Does winning the Rookie of the Year award in Major League Baseball signify the start of a long and prosperous career?
Well, that depends. Are we talking hitters or pitchers?
In terms of long-term success rate, it turns out there's a sizable difference between hitters and pitchers. In addition to there being far more hitters than pitchers on the Rookie of the Year list, the hitters have more success stories to tell.
If you'd rather not take my word for it right off the bat, follow me this way and we'll take a closer look.
Note: Ichiro Suzuki was not included in this discussion as a result of his seven full seasons of professional baseball in Japan prior to arriving in MLB.
A national award since 1947, the top rookies from each the American and National League have been recognized separately since 1949. Including a few co-winners along the way, there have been 132 ROYs.
Of those, 97 have been hitters. That's 73.5 percent, which I'd say qualifies as the vast majority.
Using Baseball-Reference.com's calculation of the stat, the hitters have averaged a roughly 3.5 WAR in their rookie seasons. The highest mark was Mike Trout's 10.9 WAR last year, and the lowest was Ken Hubbs' zero WAR in 1962.
Active players included, ROY hitters have averaged a little over 11 additional seasons of big league ball after winning the award. Of the 97, 25 have gone on to play 15 or more seasons. That includes Derek Jeter, who is still active, and Scott Rolen, who hasn't officially retired yet.
Lastly, the 97 hitters have combined to produce 415 All-Star seasons, 27 MVPs and 13 Hall of Fame plaques.
In short, not a bad collection of players. Let us pay homage to the best of the best.
What exactly constitutes a "Super-Duper Star"? If we use career WAR as a measuring stick, we can narrow things down.
Of our 97 hitters, only 11 compiled career WARs of 70 or better. That happens to be a notable mark in the grand scheme of all major league hitters, as fewer than 60 hitters in history have achieved a career WAR of 70 or better.
Here are the Rookie of the Year winners (AL winners in blue, NL winners in red) who have done it:
To clarify once more: "All-Stars" refers to All-Star seasons, not All-Star games played. Willie Mays, for example, played in 24 All-Star games in his career because they played two in a season for a time. (The league used to be silly like that.)
There are five Hall of Famers among these 11, and Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter are extremely likely to find their way to Cooperstown eventually as well. Jeff Bagwell will be Hall of Fame soon if the voters have any sense (we're still waiting on confirmation that they do).
Pete Rose, of course, would have been in the Hall years ago if not for his lifetime ban. My guess is that he'll eventually get in as well, though it could be a long "eventually."
The only guys who stand out as borderline Hall of Famers here are Lou Whitaker and Scott Rolen (whose career accomplishments are more impressive than they get credit for). It may take some time, but both of them could eventually find their way to Cooperstown.
Not featured in the above graph are eight players who missed the cut, but are in the Hall of Fame. Their names: Carlton Fisk, Eddie Murray, Willie McCovey, Andre Dawson, Billy Williams, Jackie Robinson, Luis Aparicio and Orlando Cepeda.
Cepeda has the lowest career WAR of the bunch at 50.1, which works as a helpful cutoff point. Nobody else on the list of hitters compiled a career WAR over 50.
Below that mark, however, reside some players who went on to have pretty decent careers.
The "Pretty Good" Crowd
What exactly constitutes a "pretty good" career? Two things: A) career length; and B) productivity.
A 2007 study found that the average career for position players was 5.6 years. Any player who manages a career twice that has had a pretty good run, meaning we're looking for players who tacked on at least 10 more seasons after winning the ROY.
Here's a look at Rookie of the Year hitters who went on to play at least 10 more seasons and compile a WAR of at least 30 along the way:
Kinda makes you appreciate Chuck Knoblauch a little bit more, doesn't it? Tim Salmon, too, for that matter.
Notably absent from the above graph: Thurman Munson. He technically played 11 major league seasons, but one of those "seasons" was the 1969 campaign. Munson broke into the majors that year but only played in 26 games and collected 97 plate appearances. The 1970 season was his rookie year, and he only played nine more years after that.
But Munson at least deserves an honorable mention. He compiled a 45.9 career WAR, an impressive figure for a relatively short time span. He also surely would have kept adding to his legacy had he not perished in a plane crash in 1979. He was only 32 at the time.
Oddly enough, Munson isn't the only hitter who was robbed of a potentially brilliant career by a plane crash. Ken Hubbs died in a plane crash in 1964 at 22. Had he lived, he may have gone on to enjoy a long and fruitful career.
Some Rookie of the Year hitters, however, weren't robbed of anything at all. Some of them just didn't prove to be very good.
