener.’ He lacks the range to play center field on a regular basis and he lacks the pop in his bat to perform regularly at the corner outfield positions. In 2008, the outfielder posted a triple-slash line of .266/.332/.438 with 15 home runs in 447 at-bats. This season, he’s hitting just .245/.311/.392 with five home runs in 204 at-bats. At the age of 27, there is not much upside, although with a BABIP of .290 and a line-drive rate of 20%, we could see some modest improvements on the triple-slash line.
Southpaw Aaron Laffey, 24, narrowly missed losing his rookie status in 2007 by two-thirds of an inning. He posted similar numbers in 2007 and 2008, which meant both low walk and strikeout totals. The biggest difference was that his FIP jumped by more than a run in 2008 to 4.88. Laffey has spent time in both the starting rotation and bullpen in 2009 (as well as the minors) but he has a respectable ERA and has allowed fewer hits than innings pitched. The bullpen is probably the best place for a starter who uses his fastball 78% of the time despite averaging out at 87 mph.
If you’re a fan of FIP, you’re probably not a fan of Jensen Lewis. The right-handed reliever has posted pretty good superficial numbers over the parts of the past three seasons that he’s been in the Majors. However, his FIP has gone from 2.49 to 4.59 to 5.54. His line-drive rate was also a worrisome 24.5% in 2008, although it currently sits at 11.5%. His HR/9 rate has gone from 1.03 to 2.30 in the past two seasons. For what it’s worth, Lewis does have a nice K/BB rate at 3.00.
Technically a rookie despite having years of pro experience in Japan, right-handed reliever Masa Kobayashi falls under the category of the one-year trick pitcher, and his debut season was not all that good (4.55 FIP, 65 H in 55.2 IP).
It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t long ago that people were calling outfielder Denard Span a first round draft pick bust after he was taken out of a Florida high school with the 20th overall pick in 2002. The left-handed hitter, though, shook off the gossip and seized hold of a playing-time opportunity in 2008. His triple-slash line was solid for a player with his skill set (ie. speed) at .294/.387/.432 with 18 steals and six homers in 347 at-bats. Span, 25, even showed a willingness to walk a little bit (12.6%) while keeping his strikeout rate below 20%. His 2009 season has been an almost mirror image, although his power numbers are down and his ISO has dropped from .138 to .094.
Another 2008 rookie outfielder, more was expected from Carlos Gomez because he was the key name in the Johan Santana trade with the New York Mets. Gomez wowed a lot of people with his raw skills and potential, but there were a lot of hollow numbers, including his on-base percentage at .296. The 142 strikeouts were also troubling for a player that produced .360 slugging percentage, but it helped to explain the .258 batting average. His BABIP was .332 with a line-drive rate of 17.4… oh, if only he could put the bat on the ball more consistently. At 23, Gomez has time to learn and improve but he’d probably be better off getting regular playing time in the minors.
Left-hander Glen Perkins, 26, slipped into a starting rotation role in 2008 despite spending part of 2007 in the Majors as a reliever. He had an OK season for a No. 4 or 5 starter. Perkins won 12 games and posted a 4.41 ERA but his FIP was 5.14 and his strikeout rate was just 4.41 K/9 (It’s never a good thing if your ERA matches the K rate). He allowed 183 hits in 151 innings of work. Despite his less-than-stellar rookie season, the Minnesota club kept him in the rotation in 2009 but he’s responded with a 5.36 ERA (4.46 FIP) and 50 hits allowed in 47 innings of work.
Nick Blackburn, 27, is basically a right-handed version of Perkins. Neither pitcher throws very hard and they both rely on excellent command and control. In 2008, Blackburn allowed 224 hits in 193.1 innings of work. This year, he’s given up 86 hits in 84.1 innings. His strikeout rate has dropped from 4.47 to 3.95 K/9. The good news is that Minnesota has found its No. 4 and 5 starters for the next five years in Perkins and Blackburn.