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Good players who had shitty starts to their careers

May 20, 2012

The following tables shows the second season of players who have been on the Hall of Fame ballot, so long as that season both, a) occurred when the player was between 22 and 25 years old and, b) sucked (minimum 100 PAs). To receive only sucky returns, I set the parameters so that batting average was less than or equal to .260, on-base percentage was less than or equal to .375 and slugging percentage was less than or equal .400.

Player HR BA OBP SLG PA Year Age G H BB SO SB Pos
Mike Schmidt 18 .196 .324 .373 443 1973 23 132 72 62 136 8 *5/463
Barry Larkin 12 .244 .306 .371 488 1987 23 125 107 36 52 21 *6
Bill Terry 5 .239 .311 .399 180 1924 25 77 39 17 18 1 3
Tony Batista 4 .202 .265 .330 207 1997 23 68 38 14 31 2 *6/54D
Royce Clayton 4 .224 .281 .308 352 1992 22 98 72 26 63 8 *6/5
Steve Finley 3 .256 .304 .328 513 1990 25 142 119 32 53 22 *987/D
Luis Aparicio 3 .257 .317 .332 640 1957 23 143 148 52 55 28 *6
Pee Wee Reese 2 .229 .311 .294 674 1941 22 152 136 68 56 10 *6
Luke Appling 1 .232 .303 .313 331 1931 24 96 69 29 27 9 *6/4
Ozzie Smith 0 .211 .260 .262 649 1979 24 156 124 37 37 28 *6
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/20/2012.

As you can see from the last column marked “Pos” for position, most of these players were shortstops, where defense is emphasized and any offensive production is a pleasant bonus. Only Mike Schmidt, Bill Terry and Steve Finley played other positions, from which greater offensive output is expected. Their seasons were undoubtedly poor, but that didn’t stop Schmidt from becoming possibly the best-hitting third baseman ever, Terry from posting a career .341 batting average, or Finley from becoming one of the better players of the 1990s.

Let’s lower the standards a bit and look at the shitty second seasons (same age and PA requirements) of players since 1961 who may not have appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot but have made at least one All-Star roster, narrowing the field to only include players at first base, third base, left field, right field and designated hitter—positions with a great emphasis on offense.

