Tyler Kepner tells a pretty good story about Gift Ngoepe (en-GO-epe), the first African to play in the major leagues. He’s a slick fielding infielder from South Africa who was promoted last week by the Pirates, who have nurtured him through their system for the past nine years. Nicely, the story suggests.
You should read the story, because it is a good story, because Ngoepe is charming, because his mother was a saint and so she suffered (and died), because he worked with Barry Larkin in Italy, because he’s a great fielder, apparently, (and a bad hitter, but off to a hot start with the bat in the majors).
And maybe because it’s helpful to hear some of the details of how some person got to that point. Kepner tells a good story. Even if you didn’t care about baseball you might like this one.
Everybody’s buddy and fine fantasy baseball analyst, Howard Bender, had a piece in the NY Post this week warning about overestimating Turner this year, the way Carlos Correa was overestimated last year.
That’s good advice in general, and probably as it applies to Turner, but it raises the question of how do you draw the line on a young player with a spectacularly good partial season under his belt.
I looked at hitters who had an OPS+ of 130 or better in the year they lost their rookie status since 1980 (the Roto Era), who had 249 plate appearances or more. Sixty one hitters qualified.
Five of those seasons came in 2016. That would be Corey Seager, Aledmys Diaz, Trea Turner, and the Ryans Shrimpf and Healy. One player, Kyle Schwarber, had a qualifying first season and didn’t play the next. That leaves us with 55 hitters in the pool.
What can we learn from them?
If we sort them from top to bottom based on first year OPS+:
The top 11 had an an OPS+ of 157 in year 1 and an OPS+ of 137 in year 2. Two of this group improved in year two, a man named Trout and another named Greenwell. Three had less than a 130 OPS in year 2: Luke Scott, posterboy Kevin Maas, and Miguel Sano. This group averaged 499 plate appearances.
The next 11 averaged 143 in year 1, and 109 in year 2. One of this cohort, Randy Milligan, improved. Seven had less than a 130 OPS+. Five has less than a 100 OPS+. This group averaged 442 plate appearances.
The middle 11 averaged 137 in year 1, and 116 in year 2. Kris Bryant was the only one to improve. Two were better than 130 in year 2. Only two had less than a 100 OPS+, both at 99, which is why the year 2 average went up for this group. This group averaged 349 plate appearances.
The fourth 11 average 133 in year 1, and 120 in year 2. Ryan Howard and Jason Bay improved. They were also the only two to have an OPS+ the next year better than 130. None of this group has an OPS+ of less than 100. This group averaged 416 plate appearances.
The last quintile averaged 131 in year 1, and 113 in year 2. Josh Hamilton, John Kruk, Lonnie Smith, and Ryan Klesko all improved and had an OPS+ of better than 130. Four hitters had an OPS+ of less than 100. This group averaged 343 plate appearances.
Another way to split these guys into groups would be by plate appearances.
The top quintile averaged 639 plate appearances, with a 151 OPS+ in year 1, and a 137 OPS+ in year 2.
The next group averaged 463 plate appearances, with a 141 OPS+ in year 1, and a 136 in year 2.
The middle quintile averaged 388 PA, with a 138 in year 1, an 85 in year 2.
The fourth group averaged 337 PA, with a 135 in year 1, a 122 in year 2.
The last group averaged just 273 PA, with a 139 in year 1, a 116 in year 2.
All in all, 20 of the 55 players did better than 130 in OPS+ in year 2, 25 did better than 120 OPS+, 33 did better than 110, and 48 did better than 100. That leaves seven true busts, and 30 total who could be considered disappointing.
Eleven of the 20 players who topped 130 in OPS+ had more than 450 plate appearances. Only four of the next 20 players had 450 PA or more.
A final set of ranks, based on percentage of change from year 1 to year 2.
The top quintile averaged 428 plate appearances, posting a 138 OPS+ in year 1, and a 154 in year 2.
The next averaged 508 PA, with 142 in year 1, 131 in year 2.
The middle quintile averaged 415 PA, with a 141 OPS+ in year 1, a 116 in year 2.
