Early Returns on the Class of 2004

Almost exactly one year ago today, I took a look at the 2003 rookie class and commented that I was “struck by how many good rookies there are this season.” At this time last year, the eventual AL Rookie of the Year, Angel Berroa, was hitting .282/.338/.461 while playing a good shortstop for the Royals. Hideki Matsui (.301/.358/.454), Rocco Baldelli (.303/.332/.444), Mark Teixeira (.260/.342/.477), Jody Gerut (.275/.332/.500) and Reed Johnson (.311/.369/.464) were all putting together solid rookie campaigns. And those are just the hitters … from the American League.

Over in the NL, the eventual winner, Dontrelle Willis, had a 2.67 ERA in 84 innings at this point in the 2003 season. Brandon Webb, who finished third in the voting despite actually having a better rookie year than Willis, had a 2.45 ERA in 103 innings at this stage. Scott Podsednik finished second in the voting and was hitting .308/.384/.416 with a bunch of steals for the Brewers at this point. There were also hitters like Marlon Byrd (.298/.368/.409), Ty Wigginton (.274/.327/.425) and Jason Phillips (.319/.397/.476) putting together good rookie seasons, as well as pitchers like Jerome Williams (64 IP, 2.38 ERA), Brad Lidge (58, 2.34), Jae Weong Seo (113, 3.83) and Horacio Ramirez (104, 4.17).

In other words, at the end of July last year, you could have looked around both leagues and seen plenty of rookies having solid seasons, plenty of guys contributing on a regular basis, and plenty of guys who, if they had nice second-halves, would be fine Rookie of the Year picks.

Here’s a look at how things ended up for last year’s rookies over the course of the entire 2003 season (using Value Over Replacement Player) …

HITTER                PA     VORP        PITCHER                  IP     VORP
Scott Podsednik      628     48.1        Brandon Webb          180.2     49.3
Angel Berroa         635     39.3        Dontrelle Willis      160.2     40.6
Marlon Byrd          553     34.9        Jerome Williams       131.0     28.9
Hideki Matsui        695     30.9        Francisco Rodriguez    86.0     28.4
Rocco Baldelli       684     28.5        Rafael Soriano         53.0     27.0
Jason Phillips       453     28.4        Jae Weong Seo         188.1     25.1
Jody Gerut           525     28.0        Horacio Ramirez       182.1     24.3
Ty Wigginton         633     22.5        Oscar Villarreal       98.0     21.2
Mark Teixeira        589     22.0        Zach Day              131.1     19.1
Jose Reyes           292     21.7        Aquilino Lopez         73.2     19.0
Keith Ginter         415     21.0        Luis Ayala             71.0     17.3
Travis Hafner        324     17.1        Brad Lidge             85.0     17.0
Eric Munson          357     16.5        Eric DuBose            73.2     16.9
Reed Johnson         457     14.8        Jason Kershner         54.0     15.7
Miguel Cabrera       346     13.9        Jose Valverde          50.1     15.4
Adam Everett         436     12.5        Lance Carter           79.0     14.7
Ben Broussard        429     11.9        Claudio Vargas        114.0     13.1
Robby Hammock        216     11.2        Rich Harden            74.2     12.6
Bo Hart              321     10.4        Javier Lopez           58.1     11.4
                                         R.A. Dickey           116.2     11.1
                                         Jason Davis           165.1     11.0
                                         D.J. Carrasco          80.1     10.5
                                         Chris Spurling         77.0     10.3

If you take that same look around both leagues this season, I don’t think you’ll see anything close to that. Of course, it should be pointed out that several of last year’s rookies — namely Jose Reyes and Miguel Cabrera — didn’t make their mark until the second-half, which still leaves time for the Justin Morneaus, David Wrights and Grady Sizemores of the world to do some damage.

Whereas a total of 42 rookies — 19 hitters and 23 pitchers — had VORP totals of at least 10 last season, here are the 2004 rookies who are on pace to reach that number right now …

HITTER                PA     VORP        PITCHER                  IP     VORP
Kaz Matsui           420     21.1        Daniel Cabrera         88.2     27.7
Bobby Crosby         347     18.7        Ryan Madson            58.2     21.8
Jason Bay            190     17.1        Shingo Takatsu         35.2     19.6
Khalil Greene        348     16.7        Sean Burnett           45.1     17.8
Joe Mauer            122     13.1        Justin Duchscherer     56.1     17.8
Matt Holliday        282     12.6        Jason Frasor           39.2     17.3
Aaron Miles          299     12.0        Akinori Otsuka         45.1     16.4
Charles Thomas        66     11.0        Erik Bedard            83.0     15.9
Marco Scutaro        308      8.5        Kevin Gregg            53.2     15.0
Kevin Youkilis       146      8.0        Chad Cordero           49.0     13.7
Nick Green           220      8.0        Tim Harikkala          40.0     12.1
Chad Tracy           297      7.4        Zack Greinke           65.0     11.5
Jason Smith           55      7.1        Vinnie Chulk           27.2     10.1
Eric Valent          159      6.4        Chris Capuano          59.2      8.9
Alexis Rios          186      5.9        Kiko Calero            28.1      8.8
                                         Duaner Sanchez         42.1      8.5
                                         Nate Field             37.2      6.9
                                         Rafael Betancourt      38.2      5.6

Unless Charles Thomas plans on hitting .350 for the rest of the season, the 2004 rookie class is going to need some serious second-half performances to come anywhere close to last year’s group. And last season wasn’t even a particularly great one for rookies. For instance, back in 2001, Albert Pujols and Ichiro! had VORP totals of 84.6 and 61.6 respectively, which blew last year’s top guys out of the water. That year, Roy Oswalt (44.0), Jimmy Rollins (43.2), C.C. Sabathia (28.4), David Eckstein (28.3), Alfonso Soriano (27.2), Joel Pineiro (26.7) and Adam Dunn (24.8) also had impressive rookie seasons.

