The other day, in making room for John Buck, the Mariners designated for assignment a player named Carlos Peguero. This means absolutely nothing to most of you, but absolutely something to some of you. Peguero’s out of options now, so in order to return to the minors, he’ll have to make it through waivers. Peguero clearing waivers is a decent possibility. What’s clear, at this point, is that Peguero is unlikely to develop into a big-league star slugger. What’s simultaneously clear — what’s been clear all along — is that Peguero has big-time raw upside, not unlike such predecessors as Wily Mo Pena and Wladimir Balentien. Jesus Colome got jobs because of his fastball. Peguero will get jobs because of his power.
For those of you unfamiliar with Peguero, you’re most certainly familiar with his general player type. But still, I’ll summarize him in two images. The first is a video:
Silliness, is what that is. Peguero has as much peak power as anyone in baseball, by which I mean, at perfect contact, I’m unconvinced anybody can hit the ball meaningfully harder. The problem is in achieving perfect contact, or even imperfect contact. The second image comes straight from Peguero’s MLB.com player page:
You can think of Peguero as swinging hard with his eyes closed. It’s an exaggeration, but it’s less of an exaggeration for him than it is for most players. The results have been practically the same. Every team has had players like this, some in greater numbers than others. So even if you’re not a Mariners fan, you can relate to the player type, and to what it’s like to watch such a player go about his business.
With someone like this, the raw skills are unmissable. It’s always a question of how likely the player is to make something worthwhile of the various blessings he’s been given. The Peguero ship, specifically, is beginning to set sail — he’s turning 27 in a month, and he hasn’t made progress over the last few years. But he got me thinking about a little project, based around what we could make of a rookie season like the one he had in 2011. What becomes of players with those sorts of debuts?
That year Peguero batted just 155 times, drawing eight walks while striking out 54 times. Two of those eight walks, additionally, were intentional. Let’s just worry only about these numbers. Peguero’s unintentional walk rate was 51% the MLB league average. His strikeout rate was 193% the league average. Who’s done something like that as a rookie before? Who’s subsequently turned into anything? Has anybody realized the presumed high upside?
I dove into the FanGraphs leaderboards, looking for rookies between 1955 – 2013. That’s as far back as we have intentional-walk data. I set a minimum of 100 plate appearances, and I filtered the ages to 23-25, since Peguero debuted at 24. I identified the players who had walk rates no higher than 70% the league average, and who had strikeout rates no lower than 175% the league average. I was left with a sample of 41 guys.
Peguero included. I’m leaving four players out of the following analysis, because their rookie seasons have happened too recently:
I then plugged the remaining 37 players into the FanGraphs leaderboards in order to evaluate their careers. The hypothesis had to be that the majority of the players wouldn’t become good players. Sure enough, the data supports the hypothesis. It’s a group with names like Todd Linden, Craig Paquette, and Ryan Minor.
The median career WAR of the group is 0.1, and the median career wRC+ is 73. The median number of plate appearances is 559. Six of the players — 16% — posted career wRC+ marks at least at league-average. Four players — 11% — accrued at least 10 WAR. Only one player reached 20 WAR, and that was Bret Boone. The thing about Boone is that he played a fairly premium defensive position. Another thing about Boone is that, in the minors, he posted far more encouraging walk and strikeout numbers. Boone, previously, had shown more polish than Peguero ever has.
The other three players in the double-digit WAR company are Tony Armas, Don Demeter, and Dick Stuart. Demeter and Armas had decent defensive value. Stuart was a first baseman who got his strikeouts and walks a little more under control as a sophomore. Stuart also last played in 1969, and the game has changed an awful lot in the following decades.
An interesting case is Wallace — he’s still young, but for three years now, he’s been a league-average hitter. He still strikes out too often, and doesn’t walk enough. He also owns a negative career WAR and he might not even start this year on the Astros. He’s not a player with a lot of other skills.
Turns out you can learn a lot from just a rookie player’s strikeouts and walks, at least if the rates are extreme enough. It’s not fair to Peguero to ignore his isolated power, since that’s his big skill, but that’s also the case for most players who reach the majors despite swinging over-aggressively. And Peguero doesn’t really do anything else. He needs to hit, and these players haven’t hit much. These players haven’t become stars down the road.
To step back, to make this about more than just Carlos Peguero, I noticed the numbers were a lot more encouraging for players who debuted at younger ages. You’d expect that to be true, since those younger players are selected to participate in the majors for a reason. Alex Rodriguez was bad in 1995, and overaggressive, but he was 19. Matt Kemp was overaggressive at 21. If a player posts lousy strikeout and walk rates as a rookie, but he’s younger than 23, he seems to stand far better future odds than a player who posts similarly lousy numbers at 23 or older. Taken even just on its own, debut age correlates very well with future success.
It’s also important for a player like this to be at least a little well-rounded. A shortstop or a center fielder, at least, might be able to make positive contributions in the field. Teams will tolerate overaggressive approaches from players who can do other things. If all you’ve got is power, then all you can do is hit for power. And as much as a guy might put on a show in batting practice, there’s not a long track record of hackers developing enough to be more than decreasingly intriguing hackers.
There’ll always be Bo Jackson. Maybe that’s the model. Maybe teams are intrigued by overaggressive powerful types because of the chance that player might turn into Bo Jackson. There’s only ever been one Bo Jackson, and he had a good year twice.
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