We are coming off a season in which Major League Baseball’s wealth of first-year talent was on display. In fact, there is a trend beyond the aptly titled “Year of the Rookie” of youth contribution to big league squads. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill looked at this in more depth when he examined the American League West’s pre-arbitration players to better assess the division’s future. These players have played an increasingly important role on successful teams.
Here, we’re going to take the performances of some of the National League’s top rookies and examine what could be coming in 2016 and how the ‘sophomore slump’ may or may not be a factor. First, let’s give some parameters for what dictates rookie status. Per MLB’s rules, a player remains a rookie until they exceed 130 plate appearances as a position player, 50 innings pitched as a pitcher, or 45 days on an active 25-man roster — this doesn’t include time spent on the disabled list or when rosters expand in September.
This is why, for example, Chris Taylor wasn’t considered a rookie in 2015 after picking up 136 at-bats in 2014 but Shawn O’Malley will enter the 2016 season with his rookie status intact after just picking up major league at-bat No. 58 this past season.
Kyle’s younger brother Corey Seager does not appear on this list, despite finding himself in the top 20 NL rookies in terms of fWAR last year and being the consensus top prospect in baseball because, with just 98 September at-bats, he’s still a rookie. Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman is entering his third major league season despite missing nearly all of 2015 following knee surgery since he surpassed the 50 innings pitched mark back in 2014.
Without further ado, let’s get to those National League sophomores.
Kris Bryant, 3B — Chicago Cubs
If it wasn’t for the two weeks spent at Triple-A to start the season, Bryant may not have become the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year. But I doubt it. Early season service time drama aside, it was a year to remember for the young slugger. With 26 home runs, 13 stolen bases, an 11.8 percent walk rate, and solid defence at third accompanying a 136 wRC+, it was hard to ask for a more well-rounded 2015 campaign. The only concerning statistic is his 30.6 percent strikeout rate which, if addressed, well result in Bryant becoming an even more complete hitter.
Undoubtedly the league will begin to make some adjustments to Bryant, and his sophomore success will in part depend on whether or not he can match them. Some regression could be expected for no other reason than it’s hard to repeat a performance of his 2015-level. His 6.5 fWAR was fifth among NL hitters, right between A.J. Pollock and Jason Heyward. At 24-years-old, the sky remains the limit.
Matt Duffy, 3B — San Francisco Giants
If it were any other year, Duffy would be the talking point among rookie third baseman. But in 2015 he took second place, literally. The San Francisco Giants aren’t the least bit disappointed with second place in this case as they watched another infield cornerstone develop. Duffy showed a well-rounded game with speed and some power but his defence remains his calling card. Simply put, any player who can put up a .295/.334/.428 while playing excellent defence is going to be valuable.
You’d like to see a little more power from third base, and Duffy’s 12 home runs last year were unprecedented — he hit only 13 in over 1,000 plate appearances — but it’s not impossible that he managed to figure something out at the major league level. As a speedy contact hitter Duffy should be able to maintain an above average BABIP which helps boost his batting average. Although the power numbers are likely to regress some, the 25-year-old could easily improve on his 12 stolen bases.
The defence will keep Duffy valuable in 2016 regardless of how he hits, but if he’s able to push the stolen base number closer to 20 and keep a batting line in the .275/.330/.400 range, we’ll have an excellent sophomore season to discuss.
Joc Pederson, OF — Los Angeles Dodgers
I was particularly excited by what I saw from Pederson in Spring Training and the first half of the season, but his debut season will be discussed as a tale of two halves: he posted a 137 wRC+ prior to the All-Star break and a 79 wRC+ through the end of the season. His power disappeared in the second half and he didn’t get any help from a below average BABIP either. Still, 26 home runs and average center field defence is a great start. He was my pick for NL Rookie of the Year early on and had he maintained his first half pace we probably are discussing him and Bryant in a similar manner.
The 29.1 percent strikeout rate is alarming but the 15.7 percent walk rate helps offset it. Also, they were consistent throughout the year so his second half outage had more to do with how hard he was hitting the ball than not making contact at all. Pederson’s minor league track record indicates that we should expect a more well-rounded hitter. At two months away from turning 24 though, it’s still very possible. It is a little odd he only swiped four bags in 2015 after stealing 111 over four minor league seasons.
