History proves even top hitting prospects can struggle as rookies

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)

MORE: Spring Training | FA tracker: position players | FA tracker: pitchers

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 ... 

Rookie hitter OPS+PAYearAgeTmRHHRBBSOSBBAOBPSLG
Luis Aparicio 72 583 1956 22 CHW 69 142 3 34 63 21 .266 .311 .341
Luke Appling 66 331 1931 24 CHW 36 69 1 29 27 9 .232 .303 .313
Lou Boudreau 81 256 1939 21 CLE 42 58  0  28 24 2 .258 .340 .360
Roger Bresnahan 88 323 1901 22 BLA 40 79 1 23 33 10 .268 .323 .369
Roberto Clemente 77 501 1955 20 PIT 48 121 5 18 60 2 .255 .284 .382
Ty Cobb 86 164 1905 18 DET 19 36 1 10 23 2 .240 .288 .300
Joe Cronin 67 259 1928 21 WSH 23 55 0 22 27 4 .242 .309 .322
Bobby Doerr 55 170 1937 19 BOS 22 33 2 18 25 2 .224 .313 .313
Rick Ferrell 69 181 1929 23 SLB 21 33 0 32 10 1 .229 .373 .285
Nellie Fox 75 296 1949 21 PHA 42 63 0 32 9 2 .255 .354 .296
Frankie Frisch 61 197 1919 21 NYG 21 43 2 4 14 15 .226 .242 .295
Charlie Gehringer 87 517 1926 23 DET 62 127 1 30 42 9 .277 .322 .399
Chick Hafey 87 375 1925 22 STL 36 108 5 10 29 3 .302 .321 .425
Harry Heilmann 87 218 1914 19 DET 25 41 2 22 29 1 .225 .316 .313
Rickey Henderson 88 398 1979 20 OAK 49 96 1 34 39 33 .274 .338 .336
Travis Jackson 87 350 1923 19 NYG 45 90 4 22 40 3 .275 .321 .391
Al Kaline 80 535 1954 19 DET 42 139 4 22 45 9 .276 .305 .347
George Kell 76 556 1944 21 PHA 51 138 0 22 23 5 .268 .300 .309
Rabbit Maranville 83 659 1913 21 BSN 68 141 2 68 62 25 .247 .330 .308
Bill Mazeroski 67 277 1956 19 PIT 30 62 3 18 24   .243 .293 .318
Paul Molitor 89 556 1978 21 MIL 73 142 6 19 54 30 .273 .301 .372
Kirby Puckett 79 583 1984 24 MIN 63 165  0  16 69 14 .296 .320 .336
Ryne Sandberg 90 687 1982 22 CHC 103 172 7 36 90 32 .271 .312 .372
Ray Schalk 80 445 1913 20 CHW 38 98 1 27 36 14 .244 .297 .314
Red Schoendienst 78 597 1945 22 STL 89 157 1 21 17 26 .278 .305 .343
Ozzie Smith 82 668 1978 23 SDP 69 152 1 47 43 40 .258 .311 .312
Pie Traynor 78 616 1922 23 PIT 89 161 4 27 28 17 .282 .319 .375
Robin Yount 79 364 1974 18 MIL 48 86 3 12 46 7 .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. 

CBS Sports Writer

Dayn Perry has been a baseball writer for CBS Sports since early 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for FOXSports.com and ESPN.com. A member of the BBWAA, He's the author of three books, the most recent being... Full Bio

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