The arrival of generational stars Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado in the major leagues during the 2012 season set a new standard for all future rookie classes.
Yet, in spite of the lofty expectations, the overall influx of young talent in the major leagues last season as a whole was more impressive than the now legendary 2012 class.
In fact, 30 of Prospect Pipeline’s preseason top 100 prospects for 2013 debuted in the major leagues last year, including 12 players who ranked in the top 25. Many of those top-ranked prospects, such as Wil Myers, Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha and Christian Yelich, made immediate impacts and quickly justified the hype ascribed to them at the onset of their respective professional careers.
However, last year’s top rookies now face a new test: avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump. With the book now out on each player’s tendencies and weaknesses, they’ll be forced to make significant adjustments in response to those being made against them—which is always easier said than done for any young player.
Here’s a look at how the best rookies from last year’s class are fighting off (or trying to fight off) the sophomore slump in 2014.
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins
Yelich was promoted to the major leagues last season directly from Double-A Jacksonville, as the 21-year-old rookie offered a glimpse of his huge potential by batting .288 with 17 extra-base hits and 10 stolen bases in 273 plate appearances.
Serving primarily as the Marlins’ leadoff man this year, Yelich, now 22, has enjoyed an outstanding start to his sophomore campaign and enters Friday riding a 17-game hitting streak. Even though his strikeout and walk rates this season are in line with those he posted as a rookie, Yelich’s current .329 batting average is driven by a .459 BABIP and therefore likely to regress moving forward. That being said, Yelich’s sweet left-handed swing could help him flirt with a .300 batting average this season, while his advanced approach could produce an unexpectedly high BABIP.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
Arenado opened eyes in 2013 as a 22-year-old after taking over as the Rockies’ everyday third baseman early in the season. Besides showing enormous potential as a future middle-of-the-order run producer (43 extra-base hits, 52 RBI), Arenado proved to be an elite defender at the hot corner and was recognized for his prowess after the season with a Gold Glove award.
As expected, the now-23-year-old hasn’t walked much to open the 2014 season (1.0 percent walk rate), but his ability to make consistent contact has produced a .290 batting average and 10 extra-base hits in 96 plate appearances. Arenado enters Friday riding a 14-game hitting streak in which he’s batting .349 with eight RBI.
Evan Gattis, C, Atlanta Braves
Arguably the feel-good story of the 2013 season, Gattis—a 26-year-old rookie at the time—posted a .952 OPS with 12 home runs and 32 RBI in his first two months (43 games) in the major leagues. However, his playing time diminished following Brian McCann’s return from injury, and it fell even more so when he hit the disabled list in mid-June with a strained oblique.
Gattis returned to form upon returning to The Show in September, as he posted a .780 OPS with six home runs and 18 RBI in 25 games over the final month of the season. His 65 RBI were the highest among all rookies.
Serving as the Braves’ primary backstop this season, Gattis has proven with his hot start that his 2013 production wasn’t a fluke, as he enters Friday batting .298 with eight extra-base hits in only 59 plate appearances. However, with strikeout and walk rates of 23.4 and 6.3 percent, respectively, it’s doubtful that he’ll sustain a near-.300 batting average for the duration of the season.
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego Padres
One of the few prospects to make an Opening Day roster last year, Gyorko was one of baseball’s more productive young hitters in 2013, as he led all rookies with 23 home runs while ranking second in RBI (63), third in doubles (26) and fifth in hits (121).
The 25-year-old has struggled mightily out of the gate this season after recently signing a six-year, $35.5 million extension through 2019. Gyorko has batted just .200 with three extra-base hits through his first 89 plate appearances, but his uncharacteristically low .185 BABIP and improved walk rate (10.1 percent, up from a 6.3 percent walk rate in 2013) suggest that his production should start to pick up across the board.
Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Puig took baseball by storm last season following his arrival in early June, batting .436/.467/.713 with 44 hits and seven home runs in his first month with the Dodgers. However, Puig’s production steadily regressed over the subsequent months, while his all-out style of play resulted in a slew of minor injuries. He finished the season with a .319/.391/.534 batting line, 42 extra-base hits and 42 RBI in 432 plate appearances.
The 23-year-old outfielder has started slowly this season—at least comparatively—with a .269 batting average and seven-extra base hits through 81 plate appearances. However, he’s also had to deal with several nagging injuries and a benching by manager Don Mattingly, not to mention the revelations that he’d received death threats from the group that orchestrated his defection to the United States.
Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Myers, the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year, was the driving force behind Tampa Bay's midseason surge into playoff contention. In his first 36 games in the major leagues, the 22-year-old batted .331/.372/.528 with seven home runs and 27 RBI.
Myers’ only blip on the radar last season was the entire month of August, when he posted a .631 OPS with 29 strikeouts in 24 games. However, he returned to form in September with a .904 OPS, 17 extra-base hits and 14 RBI in 28 games. Overall, he batted .293/.354/.478 with 36 extra-base hits and 53 RBI in 373 plate appearances.
