It was roughly a month ago that I wrote the post that Ryan Schimpf made necessary. Schimpf is 28 years old, and 28-year-old rookies tend not to merit a lot of attention. There have obviously been some great, older players to produce fantastic debut seasons — like Ichiro Suzuki, for example, or Jackie Robinson. This post, however, isn’t concerned with those players who were kept from the game because they played professionally elsewhere or were unable to play due to systemic racism. Rather, the present post attempts to remedy the lack of awareness for players in a situation like Schimpf’s — older players who make the most of their opportunity — both this year and in those that preceded it.
While Schimpf is certainly the best of the lot this season, he’s not alone among older guys in their rookie seasons this year. The chart below shows the rookies who are at least 27 years old and have recorded at least 100 plate appearances (and who didn’t sign as professional free agents before the season e.g. Byung-ho Park).
|Brett Eibner||– – –||27||127||5||.209||.270||.391||72||-4.1||3.9||0.4|
Jeremy Hazelbaker took a path fairly similar to Schimpf, moving from the Red Sox to the Dodgers to the Cardinals, who finally gave him a bit of a chance this season. Parker was drafted by the Giants, has hit in virtually every stop and debuted last year for San Francisco — and is back with the team this season after spending much of the season in the minors. Merrifield progressed slowly with the Royals, eventually making Omar Infante expendable, but ended up back in the minors last month with Kansas City giving Raul Mondesi a shot. Shawn O’Malley was drafted 10 years ago and received only brief exposure at the major-league level in both 2014 and 2015 before appearing this season. Eibner was traded for Billy Burns earlier this year, and the A’s are making a bet that Eibner’s success in the minors can translate to the bigs if given the chance. Tyler Holt is a speedy, low-power player who has gotten to the majors in each of the past three years.
Looking at the list above, it’s pretty clear that Schimpf is in his own league, at least as far as this year goes. As far as direct comparisons go, Schimpf doesn’t have many peers. If you look over the past 50 years for 28-year-old-and-older rookies with at least 200 plate appearances in their debut season who have posted both (a) at least 2.0 WAR and (b) a wRC+ over 100, the only person on that list with Schimpf is Jim Norris, a 28-year-old outfielder who played with the Cleveland Indians in 1977 and who put up a 102 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR in 517 plate appearances. However, if we open things up a bit and look for the best old-rookie seasons, we come up with a few more memorable names (with apologies to Jim Norris).
In the last 50 years, there have been 190 players at least 27 years of age who have recorded 220 plate appearances or more in their rookie season — basically an average of four such players per season. Of that group, 51 recorded zero wins or less. Another 62 players produced under 1.0 WAR. There are another 47 with at least 1.0 WAR but under 2.0 and a few of those merit some consideration. Nine of them had at least a 120 wRC+, and those players are on the chart below:
In 2006, Esteban German had quite the rookie season, although it was actually his fifth season in the big leagues, and he failed to garner any Rookie of the Year votes, as Justin Verlander won in a landslide, with Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Liriano falling in behind Verlander. Troy Neel played in 1994 but, after the strike, moved to Japan, where he played for several years. Satin was drafted at 23, and made the majors by 26, but only got one extended run in the majors a few years ago. Benny Agbayani had a good two-year run with the Mets in 1999 and 2000, but fell off thereafter. Curtis Pride, one off few deaf baseball players in MLB history, has an incredible story, debuting in Montreal in 1993 and getting a some playing time with the Tigers several years later. Willingham had a lengthy MLB career after making his debut several years before his rookie season. Baker had a solid career as a backup catcher, Daugherty debuted in 1987 at 26, and Kelvin Chapman actually debuted in 1979 before getting back to the majors five years later.
There are only 13 older rookies on the position-player side who recorded at least 2.5 WAR in their rookie seasons.
Ryan Schimpf isn’t on this list yet — he’s currently at 2.1 WAR and our projections have him getting very close to the 2.5 mark — but Mike Aviles appears to take the cake for older rookies. Aviles had the poor luck of being a rookie in the same season as Evan Longoria, while Milligan had the poor luck of being in an era that voted for relievers, as Gregg Olson and Tom Gordon (who started and relieved that season) took the top two spots. Santangelo, Sanchez, and Lopes relied on defense for their impressive WAR totals. Podsednik finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Dontrelle Willis. Luke Scott is the only player above with a higher wRC+ than Schimpf in a similar number of plate appearances.
Garrett Jones probably had the most similar start to Ryan Schimpf, hitting 21 home runs in just 358 plate appearances. Jones put together a decent career before his release by the Yankees last season, finishing with 122 home runs and a 106 wRC+ over 3,228 plate appearances. Hal Breeden, who just missed the cut, also had a similar season for the Expos in 1973, hitting 15 homers with a 141 wRC+ over 290 plate appearances. Older rookies don’t have what we might call a great or rich history, but quite a few guys who didn’t show up made differences in their rookie seasons and went on to decent careers.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.