In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill wrote it should have been possible to predict that Ryne Sandberg would be a Hall of Fame-caliber player after his first season, going so far as to suggest he had about a twenty percent chance (p490, with the explanation on pp513). The main measure Bill used in that book was Win Shares, which he described in a book titled, oddly enough, Win Shares. I can read that book about two pages at a time before my brain starts to melt; I like to dabble in baseball statistics, but I'm no Stephen Hawking.
The premise was fairly straightforward—compare Sandberg's 1982 performance to other players and see how many had Hall of Fame careers. Sandberg appeared briefly with the Phillies in 1981 and was traded to the Cubs with Larry Bowa for Ivan de Jesus. His first full season appears nondescript—7 home runs, 54 RBIs and a .271 batting average, but it was enough to get him Rookie of the Year votes. He had a B-R Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) of 3.1, not bad for a rookie.
I grabbed all rookie players with a rWAR of 3.0 or higher since 1950, which can be seen in this Google Docs spreadsheet. The left columns show the player's performance in their rookie season, and the right career achievements for players with at least 2,000 plate appearances. There were a total of 187 players, of which 17 have been enshrined (highlighted in yellow) and another seven are worthy, at least in my mind (highlighted in blue). This is around thirteen percent of the players in the sample, suggesting Bill James, as usual, was correct in his analysis.
So what current players fit this criteria? I'll proceed year-by-year for the first three years and then introduce a data viz for your viewing pleasure. These are the position players with a 3.0 rWAR or higher in their rookie season in 2014:
|Jose Abreu||27||White Sox||1B||145||556||80||176||36||107||.317||.383||.581||.964||5.5|
Bill James can make predictions after one year, not me. Jose Abreu has the potential to be a very special player, and it will be interesting to see how pitchers adjust their approach to him—a look at his 2014 splits by month suggests this has already occurred.
These are the players in 2013:
All are very solid players who made progress in their second year as well. Yasiel Puig is in grave danger of having the TOOTBLAN re-named in his honor, but one can hope he can be coached out of those proclivities.
These are the 2012 players:
One name sticks out in this group, so head-and-shoulders above the rest that he deserves his own post, but I've written enough about Nori Aoki in the past. All kidding aside, the youth of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper gives them the opportunity to amass monumental counting stats. To be eligible for HOF consideration in 2035 assumes these players would continue through the 2029 season, by which time Trout could very well have earned one billion dollars in salary. He'll be 37 by then and probably won't need the money.
This Tableau data viz tweaks my method slightly and shows the top 50 players by rWAR after their first four seasons in the majors; it can be filtered by year and position to see how players compare.
I've selected center field to illustrate how Trout has begun his career, and keep in mind, this analysis only shortchanges him because it includes his first year—if I were to change the criteria to rookie year plus the next two, the gap would be even bigger. For those who don't feel like messing with the data viz, current younger players who measure favorably are (by position) Buster Posey (remember, no flavor of WAR gives catchers full justice), Joey Votto (if he can stay healthy), Paul Goldschmidt, Evan Longoria, Ryan Braun and Jason Heyward—no real shocks.
Neither of these methods are perfect—the first one ignores players who didn't have a decent rookie year and the second discounts late bloomers—but generally speaking, making comparisons with past players can give guidance as to what to expect from current players. While injuries and dramatic declines in performance can always occur and are unpredictable, in general, players who start strong have a shot to have excellent careers. This isn't a radical statement, but it's always nice to have data to back it up.
All data from Baseball-Reference. Any errors in gathering or processing it are the author's.
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.