Sifting Through the Sophomores

It’s time to look at last year’s rookies. Because the player caps for each of these players will provide you more in-depth detail than we can hope to provide in an overview, this article will attempt to quickly point out one or two pieces of evidence that might predict an improvement or a decline in the stats of the following 2009 rookies. Once you spot an opinion you don’t agree with, check the player capsule, the FanGraphs stats, and come join us at the website and the boards for what will surely be a lively discussion about the future of these (mostly) young players coming off their debut seasons.

National League

Tommy Hanson: Though his strand rate (80.3%) and BABIP (.280) could regress a little and provide him some problems, Hanson had serious strikeout ability (8.18 K/9) and his minor league numbers seem to suggest that even better performances are on the way. It helps that he plays in the inferior league and that his arm has been built up reasonably gently. Best bet: improve.

Andrew McCutchen: The wheels and the batting average are legit, and the only question is whether McCutchen will show the same pop in the future. True, his ISO last year (.185) bested every minor league seasons save one, but McCutchen put more balls into the air (39.1%) and over the fence (8.8%) than a pure speedster might. As his frame fills out, the power may prove legit. Best bet: improve.

Colby Rasmus: Last year Rasmus showed reasonable power (.156 ISO), but lacked the speed we saw in the minors (74 stolen bases, 81.3% success). Perhaps the speed won’t be as nice as we thought it would be, but Rasmus had legitimate full-season ISOs over .200 in the minor leagues, so the power is for real. With a little better luck on batted balls (.284 BABIP), Rasmus has the chance to put together a nice power/speed year in the mold of (less speedy) Grady Sizemore. Best bet: improve.

Chris Coghlan: Because of his luck with the batted ball (.366 BABIP) and his probable position eligibility change, Coghlan won’t provide the same batting-average burst for your infield in 2010. It’s also hard to glean his true power level, as his ISOs have ranged from last year’s mediocrity (.139 ISO) to something more powerful (.200+ ISOs in the minors) over his career. He didn’t steal efficiently last year, either (61.5% success rate), but was better in the minors (80%), so he could improve there. Best bet: about the same, but with only outfield eligibility for now.

Everth Cabrera: This infielder is fast (7.9 speed score) and has a limp noodle bat (.106 ISO) – that much we know. A player like this is useful when he can pair that combination with a strong batting average, which is the largest question in regards to the diminutive (5’10”, 176 lbs) former Rule-5 shortstop. His BABIP doesn’t point to a bounceback (.328), and his meager contact rate (81.9%) doesn’t point to a great batting average either. Best bet: about the same.

Alcides Escobar: Another speedy infielder, Escobar has some of the same skills, but a better contact rate (83.3%) and a history of better strikeout rates in the minor leagues than Cabrera (21% for Cabrera, 15.8% for Escobar). With sub-.100 ISOs in the minor leagues, Escobar won’t develop any power, but more help in the batting-average and stolen-base categories is a strong bet. Best bet: about the same, just more of it.

Dexter Fowler: Fowler showed the speed (27 stolen bases, 72.9% success) and some repeatable power (.141 ISO, .152 minor league ISO), but the thing that Fowler really needs to work on is his strikeout rate (26.8% in 2009). It’s a good thing that his minor league numbers (23.7%) seem to suggest he can cut the strikeouts. On the negative side, if the Rockies hold on to all of their outfielders, Fowler will have to fight for playing time. Best bet: about the same.

J.A. Happ: The luck stats are not kind to Happ. He stranded more runners than he should have (85.2%) and his BABIP was also not sustainable (.270). When those return to normal, his mediocre strikeout rate (6.69 K/9) won’t play as well. Perhaps he needs to throw his secondary pitches more because, had he qualified, he would have thrown his fastball ninth-most in the Majors last year (69.9%). Best bet: decline.

Randy Wells: It’s easy to root for the unheralded 27-year-old rookie, and some might get excited about his relatively neutral luck stats (.294 BABIP, 76% BABIP), but fundamentally, it’s important to retain your senses when it comes to a pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate (5.66 K/9). His good ground-ball rate (47.9%) might help explain his 3.88 FIP, but his xFIP (4.24) is a better predictor for his true ability. Best bet: decline.

Casey McGehee: Be suspicious. Be very suspicious. Not only did McGehee get a little lucky with the batted ball (.335 BABIP, .305 xBABIP), but he showed an ISO (.197) that was above and beyond the power he showed in the minor leagues (.130). Don’t pro-rate out that power in your projections next year, and don’t depend on the batting average to last. Best bet: decline.

Garrett Jones: Had he qualified, Jones’ 21.2% HR/FB percentage would have tied for eighth-best in the entire league (with Nelson Cruz) – this, despite a minor league ISO that was only okay (.192). Of course, Jones has been better more recently (.800+ OPS at his last three minor league stops), but you always have to be suspicious of older rookies – especially ones with a .327 BABIP and a career .258 batting average in the minor leagues. Best bet: decline.

