Last year, Eric Hosmer, Dustin Ackely, and Matt Moore put themselves on the map in their Major League debuts. Hosmer was an above average hitter at age 21, showing the special offensive skills that created expectations that he would anchor the Royals line-up for years to come. Ackley proved he could handle second base and showed more power than expected, giving the Mariners a legitimate Major League hitter that they badly needed. Moore didn’t show up until September, but in five appearances between the regular season and the playoffs, he looked like a flame-throwing ace who might just be the guy to put Tampa Bay over the top. Instead of building off their remarkable debuts, however, all three have taken significant steps backwards.
What can we learn from their struggles in 2012? To answer this question, I used the filters available on the FanGraphs Leaderboards to identify players since 1992 who had similar seasons at a similar point in their career, allowing us to see whether other players were able to bounce back, or whether this kind of failure was the sign of a long term problem. Rather than simply looking at the results, I focused the filters on the metrics that most align with a player’s development – walk rate, strikeout rate, power, and age.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
Comprable Seasons : Jimmy Rollins (2002), Scott Spiezio (1997), Stephen Drew (2007), Pablo Sandoval (2010), Lastings Milledge (2008)
Hosmer’s shown very good contact skills with a decent approach at the plate but minimal power, which is not usually the kind of skills you find in a young first baseman. In fact, the filter returns more middle infielders than anything else, which says something about how poorly Hosmer has hit this year. Sandoval is the name on the list the Royals have to be clinging to, as he put a poor second season behind him and has developed into one of the better hitting third baseman in the game, but unfortunately for Kansas City, he looks more like the exception than the rule.
Rollins and Drew eventually developed into good hitters compared to other shortstops, but they never hit like you’d want from a franchise first baseman. Spiezio had the most similar season from a statistical perspective, and while he improved to a degree, he spent his career as more of a role player than any kind of impact bat. Milledge was a highly touted prospect who never developed into what he was projected to be, and in turn was out of baseball by age 26. Besides Sandoval, the list of comparable players is mostly made up of guys who were never more than league average hitters. Given Hosmer’s position and expectations, he’ll have to turn into more than that to live up to the hype.
Dustin Ackley, 2B, Seattle
Comparable Seasons : Royce Clayton (1994), Chad Allen (1999), Daric Barton (2008), Ben Davis (2001)
If you thought things were grim based on Hosmer’s comps, the list of guys who had similar years to Ackley are even scarier. Clayton stuck around the league for a long time because he was a good defensive shortstop, but he never turned into much of a hitter. Allen played in parts of seven seasons and was either replacement level or worse in six of them. Barton had one monster season two years later, but then saw his offense take a nosedive and is now toiling in Triple-A. Davis, like Ackley, had been selected #2 overall his in his draft, but failed to ever turn into more than a part-time reserve catcher.
There are no Sandoval’s on this list, mostly because the combination of high strikeouts and low power is simply not an effective way to produce offense. To survive as a low power hitter in the big leagues, you have to get on base a lot, and that requires good contact skills. Ackley doesn’t have the physique to become a slugger, so he’s simply going to have to fix his strikeout problems if he’s ever going to turn into a quality big league hitter.
Matt Moore, SP, Tampa Bay:
Comparable Seasons : Tony Armas Jr (2001), Chad Billingsley (2009), Shawn Estes (1998), Gio Gonzalez (2010), Matt Cain (2006)
Finally, we get some good news. Moore’s list is essentially a who’s who of young pitchers with good stuff who just needed some refinement, with several examples of pitchers who took the necessary steps forward to become quality hurlers. Cain is probably the best possible outcome, as he’s developed into a durable workhorse who now knows how to pound the strike zone, but I’m sure the Rays would be fine if Moore followed in Gio Gonzalez’s steps as well. Billingsley is more of a middle of the road career path, as he’s been inconsistent in Los Angeles, and Estes and Armas are examples of what can go wrong, but there’s plenty of success stories on the list of pitchers who had a similar down year after being loaded with expectations.
Pitchers tend to be ever-evolving, and one minor change can set off a major directional change in their careers. For Moore, even a small improvement in his command could have a large chain reaction on his results, allowing him to pitch ahead in the count more often and forcing hitters to chase a greater amount of pitches out of the strike zone. While Hosmer’s going to have to figure out how to add some power to his game and Ackley needs to figure out how to stop striking out, Moore simply needs to figure out how to attack the zone more regularly. Given what history shows us about these three necessary improvements, Moore looks like the one to bet on for the big rebound.