Player HR BA OBP SLG PA Year Age G H BB SO SB Pos
Mike Schmidt 18 .196 .324 .373 443 1973 23 132 72 62 136 8 *5/463
Von Hayes 14 .250 .310 .389 583 1982 23 150 132 42 63 32 *97/853
Mo Vaughn 13 .234 .326 .400 408 1992 24 113 83 47 67 3 *3D
Ken Singleton 13 .245 .374 .393 366 1971 24 115 73 61 64 0 *97/8
Ty Wigginton 11 .255 .318 .396 633 2003 25 156 146 46 124 12 *5
Jim Spencer 10 .254 .304 .383 422 1969 22 113 98 26 53 1 *3
Tommy Harper 10 .260 .335 .377 465 1963 22 129 106 44 72 12 *98/5
Don Wert 9 .257 .325 .362 594 1964 25 148 135 50 74 3 *5/6
Ben Oglivie 8 .241 .293 .391 273 1972 23 94 61 18 61 1 97
Nate McLouth 7 .233 .293 .385 297 2006 24 106 63 18 59 10 89/7
Jermaine Dye 7 .236 .284 .369 283 1997 23 75 62 17 51 2 *9/7
Roy White 7 .225 .308 .345 356 1966 22 115 71 37 43 14 *78/4
Ken Harrelson 7 .194 .263 .381 152 1964 22 49 27 13 34 0 73
Nelson Cruz 6 .223 .261 .385 138 2006 25 41 29 7 32 1 *9/87
Matt Lawton 6 .258 .339 .365 286 1996 24 79 65 28 28 4 *98/D7
Ken Reitz 6 .235 .256 .333 446 1973 22 147 100 9 25 0 *5/6
Carlos Quentin 5 .214 .298 .349 263 2007 24 81 49 18 54 2 *9/7
Dmitri Young 5 .258 .335 .363 377 1997 23 110 86 38 63 6 *39/7D
Robin Ventura 5 .249 .324 .318 565 1990 22 150 123 55 53 1 *5/3
Terry Pendleton 5 .240 .285 .306 602 1985 24 149 134 37 75 17 *5
Gary Matthews 4 .190 .264 .297 175 2000 25 80 30 15 28 3 *78/9
Tino Martinez 4 .205 .272 .330 125 1991 23 36 23 11 24 0 *3/D
Dave Engle 4 .226 .269 .349 197 1982 25 58 42 10 22 0 *9D/7
Tim Wallach 4 .236 .299 .344 231 1981 23 71 50 15 37 0 935/7
Bobby Abreu 3 .250 .329 .372 210 1997 23 59 47 21 48 7 *97/8
Player HR BA OBP SLG PA Year Age G H BB SO SB Pos
Jeromy Burnitz 3 .238 .347 .329 168 1994 25 45 34 23 45 1 *9
Steve Finley 3 .256 .304 .328 513 1990 25 142 119 32 53 22 *987/D
Dante Bichette 3 .210 .240 .326 146 1989 25 48 29 6 24 3 97/8D
Kevin Bass 2 .236 .257 .333 206 1983 24 88 46 6 27 2 *9/8
Ken Griffey 2 .251 .333 .361 256 1974 24 88 57 27 43 9 *9/7
Vince Coleman 0 .232 .301 .280 670 1986 24 154 139 60 98 107 *78
Dave May 0 .191 .285 .270 173 1968 24 84 29 19 27 3 *98/7
Sal Bando 0 .192 .295 .246 152 1967 23 47 25 16 24 1 *5
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/20/2012.

Wow look at all those players with shitty second seasons. You probably know quite a few of them. Hell, as I typed this paragraph, 38-year-old Bobby Abreu just hit a single to right-center field off Kyle Lohse. He will probably be elected into the Hall of Fame after he retires. All of this is to say that shitty second seasons, even by my extremely narrow definition, plague very good players rather often.

(Also: Holy shit Vince Coleman! 107 steals! With a measly .301 OBP! You must have tried to steal like 60 percent of the time you reached base! Gotta love the ’80s, when everyone stole bases with impunity. I love doing these baseball-reference.com Play Index things every week because I always find some joyous nugget like Vince Coleman’s 107 steals.)

Ah, but what if these players had very good rookie seasons before falling victim to the dreaded “sophomore slump”? Why don’t you look at players with poor rookie and sophomore seasons? Certainly players who start their careers with two straight shitty seasons are more likely to have bad careers.

Let’s find out, other Marciano. I will look at a player’s first two seasons and up the minimum PAs to 300, resulting in a table that looks like this:

Player HR BA OBP SLG PA From To Age G H BB SO
Mike Schmidt 19 .197 .324 .367 483 1972 1973 22-23 145 79 67 151
Ken Singleton 18 .252 .369 .387 600 1970 1971 23-24 184 125 91 112
Mo Vaughn 17 .244 .331 .389 659 1991 1992 23-24 187 140 73 110
Don Wert 16 .258 .325 .369 877 1963 1964 24-25 226 200 74 125
Andy Van Slyke 15 .252 .355 .393 794 1983 1984 22-23 238 169 109 135
Von Hayes 15 .252 .316 .390 714 1981 1982 22-23 193 160 56 73
Andres Galarraga 12 .255 .318 .381 435 1985 1986 24-25 129 101 33 97
Brian Downing 12 .216 .331 .355 435 1973 1974 22-23 142 79 61 89
Henry Rodriguez 11 .220 .262 .376 344 1992 1993 24-25 129 71 19 69
Phil Nevin 10 .228 .305 .377 309 1995 1996 24-25 85 63 26 79
Jim Spencer 10 .254 .304 .383 422 1969 1969 22-22 113 98 26 53
Tommy Harper 10 .260 .335 .377 465 1963 1963 22-22 129 106 44 72
Dave Engle 9 .244 .284 .382 462 1981 1982 24-25 140 106 23 59
Ben Oglivie 8 .244 .289 .385 311 1971 1972 22-23 108 71 18 66
Roy White 7 .225 .308 .345 356 1966 1966 22-22 115 71 37 43
Ken Reitz 6 .235 .256 .333 446 1973 1973 22-22 147 100 9 25
Dmitri Young 5 .257 .337 .354 411 1996 1997 22-23 126 93 42 68
Steve Finley 5 .254 .302 .325 754 1989 1990 24-25 223 173 47 83
Robin Ventura 5 .249 .324 .318 565 1990 1990 22-22 150 123 55 53
Ken Landreaux 5 .229 .287 .345 364 1977 1978 22-23 116 77 25 35
Ken Caminiti 4 .227 .269 .308 307 1987 1988 24-25 93 65 17 62
Vince Coleman 1 .250 .311 .308 1362 1985 1986 23-24 305 309 110 213
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/20/2012.

