Just How Good Are These Rookies?

Every once in a while, handicapping the Rookie of the Year races can be easy. Back in 2001, Ichiro! came over from Japan and hit .350 for a record-breaking Mariners team, while Albert Pujols made the jump from Single-A to hit .329/.403/.610 with 37 homers and 130 RBIs for the Cardinals. That year both leagues had no-brainer ROY picks who were immediate All-Stars and legitimate MVP candidates. In fact, Ichiro! actually won the AL MVP, and Pujols finished fourth in the NL.

A year like 2001 is unique, however, in that most seasons have an overall rookie class that just isn’t all that impressive. For instance, Pujols (84.6) and Ichiro! (61.6) each racked up huge Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) totals as rookies, and Roy Oswalt also checked in with an impressive 44.0 VORP that season. Compare that to last year, when Bobby Crosby and Jason Bay took home the ROY honors and no rookie had even 40 VORP.

Because the pool of performances is typically not particularly outstanding compared to, say, MVP candidates, the ROY picture is also often more muddled than in 2001. Even with Oswalt going 14-3 with a 2.73 ERA for the Astros, Pujols and Ichiro! were clearly the top rookies. Last season, Crosby and Bay didn’t even lead their respective leagues in VORP among rookies. Bay (34.6) finished second to Khalil Greene (37.6), while Crosby (23.0) actually finished sixth, behind Zack Greinke (36.4), Justin Duchscherer (30.2), Bobby Madritsch (28.0), Shingo Takatsu (26.5), and David Newhan (24.5).

All of which brings up two interesting questions. First, how strong is the average rookie class? Second, how often do elite rookies really separate themselves from the rest of the pack? I wrote in 2003 that the rookie class that season was strong, with Dontrelle Willis and Angel Berroa winning the awards and Scott Podsednik, Brandon Webb, Hideki Matsui, Rocco Baldelli, Mark Teixeira, Alex Cintron and Jody Gerut also having very good rookie seasons. Last season, I wrote that the rookie class, which included Crosby and Bay, was weak.

Rather than simply crunching a few numbers and then eyeballing the rookie class of 2005 before labeling their quality, I thought it would be better to look over past seasons to determine exactly what a “strong” or “weak” rookie class actually means. There are all sorts of ways to approach a question like this, but I’m going with a straightfoward look at the VORP totals posted by the five best rookies in a given season. That should answer both of the questions above, showing how good the pool of rookies tends to be and whether or not one or two rookies usually stand out from the rest.

I’ll save the gigantic tables with all the details and specific players for the end of the article, so here is a compact version of the results:

YEAR      #1       #2       #3       #4       #5      TOP-5
2004     37.6     36.4     34.6     33.0     30.2     171.8
2003     49.4     48.0     40.7     39.4     38.9     216.4
2002     55.4     47.7     35.1     33.7     29.5     201.4
2001     84.6     61.6     44.0     43.2     28.4     261.8
2000     43.2     38.5     37.0     35.0     34.3     188.0
1999     52.1     44.3     44.1     41.9     40.9     223.3
1998     56.8     45.3     38.7     38.7     36.1     215.6
1997     76.8     49.9     49.1     34.5     32.5     242.8
1996     51.9     41.2     39.0     33.3     28.4     193.8
1995*    64.8     54.7     41.7     41.5     41.4     244.1
1994*    48.6     46.4     42.1     37.7     36.4     211.2
1993     68.3     55.7     35.5     34.6     33.1     227.2
1992     42.1     39.9     39.1     37.9     28.3     187.3
1991     49.2     31.6     29.0     26.0     25.6     161.4
1990     43.3     41.9     37.8     33.6     30.7     187.3
 
AVG      54.9     45.5     39.2     36.3     33.0     208.9

*Numbers from 1994 and 1995 are adjusted for strike-shortened seasons.

Over the past 15 seasons, the top rookie has averaged a VORP of 54.9. That’s pretty good, but it’s not all that great—a 54.9 VORP would have ranked 42nd among major league players last season. There is an average dropoff of 17.1% to the second-best rookie and a dropoff of 13.8% from the second-best rookie to the third-best rookie. However, the dropoffs from third-best to fourth-best and fourth-best to fifth-best are just 7.4% and 9.1%, respectively.

To me that says there are typically one or two rookies each season who separate themselves from the rest of the pack. In those 15 seasons, however, the best rookie has been at least 20% better than the second-best rookie just six times. Also, of the 15 players who led all big-league rookies in VORP, five of them—Greene (2004), Webb (2003), Rick Ankiel (2000), Freddy Garcia (1999) and Rolando Arrojo (1998)—failed to even win the ROY for their league.

So what is a rookie class typically worth? Well, the top five rookies in a season have averaged 208.9 VORP over the last 15 years. The best rookie has been worth around 55 VORP, the #2 guy has been worth about 45 VORP, and the next few rookies have been worth 33-40 VORP. Considering 164 major leaguers totaled at least 30 VORP last year, that’s not a particularly impressive showing once you get past the top two rookies.

