During the 2015 season, rookies accumulated 133.9 fWAR, the most in modern history by a wide margin. The only previous times rookies cracked the 100-WAR threshold were 2006 (119.8 fWAR), 2009 (101.4), and 2012 (114.2). Of course there are more teams in the majors today than in pre-expansion days and, therefore, more rookies to rack up cumulative stats. This rookie class, though, is extraordinarily impressive even when accounting for league size. Rookies this year represented 13.4 percent of total league WAR, the most since a 15.6 percent mark in 1943 when actual war increased league reliance on rookie players.
Rookies who in other years would be a lock to win Rookie of the Year may not get a single vote this season due to the depth of this historically productive rookie class. And one particularly striking feature of this collective group is not what they did on the field this year but how they got to their rookie seasons.
In this article we’ll be focusing on six of the National League’s top rookies. Please note these will not necessarily be the six best NL rookies this year, but six incredibly impressive ones who also stand out due to the remarkable diversity in talent acquisition they represent.
Logically there must be a moment in time before a word becomes a buzzword. It’s a word that doesn’t cause eye rolls or automatically elevate 140 characters to a Hot Take. It’s just a word out there doing its job and then suddenly it gets buzzed and that poor little word is lost to the rational world for good. In the world of sports (and particularly in my home corner of Philadelphia sports) there are few words as buzzy as “tanking.”
On its surface, tanking is a reasonable, viable strategy. For a scuffling team in desperate need of a youthful talent infusion, getting a high draft pick and large bonus pool is a good thing. The way to get that high draft pick is to lose. Putting a sub-optimal lineup on the field in pursuit of securing a high pick is perfectly logical. It becomes groan-worthy, however, when it is presented as the primary rebuilding strategy.
In baseball, the avenues with which to acquire talent are numerous and player development can be so unpredictable that no team ever puts all its eggs in the “tanking” basket. Rebuilding is about building a diverse and plentiful portfolio of young talent, entrusting them with a skilled player development and coaching staff, adding a bit of water and a dash of secret sauce, simmering for a few years and seeing what develops. Three of the Senior Circuit’s top rookies demonstrate different ways rebuilding franchises acquire young talent.
The High Draft Pick: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
In the summer of 2012, the Chicago Cubs reached their most recent nadir with a 101-loss season and the third in a string of five consecutive fifth place finishes in the National League Central. Unfortunately for the Cubs, the Houston Astros were in the midst of an even more dramatic rebuilding process and managed to lose a staggering 107 games that season. As a result, the Astros had the top choice in the June 2013 draft and the Cubs were stuck with the second pick. The Astros had tanked harder and better and their reward was the opportunity to take Stanford University’s stud right-handed pitcher Mark Appel and stick the Cubs with a third baseman out of the University of San Diego named Kris Bryant.
Appel spent his 2015 season between Double-A and Triple-A and conventional wisdom is mixed at this point as to whether he will reach the majors as a mid-rotation starter or a bullpen pitcher. Bryant, on the other hand, spent his 2015 season soaring to the top of a historic rookie class, helping his team to its first postseason in seven years and all but certainly securing the National League Rookie of the Year award with 26 homers, 136 wRC+ and 6.5 fWAR in 650 plate appearances. Sometimes it pays to tank less effectively.
The Rule 5 Draft Pick: Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies
Bryant’s rookie campaign on Chicago’s north side surprised no one, but what Odubel Herrera did in Philadelphia shocked everyone who had the misfortune of watching the worst team in baseball this season. The Phillies are in the midst of a stretch of rebuilding which will culminate in the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft next summer, but their rookie phenom this season entered their system through the significantly less heralded Rule 5 Draft last winter.
A team in transition, like the 2015 Phillies, has more freedom to be flexible with 25-man roster spots than competitive teams and one way to capitalize on that flexibility is by taking the relatively low-risk opportunity to stash a Rule 5 pick on the active roster for a season. Herrera, a former Texas Rangers farmhand, came up through the minors as a middle infielder and was left unprotected by Texas last offseason. He played center field in the Venezuelan Winter League and the Phillies were impressed enough to draft him and, ultimately, make them their Opening Day center fielder.
He stayed there, accumulating an impressive .297/.344/.418 slash line over 537 plate appearances. His 3.9 fWAR led the team and was the highest mark in a Rule 5 debut season since Dan Uggla (4.2 fWAR) in 2006.
The Rebuilding Trade Return: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Another primary way for rebuilding teams to bring in young talent is by trading present assets for future ones, which is what the New York Mets did after the 2012 season. R.A. Dickey capped off an impressive three years with the Mets organization by winning the 2012 Cy Young award as a 37-year-old. Unfortunately his team wasn’t flying quite as high. The Mets lost 88 games that year, their fourth consecutive losing season and had little hope on the immediate horizon. So they put their ace on the trade market and found a buyer in the Toronto Blue Jays.
