Historical Context For The Big Four
In the second half of the 2010 season, the Pirates offense was paced by Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez. The success of these young players was encouraging for a franchise mired in a hopeless multi-decade stretch of losing baseball. Walker is the oldest of the quartet, and he did not turn 25 until September. All four finished the season with a Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) above the league average mark. Now, four above average hitters under the age of 25 would appear to be an impressive accomplishment, particularly for a rebuilding ballclub. It is easy to assume that good things are on the way for the Bucs’ offense, but that is mostly just conjecture without considering some historical context. So I decided to look for previous teams that boasted a similar group of young hitters. I used Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) for this. From the FanGraphs Sabermetrics Library:
Similar to OPS+, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average. League average is 100 and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a 125 wRC+ means a player created 25% more runs than league average. Similarly, every point below 100 is a percentage point below league average, so a 80 wRC+ means a player created 20% fewer runs than league average.
In other words, wRC+ is the same as OPS+, but it replaces OPS with wOBA as the baseline metric. Here is how the 2010 Pirates finished the season.
I began searching for teams with four or more players under the age of 25 with a wRC+ of at least 100 (minimum 300 plate appearances). The most recent example was the Brewers from a few years ago. They had five such players in 2007 and four in 2008.
The Pirates’ young core does not really compare to this group of star-level players developed in Milwaukee. In 2007, Fielder and Braun were two of the top hitters in baseball at just 23-years-old. Hart also had an impressive season at age 25, as did Weeks at age 24. Shortstop J.J. Hardy was also a touch above average in his age 24 season. Hardy was the only member of this group that did not regress at the plate in 2008, but the Brewers still featured an exciting collection of young hitters. In the two seasons since, the Brewers have been tied for seventh in overall team wOBA. Hardy has been traded twice, but the other four players on this list continue to lead the Brewers’ offense.
The 2007 Dodgers also make our list.
This group also eclipsed what the Pirates accomplished in 2010. Loney and Kemp were not quite at the level of Braun and Fielder that year, and neither spent the entire season in the big leagues, but they greatly exceeded the production of any of the young Pirates hitters. Unfortunately, Loney’s bat has fallen greatly over the past few years. Now 26-years-old, he is only a borderline everyday first baseman. Kemp had another couple of very solid years in 2008 and 2009, but his numbers dropped precipitously this past season. After another good year in 2008, Martin’s power has disappeared. He has only posted a .307 wOBA the past two seasons. Of these four players, only Ethier has maintained his production to this day. He experienced a breakout season in 2008, and he has put up a .373 wOBA the past three years.
Our next group comes from the 2005 Reds.
|Wily Mo Pena||23||335||.340||103|
The 25-year-old Dunn, already in his fifth major league season, led the way for this group of youngsters. He has been one of the most consistently productive hitters in baseball ever since. Unfortunately, the other three players on this list have not lived up to expectations. Lopez had a strong season in 2009, but otherwise has been very inconsistent at the plate. Pena improved in 2006 at age 24, but he quickly fell off after that. He has missed significant time due to injuries, and has spent the past two years in Triple-A. Kearns has also struggled with injuries, leading to greatly reduced production. He had a decent bounceback season in 2010, but he is now in his early thirties and is likely to continue declining.
Next on the list are the 2000 Marlins.
Castillo had a breakout season in 2000, but he has never again matched that level of production. He hit pretty poorly in 2001, but has hovered around the league average mark ever since. He finally experienced a sharp decline last season, at the age of 34. Lee, on the other hand, never slowed down after his big 2001 campaign. His bat has mostly been well above average since that year, and he has a couple of MVP-type seasons on his résumé. Wilson was a solid yet unspectacular everyday player for several years, before knee problems began slowing him down. He underwent surgery in 2004 and again in 2007, and is now out of the majors. Kotsay also put up a few more nice seasons, before his numbers began to drop as he reached his thirties. He has hung around the league for the past few years as a veteran bench player.
That brings us to the 1992 Montreal Expos.
Walker is the star of this group, as he would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. His wOBA fell to a still strong .368 in 2002, but it never again dropped below .382. In fact, that .382 mark came in his final season, at the age of 38. He put up a tremendous career wOBA of .414. Some of his extraordinary success was due to hitting at hitter-friendly Coors Field, but not all of it. He was simply a great hitter. Of course, the other players in this group also went on to have impressive careers. Alou never had a below average season at the plate, and turned in several All-Star level years. He played through 2008, finishing his career with a .379 wOBA. Grissom had a few more solid seasons before dropping off as he reached his thirties. He rebounded a bit in 2002, and had a few more decent years before a disastrous 2005 season ended his career. DeShields had an inconsistent career with the bat, mixing some awful seasons in with a few very productive ones. He retired after the 2002 season, with a slightly above average wOBA of .334.
The Bash Brothers highlight our next group, the 1987 Oakland A’s.
McGwire, in his first full season, hit 49 home runs and led the Oakland offense. He would go on to bash 583 home runs with a career wOBA of .415. Canseco’s bat did not truly take off until 1988, and he would go on to be one of the league’s most feared hitters. Obviously, steroid use eventually became the major story in the careers of McGwire and Canseco. Polonia was a steady above average bat until he reached his late twenties, when inconsistency took over. He played until he was 36, with an up-and-down finish to his career. Steinbach’s numbers quickly declined as the 1980’s came to a close, but he rebounded to put up some very solid seasons in his thirties. He ultimately played for 14 seasons, finishing with a league average bat over 5,896 career plate appearances.
Finally, let’s take a look at the 1980 Tigers.
Kemp was the leader of this group, but he never again matched this season’s production. He slowly declined and did little after his 30th birthday. Trammell, on the other hand, would enjoy a prosperous 20-year career that lasted until 1996. He finished with a .285./.352/.415 line over 9,375 career plate appearances. Parrish also hung around for a while, lasting until 1995. He finished his career with a slightly above average wOBA of .331. Peters turned out to be a one-year wonder. He only managed another 487 plate appearances in the big leagues, and never again approached his 1980 production.
These are the only examples of teams with four above average hitters under the age of 25 since 1980. Unfortunately, it is difficult to accurately compare any of them to the 2010 Pirates. Most of these teams had a player or two that performed much better than any of the young Pirates. McCutchen had a very good season in 2010, but it was not the type of impact performance that we can see scattered across the other lists in this article. On the other hand, no other team’s core was as young as the Pirates’ 2010 group. The Bucs were the only team discussed without a 25-year-old player, and Tabata was about six months younger than anyone else listed.
These results do not tell us how the careers of McCutchen, Walker, Tabata and Alvarez will ultimately turn out. However, they do give us a bit of context. Most importantly, they show that expectations should be modest for this young group. The graph below shows future production for each player discussed in this article. The red box highlights the initial season, with subsequent years running left-to-right. As you can see, overall production trended downward in future years. This should not be too surprising, as it probably takes a few guys playing above their true talent level in order for this relatively uncommon phenomenon to occur.