History proves even top hitting prospects can struggle as rookies

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

Sometimes, even gifted rookies like Xander Bogaerts don't hit right away. (USATSI)
Sometimes, even gifted rookies like Xander Bogaerts don't hit right away. (USATSI)

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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 ...

Luis Aparicio72583195622CHW691423346321.266.311.341
Luke Appling66331193124CHW3669129279.232.303.313
Lou Boudreau81256193921CLE4258 0 28242.258.340.360
Roger Bresnahan88323190122BLA40791233310.268.323.369
Roberto Clemente77501195520PIT48121518602.255.284.382
Ty Cobb86164190518DET1936110232.240.288.300
Joe Cronin67259192821WSH2355022274.242.309.322
Bobby Doerr55170193719BOS2233218252.224.313.313
Rick Ferrell69181192923SLB2133032101.229.373.285
Nellie Fox75296194921PHA426303292.255.354.296
Frankie Frisch61197191921NYG2143241415.226.242.295
Charlie Gehringer87517192623DET62127130429.277.322.399
Chick Hafey87375192522STL36108510293.302.321.425
Harry Heilmann87218191419DET2541222291.225.316.313
Rickey Henderson88398197920OAK49961343933.274.338.336
Travis Jackson87350192319NYG4590422403.275.321.391
Al Kaline80535195419DET42139422459.276.305.347
George Kell76556194421PHA51138022235.268.300.309
Rabbit Maranville83659191321BSN681412686225.247.330.308
Bill Mazeroski67277195619PIT306231824 .243.293.318
Paul Molitor89556197821MIL731426195430.273.301.372
Kirby Puckett79583198424MIN63165 0 166914.296.320.336
Ryne Sandberg90687198222CHC1031727369032.271.312.372
Ray Schalk80445191320CHW38981273614.244.297.314
Red Schoendienst78597194522STL891571211726.278.305.343
Ozzie Smith82668197823SDP691521474340.258.311.312
Pie Traynor78616192223PIT891614272817.282.319.375
Robin Yount79364197418MIL4886312467.250.276.346

(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.

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