The fourth quintile averaged 352 PA, with a 137 OPS+ in year 1, and a 103 in year 2.
The bottom quintile averaged 388 PA, with a 153 OPS+ in year 1, and an 85 in year 2.
Comparing the top half sorted by percentage of change from year 1 to year 2, the top half had 487 plate appearances while the bottom half had 384. The average age of the top half was 23.4 years old, while the bottom half was 24.5. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bottom half hit more homers and stole more bases per plate appearance.
Plate appearances and high OPS+ are the best indicators of a repeat season of top performances for these players, but players of all types do repeat and get better.
So, what happens if we look at only those players with fewer than 450 PA in year 1? There are 37 of them.
Sort them into thirds, and we see that the top two thirds are younger than the bottom third. Older is definitely worse when you’re looking at partial seasons with a high OPS+ in your rookie year. Or maybe it is better put, younger is definitely better.
So, what do we make of this year’s crop?
Corey Seager and Aledmys Diaz should be the most trusted, because they had the most at bats, but neither had a particularly high OPS+ last year, which is a bit of a warning sign. And Diaz is somewhat older, a reason to distrust.
Trea Turner had the best OPS+ last year, but only 324 plate appearances. Still he’s young, which is a positive sign.
Ryan Shrimpf just snuck onto the list at 130 OPS+. He’s 28 years old, very old, and only had six more PA than Turner. He’s neg all the way.
Finally, Ryon Healy is slightly old, with a 135 OPS+, and only 283 PA. Not as negative as Shrimpf, but not as positive as the other guys.
Bonus No. 1: Kyle Schwarber missed last year, but will be back this year after a powerful world series. He’s still young, but is coming off a 130 OPS+ in 2015. He’s a mixed bag until you see him swing.
Bonus No. 2: Gary Sanchez didn’t make the 250 PA cutoff, but in 229 PA last year he put up a monster 168 OPS+. Only Mike Trout and Jose Abreu did better in our 250+ PA cohort. On the other hand, if you look at the cohort of those who didn’t qualify, the only hitters who did better in year 1 were Frank Thomas and Phil Plantier. Both were 22 their rookie year. Thomas followed up his 177 OPS+ rookie year with a league leading 180 the next year, and then 177, 174, 212, 179, 178, 181 in the next six years. Plantier followed his 178 with a 90 and never topped the 122 he had in year 3.
Finally, what to do with all this? Although there is data here, this sort of study is really anecdotal. The sample is small, the results so various as to mock any absolute conclusions. But maybe you read the above and feel differently.
What I think it tells us is that there are players who post a super first season and then repeat. You can’t rule that out for these guys this season.
But as you would expect, extreme performance usually regresses to the mean, so you should not count on a repeat. And you should fear charging ahead taking anyone with such a small performance sample, because the possibility of sophomore slump is always there (except for Corey Seager, right?).
Which is pretty dull and which brings us to Howard’s comment about Trea Turner. He says, “Of course Turner is a great talent, but just doubling his total because he will get twice the at-bats this year is not the proper way to project.”
The trouble with Turner is that even if you regress back his stats you end up with ridiculous numbers. My projection, which doesn’t come close to doubling last year’s numbers is 18 homers, with 49 steals, a modest 93 runs and 68 RBI, with a .307 batting average. In 5×5, that’s worth $37. First-round value.
ZIPS chops more aggressively. It gives Turner 260 more plate appearances than last year and one more homer, three more steals, a .282 batting average and modest 77/66 runs and RBI split. But even that modest projection is worth $29, which is a Top 15 hitter.
Is my projection the median projection? Is ZIPS’? That’s the trouble with Turner. Right now I have him with an NL-only bid price of $27. That’s not going to get him, and paying more isn’t necessarily going to hurt the team that buys him.
So, what you do is you keep bidding. Certainly to $27, maybe to $30. This is a place to read the room. Once you’re at $30 you don’t really want him, but the risk of bidding up the guy who does really want him isn’t huge. I mean, you might end up with Trea Turner!
