For These Teams, Letting the Kids Play Has Paid Off

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The rookies took the spotlight this past Saturday in Baltimore, as the Orioles battled the Rays and clinched their first playoff berth since 2016 via an 8-0 victory. Leading the way on the offensive side was 22-year-old Gunnar Henderson, who led off the first inning with a first-pitch single off Tyler Glasnow and came around to score the game’s first run, then added a two-run homer in the second and an RBI single in the fourth, helping to stake rookie starter Grayson Rodriguez to a 5-0 lead. The 23-year-old righty turned in the best start of his brief big league career, spinning eight shutout innings while striking out seven and allowing just five baserunners. A day later, when the Orioles beat the Rays in 11 innings to reclaim the AL East lead, a trio of rookies — Shintaro Fujinami, Yennier Cano, and DL Hall — combined to allow just one hit and one unearned run over the final three frames.

Earlier this month, colleague Chris Gilligan highlighted the contributions of this year’s rookie class. With just under four weeks to go in the regular season at that point, rookie pitchers and position players had combined to produce more WAR than all but three other classes since the turn of the millennium. Collectively they’re now second only to the Class of 2015 (more on which below), and since the publication of that piece, four teams besides the Orioles, all heavy with rookie contributions, have made headway in the playoff races. The Dodgers clinched the NL West for the 10th time in 11 years on Saturday, while the Mariners and Diamondbacks are clinging to Wild Card spots, and the Reds are in the thick of the NL race as well.

With that in mind, I figured it would be worth exploring the contributions of rookies to each team. For this, our snazzy leaderboards helpfully include a checkbox that limits the statistics to players who at the outset of this season met the basic rookie requirements: fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors. However, one caveat to keep in mind is that these leaderboards include players who may have exceeded the cutoff of 45 days on an active major league roster (not an injured list). Case in point: the Rays’ Luke Raley, who entered the season with 127 career at-bats (144 plate appearances) but lingered on the roster of the 2021 Dodgers long enough to surpass 45 days. He’s ineligible for consideration in Rookie of the Year voting, but is included within the data here, because for the purposes of this article I’m less interested in handing out the hardware than I am in exploring the extent to which these players with minimal major league experience have risen to the occasion (or not) this season.

Anyway, to the leaderboards, which are sortable (note that all statistics are through Tuesday, September 19):

Rookie Contributions by Team
Team PA wRC+ Pos WAR IP ERA FIP Pitch WAR Tot WAR
CIN 2387 106 8.3 440.2 5.04 4.73 4.8 13.1
CLE 1320 85 2.5 565.0 3.92 4.27 6.4 9.0
SEA 518 93 2.6 452.2 3.62 3.76 5.8 8.4
ARI 1262 110 6.7 581.1 4.97 5.02 1.5 8.2
LAD 954 101 3.8 367.2 5.29 4.33 3.9 7.7
BAL 1021 100 4.5 315.1 3.97 3.95 3.1 7.6
KCR 1341 85 4.6 334.1 4.50 4.39 2.3 6.8
MIN 832 141 6.3 223.0 4.88 5.00 -0.4 5.9
OAK 1788 100 4.5 647.1 5.92 5.05 0.8 5.3
MIL 1525 81 4.6 177.2 4.86 4.61 0.6 5.2
NYM 1003 83 1.6 296.2 4.00 4.15 3.4 5.0
TBR 702 116 3.3 280.0 5.08 4.57 1.4 4.7
HOU 875 88 1.1 411.1 4.55 4.69 2.9 3.9
DET 563 112 2.2 386.2 4.77 4.55 1.6 3.9
COL 1622 69 2.5 322.2 6.33 4.91 1.2 3.7
BOS 1719 107 3.0 248.0 4.90 4.58 0.6 3.6
SFG 1490 76 2.1 223.1 4.31 4.10 1.3 3.4
TEX 562 111 2.6 132.0 5.59 4.72 0.3 2.9
NYY 974 72 1.5 238.2 3.92 4.58 0.9 2.5
TOR 194 156 2.1 84.0 3.54 4.22 0.3 2.4
MIA 178 71 -0.1 324.0 3.61 4.27 2.4 2.3
PHI 353 98 1.8 104.0 4.41 4.58 0.4 2.2
WSN 1031 77 1.3 343.1 5.16 5.17 0.8 2.1
PIT 1655 69 -0.9 527.1 4.92 4.54 2.6 1.8
SDP 257 98 0.5 250.0 4.21 4.57 0.9 1.4
STL 1046 93 -1.3 196.1 5.50 4.09 2.6 1.2
CHC 420 76 0.0 275.0 4.25 4.89 0.6 0.6
LAA 744 75 -0.5 172.2 4.69 4.93 0.2 -0.3
ATL 26 5 -0.3 166.1 5.14 5.40 0.0 -0.3
CHW 644 47 -2.5 212.0 4.80 4.27 2.0 -0.6
Rookies defined as players who entered the season with fewer than 130 career at-bats or 50 innings pitched, though they may have exceeded the maximum of 45 days on an active major league roster.

