Jose Ramirez broke out for the Indians last season. Long seen as just a placeholder for Francisco Lindor, Jose hit well enough all year to keep getting starts in a utility role, and eventually moving up to become the full-time third baseman for Cleveland. Ramirez derived the majority of his value from an elite contact rate, and excellent base-running, swiping 22 bags and hitting for an average well over .300. All in all, Jose was worth nearly five wins above replacement. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether he can repeat his huge breakout last year, if we may have already seen his peak, or maybe, he’s just getting started and there are even greater things to come.
Looking at Jose’s numbers from last season, I can see three areas for improvement. First off is defense. According to defensive runs above average, Jose was only worth 0.5 throughout the 2016 season. Jose is a shortstop by training; however, he spent most of the first half of the season bouncing around positions in a utility role, before landing at third base full-time. Considering this and the fact that he has rated out as a plus defender in past seasons, I think it is safe to project an improvement here with a more consistent role.
Second is his walk rate. Jose walked in 7.1% of his plate appearances in 2016. To compare, in 2015, as well as in his Triple-A career, his walk rate hung right around 9%, so there is possibly some room for improvement there as well.
The final area for improvement is Jose’s home-run hitting. Despite recording 60 XBHs last year, Jose only left the yard 11 times. It is very difficult to put up an MVP-quality season with lower-end HR numbers. Since 2011, there have been 29 positional-player seasons worth 7+ WAR, and every single one of them included over 20 HRs.
So what will Jose look like in 2017? It’s hard to tell, unless of course you decide to overreact to this week’s opening game, in which case…
WELCOME TO THE MVP RACE JOSE RAMIREZ
Jose batted four times in the opener, and he had one walk and one HR. THE TWO THINGS HE NEEDED TO GET BETTER AT!!! Now obviously this article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and a sample size of one game means VERY little. The walk especially tells us just about nothing. You give me 4 PA in a major-league game and I might even luck into a walk. However, there is reason to take note of the home run.
Prior to 2017, Jose Ramirez had hit 19 home runs in the majors. His previous best exit velocity was 107.8 MPH on a HR. The longest HR of his career had traveled 437 feet. Jose’s HR in game number one left his bat at 109.3 MPH and traveled 447 feet.
So MAYBE this is a hint that Jose has added some power since last season. That would be a reason to get excited. If you take Jose’s 2016 numbers, then bump him to a 9% walk rate, 22 HRs, and plus defensive value, and even account for a few points of BABIP regression, he’s a 7-8 WAR player, and looks real similar on paper to Mookie Betts.
So, if we overact to opening day, this would make Jose a legitimate star and MVP candidate. His season will be extremely exciting to follow, although in the end probably overshadowed by Madison Bumgarner’s race to 60 dingers.
As of this writing, Tyler Naquin is running a wRC+ of 171 through 196 plate appearances. While still statistically a fairly small sample size, it’s enough to be a qualified rookie season. If the season were over today, Naquin’s 171 would be the fourth-highest for a qualified rookie ever.
Now there’s a lot of discussion about Naquin’s impending regression. Even though Naquin has always had a high BABIP profile (over .350 through minors), his current mark of .417 is clearly unsustainable. It’s also hard to see someone continuing to hit home runs at over four times the frequency he did in the minors.
I’m not going to debate what his regression might look like, or where his true-talent level might be. I am just going to look at the fact that he has had an incredible rookie season so far. Even with some significant regressions in the second half, Naquin is well set up to put up some pretty gaudy rookie numbers. So, I decided to take a look at some of the other best rookie seasons ever, and how these players fared in the rest of their careers. Since 1901, there have been 30 qualified rookie hitters (if you include Naquin) to post a wRC+ of at least 150, a mark that even with some significant regression, Naquin should have a chance to exceed.
It’s easy to see that Naquin puts himself in some impressive company on this list. I wanted to see how likely it is for an elite rookie season to lead to a successful MLB career. Next is a list these players including their career WAR and wRC+ compared to what they did as rookies.
Finally, I have broken these careers down into tiers, just as a quick visual. These tiers are loosely based mostly on career WAR. I am not considering controversies surrounding these players (e.g. McGwire, Jackson), just what they accomplished at the plate.
Tier 1 – “First Ballot” Hall of Fame Talent – 5 Players
Not much to say here, you all know these names. Yes, I put Trout here already; I don’t think anyone is arguing how good a player he is at this point. Jackson was placed here because, again, I’m just looking at how good a player these players individually were.
Tier 2 – “Fringe” Hall of Fame Talent – 6 Players
Fringe HOF was just what I named this group, based on career WAR. Obviously some of these players are much less “fringe” than others when it comes to actual voting, but regardless, all of these players had long careers of being excellent hitters.
Tier 3 – Starter Talent – 5 Players
Group of players with great, but not generally HOF-quality careers. You’ll notice here that Herzog didn’t actually maintain above-average offense throughout his career, but he was able to find success as a great defensive player.
Tier 4 – Successful MLB careers – 4 Players
The difference between a successful MLB career and a bust is extremely relative. I put the cutoff at 10 WAR, which seems to me like a mark you would expect to be able to reach after putting up one of the greatest rookie seasons ever.
Tier 5 – Relative Bust – 4 Players
None of these players lived up to what they produced in their rookie seasons. However, you do see that this is still a group with generally good offensive production throughout their careers.
Jury’s Out – 5 Players
And finally, we have a few active players where it’s too early to call what class of career they are going to have.
So what does this all mean for Tyler Naquin? Well, probably not as much as an irrational Cleveland fan such as myself might hope. There is no ignoring though that there is an exceptional success rate for players who hit this well as a rookie. 75% were able to run career WAR totals over 20, and about half of those made it to 60!
Now there are going to be a lot of people who argue that Naquin’s minor-league track record might suggest that he is still likely to end up somewhere in that bottom 25% group. I don’t know how good Naquin really is, or how good he might be. I do know that he has put himself in a group with some impressive names, and I am quite excited to see how his career plays out.