At that price, that could be trouble, but might not.
There will be an Apple version soon, I hope. They seem to take longer to approve. And I’m going to post a pdf version here, in case you don’t want to go through the big stores.
If you didn’t buy because of the price or any other reason, please let us know at askrotoman (at) gmail.com. If there is anything you would like to see added, send that to that email address, too.
I think we have a great first draft, hitting the stands too late. But you should be able to tell most of what you need to know by the preview Inside the Book at Amazon. We want to get your $3 next time.
First off, he’s the second major league ballplayer named Billy Hamilton. Guys with the same name give guys like me, who gamely but crudely run their databases as spreadsheets, fits. I hate you Alex Gonzalez, and you Alex Gonzalez, and I’m not forgetting you, Alex Gonzalez.
Differentiating is always a problem, though less so when they’ve played more than 100 years apart.
It is also a problem that the two Billy Hamilton’s profile similarly. Both are wicked fast and steal lots of bases. The 19th Century Billy Hamilton proved through a distinguished career that he was more than a one-trick pony. He hit the ball, too, and even made some noise with some homers. He was first player to lead off a game with a homer and then end it with a walkoff homer, in 1892. Only four players have done that since, and Ricky Henderson was not one of them, which surprises me.
It remains to be seen if the modern Billy Hamilton has enough bat to get his legs truly involved in the Reds’ offense, which is why I bring this up now. With a clear shot at a job with the Reds this year, following the departure of Shin-Soo Choo, we have to answer the serious question about how much he’s going to play, and what he’ll do while he’s out there. There’s no doubt that as a part-time player, a pinch hitter, pinch runner and defensive replacement, as he showed last September, he can steal a lot of bases. But can he be more than that?
Let’s start with defense. Hamilton reportedly spent last season adjusting to playing center field (he’d been a shortstop before that), the better to be ready for early promotion to the major leagues. While there have been questions about the routes he runs and his polish out there, there seems to be a rough consensus that his speedy legs will help him make up for whatever mistakes he makes, and that his gameness and dedication will help him learn to do things right eventually.
So, it sound like his defense will not prove a liability, or at least not enough of one at first to cost him playing time if he can contribute on offense.
What about his speed? There isn’t any need to belabor this. He’s shown remarkable speed throughout his rise through the minor leagues, which has led to staggering the first-Hamiltonian stolen base numbers. And more importantly for our purposes, he has not seen any decline in stolen base success rate as he’s advanced up the minor league chain.
Forgive me for saying the obvious, but all indications are he’ll steal plenty of bases while in the majors comparative to opportunities.
What sort of hitter will he be in the majors? There are a few moving parts here. Let’s look at them individually.
He has no power. Like many speedy hitters, he lays bat on ball and runs. That’s a simple formula for success if you make enough contact and hit the ball hard enough. But it is a thin line between hard enough and not.
Will he make contact? I don’t think we’re able to determine whether any player might find some way to improve. So Hamilton might, but his Contact rate last year in Triple-A was 77 percent, which might be good enough if he can sustain it in the majors for a .265 batting average. If he can hit the ball hard enough enough of the time.
The problem here is that even if he makes contact, if he can’t bust the ball out of the infield he’s not going to get on base enough to take advantage of his speed.
Will he walk? At the lower levels in the minors he walked a decent amount, which helped him get on base, but last year that number dropped to 6.9 percent, which isn’t terrible, but is likely to drop at the major league level unless he figures out how to improve.
And there is another problem. If he’s going to aggressively pursue contact as a hitter, he’s only going to get deep enough into the count if he’s either lighting things up and pitchers nibble, or if the pitcher has no control. The result is, whether he’s succeeding or failing, his walk rate should go down this year, putting upward pressure on hitting the ball hard (or soft) enough to get the slap hits that he’s going to need to succeed.