Of the 97 ROY hitters, 37 failed to play another 10 seasons after winning the award. That list, however, includes some impressive names and a few special exceptions.
We know about Munson and Hubbs. Jackie Robinson only played nine more seasons after winning the Rookie of the Year in 1947, but he was no obviously no ordinary rookie; he didn't break into the big leagues until he was in his late 20s. Sam Jethroe, the ROY in 1950, was another former Negro League star who was in his early 30s by the time he got to the bigs.
If you're looking for legit flameouts, these are the guys you're looking for:
The lesson? Beware AL Rookie of the Year hitters.
The first two guys on the list ranked second and third, respectively, on a list of baseball's greatest one-hit wonders that Jeff Merron put together for ESPN's "Page 2" a few years back. Joe Charboneau hit 23 homers with an .846 OPS in 1980, but he played in only 70 more games the next two years and that was that. Bob Hamelin hit 24 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, but his major league career only lasted through 1998.
Pat Listach never played another full season after his '92 rookie campaign. After sharing the Rookie of the Year with Alfredo Griffin in 1979, John Castino saw his career come to an early end because of chronic back problems. Bobby Crosby dealt with injuries in 2005 and 2006 and never fulfilled the promise of his 2004 season. Angel Berroa compiled a .658 OPS between 2004 and 2006 and was pretty much done as an everyday player after that.
And so on and so forth. There's not a whole lot of variation in the individual stories. The general narrative is that they were tremendous at first but were then undone by ineffectiveness, injuries or a combination of both.
A Rookie of the Year curse? Nah. That's just baseball for you. Like the study said, the average career only lasts 5.6 years, and not everyone gets to become an everlasting star.
However, it does indeed bode well that roughly 60 percent of the hitters named Rookie of the Year managed to stick around for at least another 10 seasons.
Bear in mind that that's not including recent winners who are still active: Jason Bay, Ryan Howard, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Dustin Pedroia, Geovany Soto, Evan Longoria, Chris Coghlan, Buster Posey and, obviously, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.
A couple of these guys aren't looking so hot these days, but the majority of them should still have plenty of good years left. The list of those who enjoyed long and productive careers thereafter is going to get a little bit bigger before long.
Now then...how about pitchers?
If you stopped to do some quick math back when I first noted that 97 of the 132 Rookie of the Year award winners have been hitters, then you figured out that leaves only 35 pitchers. Yes. Yes it does.
Rookie of the Year pitchers have averaged a WAR of about 4.0—slightly higher than the average WAR of ROY hitters. Apples to oranges, to be sure, but still something. The highest WAR ever posted by a Rookie of the Year pitcher was Mark Fidrych's 9.6 WAR in 1976, and the lowest was Steve Howe's 0.5 WAR in 1980.
Where the pitchers don't compare so well to the hitters is in career length. Active players included, they've averaged fewer than nine additional seasons after winning Rookie of the Year. Only four played 15 or more.
Lastly, the pitchers have combined for a grand total of 70 All-Star years. That's two per player, compared to over four per for hitters. So yeah, you can already tell that we're not talking about a star-studded cast of characters, so this next section won't take too long to get through.
A career WAR of 60 is a pretty good measuring stick for a superstar starting pitcher, as that's a mark that fewer than 45 pitchers have ever achieved.
How many Rookie of the Year pitchers have climbed that high? Try one: Tom Seaver, who compiled a WAR over 100 in his career.
Seaver broke into the league with a brilliant 1967 season that saw him post a 2.76 ERA over 251 innings. He won his first Cy Young in 1969 and two more on his way to the 1992 Hall of Fame after a 20-year career.
That gives Seaver a certain distinction. So far, he's the only former Rookie of the Year pitcher to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He also owns three of the eight Cy Youngs won by ROY pitchers (at any point in their careers, mind you).
In case you're sitting there wondering, yes, things are different for relievers. Not even the great Mariano Rivera has reached the 60 WAR mark among pitchers who logged at least 80 percent of their career appearances in relief.
A better measure for relief pitching greatness would be a career WAR of 20, a figure that fewer than 30 relievers have achieved in their careers. Alas, no reliever to ever win the Rookie of the Year award has even gotten that high. The closest is Gregg Olson, who compiled a 12.9 WAR over a 14-year career.
However, there's hope on both the starter and reliever fronts.
On the reliever front, there's Craig Kimbrel. He won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, and the young Brave has a chance to be baseball's best closer for a long time. This is assuming he doesn't abandon closing to pursue a dream to conquer the world, which is not outside the realm of possibility.