I think Pederson can bounce back and closer resemble his first half self than second. The tools played against major league pitching, it’s just a matter of making better contact and continuing to make adjustments. Perhaps he was tiring in the second half. A little bit more luck and better contact will help with the average and if the steals can come up some and the strikeouts down, LA easily has a star player on its hands, if he isn’t there already.
Odubel Herrera, OF — Philadelphia Phillies
If this name was unfamiliar to you, you are probably not alone. Snatched in the Rule 5 Draft and without having played a game above Double-A, Herrera quietly put up a 3.9 fWAR season for the rebuilding Phillies. Like Duffy, his glove leads his skill set, but the 24-year-old managed to put up a 110 wRC+ season. Herrera also produced a professional career-high of eight home runs alongside 16 steals. The only problem is that his .297 batting average was aided by a .387 BABIP.
Contact hitters with speed can maintain an above average BABIP, but we can expect some regression there. What Herrera can do to counter that is cut down the strikeouts. His 24.0 percent punch-out rate was nearly seven points higher than the rate he posted the year before in Double-A, but we’ll give him credit for adjusting to major league pitching on the fly.
While he isn’t an offensive force, he can do enough with the bat that his glove will carry the rest. There’s still little pressure to perform in Philadelphia, which is a plus for a second-year player who presumably will be under the microscope. He appears capable of putting up another above average season and forcing those who don’t know his name to learn it, quickly.
Randal Grichuk, OF — St. Louis Cardinals
One of the latest products of the St. Louis Cardinals player development machine, Grichuk is coming off of an impressive 3.1 fWAR year despite just 350 plate appearances. Power is the right-hander’s calling card and his .272 ISO ranked him third among NL hitters who amassed 350 PA’s. The 31.4 percent strikeout rate is alarming, and he doesn’t walk like Pederson does, but it’s higher than rates he posted in the minors so there’s room for improvement there. Grichuk also benefitted some from an unusually high BABIP for someone who makes as much hard contact as he does.
The 24-year-old enters Spring Training after undergoing hernia surgery over the offseason but isn’t believed to be having any current issues — injuries kept him out of the lineup last year. If Grichuk’s able to cut down on the strikeouts without losing his power, the Cardinals will have an explosive bat in the middle of the order for the next five-plus years. There’s risk in his skill set — and the offseason surgery could be a factor early on — but given the organization that employs him, he’s likely looking at another step forward in his sophomore year.
Anthony DeSclafani, SP — Cincinnati Reds
The Reds struck gold acquiring DeSclafani as part of the deal that sent starter Mat Latos to the Miami Marlins. For April and the last eight weeks of the regular season the right-hander was one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. Some midseason struggles resulted in a 4.05 ERA for the year but his 3.67 FIP in 184 and 2/3 innings pitched is encouraging. DeSclafani doesn’t rely on the strikeout but rather a combination of ground and fly balls helped lead him to an NL rookie-leading 3.2 fWAR.
The 25-year-old appears to be an ace in the making and is the leading candidate to take the mound on Opening Day for the rebuilding Reds. For much of his minor league career DeSclafani kept his walk rate under 2.00 per nine innings and improving on his 2.68 rate in 2015 is likely a key to his ascent. Certainly pitchers carry more risk than hitters, but a low-90’s sinker with solid command is a lower-risk profile than others. The Reds are semi-rebuilding, but the expected progress of DeSclafani and a few others will add some intrigue to the team.
Noah Syndergaard, SP — New York Mets
The one they call ‘Thor’ was one of several prized arms that helped lead the Mets to the World Series last season. Lead by a fastball that averaged 97 miles per hour and an outstanding curve, the right-hander posted a 3.24 ERA and a 3.25 FIP in 150 innings pitched. He also was outstanding in 19 postseason innings. His 5.35 strikeouts per walk rate placed his sixth among NL pitchers with 150 innings and in the same company as Cy Young finalist Zack Greinke and teammates Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom.
Syndergaard set a professional career high with 169 innings pitched — including the postseason — so depending on how the Mets decide to handle his workload, he should be in line for around 185 innings in 2016. Thor did have a rough June and August so improving consistency will be on his to-do list. You’d also like to see him give up a couple fewer home runs as well.
Unlike DeSclafani, Syndergaard relies on the heat, which brings more risk to his upside. However, Thor has already established himself as one of the top starters in all of baseball and if he’s able to add another mile or two to his fastball as he reaches his prime, he may well be unhittable.