What about the strikeouts? One discouraging thing about Hamilton’s performances in the minors is a strikeout rate that has hovered around 18 percent. No, it didn’t get worse in Triple-A last year, which is good, but it is potentially problematic facing big league pitchers. If he doesn’t make solid enough contact early in the count he’s going to be vulnerable to falling behind. A similar player who never really succeeded in the majors, Joey Gathright, didn’t strike out nearly as much as Hamilton has in the minors. Again, history isn’t necessarily destiny, but he’s going to have to improve here not to flame.
Can he bunt? Scouting reports don’t reflect well on his abilities to bunt, and the Reds have said he’s going to work hard on that leading into this season. So he’s going to get plenty of practice. Given his rep as a hard worker, improvement is certainly possible, which will definitely help his chances.
So this all comes down to role and at bats. The player we see Hamilton compared to most is Vince Coleman, who was able to use the fast carpet in St. Louis to launch a career that lasted 13 years and led to 752 stolen bases. Coleman’s slash lines for his career were .264/.324/.345, which seems possible for Hamilton. Especially since Hamilton could become a plus defender. Coleman was able to play despite being a poor defender.
So let’s say that if Hamilton hits like Vince he’ll get 600 AB hitting .264. Based on what he did in Triple-A last year and similar players have done as major leaguers, this scenario of success should put him on 90 runs, a few homers, 48 RBI, 40 bases on balls, and 71 stolen bases.
That’s worth $33 in 5×5. It represents the high end of batting average possibilities, I think, and if he hits .265 he should play just about every day.
But let’s say he hits .240. Presumably that would mean he wouldn’t play everyday all year. He would lose his job or evolve into a platoon role. He would still run, stealing 32 bases (or maybe more because of more chances to pinch run). If his other qualitatives remained constant relative to chances, he would earn $16. I’d say this is the midrange of all the possibilities for Hamilton this year.
What if he hit .240 and led off most every day? $27 earnings, which isn’t bad, and this could happen.
The other possibility worth considering is what happens if he pulls a Dee Gordon on us. Three years ago the speedy Gordon was called up and impressed everyone by hitting .304 and stealing 24 bases in 233 plate appearances. He seemed poised to become a baseball and a fantasy baseball star. But in 2012 the hits did not drop the way they had in 2011, and he posted numbers quite a bit like the .240 scenario for Hamilton above. We expected Gordon to get another chance last year, but instead he floundered in Albuquerque, and while he stole 10 bases in 108 PA with the big club, he hit just .234 and nobody expects him to be a regular any longer.
So, what if Hamilton hits .193 and is sent back to the minors after two months? He’ll still earn $8 and steal 20 bases (maybe more if they keep him up as a pinch runner for a while).
The bottom line here is that there are plenty of reasons to think that Hamilton may not live up to the hype this year. In fact, that seems to be the dominant fantasy narrative heading into camp this year. And that’s good smart analysis.
But the other smart analysis notes that he doesn’t have to be that much of a hitter to hold the job in Cincinnati (not much competition at this point to displace him) if he plays decent defense, and if he gets at bats he will get on some, and then he will run and have fantasy value. In the Guide I put him at $13, which seemed fair given the odds that he might wash out early on, but taken in the context of the above scenarios, I’m bumping him to $17. That probably isn’t going to get him, even then, but that’s a fair risk.
And if you construct your team with lots of power and want to make a risky play to add speed, going an extra dollar or two on Hamilton would be an interesting play. A high-risk $20 bid could actually pay off handsomely, possibly.
I’m back from the best baseball event of the year. That’s where we watch the coming young ballplayers of the Arizona Fall League, with great weather, lots of friends, and endless talk about baseball (and rock and roll for some reason). This year’s big conversations were about Bryce Harper (he just looks like a ballplayer, but he’s awfully young, too, so we’re going to have to be patient) and Brandon Belt (coming off a breakthrough minor league season, he made great contact when he made contact, but I saw some troubles with the curve) and Michael Taylor (big dude) and Jeremy Jefferies (cracked 100 multiple times on the scoreboard gun, and was scoring higher on those of the scouts).
MLB.com’s Mike SIano was there and made a video, inwhich some of us talk about what the event means to us.