They Can’t All Be George Springer

This just in — George Springer is really good. Like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Yasiel Puig, and seemingly a bevy of other players the past few years, Springer is making it look super easy. But it really doesn’t always happen this way. Prospects frequently struggle when they reach the majors, even if they go on to long and productive careers. To demonstrate, I thought I would run through the list of rookie position players from the Wild Card era (minimum 350 plate appearances) and cross reference it with the Baseball America top 100 prospects database to give us a few examples of players who didn’t leap to immediate stardom in their inaugural campaigns.

Really, Really Bad: Ray Durham, 1995 (ranked 28th by Baseball America)
One of the more underrated players of the late 90’s-early 2000’s, for seven straight seasons, and in eight of nine seasons, Durham was worth at least 2.7 WAR. He was an above-average hitter, which is generally not in large supply at the keystone, and while he wasn’t the slickest of fielders, he eventually got good enough to not be a total disaster. His -81.4 Fld mark for his career is a little misleading. In his first five seasons in the majors, he tallied a -75 Fld, but his total across the remaining nine seasons of his career was -6.3. He essentially was below average in one season and then above average in the next.

But, oh, that rookie season. He graduated on April 26 of his age-23 season, and actually did hit pretty well in his initial weeks. From his debut to the end of May, he posted a 111 wRC+. But from June 1 to the season’s end, he posted just a 73 wRC+. Tack in a woeful -22 showing on defense, and you have yourself a -1.4 WAR campaign. Durham would go on to have a pretty nice career for himself — his 30.1 WAR ranks 59th among second basemen all-time (30th since 1947) — but things didn’t look so hot at the end of his rookie campaign.

Really Bad: Brandon Phillips, 2003 (ranked seventh by Baseball America)
Once upon a time, the Indians heisted Phillips away from the Expos. Later upon a time, the Reds heisted Phillips away from the Indians. Of course, at the time of the latter deal, we were past the point of worrying about Phillips. That’s because of what happened in between, during his rookie campaign in 2003. To say Phillips hit poorly would be an understatement. Of the 341 players on this list, only two posted a worse wRC+ than the 44 wRC+ Phillips tallied in ’03 — Cristian Guzman and Jack Wilson. He was a positive force on the bases and in the field, so his WAR wasn’t dragged down too far, but the weight of his .208/.242/.311 line still sank to him to sub-replacement level.

The .247 batting average on balls in play that Phillips posted that season is by far his low for any season in which he had real playing time, but the Indians had seen enough. He was essentially exiled. Thanks in part to that stinker of a rookie campaign combined with Ronnie Belliard having the two best seasons of his career, Phillips never did get another shot in Cleveland. Upon arrival in Cincinnati, he immediately cracked 17 homers, and has hit at least that many in the seven seasons since. He’s also been worth at least 2.6 WAR in each of the past seven seasons. Both streaks are in jeopardy of ending this season, but there’s still time.

Bad: Prince Fielder, 2006 (ranked 11th by Baseball America)
Sure, he hit 28 homers, and that’s nothing to scoff at, but it wasn’t really all that impressive either. Fielder got two token vote points in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, but he wasn’t a serious competitor for the award. He had his worst defensive season, and while his bat hinted at intimidation, it didn’t really get all the way there in that first year. His .213 ISO was nice, but the next year he ratcheted it up to .330. That 50-homer season helped really launch Fielder’s career in a way his rookie season didn’t. At 0.9 WAR, it was pedestrian at best.

Not Good: Mark Teixeira, 2003 (ranked first by Baseball America)
Again, Tex wasn’t exactly awful in his rookie campaign, but after you’re ranked #1 in the game, a 105 wRC+ feels like a little bit of a let down. The .259 average likely didn’t help much either. Sure, he hit 26 homers, and he played what would become his trademark good defense, but he was a clogger on the bases. He did manage five triples somehow, which is easily his career best. But that 105 wRC+ ranked just 17th out of 23 qualified first basemen that season. Teixeira would go on to post 3 WAR or better in each of the next eight seasons — and is over 40 WAR now for his career — but in his rookie campaign he only tallied 1.9.

There are so many other names that I didn’t pick out of the hat, players who tallied less than 2 WAR in their rookie seasons and spent time on prospect lists of one kind or another over the years — Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano, Torii Hunter, Shawn Green, Magglio Ordonez, Robinson Cano, Coco Crisp, Carlos Lee, Freddie Freeman, Matt Holliday, Ian Kinsler and Matt Wieters, to name just a few. Just because George Springer is posting a 129 wRC+ in his rookie season doesn’t mean that everyone will.