The best rookie class of the past 15 seasons was undoubtedly the aforementioned 2001 group that featured Ichiro!, Pujols, Oswalt, Jimmy Rollins and C.C. Sabathia. They combined for a VORP of 261.8, which is 25.3% above average and 7.2% better than the second-best class (Hideo Nomo, Ismael Valdez, Andy Pettitte, Marty Cordova and Chad Ogea in 1995). Rollins finished fourth in 2001, but he had a VORP total high enough to rank first in four of the other 14 seasons.

And the worst rookie class? That would be the 1991 group that consisted of Jeff Bagwell, Juan Guzman, Chuck Knoblauch, Charles Nagy and Orlando Merced. Bagwell held his own with a 49.1 VORP at the top, but no other rookie managed even 32 VORP that season. Oh, and as I suspected last year after eyeballing the numbers, the 2004 rookie class ranks as the second-worst of the past 15 years.

Finally, where does this year’s rookie class figure to rank when the season is over? Sorry, to find that out you’ll have to check back for the next installment of “Just How Good Are These Rookies?” (Coming soon to a website near you!) For now, here are some lovely tables and gory details to look at:

2004 ROOKIES        VORP     2003 ROOKIES        VORP     2002 ROOKIES        VORP
========================     ========================     ========================
Khalil Greene       37.6     Brandon Webb        49.4     Eric Hinske         55.4
Zack Greinke        36.4     Scott Podsednik     48.0     Rodrigo Lopez       47.7
Jason Bay           34.6     Dontrelle Willis    40.7     Brad Wilkerson      35.1
Akinori Otsuka      33.0     Angel Berroa        39.4     Austin Kearns       33.7
Justin Duchscherer  30.2     Alex Cintron        38.9     Bobby Kielty        29.5
========================     ========================     ========================
AVERAGE OF TOP 5    34.4     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    43.2     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    40.3
 
2001 ROOKIES        VORP     2000 ROOKIES        VORP     1999 ROOKIES        VORP
========================     ========================     ========================
Albert Pujols       84.6     Rick Ankiel         43.2     Freddy Garcia       52.1
Ichiro!             61.6     Barry Zito          38.5     Tim Hudson          44.3
Roy Oswalt          44.0     Rafael Furcal       37.0     John Halama         44.1
Jimmy Rollins       43.2     Matt Herges         35.0     Jeff Zimmerman      41.9
C.C. Sabathia       28.4     Lance Berkman       34.3     Preston Wilson      40.9
========================     ========================     ========================
AVERAGE OF TOP 5    65.5     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    37.6     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    44.7
 
1998 ROOKIES        VORP     1997 ROOKIES        VORP     1996 ROOKIES        VORP
========================     ========================     ========================
Rolando Arrojo      56.8     Nomar Garciaparra   76.8     Derek Jeter         51.9
Orlando Hernandez   45.3     Scott Rolen         49.9     Jose Rosado         41.2
Todd Helton         38.7     Matt Morris         49.1     James Baldwin       39.0
Ben Grieve          38.7     Chris Holt          34.5     Edgar Renteria      33.3
Kerry Wood          36.1     Tony Womack         32.5     Terry Adams         28.4
========================     ========================     ========================
AVERAGE OF TOP 5    43.1     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    48.9     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    38.8
 
1995 ROOKIES        VORP     1994 ROOKIES        VORP     1993 ROOKIES        VORP
========================     ========================     ========================
Hideo Nomo          64.8     Bob Hamelin         48.6     Mike Piazza         68.3
Ismael Valdez       54.7     Steve Trachsel      46.4     Tim Salmon          55.7
Andy Pettitte       41.7     Shane Reynolds      42.1     Brent Gates         35.5
Marty Cordova       41.5     Joey Hamilton       37.7     Troy Neel           34.6
Chad Ogea           41.4     Rusty Greer         36.4     Greg McMichael      33.1
========================     ========================     ========================
AVERAGE OF TOP 5    48.8     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    42.2     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    45.4
 
1992 ROOKIES        VORP     1991 ROOKIES        VORP     1990 ROOKIES        VORP
========================     ========================     ========================
Pat Listach         42.1     Jeff Bagwell        49.2     David Justice       43.3
Kenny Lofton        39.9     Juan Guzman         31.6     Kevin Appier        41.9
Dave Fleming        39.1     Chuck Knoblauch     29.0     Delino DeShields    37.8
Cal Eldred          37.9     Charles Nagy        26.0     Ben McDonald        33.6
Julio Valera        28.3     Orlando Merced      25.6     Hal Morris          30.7
========================     ========================     ========================
AVERAGE OF TOP 5    37.5     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    32.1     AVERAGE OF TOP 5    37.5
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