Right now, the top of the MLB position player WAR leaderboard looks like this:
Besides all having excellent first halves of the 2010 season, and generally being high quality players all around, these five have something else in common – they were all pretty awful in their first trip around the big leagues.
To illustrate the point, here’s their WAR per 600 PA for something equivalent to their “rookie year” – several of these guys had half seasons in several different years, so I’ve combined those into one “year” and then extrapolated the number to an equivalent of one full season’s worth of plate appearances.
Morneau, 2003-2004, +1.1 WAR
Cano, 2005, +0.2 WAR
Crawford, 2002, +1.3 WAR
Rios, 2004, +2.1 WAR
Gonzalez, 2004-2005, -2.3 WAR
Morneau flashed some power, but didn’t hit for much of an average or draw enough walks to be useful at the start of his career. Cano didn’t walk and couldn’t field his position. Crawford was excellent defensively but couldn’t hit. Rios was like Crawford, but with even less power. And Gonzalez was just all kinds of terrible.
Of the five, only Crawford came up at a really young age. The rest were 22 or 23 and were coming off successful stints in the minors, offering hope that they could contribute right away. Pretty much across the board, they came up and stunk up the joint at the plate. Crawford and Rios were able to rescue themselves a little bit with their athleticism on defense, but none of them were able to quickly translate their minor league success at the plate to the big leagues.
I said all of this to say don’t give up on talented young players who struggle in their first taste of the majors. Whether its Justin Smoak, Matt LaPorta, Michael Saunders, or even Mike Stanton, patience is a virtue. Writing off a young player who doesn’t hit immediately upon arrival is a great way to get burned – just ask the Rangers whether they’d like to have Gonzalez back right now.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.