Heading into the 2014 season, many of us are expecting big things from, say, Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox or Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras of the Cardinals. Or maybe it's Nick Castellanos of the Tigers we expect to thrive, or George Springer of the Astros.
Each year, the names change, but just as reliably each year brings a sense of anticipation with regard to pending rookie hitters. Inevitably, though, some of these rookie hitters will disappoint in their first exposure to baseball at the highest level.
Anecdotally, it seems we expect a steeper learning curve for the rookie pitcher, seeing as how his craft is so much more vulnerable to imbalances in the mental approach and "micro" flaws embedded within the many moving parts of the delivery. Hitters, though, we expect to adapt more easily because, as difficult as hitting major-league pitching self-evidently is, the skills, we believe, should translate more readily when compared to their hurling counterparts. This isn't always the case, though.
After an 0-for-5 performance on Tuesday, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton, who's almost unanimously regarded as the top prospect in all of baseball, admitted that the speed of the major-league game is a challenge, even for someone who cut a swath through the upper rungs of the minors. It follows, then, that some rookie hitters will be overmatched. For a healthy subset of those who are overmatched, however, it's but a temporary condition. Do we too often forget that? I think so.
To put a finer point on this, let's take a look at a laundry-list of eventual Hall of Famers who, in their rookie seasons, fell well shy of the brilliance to come. Specifically, these are current HoFers who in their rookie campaigns put up an OPS+ -- i.e., OPS adjusted to reflect park and league conditions -- of 90 (or 10 percent less than the league average) or worse. Have a look ...
(Data courtesy of the lovely and talented Baseball-Reference Play Index)
Needless to say, you've got some luminaries on this list. Clemente. Rickey. Cobb. Yount. Kaline. Gehringer. Sure, there are some "glove first" inductees like Mazeroski and Aparicio, but most of these guys went on to be highly potent hitters, which is what you'd expect from, you know, Hall of Famers. However, all of those hitters, to varying degrees, flailed about as rookies. Heck, imagine if "rapid reaction" platforms like Twitter had existed during Bobby Doerr's debut season ...
Other eventual greats did the same while not quite exhausting rookie status. Reggie Jackson in '67 for instance (71 OPS+ in 135 PAs). While Mike Schmidt's substantial secondary skills lifted his rookie OPS+ to 92, he batted just .196 in '73. To cite more recent examples, Alex Rodriguez had a miserable 56 OPS+ across his first two MLB campaigns. Mike Trout? Let's not forget he had an OPS+ of 89 in his pre-rookie MLB season of 2011.
So whether it's one of the forthcoming rookies of 2014 or whether it's a top-tier talent who didn't quite live up to the press clippings last season -- let's call him "Jurickson Profar" (76 OPS+ in 2013) -- remember that it takes time, even for hitters. Let the Hall of Famers above serve as a reminder of this.