It’s basically a tradition now. Once again, the Cardinals have graduated prospects to the major league level. Once again, those players have had a positive impact on the big league team. Paul DeJong didn’t make a single top 100 prospect list going into the year, but that hasn’t stopped him from constantly battering baseballs in his first exposure to big league pitching. It couldn’t have been better timing either, considering it came right when Aledmys Diaz’s game was cratering. Diaz himself was an unheralded prospect who turned in a great rookie campaign just the year before.
Then there’s Luke Weaver. Weaver did nothing but carve hitters up in the upper minors, but still couldn’t escape skepticism from prospect evaluators, who still worry that he’ll never develop a good-enough breaking ball. I’d imagine major league hitters are less skeptical, as Weaver has so far been even more successful in the majors than he was in Triple-A.
Oh, and Jose Martinez wasn’t even considered a prospect. He was organizational depth, a guy you could easily see the Cardinals waiving the next time they needed the 40-man spot for someone else. Then he would likely move on to his sixth organization. Instead, on a rate basis he’s been one of the best hitters in the league.
This isn’t new for Cardinals fans though. The Cards’ success is defined by their ability to draft and develop their own talent. There hasn’t been a single recent year where an important role wasn’t filled by rookie.
Any Cardinals fan that’s been paying attention knows this. I’m the numbers guy though, and I wanted to see what they had to say on the subject. Fangraphs’ leaderboards have a filter to select for just rookie seasons, and that’s what we’ll utilize today.
They determine a rookie season similarly to MLB, in that they both see a rookie as someone with less than 130 career plate appearances and 50 career innings pitched prior to the season. However, MLB has a third stipulation that Fangraphs doesn’t: the player can have no more than 45 days of service time prior to the beginning on the season. However, this really only makes a difference for relievers and bench players.
We’ll go back to 2010. That year, Jaime Garcia, Jon Jay, and David Freese qualified as rookies who had an impact on the team’s success. Using Fangraphs’ leaderboards, we can see that since then, Cardinals rookie pitchers rank fifth in WAR. In terms of position players, we see that Cardinals rookies rank 2nd. Add them together and here’s what you get:
Since 2010, the Cardinals have benefited more from rookie call-ups than any other team in the league. Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Austin Barnes, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Kenta Maeda help put the Dodgers in a very close second. The Met’s success comes thanks to their many young fireballer pitchers, but also Juan Lagares, Ike Davis, and Michael Conforto. Over a third of the Angels’ production comes courtesy of Mike Trout. Second-place among Angel rookies over this time frame? Peter Bourjos at 1.8 WAR in just 193 plate appearances.
One interesting thing to note is the superiority of those top 7 teams. 23% of the teams accounted for 36% of rookie WAR, on average 53% higher than the league average. Only five other teams are above-average, and only marginally so. Are these the seven best teams at evaluating talent that hasn’t yet made it to the majors? I can’t pretend that this shows that to be the case. It’s a good place to start though.
Let’s get back to the Cardinals though. Let’s break it down by year:
For some context, the average rookie WAR per MLB team per year in this sample was 3.3 WAR, though that includes a 2017 season with less than 3 weeks left. That means half the Cardinals seasons featured here produced double the average. And that’s including an unfinished 2017 season as one of the four that didn’t.
We already talked about 2010. 2011 was buoyed by Allen Craig. The bullpen was also boosted by rookies. Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, and Eduardo Sanchez combined for 140 innings and 2 WAR.
In 2012, Lance Lynn still qualified as a rookie. His 2012 was the best rookie season by a Cardinal pitcher in this sample, at 2.8 WAR. 2012 also brought us Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal, though Miller and Rosenthal’s time was more of the cup of coffee variety. Matt Carpenter tallied 1.5 WAR in his first 340 plate appearances in the majors, and somehow Pete Kozma was worth 1.3 WAR over just 82 plate appearances.
With 2013 came a parade of rookie pitchers. The pitchers actually accounted for all the rookie WAR and then some as rookie position players combined for a below replacement level performance. Miller and Rosenthal still were considered rookies. They along with Michael Wacha, Tyler Lyons, Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez, and Seth Maness led the way to the third best rookie pitching staff in the 240 team sample. That was a fun year to watch.
2014 is the one below average year. Here’s the thing about that: Oscar Taveras produced a total of -1.2 WAR. Yeah, some of that was the result of a bad defensive rating over a small-sample, but the 67 wRC+ wasn’t helping either. I didn’t want to mention it because he produced some incredibly memorable moments in his first and final year in the majors, but if you don’t count him the Cardinals still produced an average amount of rookie WAR in 2014. That’s thanks largely to Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong (despite Matheny’s best efforts to play Mark Ellis instead).
Despite losing the best outfield prospect in the game early in the offseason, 2015 was the year of the outfield rookie for the Cards. Randal Grichuk’s performance likely comes to memory, but Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham had strong seasons themselves. Almost all the WAR Cardinal rookies produced in 2015 came from those three. Among rookie position players, they ranked 11th out of the 240 team seasons since 2010.
2016 is the Cardinals’ best year featured here, and featured strong contributions from both pitchers and hitters. Seung Hwan Oh, Aledmys Diaz, Greg Garcia, Alex Reyes, Matt Bowman, and Luke Weaver all combined for a 9+ WAR contribution from Cardinal rookies.
Sure, some of these turned into disappointments. Oh and Diaz combined for 5 1/2 WAR last year, and they’ve been worth about 10% of that in 2017. Reyes of course hasn’t thrown a pitch in his sophomore season. Grichuk’s rookie season continues to be his best. Not every great rookie season is followed by a successful career.
2017 sits in 5th place in this sample, but of course the season isn’t over. They’re about a win behind 2012 and 2015. With two rookies in the rotation and two in the lineup most days, a good half a month could put them in a similar spot.
I think the results here show us what we already assumed: The Cardinals have consistently been at the top of the league in terms of value from rookies. It’s neat to know that they actually are the best, at least over this time frame. All of the years featured here would have been markedly different without the rookie contributions they received.
Of course, none of these players won a rookie of the year award. The last Cardinal to do so was Albert Pujols way back in 2001. Still, the Cards success in the last eight years is inseparable from the success of their rookies. With the farm still going strong, there’s no reason to think that’ll change any time soon.