How Do Top MLB Rookies Perform in First Taste of Postseason Pressure?

Mike RosenbaumMLB Prospects Lead WriterSeptember 16, 2013

Bryce Harper batted .130 (3-for-23) in five playoff games in 2012.
Bryce Harper batted .130 (3-for-23) in five playoff games in 2012.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Major League Baseball playoffs provide a national stage for rookies to become superstars.

In 2003, Miguel Cabrera, a slender 20-year-old at the time, established himself as one of baseball’s top young hitters with a breakout performance in the playoffs en route to a World Series title with the Marlins.

Evan Longoria did something similar in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays. After reaching the major leagues during the regular season, Longoria batted only .194 during 16 postseason games. However, of his 12 hits during that span, nine were for extra bases, including six home runs, and he also added 10 runs scored and 13 RBI.

Still, few top prospects actually thrive in the playoffs as Cabrera and Longoria did. And with the start of the 2013 postseason a few weeks away, I thought it’d be interesting to a take a look back at how baseball’s top prospects have fared in October over the past 10 years.

Since I have published only two years of prospect rankings after joining Bleacher Report in March 2011, we’ll use Baseball America’s preseason top 100 rankings as guidance for this article. Therefore, we’re only looking at the playoff contributions from prospects ranked by Baseball America before the season and, more specifically, in the first year they debuted in the major leagues. This is important because many prospects that debuted in a given season and appeared in the playoffs will retain their “rookie” eligibility heading into the following year.

So here’s a look at how top MLB rookies have performed in their first taste of the postseason over the past 10 years.


Rookie Hitters in the Playoffs

In general, most rookie hitters struggled as everyday starters in their first taste of the postseason.

The three more highly regarded prospects of that group (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Jason Heyward) were each overmatched in the postseason as either a 19- or 20-year-old player. Meanwhile, both Braves prospects, Jeff Francouer and Brian McCann, struggled in their respective postseason debuts as 21-year-olds.

However, there was also a share of promising hitters that made a splash in their first postseason. And given the names on the following list, it’s safe to say that the following assemblage of talent can be considered the exception to the rule.

Since their first taste of the postseason as a rookie, Miguel Cabrera, Jacoby Ellsbury, Evan Longoria and Justin Upton have each developed into star-caliber players and made numerous All-Star teams.

But not every rookie hitter was deployed as an everyday player in his first postseason; many were used sparingly as reserves off the bench. As a result, these prospects tended to perform well in limited opportunities and put up solid numbers given the small sample size. A perfect example is Colby Rasmus, who went 4-for-9 with three doubles in three playoff games with the Cardinals in 2009.


Rookie Pitchers in the Playoffs

While a majority top-ranked rookie hurlers were used as starters during the regular season, their role typically was adjusted for the playoffs. In most cases, the best young pitchers served as back-end starters for their respective teams following their arrivals in the major leagues. However, they were shifted to the bullpen without the need for a No. 4 or No. 5 starting pitcher until the latter rounds of the playoffs.

As a result, rookie starters have been used primarily as relievers over the last decade of postseason play. Most of them performed poorly in the role, except for David Price, who played a major role in the Rays’ surge into the 2009 World Series.

Success was limited among those allowed to start a playoff game, with Rays left-hander Matt Moore’s 2011 performance serving as the lone exception. On the other hand, those pitching prospects that came up as relievers during the regular season seemed to fare significantly better in their first taste of the postseason, most likely due to their familiarity with the role.


What Can We Learn?

While there have been a decent number of rookies who have lived up to or even surpassed expectations, a majority have struggled in their first taste of the postseason.

Since pitchers usually have their roles adjusted in accordance with the playoff schedule, their lack of success on the national stage is understandable and, to an extent, expected. Meanwhile, with relievers, the comfort with their role seemingly gave them an unquantified edge in the postseason.

The track record of hitters in the playoffs, however, presents an interesting case. Specifically, younger hitters tend to scuffle in their first taste, as they’re forced to overcome a seemingly unprecedented amount of pressure with the season on the line. Nonetheless, every couple of years, there will be a breakout performance, such as Miguel Cabrera or Evan Longoria's, that paints a player as a star for years to come.

Still, the truth of the matter is that most rookies don't perform well, if at all, until a return to the postseason.