Sophomore Slumps?

In the history of baseball, there have been 114 Rookie of the Year winners. One in 1947 and 1948, and then two each season from 1949-2003 (with a couple of ties thrown in). The list of winners – starting with Jackie Robinson in 1947 and ending with Dontrelle Willis and Angel Berroa last year – is as impressive as it is long, with numerous Hall of Famers spread throughout.

One thing that has long been associated with rookies, particularly Rookie of the Year winners, is the “sophomore slump.”

During the very press conference in which he was given the 2002 American League Rookie of the Year award, Eric Hinske broached the subject:

“Just because I had a good rookie season doesn’t mean I’m going to rest on my laurels. Hopefully I can avoid the sophomore slump.”

Sadly, Hinske couldn’t avoid it. He missed nearly 40 games with injuries in 2003 and saw his numbers drop across-the-board. He went from 22 Win Shares in his rookie season to just 12 last year, and his OPS+ dropped from 124 to 96.

I started thinking about the sophomore slump recently, when the SABR e-mail discussion group I subscribe to had some very interesting background information on the origin of the term. While all of that was interesting (and thought-provoking), what I really wanted to find out was whether or not the sophomore slump truly existed. Is what happened to Eric Hinske commonplace?

To find out, I compiled the numbers of every Rookie of the Year winner, and I think the findings are pretty interesting. Prior to looking up the actual numbers, I tried to decide what I thought I would find. I tossed around a few ideas in my head and decided that…well, I wasn’t quite sure.

On one hand, you might expect a Rookie of the Year winner to decline in his second year for several reasons. First, he obviously had a very good season as a rookie, which leaves plenty of room for decline. Second, it is likely that, in winning the award, the player stayed very healthy, which again leaves plenty of room for decline the next season.

On the other hand, most Rookie of the Year winners are very young, which means you would expect them to improve, not decline. In other words, if you took a 30-year-old who played very well and stayed healthy, you might expect less of him in the next season, but you might not expect the same decline from a 23-year-old, right?

I wasn’t quite sure, so I let the numbers tell me what the truth is…

First, a little information about the 114 Rookie of the Year seasons.

According to Win Shares, the top Rookie of the Year season came from Dick Allen in 1964. At 22 years old, Allen played in all 162 games for the Phillies, batting .318/.382/.557 with 29 homers, 38 doubles, 13 triples, 91 RBIs and 125 runs scored. He ranked 5th in the NL in batting average, 7th in on-base percentage and 3rd in slugging percentage. Allen led the league in runs scored, total bases, triples and extra-base hits, and finished 7th in the MVP balloting. To put that in some context, his rookie season was worth 41 Win Shares, which is exactly how many Albert Pujols had last season.

The worst Rookie of the Year season of all-time is a tie, between Ken Hubbs in 1962 and John Castino in 1979. Hubbs hit .260/.299/.346 in 160 games for the Cubs, which comes out to an OPS+ of 70. Castino played 148 games for the Twins and batted .285/.331/.397, which was good for an OPS+ of 93. Both Hubbs and Castino had nine Win Shares in their rookie years.

Between Allen at the top and Castino and Hubbs at the bottom, there is a wide assortment of players and seasons, all of whom have one thing in common – they were voted as the best rookie in the league that year.

Of the 114 total winners, 85 were hitters and 29 were pitchers. By those numbers, pitchers seem under-represented, receiving just 25% of the awards. In recent years however, pitchers have won slightly more often. Since 1995, six pitchers have won the award, compared to 12 hitters.

The average Rookie of the Year season was worth 19.4 Win Shares. Last year’s winners were both below-average in that respect, with Willis checking in with 14 WS and Berroa with 16.

So, now that we know a little bit about the 114 Rookie of the Year winners, let’s take a look at how they performed in their sophomore seasons. Since Willis and Berroa have yet to play their second seasons, they are excluded from this little study. That leaves 112 players left to look at (using Win Shares). Of those 112 Rookie of the Year winners…

- 71 declined in their second year (63.4%)
- 37 improved in their second year (33.0%)
- 4 stayed the same in their second year (3.6%)

Here are the largest gainers:

                     ROY     YR1     YR2     +/-
Dwight Gooden       1984      18      33     +15
Cal Ripken Jr.      1982      23      35     +12
John Castino        1979       9      18      +9
Bill Virdon         1955      14      21      +7
Eddie Murray        1977      21      28      +7
Raul Mondesi        1994      15      22      +7
Herb Score          1955      19      26      +6
Tony Oliva          1964      27      33      +6
Darryl Strawberry   1983      18      24      +6
Jeff Bagwell        1991      23      29      +6

Dwight Gooden had the 14th-best season of any Rookie of the Year pitcher in 1984 and still managed to nearly double his Win Shares the next year. After going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 218 innings as a rookie, Gooden was absolutely amazing in his sophomore season, going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA in 276.2 innings, on his way to the National League Cy Young award.

Like Gooden, Cal Ripken Jr. was great in his rookie season and then incredible in his second year. After hitting .264/.317/.475 with 28 homers, 32 doubles, 93 RBIs and 90 runs scored as a rookie, Ripken was the American League MVP in his second year, batting .318/.371/.517 with 27 homers, 47 doubles, 102 RBIs and 121 runs scored.

Our old friend John Castino, owner of the worst Rookie of the Year season ever (along with Hubbs), doubled his Win Shares in year two, hitting .302/.336/.430 with 13 homers and a 103 OPS+.