American League

Brett Anderson: Perhaps because his ERA started with a four, many people didn’t notice how nice of a season this rookie had. He struck out 150 batters and paired that with only 45 walks in 175+ innings. He had a ground-ball rate more than 50%, and his FIP was 3.69 – all great numbers for a freshman. The even better news is that his strikeout rate, though okay in 2009 (7.70), has room for improvement when seen through the prism of his minor league strikeout rates (9.7). Make sure to take a look at his plus slider (+22.1 runs), because it’s a doozy. Best bet: improve.

Elvis Andrus: The Texas shortstop got more attention than his fellow rookie all-speed shortstops, and perhaps there is a reason for the excitement beyond the plus defense. His contact rate (87.3%) easily bested that of the shortstops in Milwaukee and San Diego, even if his ISO was equally weak (.106). With a reach rate (19.6%), strikeout rate (16%), and line-drive rate (21.9%) as reasonable as Andrus showed, it’s reasonable to think the speedster can add to his BABIP (.307) and improve his batting average next year. Best bet: improve.

Gordon Beckham: Beckham is already a solid player, as his walk rate (9.8%), strikeout rate (17.2%), and ISO (.190) can attest. If he can up his contact rate (80.1%) and his line-drive rate (16.6%), then the consistency and overall improvement that the projections seem to expect will come. Even if you “only” pro-rate out his stats from last year to a full year, you are talking about a 20/10 infielder with a passable batting average. With the acquisition of Teahen, you may even be talking about a dark-horse top-three second baseman next year. Best bet: improve.

Matt Wieters: A debut that had Wieters put forth the run production of an average Major Leaguer (101 wRC+) was considered a poor effort after some projections had him starting his career with a bang. Perhaps his ISO (.124) or walk rate (7.4%) were the most disappointing aspects of his game given his minor league numbers in those categories (.233 and 14.7% respectively). His .362/.425/.511 September lends some credibility to the generally held idea that he will move his numbers towards his stellar minor league level (1.014 minor league OPS). Best bet: improve.

Rick Porcello: Though there was a lot of support for Porcello’s ROY candidacy, his season was actually a mixed bag. The good included his ground-ball rate (54.2%, fifth best among qualified starters) and walk rate (2.74 BB/9). Though that’s a good foundation, Porcello may need to start throwing his secondary offerings a little more (77.1% fastball usage, second-most in the league) in order to improve his below-average strikeout rate (4.69 K/9). The ERA may look worse next year as some of his luck stats regress (.287 BABIP, 75.5% LOB), but the overall package should improve. Best bet: improve, though possibly only marginally.

Andrew Bailey: This ROY had such a great season that he’s probably likely to decline. His luck stats will regress some, for sure (.234 BABIP, 84.9% LOB). But there’s so much good in his bag of tricks (9.83 K/9, 2.59 BB/9) that even with some regression he’ll be a solid closer in 2010. Look at how often batters reach (27.4%) and how seldom they make contact outside the zone (56.4%) and you’ll see he has nasty stuff. Best bet: more of the same, even with a little regression.

Travis Snider: The story of Travis Snider is the story of striking out. So far in his short career (356 PAs), Snider has struck out in a whopping 32.2% of his plate appearances and given his contact rate so far (71%), he doesn’t look to be poised to change his whiffing ways. Even with that said, his athleticism alone should allow Snider to best his .241 batting average last year. His power is still strong (.175) and inching its way to his minor league heights (.229), so he has that going for him. He has the tools and the pedigree to back up his projections. Best bet: improve, even if the batting average won’t be stellar.

Julio Borbon: Ron Washington already declared center field and leadoff Borbon’s to lose during the spring training, and Marlon Byrd’s signing with the Cubs helped cement Borbon’s new, expanded role with the Rangers. He stole 19 bags in just 179 plate appearances last year, and that speed will be the reason you take a shot of Borbon in 2010. He’ll also be a good bet for a .300 average given his speed (6.3 speed score) and ability to make contact (86.2%). Best bet: improve.

Nolan Reimold: Already sporting nice power (.187 ISO) and some speed to boot (8/10 stolen base attempts), Reimold is one of the best outfield sleepers for the upcoming year. With a HR/FB percentage like he sported (14.2%), all he needs to do is get the ball in the air a little more (37.3% FB) to start racking up the home runs. He consistently showed more power in the minor leagues, and with his nice walk (11.6%) and strikeout rates (21.5%), there’s a lot of reason for excitement about this young man’s future. Best bet: improve.

Jeff Niemann: The good news about Niemann is that last season was not ostensibly a result of his luck. His BABIP (.304) and LOB% (73.7%) were both reasonable, and his 4.07 FIP reflected those facts. But the bad news is that many of his stats were just slightly above average (walk rate, home run rate) or slightly below average (strikeout rate, ground-ball percentage). His curveball and change-up were better-than-neutral pitches, so perhaps he should use them more often (71.9% fastball usage). Best bet: more of the same, even if some of the traditional statistics look less exciting.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here or at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.
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Sweet. Most of these best-bet: decline jerks are on my team.

Steve Balboni

How’d this analysis turnout?