That’s a total of 123.7 WAR, moving the Class of 2023 past those of 2012 (112.1) and 2006 (119.6), with the Class of 2015’s 126.8 within reach before the season ends (like me, Chris did not remove the active roster-time exceptions from his accounting). Meanwhile, the Orioles are “only” sixth among the 30 teams in total rookie WAR. The runaway leader is the Reds, whose rookies account for a whopping 53% of the team’s total of 24.9 WAR. And is there something in the water in Ohio? The Guardians are second overall, and first in rookie pitching WAR. They’re the only one of the top six teams here that at this stage isn’t contending for a playoff spot.

Let’s zoom in for a closer look at each of those top teams.

Reds

How do you rebound from a dismal 100-loss season? Get better players, dummy! The Reds have done just that and have the highest rookie position player WAR, with manager David Bell often fielding a lineup in which the majority of players are rookies, and sometimes an entire infield of ’em. In the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Angels on August 23, the Reds put out eight rookies: pitcher Lyon Richardson, first baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand, second baseman Matt McLain, shortstop Elly De La Cruz, third baseman Noelvi Marte, left fielder TJ Hopkins, right fielder Will Benson (another player who has surpassed the roster-time threshold), and designated hitter Spencer Steer. The next day against the Diamondbacks, they had seven, with Steer taking over left field and lefty Brandon Williamson on the mound.

The 25-year-old Steer, who placed 47th on our preseason Top 100 Prospects list, has made the largest contribution in terms of playing time (148 games), hitting a robust .269/.358/.458 (117 wRC+) with 22 homers and 15 steals in 628 PA. He’s played all over the place: 68 games at first base in place of the injured Joey Votto, 47 at third, 39 in left field, 16 at second, and two in right, plus six at DH. Glovework hasn’t been his strong suit, limiting his total contribution to 2.0 WAR, but his positional flexibility, and that of McLain (53 games at shortstop, 37 at second base), De La Cruz (61 at short, 32 at third), and Encarnacion-Strand (31 at first, seven at third) has helped Bell to mix and match.

The most valuable of the Reds rookies has been the 23-year-old McLain, a May addition to our Top 100. The 2021 first-round pick has hit .290/.357/.507 (128 wRC+) with 16 homers and 15 steals in 403 PA en route to 3.2 WAR; he’s currently rehabbing from an oblique strain but should be back next week. De La Cruz, who at no. 6 was their highest-rated prospect this spring, offering plus-plus power, speed and arm strength, has scuffled at the plate (.231/.297/.397, 80 wRC+ and a 34% strikeout rate). Nonetheless, he has stolen 29 bases and has offered some of the season’s most memorable highlights while producing 1.3 WAR. The 21-year-old Marte, the centerpiece of last summer’s Luis Castillo trade and no. 94 on the Top 100 this spring, has hit .304/.368/.405 (109 wRC+) in 87 PA while mainly playing third. The 25-year-old Benson has wielded a potent bat (.269/.360/.496, 125 wRC+, 1.6 WAR) while splitting time between the outfield corners.