In all, just two Rookie of the Year winners – Gooden and Ripken – improved by at least 10 Win Shares in their sophomore season. That is vastly different the amount of huge declines:

                     ROY     YR1     YR2     +/-
Mark Fidrych        1976      27       7     -20
Carl Morton         1970      21       4     -17
Walt Dropo          1950      21       5     -16
Joe Black           1952      20       4     -16
Carlton Fisk        1972      33      17     -16
Rick Sutcliffe      1979      16       0     -16
Willie Mays         1951      19       5     -14
Stan Bahnsen        1968      23       9     -14
Joe Charboneau      1980      15       1     -14
Kerry Wood          1998      14       0     -14

And that’s just the “top” 10. In total, there were 26 Rookie of the Year winners who declined by at least 10 Win Shares in their second season.

Mark Fidrych saw the biggest decline. The quirky right-hander had the most Win Shares of any Rookie of the Year pitcher, with 27 in 1976. “The Bird” went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA in 250.1 innings for the Tigers, becoming one of the most popular players in baseball. At 21 years old, he finished second in the AL Cy Young balloting, led the league in ERA and started the All-Star game.

Then, in March of 1977, Fidrych injured his knee while shagging fly balls in the outfield. He returned later in the year and wound up going 6-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 81 innings during his sophomore season, a drop-off of 20 Win Shares from his rookie year. He later had severe arm problems and wound up winning just four major league games after his second season.

Like Fidrych, Kerry Wood took baseball by storm as a 21-year-old, going 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and an amazing 12.58 strikeouts per nine innings. In just his fifth major league start, Wood tied Roger Clemens‘ all-time record for strikeouts in a game, with 20 in a 1-hitter against the Houston Astros.

Also like Fidrych, Wood’s sophomore season was decimated by injuries. After having 14 Win Shares as a rookie in 1998, Wood didn’t pitch a single inning in 1999, after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Rick Sutcliffe saw an even bigger drop than Wood from year one to year two, going from 16 Win Shares as a rookie to zero as a sophomore. Unlike Wood, Sutcliffe pitched plenty in his second year (some Dodger fans might say too much, even), going 3-9 with a 5.56 ERA in 110 innings.

Aside from the “raw” numbers above, another way to look at this would to be use the percentage of Win Shares lost or gained…

The largest gainers:

                     ROY     YR1     YR2        +/-
John Castino        1979       9      18     +100.0
Dwight Gooden       1984      18      33      +83.3
Cal Ripken Jr.      1982      23      35      +52.2
Bill Virdon         1955      14      21      +50.0
Raul Mondesi        1994      15      22      +46.7
Bob Horner          1978      14      19      +35.7
Eddie Murray        1977      21      28      +33.3
Darryl Strawberry   1983      18      24      +33.3
Ken Hubbs           1962       9      12      +33.3
Herb Score          1955      19      26      +31.6

Most of the usual suspects. Castino shows up once again, leading the way by doubling his Win Shares in year two.

The largest decliners:

                     ROY     YR1     YR2        +/-
Rick Sutcliffe      1979      16       0     -100.0
Kerry Wood          1998      14       0     -100.0
Bob Hamelin         1994      12       0     -100.0
Joe Charboneau      1980      15       1      -93.3
Albie Pearson       1958      15       2      -86.7
Sandy Alomar Jr.    1990      15       2      -86.7
Carl Morton         1970      21       4      -81.0
Joe Black           1952      20       4      -80.0
Al Bumbry           1973      17       4      -76.5
Walt Dropo          1950      21       5      -76.2

As you can see, Sutcliffe and Wood are joined by Bob Hamelin as the only three Rookie of the Year winners to have zero Win Shares in their second season. Hamelin won the 1994 AL Rookie of the Year after batting .282/.388/.599 with 24 homers and 25 doubles in 101 games for the Royals. He ranked 5th in the AL in slugging percentage and OPS, 9th in homers and 6th in OPS+. Hamelin then dropped to .168/.278/.312 in 72 games the next year.

Overall, sophomore-year declines dominate the study. 63.4% of the Rookie of the Year winners declined in their second season and just 33.0% improved.

Of the 71 players who declined as sophomores, 52 of them saw their Win Shares drop by at least 25%, 23 of them by 50% or more, and 10 of them by at least 75%.

On the flip side, just 11 players increased their Win Shares by at least 25% in year two and only four improved by 50% or more. Only Castino and Gooden improved by 75% or more as sophomores.

         Decline     Improve
>75%        10           2
>50%        23           4
>25%        52          11
>10%        64          26

In total, the average Rookie of the Year winner from 1947-2002 dropped from 19.5 Win Shares in their rookie season to 15.6 Win Shares in their sophomore year, a decrease of 20%.

As a group, hitters declined far less than pitchers, going from 20.1 Win Shares in year one to 16.8 Win Shares in year two, a drop of 16.4%. Pitchers declined an average of 31.8%, from 17.6 Win Shares as rookies to 12.0 Win Shares as sophomores.

The “sophomore slump” may be a cliche at this point, but it is obviously very real, at least in regard to major league Rookie of the Year winners. History is not on the side of Dontrelle Willis and Angel Berroa having big seasons in 2004. However, the two sophomores who improved their raw Win Shares the most from their rookie seasons were a National League starting pitcher (Gooden) and an American League shortstop (Ripken), so you never know.

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