Of course, some players who don’t fare well in their rookie seasons really aren’t destined for great things. I’m certainly not holding out much hope for Aaron Hicks, for instance. But if your prospect du jour doesn’t hit the ground running, fret not, there’s still time.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Frank
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Frank

…32% k% doesn’t exactly scream “making it look easy”. Obvious talent, but he has an unreasonable HR/FB rate, and serious strikeout issues.

TIF
Guest
TIF

Springer showed legit and consistent power in the minors, so I don’t know why the HR rate is unsustainable. The strikeout rate is alarming, but he also takes enough walks to justify it. Right now he’s almost a complete 3 true outcome guy and that’s still a pretty good player by any standard.

tz
Guest
tz

Kind of like Mike Cameron with less glove and more power.

Belloc
Guest
Belloc

In other words, nothing like Mike Cameron.

Loreli
Guest
Loreli

@Belloc
They’re both black.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest

No, Mike Cameron is an excellent comp. People have been giving that as his best case for years.

Belloc
Guest
Belloc

Cool Lester Smooth:

I don’t know why people insist upon comparing baseball players as if they were houses or plots of land. One can use a metric like WAR or RC to compare the value of players. But George Springer is like George Springer, and Mike Cameron is like Mike Cameron. Why can’t we leave it at that?

Cameron’s value was heavily defined by his defense. If you are comparing an outfielder who has poor range to Mike Cameron, then the comparison falls apart immediately. It would be like comparing Joey Votto to Willie Mays because both players have nearly identical career wOBA and wRC+. It is downright silly to say, “Joey Votto is just like Willie Mays, only without the speed, glove, arm, superior athleticism, and with less power. But Votto walks a lot more than Mays did. So they’re great comps.”

a eskpert
Guest
a eskpert

A main reason for the entire sabrmetrics movement is that people want to be able to compare players, from era to era. Patterns and similarities are exciting. But when you have a truly incomparable player, like Trout, who really has no equal in terms of the magnitude and distribution of his skill set, it gets really interesting.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest

Springer doesn’t have poor range, though, he’s supposed to be a quite good defensive CF.

Further, he profiles very similarly to Cameron offensively, longterm.

Obviously, people who don’t know anything more about Springer than his FanGraphs page don’t get the comparison (since he hasn’t had a good UZR in RF so far, after being primarily a CF in his entire career to date), but those of us who have followed him at all do.

Spa City
Member
Spa City

I was thinking he is a bit like Sid Bream, but with better speed, power and defense and he doesn’t bat left-handedly and he plays a different position. But they both draw/drew a lot of walks.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest

Well, that’s not as silly as comparing a high-strikeout, high-power good defensive CF with good speed to another high-strikeout, high power good defensive CF with good speed!

Clearly, the only parallel between Cameron and Springer is their skin color.

BMB
Guest
BMB

Here are HR/FB rates since 2011-current (min 250 PA, >20% HR/FB Rate):

1 Jose Abreu 33.8 %
2 Jim Thome 25.3 %
3 Giancarlo Stanton 25.2 %
4 Chris Davis 24.9 %
5 George Springer 23.8 %
6 Darin Ruf 23.4 %
7 George Kottaras 23.2 %
8 Juan Francisco 22.8 %
9 Mike Napoli 22.1 %
10 Pedro Alvarez 21.8 %
11 Chris Colabello 21.6 %
12 Khris Davis 21.4 %
13 Miguel Cabrera 21.3 %
14 Adam Dunn 21.2 %
15 Andruw Jones 20.5 %
16 Michael Morse 20.4 %
17 Mark Trumbo 20.4 %
18 Brandon Moss 20.4 %
19 Carlos Gonzalez 20.3 %
20 Ryan Howard 20.2 %

I’d say Springer’s HR/FB rate is probably a little high, but he could definitely be in the 20% range. But he also has a 43% FB rate, so that would easily extrapolate to 30-35 HR power with 600 ABs, even with 30% strikeout rate. Now if only he would run more…

Sean
Guest
Sean

Ya gotta think the team is discouraging him from running, right now.

BMB
Guest
BMB

That’s possibly true, but not sure what the reason would be. He’s a young buck, not exactly at a higher risk for injury due to trying to steal a few bags. They let him run in the minors, so whats the diff now? You would think they would be more careful with him maybe if he was under a long-term contract, but he’s not.

Scoko
Guest
Scoko

If you have seen how hard he swings you would understand the HR/FB rate. The contact he makes is not comparable to an average player. He will always have high HR/FB and BABIP.

Sean
Guest
Sean

Such a violent swing every single time, no matter the count.

Spit Ball
Guest
Spit Ball

Just Like Dustin Pedroia :p