On Dec. 17 of that year, the Mets sent Dickey, with Mike Nickeas and Josh Thole, to The Great White North for John Buck, Wuilmer Becerra, Noah Syndergaard and his battery mate, Travis d’Arnaud. This year, 22-year-old Syndergaard took the league by storm with a fastball that sits in the upper 90s and will touch triple digits. In 24 starts he posted a 3.24 ERA along with thoroughly impressive strikeout and walk rates — 27.5 K percentage, 5.1 BB percentage — en route to three postseason starts.
It should go without saying, however, that youth talent acquisition is not the sole domain of the down-trodden. Baseball, like every sport, is constantly moving forward. In addition to plans for the current year, teams always (or should always) have some sort of long-term vision for their future. The next three rookies stand out because they were acquired not by cellar-dwellers but by teams in the midst of notably successful runs.
The Low Draft Pick: Matt Duffy, San Francisco Giants
A year after winning their first World Series in 56 years, the Giants failed to make the playoffs in 2011 despite a perfectly respectable 86-76 record. When the amateur draft rolled around the following June, the Giants were stuck without a high pick in the draft. But who cares when their 18th round pick out of Long Beach State University turned out to be 2015 rookie extraordinaire Matt Duffy.
In college, Duffy had poor results with the bat – 501 at-bats, a .253/.305/.289 slash line, 16 doubles and no homers – but the Giants were impressed enough by his contact ability, plate discipline and speed to take him 568th overall. He struggled in short-season ball immediately after the draft, but the bat started to pick up as he rose through the minors in 2013 and 2014. This year, under the tutelage of Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens (who has also mentored previously unheralded prospects like Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik to surprisingly effective offensive results) he posted 4.9 fWAR with a 116 wRC+ over 612 plate appearances while manning third base for the Giants.
The International Free Agent: Jung-ho Kang, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are not known as big spenders in the free agent market, but last offseason, coming off their second consecutive Wild Card berth, they made a somewhat under-the-radar signing to complement their existing elite player core. In retrospect, it looks quite savvy. The Nexen Heroes in the Korean Baseball League posted their shortstop and reigning league MVP Jung Ho Kang. In December, the Pirates secured an exclusive negotiating window with a surprisingly low winning bid of $5 million. A month later they announced a four-year/$11 million deal with Kang which contains a team option on the fifth year.
Scouts were mixed on whether the 27-year-old could start in the major leagues, but he put many doubts to rest this year with a stellar .287/.355/.461, 130 wRC+ line through 467 plate appearances while shuffling between shortstop and third base for the Pirates. Unfortunately, a devastating collision at second base ended his season prematurely and may delay his return next season.
The Contender Trade Return: Randal Grichuk, St. Louis Cardinals
Does Cardinals Devil Magic exist? After a pennant-winning 2013 season, the Cardinals had too many starting-caliber major league infielders with David Freese, Matt Carpenter and the emergence of Kolten Wong, but outfield defense was a weakness. To maximize their major league roster they traded Freese, their third baseman and onetime postseason savior, with reliever Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels for an exceptional defensive outfielder in Peter Bourjos and a prospect named Randal Grichuk. At the time Grichuk was described as a likely fourth outfielder who didn’t have the bat to hold down a corner starting spot or the glove for center.
This year, Grichuk blew those projections out of the water, hitting .276/.329/.548 with 17 homers in 350 plate appearances while filling in at all three outfield positions. His 137 wRC+ led all 43 National League rookies with a minimum of 120 plate appearances.
Well, does that St. Louis magic exist? You tell me.
The acquisition of young talent is the purview of a variety of departments in a baseball organization:
- The amateur scouting departments report back to their front offices on elite high draft pick candidates like Bryant, but they also scour college and high school baseball for late-round gems like Duffy.
- Pro scouts identify Rule 5 Draft targets like Herrera as well as trade targets like Grichuk and Syndergaard.
- International scouting departments can help a team bring in guys like Kang as well as amateur international free agents. (Other notable international rookies didn’t make the for this article due to either an injury-shortened season — Maikel Franco — or playing in the other league — Miguel Sano.)
- In work perhaps most notable with successful late round picks like Matt Duffy, player development and coaching staffs try to maximize strengths and overcome weaknesses in all developing talent.
- And, of course, the front offices set the overall organizational direction that dictates all of these player development decisions.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, even in a stacked class like this one, the most successful rookie was former top draft pick, Kris Bryant. After all, the extreme value of top picks is the reason tanking became a buzzword to begin with. It is striking, however, the way this top crop so fully represents the plethora of avenues for bringing fresh blood onto major league rosters.
It’s unlikely all six of the rookies mentioned above will be core pieces for their organizations going forward, but player development is never about a 100 percent success rate. Should these players falter in the future, their organizations have been drafting, signing and trading for the next crop of talented youngsters who will get their own chances to succeed.
References & Resources
- John Sickels, Minor League Ball, “Giants prospect Matt Duffy: From 18th round to MLB in two years”
- Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus, “Surpassing Not-So Giant Expectations”