Myers has batted just .230 through his first 83 plate appearances this season, but the 23-year-old outfielder’s numbers should start to trend upward in the near future; his walk rate has improved by 2 percent this year and his BABIP is down nearly .060 points compared to 2013. So, expect Myers’ numbers to be where they should by season’s end.
Jose Fernandez, RHP, Miami Marlins
Fernandez enjoyed a historically good rookie campaign in 2013, as the then-20-year-old posted a 2.19 ERA and 9.75 K/9 in 172.2 innings and captured 95 percent of the first-place votes to win the NL Rookie of the Year. Furthermore, the electric right-hander ranked among the best pitchers in the game in most meaningful stat categories.
Amazingly, Fernandez, now 21, is on pace for an even better sophomore effort. Through his first five starts and 31.2 frames, the Marlins ace has piled up strikeouts (13.36 K/9) thanks in part to a ridiculous 14.8 percent (up from 10.1 percent in 2013) swinging-strike rate. Additionally, Fernandez’s walk rate has decreased from 3.02 BB/9 as a rookie to 1.71 this season, which, along with his 1.45 FIP, ranks as the best among pitchers on this list.
Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Wacha became a household name last October by capturing NLCS MVP honors as a 22-year-old and going 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 33/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30.2 innings (five starts) across three series.
Wacha’s dominance in the playoffs led to unfairly high expectations this year headed into his first full season in the major leagues. Yet, the right-hander hasn’t disappointed through his first five starts this season; he’s improved both his strikeout and walk rates and accrued more whiffs on pitches in the strike zone. The only thing he’s yet to prove is whether his body can handle 200-plus innings over the course of a full season.
Shelby Miller, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Shelby Miller was one of the top pitchers in the National League during the first half of the 2013 season. In his first 18 starts, the now-23-year-old posted a 2.92 ERA and .225 opponents' batting average with 112 strikeouts in 104.2 innings.
Miller still was effective in 13 outings after the All-Star break, with a 3.28 ERA in 68.2 innings, but his fringy secondary pitches and shaky command prevented him from working deep into games as he did during the first half. His overall body of work earned the right-hander third-place honors in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Miller’s command issues last year have carried over into the first month of the 2014 season, as he’s posted the highest FIP (6.03), walk rate (5.56 BB/9) and home run rate (1.99 HR/9) of any pitcher on this list. However, his ERA is only 3.57 due to an unsustainable 92.9 percent strand rate and .259 BABIP.
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
Cole, like many of the top rookie pitchers last year, received a midseason call-up and ultimately played a significant role in the Pirates’ first winning season since 1992. Overall, the right-hander made 19 starts and posted a 3.22 ERA in 117.1 innings, not including his two impressive outings in the postseason.
Cole’s performance has varied in his four starts this season, but the 23-year-old, who’s serving as the Pirates’ No. 3 starter, has kept the walks under control (2.67 BB/9) and in turn has been able to complete at least six innings in each game.
Cole is the type of pitcher who gets stronger as the season unfolds, and if his impressive start is an indication of what’s to come, then we could be talking about him as one of the league’s top starters by season’s end.
Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Teheran finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last season behind Fernandez, Miller and Puig. This year, in the wake of Tim Hudson’s offseason departure via free agency, and season-ending elbow injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, Teheran, 23, has stepped up as the Braves’ ace.
The right-hander has logged at least six innings in all five starts—including a shutout against the Phillies on April 16—and is yet to allow more than two earned runs. Teheran’s strikeouts (5.40 K/9) are down compared to his 2013 rate (8.24 K/9), but his reduced walk rate and 10.5 percent swinging-strike rate—identical to his 2013 clip—has allowed him to be efficient and consistently work deep into games.
Chris Archer, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Archer finished third in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year voting; however, he played an equally important part in the Rays’ success and postseason berth. Specifically, Archer thrived in David Price’s absence last July, firing a pair of shutouts and registering a 0.73 ERA in 37 innings en route to AL Rookie and Pitcher of the Month honors.
Through his first four starts this season, the 25-year-old Archer has shown improved control and command (1.82 BB/9) and is yet to allow a home run. Last year, he average 1.05 HR/9 in 128.2 innings. And while his ERA currently sits at 3.65, Archer’s 1.93 FIP indicates he’s been better than his stats suggest.
Hyun-jin Ryu, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Ryu finished fourth last season—his first in the major leagues following an impressive career in the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization)—in the NL Rookie of the Year voting after making 30 starts for the Dodgers and registering a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings.
The left-hander surpassed all expectations in his stateside debut and proved to be an invaluable No. 3 starter behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
The 27-year-old Ryu has already made six starts this season, a result of injuries to both of the Dodgers’ aforementioned starters, and been scored on in just two of them. If we removed his forgettable outing on April 4 against the Giants, when he allowed six earned runs on eight hits in two innings, Ryu would have a 0.90 ERA on the season rather than his current 2.12 ERA. Regardless, the left-hander seems poised for a very strong follow-up performance.
*All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and reflect games through Thursday, April 24.
*All videos courtesy of MLB.com/MLB Advanced Media.