Several young Cubs hitters received a great deal of criticism this season because they didn’t immediately reproduce or improve upon their minor-league results after being promoted. Much of the ire was directed at Matt Mervis (46 wRC+) and Pete Crow-Armstrong (-32 wRC+), who received a combined 118 plate appearances this past season. But what if I told you rookie hitters aren’t actually supposed to be very good right out of the gate?
I’ll pause to let you pick your jaws up off the floor.
Though rookies have been more productive than ever over the last two seasons, their aggregate 91 wRC+ means they’re still 9% below league average in terms of creating runs. The improvement has been steady if not linear, leading to an average of nearly 87 wRC+ over the last 13 years versus just over 83 since 1998.
If it seems like rookie hitters are more productive than ever, that’s because they are.
That is the highest figure ever. pic.twitter.com/9uhN6bETsd
— Matt Eddy (@MattEddyBA) October 11, 2023
Looking back at 2023, a year in which the Cubs had to lean more on the guys that got them there than focusing on “prospect baseball,” we see a club with a 74 wRC+ that tied for 24th in MLB. Cubs rookies accumulated 487 PAs, barely over half the MLB average of 907 for the season. To be fair, that number was skewed by the Reds (1,990), A’s (1,984), and Rockies (1,774), all of whom were forced to go young due to some combination of injuries and frugality.
What’s really wild is that the Braves gave only 19 PAs to rookies, though they have a load of young players who are still in the early stages of their respective careers. Most of those went to Forrest Wall, whose 1.379 OPS and 265 wRC+ ensured his team had the highest total rookie wRC+ mark (188). While we can’t take that number seriously given the sample, it’s impossible to ignore that nine of the top 11 teams in rookie wRC+ made the postseason.
In case you were wondering, the only two that didn’t were the Red Sox (113) and Reds (108).
Jed Hoyer noted in his end-of-season media address that there’s no way to be a great organization if you’re not willing to give at-bats to young players. If you can’t provide them with those opportunities, he added, you’ll end up seeing them thrive in other cities. At the same time, however, you can’t just hug all your prospects and never make deals to improve the team with impact veterans.
It’s a tough balance to achieve, as we saw repeatedly over the past season. Playing time that could have been used to help Mervis work through adjustments — which underlying data suggests he was making — instead went to Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini, players who were eventually released. Alexander Canario came up before PCA and got two fewer PAs, one of which resulted in a grand slam that earned him a seat on the bench for two games.
That homer came in Canario’s first MLB start, which fell nearly three weeks after he was first called up with September roster expansions. While I maintain that there were other reasons for the initial promotion and subsequent lack of immediate playing time, his incredibly sporadic usage following his first start defied common logic. Crow-Armstrong’s deployment was similarly confounding, even when viewed from the angle of being primarily a defensive replacement.
So to put a bow on this whole thing, there are really only three options: Never play rookies; only play rookies you can guarantee will rake immediately; surround rookies with a strong enough roster so that you can allow them to learn through failure. I guess the fourth option is to be like the A’s and not give a tin shit what your rookies do because you’re a flaming dumpster fire intent on moving out of town.
The Cubs are no longer able to get away with that last one and the first is out because they aren’t the Braves yet. Since the second option is unrealistic unless they have another Kris Bryant coming up — and I could be convinced that Matt Shaw isn’t far off — we’re left with only one realistic path. That’s the flip side of Hoyer’s task this offseason when it comes to improving the roster at a few different positions.
It’s not just about acquiring players who make the team better on paper, it’s a matter of creating space for growth by not requiring rookies to perform at the 100th percentile of their potential right away. Baseball is a game of failure and some players need to figure out how to embrace that and work through it in order to achieve success. Treating young guys with kid gloves and pulling them at the first sign of struggle isn’t always the best way to help them adjust.
I think it’s also helpful for fans to maintain proper perspective on the matter, though that’s much easier said than done.