Pitching-wise, the 25-year-old Williamson has been solid (4.56 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 106.2 IP, 1.7 WAR), but more impressive has been 24-year-old lefty (and April Top 100 addition) Andrew Abbott (3.68 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 102.2 IP), whose 2.1 WAR leads the Reds’ staff. Fernando Cruz, a 33-year-old righty who spent 2016-18 in the independent Canadian-American League as well as time in Mexico and just about every Caribbean winter league, has been the team’s second-most valuable reliever (1.5 WAR) while making 54 appearances totaling 61.2 innings, with an eye-opening 35.8% strikeout rate and a 2.74 FIP.

The rookie Reds’ total contribution in terms of WAR is currently tied for sixth among teams since the start of the millennium:

Highest WAR from Rookies Since 2001
Team Season PA WAR IP WAR Tot WAR
OAK 2012 1692 6.3 907.2 12.5 18.8
FLA 2006 3795 8.5 830.0 8.8 17.2
TBR 2018 2002 7.2 670.2 7.6 14.8
TBR 2021 1136 6.1 602.2 8.3 14.4
NYY 2017 1042 8.3 337.0 5.8 14.0
CIN 2023 2387 8.3 440.2 4.8 13.1
LAD 2016 1324 6.8 476.1 6.2 13.1
COL 2016 1515 6.5 472.0 6.3 12.9
PHI 2015 1520 7.1 529.1 5.5 12.6
ATL 2022 601 5.8 278.0 6.7 12.5

There’s a whole article to be written here but just briefly, that pack of 2012 A’s rookies was led by starters Jarrod Parker (3.7 WAR) and Tommy Milone (3.1), and relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook (both 1.6). Yoenis Cespedes (4.0), Chris Carter (1.5) and Josh Donaldson (1.2) made the most notable contributions on the offensive side while helping the A’s win 94 games and the AL West title. Last year’s champion Braves, of course, had huge contributions from NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II (4.9 WAR) and runner-up Spencer Strider (4.9), plus Dylan Lee (1.1), Bryce Elder (0.8) and Vaughn Grissom (0.7). Also from 2022 and just missing the cutoff for my table: the 13th-ranked Mariners (11.1 WAR, led by Julio Rodríguez‘s 5.4, George Kirby‘s 3.0, and Andrés Muñoz‘s 1.9) and the 20th-ranked Orioles (9.5 WAR, led by Adley Rutschman‘s 5.4 WAR, Félix Bautista‘s 1.4, and Bryan Baker’s 1.3).

Guardians

The outlier among the leaders in that they’re just 72-80, the Guardians have gotten stellar work from 24-year-old righty Tanner Bibee, whose 3.1 WAR leads the staff and all AL rookies. He’s pitched to a 2.98 ERA and 3.52 FIP in 142 innings, but his season ended abruptly on Monday when he was placed on the 15-day IL due to right hip inflammation. Bibee is one of three Guardians who placed in the spring Top 100 and has made significant contributions to the rotation. Logan Allen, a 25-year-old lefty who placed 57th, has been the team’s second-most valuable starter (1.7 WAR in 125.1 IP), while Gavin Williams, a 24-year-old righty who placed 81st, has been solid in about half a season of work (1.1 WAR in 82 IP).

On the offensive side, catcher Bo Naylor (no. 45 preseason) has been a big addition to an all-too-punchless team, hitting .236/.336/.451 with nine homers and a 118 wRC+ in 211 PA en route to 2.1 WAR. Right fielder Will Brennan (82 wRC+, 0.8 WAR) and utilityman Gabriel Arias (78 wRC+, 0.5 WAR) have played a lot but haven’t produced enough, highlighting just how thin the team’s offense is.

Mariners

Bryce Miller, the lone Mariner in the Top 100 (83rd), has helped soften the blow caused by the loss of Robbie Ray after just one start due to a flexor strain. The 25-year-old righty is fourth on the staff with 2.3 WAR while delivering 123 innings with a 3.88 ERA and 3.66 FIP. Bryan Woo, a 23-year-old righty who jumped to the majors after just nine starts in Double-A, has added 1.4 WAR in 80.2 innings while filling in for the injured Marco Gonzales. Justin Topa, a 32-year-old reliever who has overcome two Tommy John surgeries, is second on the staff with 69 appearances and has produced 1.1 WAR via a 2.42 ERA and 3.16 FIP. Gabe Speier, a 28-year-old lefty, and Tayler Saucedo, a 30-year-old lefty, are respectively third and fourth on the team with 64 and 48 appearances, though their impact in terms of WAR (0.6 for the former, 0.3 for the latter) has been modest; both surpassed the roster-time threshold in 2021.

