Both shined in abbreviated rookie seasons, but as history shows, maintaining pace is difficult
By Andrew Simon
Neither the Yankees' Gary Sanchez nor the Nationals' Trea Turner won his respective league's Rookie of the Year Award in 2016, but both of the runner-ups took full advantage of the time they spent in the Majors.
Sanchez (53 games) and Turner (73) both produced more than three wins above replacement (WAR)* in less than half a season, sparking their teams' lineups down the stretch. Of all rookies with at least 3.0 WAR since baseball integrated in 1947, Sanchez and Turner rank second and fifth, respectively, for the fewest plate appearances taken, with Willie McCovey reaching the 3.0 mark in the fewest plate appearances (more on him below).
When looking ahead to 2017, it's tempting to take those numbers and extrapolate them over 162 games. Certainly, both players were highly touted prospects and have the skills to put together excellent follow-up campaigns and careers. Yet the big leagues also are an unforgiving grind, where opponents expertly find and exploit weaknesses.
In other words, caution is advisable. But what is reasonable to expect from the pair this coming season and beyond?
Of course, Sanchez and Turner aren't the first young players to take MLB by storm in a partial first season. Since 1947, 17 others have generated at least a 140 wRC+ -- a park- and league-adjusted offensive metric for which 100 equals league average -- while meeting the following criteria:
• Had rookie eligibility
• Was in age-25 season or younger
• Played 81 games or fewer
• Logged between 150 and 350 plate appearances
Taking a look at how those players fared, in both the short and long term, offers a hint of the range of outcomes that could await last year's rookie sensations. Both players also face defensive questions, with Sanchez having only made 36 big league starts behind the plate and Turner set to return to shortstop this year after splitting 2016 between second base and center field. But let's focus on the offensive side.
Hall of Famers Examples: McCovey (1959), Frank Thomas ('90)
For a Yankees fan in search of a best-case scenario, Thomas is it. The Big Hurt hit was drafted seventh overall by the White Sox in 1989, was a hot prospect, and hit .330/.454/.529 in his 60-game debut a year later. He then kept up that 178 wRC+ pace, falling between 170-179 while playing at least 153 games in each of the next three seasons. Of course, the 1993 and '94 AL MVP Award didn't have to deal with the rigors of catching and actually spent the majority of his career as a DH. But Thomas smacked 521 home runs and made it to Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2014.
McCovey put together the finest rookie year on this list, batting .354/.429/.656 (185 wRC+) in 52 games in 1959. But although he eventually became a superstar, NL MVP Award winner, 500-homer club member and first-ballot Hall of Famer, the process wasn't entirely smooth. The big first baseman was relegated to part-time duty over the next three seasons, posting a solid 133 wRC+ but averaging less than 100 games per year.
Looking good Examples: Carlos Santana (2010), Yasmani Grandal ('12), Khris Davis ('13)
These three all should have a ways to go in their careers but enjoyed fine 2016 seasons, with Davis slamming 42 home runs, Grandal finishing third among catchers (minimum 400 plate appearances) with a 122 wRC+ and Santana posting a 132 mark in helping Cleveland reach the World Series. It should be noted, however, that Davis and Grandal in particular hit some bumps in the road first. Davis played 144 games his second year, but saw his wRC+ fall from 158 to a slightly above average 107. Grandal served a 50-game suspension to begin his sophomore season after testing positive for testosterone, returned for 28 games, then suffered a serious knee injury.
Too early to tell Example: Miguel Sano (2015)
Like Sanchez and Turner, Sano was a young, highly touted prospect and debuted with a bang, hitting .269/.385/.530 (150 wRC+) with 18 homers over 80 games as a 22-year-old. He may well return to those heights, but that wasn't the case last year. Sano spent time on the DL with a hamstring injury, and his line slipped to .236/.319/.462 (107 wRC+), even as he continued to flash plus power.
Ups and downs Examples: Johnny Romano (1959), Kal Daniels ('86), Dave Hollins ('91), Erubiel Durazo ('99)
Daniels joins Thomas as the only players on this list who actually improved in their second year, bumping his wRC+ from 151 to 169 in 1987 while batting .334 with 26 homers and 26 steals for Cincinnati. The ultra-talented outfielder put together two more excellent campaigns ('88 and '90) but underwent several knee surgeries and played his final game soon after his 29th birthday.
Each of the other three enjoyed some success in the coming years, particularly Romano, a hard-hitting catcher who generated a 127 wRC+ and made two AL All-Star teams for the Indians over the three seasons following his rookie campaign in 1959. But none managed to sustain a high level of production in the long term. Durazo, for example, finished his career with a 124 wRC+ but battled a slew of injuries and played 100 or more games only twice.
Fell off the pace Examples: Jeff Stone (1984), Sam Horn ('87), Kevin Maas ('90), Bret Barberie ('91), Phil Plantier ('91), Josh Phelps (2002), Brett Lawrie ('11)
Over the three seasons following their rookie years, none of these seven posted a wRC+ higher than 103 or averaged more than 440 plate appearances. The only active player among them is Lawrie, a first-round pick and well-regarded prospect who batted a blistering .293/.373/.580 (157 wRC+) in 43 games for the Blue Jays in 2011. Lawrie is still only 27, but in the five seasons since then, he has put up a .258/.310/.407 line (96 wRC+) while making several trips to the DL and averaging 109 games played.
Plantier (175 wRC+) and Barberie (169) put up the best rookie numbers on the list besides McCovey and Thomas, producing at a similar rate as Sanchez would 25 years later. But neither had Sanchez's prospect pedigree, and neither could sustain anything close to that level. Barberie played only five more seasons and finished with a 99 wRC+, while Plantier recorded 400-plus plate appearances just once.
Totals for 17 previous rookies
Average for rookie season: 58 G, 209 PA, 155 wRC+ Average for following season: 110 G, 424 PA, 111 wRC+ Average for following three seasons: 318 G, 1,216 PA, 117 wRC+ Average for whole career: 119 wRC+
* FanGraphs version
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.