Hmmm, some impressive names show up, like Andres “El Gato Grande” Galarraga and Andy Van Slyke, who, in another cool baseball coincidence like the one I mentioned above with Abreu, was just mentioned on ESPN’s broadcast of the Dodgers-Cardinals game, right as I was looking this table over. Van Slyke patrolled the Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfield in the late 1980s alongside young Barry Bonds, and according to one biography of Bonds I read a while ago, the two were adversaries. Bonds envied Van Slyke’s good standing with the fans and the media, while Van Slyke, whom the biography characterized as a team leader, loathed Bonds’ narcissism and the general malaise he brought to the clubhouse. Anyway, Van Slyke’s son Scott is on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, which is why Andy got a mention on TV just now.

It’s no secret that sometimes good players start poorly, so what’s my point here? Well, I present these tables to you as a roundabout way of talking about Brandon Belt.

This guy.

Radio hosts, newspaper writers, television reports and some people I know personally have grown impatient with Belt, some even asserting that he must be one of those guys who rakes in the minors but can’t hit major-league pitching. My friend John, whose opinion on baseball I greatly respect even though we tend to disagree, cited the almost instant success of Buster Posey as evidence against Belt’s efficacy.

Here is Belt’s career line (this may not include his stats from today’s game):

Year G PA AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS+
2 Yrs 93 301 262 61 13 2 9 35 78 .233 .326 .401 106
162 Game Avg. 162 524 456 106 23 3 16 61 136 .233 .326 .401 106
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2012.

He barely has 300 career PAs, so all the usual sample-size caveats apply here. Yeah, his batting average isn’t pretty, but the sizable gap between that and his OBP shows he has a good idea of the strike zone and stays within it, which can’t be taught. The power isn’t what you expect for a first baseman, but power is usually the last thing to develop in a hitter, and as this nifty career spray chart from the good people at Texas Leaguers shows, he has shown flashes of power to all fields, which is rare.

Other idle thoughts about this spray chart:His all-fields approach should help him hit for high averages, even if that hasn’t manifested yet. He can go up the middle especially well.

The organization wanted him to be more aggressive, and he has responded by swinging at more pitches in the strike zone (75.9 percent compared to 72.5 last year). Still, his contact rate on pitches in the zone has dropped considerably (71.8 compared to 87.5 percent), perhaps because pitchers have adjusted to his game and started throwing him more changeups (18 percent this year, 11 last year) and curveballs (11.1 percent in 2012, 6.8 in 2011). Certainly his future success will depend on how he adapts to this development, because pitchers aren’t going to throw him fastballs (upon which he feasts) until he proves he can hit the soft stuff.

The only way he will ever improve against major-league breaking pitches is if he gets consistent playing time against major-league pitching. The Giants wouldn’t lose anything giving him time to develop; his .370 OBP this season is fourth on the team and he can really pick it at first. The organization and fans just need to be patient, like Belt at the plate.

***

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