Lineup-wise, 27-year-old infielder José Caballero has lost playing time lately due to a slump, but he’s been an on-base machine (.225/.351/.329, 101 wRC+) and has swiped 26 bases in 29 attempts. He’s totaled 2.2 WAR while playing second (61 games), short (19 games) and third (nine games). Cade Marlowe, a 26-year-old rookie, only played 34 games but did a commendable job (.239/.330/.420, 110 wRC+, 0.9 WAR) of filling in for the injured Jarred Kelenic. On the other hand, deadline acquisition Dominic Canzone has struggled (74 wRC+, -0.3 WAR), though he did hit his sixth home run of the season in yesterday’s win against the A’s.

Diamondbacks

Even with an early-July shoulder issue that has sapped his power somewhat, Corbin Carroll — who placed second on our Top 100 list this spring — has simply been one of the majors’ best players. In Wednesday’s 7-1 win over the Giants, he made history, hitting his 25th homer and stealing his 49th and 50th base to become the first AL/NL rookie to reach the 25-50 plateau in the same season.

Updating his stats to included Wednesday’s game, his 5.7 WAR ranks fifth in the NL and leads all rookies in either league, making him the runaway favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year honors and a likely recipient of down-ballot MVP votes. The 23-year-old lefty has hit .286/.363/.511 (135 wRC+) with 25 homers, but his contributions hardly end there. He’s added a major league-high 13.5 runs via his 99th-percentile sprint speed, baserunning smarts, and a 91% success rate stealing bases, and while splitting time between all three outfield positions, he’s been respectable to above-average in the three major defensive metrics (4 RAA, 2.6 UZR, -2 DRS). In the coming years, he could very well join the 30-30 club and the MVP mix.

Among the Diamondbacks’ other young contributors on the offensive side are catcher Gabriel Moreno (103 wRC+, 1.5 WAR) and outfielder Dominic Fletcher (112 wRC+, 0.6 WAR); the latter did that in just 102 PA before returning to Triple-A Reno and suffering a season-ending finger fracture. (Moreno exceeded the roster-time threshold in 2022 despite just 69 AB.) Pitching-wise, Ryne Nelson (no. 89 preseason), Tommy Henry (exceeded the roster-time threshold in 2022), and Brandon Pfaadt (no. 16 preseason) have combined for 58 starts, with four others adding another nine, but they’ve generally taken their lumps, with Henry and Nelson (each 0.7 WAR) leading the pack in value.

Dodgers

Between last winter’s non-tendering of Cody Bellinger and this spring’s injury of Gavin Lux pulling both Mookie Betts and Chris Taylor into the infield mix, the Dodgers looked comparatively thin in the outfield early in the season, but James Outman has risen to the occasion. The 26-year-old center fielder entered the season rated as a 40 FV prospect by Eric Longenhagen, no. 26 on FanGraphs’ Dodgers list (though other outlets had him higher). While he’s struck out 32.1% of the time — highlighting some of the questions about his hit tool and lower standing in prospect circles — and struggled mightily in May and June, he’s hit .245/.353/.432 with 21 homers and 15 steals overall. Combined with his in-season improvement in center field, his 4.0 WAR is third among rookie position players behind Carroll and Henderson.

On the other side of the ball, the team lost both Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin to Tommy John surgery, and Julio Urías is now on administrative leave as the league investigates allegations of domestic violence. Fortunately, 24-year-old righty Bobby Miller has risen to the occasion after making just eight starts at Triple-A Oklahoma City (four late last year, four early this year). Miller, who entered the year second on the team’s prospect list and 33rd overall, has been dazzling at times, reaching triple digits with his fastball more often than any other starter (129 times) and complementing that with one of the game’s best sliders (PitchingBot grades it as a 69 in a 20-80 scale, while Stuff+ scores it at 154, with 100 being average). Miller has pitched to a 4.02 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 107.1 innings, good for 2.2 WAR, and manager Dave Roberts has already indicated he’ll start one of the team’s first two games in the Division Series.