On the starter front, Justin Verlander won the AL Rookie of the Year in '06 and looks like he's well on his way to becoming an all-time great with a career WAR of 36.5 through nine seasons. He compiled a 16.2 WAR just between 2011 and 2012, for criminy's sake.
For now, Verlander is at least a part of the next discussion.
The "Pretty Good" Crowd
When we looked at the "Pretty Good" crowd for ROY hitters, we were looking for players who played an additional 10 seasons after winning the award and compiled a WAR of at least 30.
If we did that for the pitchers, both the list and the ensuing discussion would be too brief; I'm only going to bring up the pitchers who managed to compile a career WAR of 20 over any number of seasons. And here they are:
Here's where we find the five Cy Youngs that don't belong to Tom Seaver. Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Verlander, Rick Sutcliffe and Don Newcombe all won one, and only Valenzuela won his Cy Young in his first year. Verlander and Newcombe both won MVPs with their Cy Youngs.
Newcombe could have finished with much better career numbers had he not lost two prime years to military service in 1952 and '53. In addition, he admitted to People magazine in 1975 that he was a bad alcoholic in his playing days.
Doc Gooden's career also wasn't what it could have been thanks to a substance-abuse problem. He even admitted to ESPN back in 2011 that he was too high on cocaine to partake in the New York Mets' World Series victory parade in '86.
But don't call these guys flameouts—their careers weren't as brilliant as they could have been, but they left their mark on the game all the same. Now, the real flameouts...
Whereas the majority of the hitters we looked at went on to play 10 more seasons in the majors after their rookie years, it's the other way around with pitchers. Of the 35 pitchers in our discussion, 22 failed to last another 10 seasons in the big leagues.
That includes six players who are still active, as well as pitchers (most notably Newcombe) who can't be called flameouts despite their shortened careers. I also consider it unfair to label Herb Score a flameout seeing as how he didn't start to decline until after he took a line drive to the eye.
There's also Kazuhiro Sasaki, who was the Rookie of the Year in 2000 at the age of 32 after a successful career in Japan. The following are the legit flameouts:
One thing that should stick out: 1976 was a bad year.
Butch Metzger racked up 11 wins and 16 saves pitching out of the San Diego Padres bullpen in '76, ultimately sharing the rookie award with Pat Zachry. He experienced control problems in the early portions of the 1977 season, however, and these problems arose again the next year with the New York Mets (his last season in the bigs).
Zachry stuck around for a while longer and was even an All-Star in '78, but he became injury-prone and incapable of starting games. His career effectively ended when the Philadelphia Phillies released him midway through 1985.
Then there's Mark Fidrych. He authored one of the great rookie seasons of all time, but knee and shoulder injuries did him in. He made just 27 starts in four seasons after 1976 and was released after the 1981 season.
Elsewhere, the pitcher with the highest career WAR here is Dontrelle Willis. The thing about him, however, is that he had a 16.5 WAR through the first four seasons of his career and a minus-1.1 WAR over the next five seasons. Since 2012, he's been released three times and even voluntarily retired once (since deciding to give it another go trying to catch on in the minors).
As far as percentages go, there have been more flameouts among ROY pitchers than hitters. The 11 guys we just looked at make for about a third of the pitchers who have won the Rookie of the Year award. The 12 hitters we looked at were just 12 out of 97.
Consider this alongside the reality that there's only been one pitcher who won the ROY and then went on to become a true superstar. (And you're left wondering why the Rookie of the Year is such a kiss of death for pitchers...)
Remember that study we were talking about a while back? The men who carried out that study didn't even look at pitchers because of their, to borrow the word the Times used, generally "volatile" careers.
That so few ROY pitchers have panned out in the long run can therefore be chalked up to the nature of the beast: Pitchers aren't built to last, and most of them aren't going to last. Beyond that, all this simply goes to just how hard it is to become a star pitcher so early in one's career. Young pitchers have talent, but actually learning how to pitch in the big leagues takes time.
As if becoming a good pitcher isn't hard enough, remaining a good pitcher is even harder. It's no secret that pitchers lose their stuff as they get older, and not all of them are able to reinvent themselves. Many pitchers are undone by injuries, yes, but pitchers can just as easily be bounced out of the league by declining skills.
So the next time a pitcher is bestowed with Rookie of the Year "honors," don't make the mistake of thinking he's made it. It's not so simple with pitchers, and the history of Rookie of the Year pitchers is a reminder of that.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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