We’re nearly 60% through the 2004 season, yet just three rookies — Kaz Matsui, Daniel Cabrera and Ryan Madson — have surpassed 20 VORP. With 27.7 VORP in 88.2 innings, Cabrera is the top rookie thus far, but he’s on pace for just 48.7 VORP, which would have ranked second to Webb last season.

Before looking up the actual numbers in the AL, I would have gone with my usual “I think Bobby Crosby should win the AL Rookie of the Year” response, but now I’m not so sure. Crosby has been very good, although he’s slumping of late, but it’s hard to ignore what Cabrera has done with the Orioles. He’s 8-3 with a 3.05 ERA, he’s leading all rookie pitchers with 88.2 innings pitched, and his VORP total is significantly better than anyone else at this point.

On the other hand, Cabrera simply hasn’t been that good. He’s only got 45 strikeouts in those 88.2 innings (4.6/9) and he has 42 walks. He has done a good job keeping the ball in the ballpark, with just six homers allowed, but mostly he’s been getting lucky by having very good defense played behind him. Cabrera has had 76.5% of the balls in play against him converted into outs by Baltimore’s defense, which is a phenomenal rate.

As a whole, the American League is turning balls in play into outs 68.9% of the time, and none of the 50 AL pitchers with more innings than Cabrera have higher BIP-to-out conversion rates. Of course, that doesn’t matter right now, since he has eight wins and a 3.05 ERA, regardless of how he did it, but it does matter when trying to figure out if he’ll continue pitching this well for the rest of the year.

Think of Cabreras’s situation as sort of like when one of your buddies has a girlfriend who is way out of his league. You’re not quite sure how he got her and the guy probably couldn’t care less, since all he knows is that he got her, period. But if you’re trying to figure out how long she’ll stick around, you might want to examine exactly how long you think she’ll be able to avoid seeing what a loser he is. In other words, Daniel Cabrera might want to keep his girlfriend away from THT’s stats pages.

The top rookie hitter thus far has been Matsui who, despite a rather uninspiring .278/.342/.418 performance at the plate thus far, leads with 21.1 VORP, partly due to the huge number of plate appearances he’s had. Matsui is on pace for just 36.3 VORP on the year, which would have ranked him third among rookie hitters last season, just slightly ahead of Byrd.

The funny thing is that, despite leading all rookie hitters in VORP, Matsui has almost no shot at getting the NL award because he has two major things going against him. For one, some of the voters will simply not vote for him because he is Japanese and played professionally in Japan (see: Matsui, Hideki). For another, his season is viewed as a big disappointment, despite the fact that he’s leading rookie position players in VORP and has numbers (.278/.342/.418) that are almost identical to the projection I came up with for him (.275/.325/.445) prior to the start of the season.

If Matsui was just another rookie shortstop and not a veteran from Japan who had a ton of hype and a big contract before he played his first major-league game, I think he’d have a much better shot at getting the necessary votes. Of course, depending on what you think of Matsui’s defense (it’s pretty bad, from what I’ve seen), Khalil Greene might have a good argument over him anyway, despite a 4.4 VORP gap.

Is it likely that Greene, who has looked very good defensively in the times I’ve seen him, has been 4-5 runs better than Matsui defensively over the course of 90-95 games? It’s definitely very possible. Win Shares thinks very highly of Greene’s defense thus far and has him significantly ahead of Matsui. Of course, if Jason Bay, who is hitting .302/.371/.622 and has 17.1 VORP in just 190 plate appearances, can stay healthy from here on out, he might make it irrelevant.

Sadly, it looks as though Joe Mauer might have had a shot at putting up a big VORP total as a rookie, but injuries have now sidetracked him twice already. The first time kept him out for two months and the most recent one is expected to take him out of the lineup for several weeks. Mauer, who is hitting .308/.369/.570, has still managed 13.1 VORP in just 122 plate appearances. If he had played as much as Crosby or Greene (and maintained his level of play), Mauer would be blowing away the competition with 37.3 VORP and he might be looking at one of the all-time great rookie seasons.

Finally, I know a lot of you are probably wondering where Minnesota outfielder Lew Ford is in all this rookie talk. Ford, though still a rookie according to his playing time (he had well under the limit of 130 at-bats coming into this season), was on the active roster for one too many days last season, thus wiping away his eligibility. His absence hurts the 2004 rookie class quite a bit, because Ford, who is hitting .308/.383/.493, would be leading all 2004 rookies in VORP with 27.9, putting him on pace to equal Podsednik’s total from last season.

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