Elsewhere in the decimated rotation, Michael Grove, Emmet Sheehan, Gavin Stone (no. 59 preseason), and Ryan Pepiot have combined for 28 starts, 11 relief appearances (mainly in bulk roles) and 1.1 WAR; with the exception of Pepiot, who has produced 0.5 WAR in 33 innings since his August 19 return from a season-long absence due to an oblique strain, they’ve mostly shown they’re not ready for prime time. Likewise for second baseman Miguel Vargas (no. 48 preseason), who was sent back to Triple-A Oklahoma City after a rough first half (85 wRC+, 0.1 WAR)

Orioles

Henderson topped our Top 100 Prospects list this past spring after a strong cup of coffee last season, during which he hit for a 127 wRC+ in 132 PA; he fell 16 at-bats short of the cutoff of 130. This season, he’s hit .261/.328/.500 with 27 homers and a 126 wRC+ while doing outstanding work on defense, whether he’s playing shortstop or third base, which he’s done in roughly equal proportions. His 4.5 WAR leads all Orioles and ranks ninth in the AL. It’s tops among AL rookies by nearly two full wins, so he could capture the Rookie of the Year award that eluded Rutschman last year. The other rookie who’s made a notable contribution to the lineup has been 2020 first-round pick Jordan Westburg, who’s hit .266/.316/.415 (100 wRC+) and produced 1.1 WAR in 44 games at second base and 26 at third.

Rodriguez, 17th on our Top 100 list this spring, had a rougher introduction to the majors, getting knocked around for a 7.35 ERA and 5.91 FIP in 10 starts totaling 45.2 innings before optioned to Triple-A Norfolk in late May. He’s been much improved since returning in mid-August, delivering a 2.59 ERA and 2.91 FIP in 11 starts totaling 66 innings — the kind of performance that if maintained over a full season would fit squarely into a Cy Young race. His 4.13 FIP is second among the team’s starters and his 1.4 WAR (in just 111.1 innings) is third; he’ll get the ball in a Division Series game.

The team’s biggest rookie contribution on the pitching side in terms of WAR has been Cano, who’s ridden his sinkerball to a 1.94 ERA, 2.96 FIP and 1.5 WAR; in the wake of Bautista’s UCL sprain, he’s done the bulk of the closing. Fujinami, who was acquired from the A’s in July, and Hall, have combined for 0.2 WAR apiece in limited duty. Mike Baumann, who’s technically not a rookie due to roster time, is third on the team with 58 appearances and is carrying a flashy 10-1 record in relief, but has netted zero WAR.

There’s more to be said about these rookies and a few other teams; for example, I haven’t even mentioned Edouard Julien, Royce Lewis, and Matt Wallner, who account for the entirety of the Twins’ third-place ranking among the position players while combining for a 141 wRC+. They’ll take the stage in October, and it will be exciting to see so many of the youngsters above join them.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

21 Comments
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Mac Quinnmember
5 months ago

Damon Oppenheimer still having his job 20 years in when not just teams that tanked, but every-year winning teams like the Dodgers and Rays seemingly debut more above-average position players every year than he’s found in his entire tenure feels like it could only be the result of a complacent team owner scared to move on from anyone his dad hired.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
5 months ago
Reply to  Mac Quinn

I had to look him up. I’d never heard of him

PC1970
5 months ago
Reply to  Mac Quinn

So, you’re saying Oppenheimer bombed?

PitchesBrew
5 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

I am become scouting director, destroyer of prospects.

Lunch Anglemember
5 months ago
Reply to  Mac Quinn

I don’t think Damon Oppenheimer is a household name lol

disgruntled Yankees fan? You got a lot to be mad about this year but I wouldn’t hate on the Yankees player acquisition and development. I’d say they’re better than most teams. And that’s even if you didn’t count literally Aaron Judge.