Jackie Bradley might yet turn out to be an odd man out in the Boston Red Sox outfield. The Sox traded Yoenis Cespedes in December, but they still have Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava and Mookie Betts, in addition to Bradley. That’s six names for five slots, and none has an especially appealing alternative position, nor anything more to prove in the minor leagues. Castillo and Ramirez are new additions, and aren’t going anywhere. Victorino has one year left on his contract, and might not have the kind of trade value that would even make him worth moving. Betts had a tremendous rookie showing after a meteoric rise through the Red Sox’s farm system. Bradley, to say the least, has had a harder time adjusting to the Majors.

***

The Tampa Bay Rays traded Wil Myers last month. Myers won the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2013, but struggled as a sophomore, in an injury-halved season. Though he was an elite prospect and had immediate success, Myers is now a young player stained by both a very rough offensive season and an unorthodox set of hitting mechanics that always give evaluators pause.

***

Arismendy Alcantara didn’t even appear among the Chicago Cubs’ top 10 prospects prior to the 2013 season. After a strong season at Double-A, he was sixth on the Baseball Prospectus list (in a stronger system) prior to 2014. He kept raking as he reached Triple-A, and at mid-season, he was ranked the 18th-best prospect in baseball. The Cubs called him to the parent club just before the All-Star break, and he played 70 games, splitting his time between second base and center field, and impressing defensively in both places. He hit just .205/.254/.367, though, and the Cubs’ accelerating advancement toward contention could make him expendable, or simply imperil his future as a regular, nudging him to the bench.

***

Forty-three players aged 24 or younger had at least 300 plate appearances in 2014. Of them, Bradley had the worst OPS+, at 50. Alcantara was fifth-worst, at 70. Myers was ninth-worst, at 76. After Myers, the next-lowest OPS+ in the group was Billy Hamilton’s 83. Only those nine worst players really hit so poorly that their bat would not be average at least somewhere on the diamond, and many of those closest to them (like Hamilton) have such outstanding defensive value that they can be useful players even if their offense never takes another forward step.

Not so for Bradley, Alcantara or Myers. Alcantara and Bradley were one-win players, prorating their playing time, even with excellent defensive ratings. Myers was sub-replacement, because his glove doesn’t deliver the value the other two can offer. Call it regression toward the mean, or development, or adjustment, but something has to change to make these three players productive at the big-league level.

Who has the best chance of turning their career back onto the right track? Most people seem inclined to lay it out this way:

  • Myers had a simple sophomore slump, and should rebound immediately and impressively.
  • Alcantara needs only time and reps, that feel for the big-league game that can be hard for a rookie to find, especially when shifting to a new position and playing to the end of September for the first time.
  • Bradley is in trouble. No longer young for one so unaccomplished, he will likely get just one more chance to prove he can handle MLB pitching.

Those are pencil sketches of public perception. Don’t take them as gospel. Still, they’re good enough to stand as null hypotheses of the players’ futures. I want to establish baseline expectations, because now, we’re going to test those baselines, and try to redraw the futures of this trio with history as a guide. Scouts and other experts can try to evaluate these players as individuals, breaking down their specific skills and tools, projecting them physically, the whole bit. I can’t do that well, and (more to the point) I think those things can be misleading sometimes. I want to study these players in profile. We have track records, prospect pedigrees, position, handedness, age, height and weight for all of them. Using only those tools, and not any eyes or analysis, should suffice for these purposes. Think of this as an exercise in excavation.

Wil Myers

Since 1969, 150 players have amassed 300 or more plate appearances in a season at age 23, while playing most of their games at either first base or one of the corner outfield spots. Myers’s 2014 was the sixth-worst of them, and the worst since Dee Brown in 2001, according to OPS+. Of the players who produced the 15 worst such seasons (the bottom 10 percent), the good ones are (in some order) Claudell Washington, Mark Kotsay, Adam Lind and Bill Buckner. All of them had better years at 23 than Myers had, though. (Lind was closest.) That’s not encouraging.

Isolating only Myers’ poor season might be selling him short, though. After all, he batted .293/.354/.478 in 2013, winning that aforementioned Rookie of the Year award, and this was also the guy who won the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Award in 2012. Let’s widen the lens.

Since 1969, 49 players have amassed at least 700 plate appearances in their first two seasons, and posted an OPS+ between 95 (slightly below-average) and 115 (solidly above-average), while playing those offense-first positions listed before. Myers’s own figure is 104, which is good for 28th in the sample. For the 46 players on the list who aren’t perfect contemporaries of Myers (Christian Yelich and Oswaldo Arcia are in the sample with him), the median OPS+ over the following five seasons is 110.5. Eight of the players are perfect comparisons to Myers by age, and the median OPS+ for those eight over the same span is 114.5.

While I want to note that Myers feels more like some of the players who had the greatest success after their tepid launches than like those who struggled, the data isn’t inspiring. And that’s kind of the point: what Myers feels like might be blinding us to what he really is, in historical context.

Want to get even more nervous? Of that original group of 49, only 13 were right-handed hitters, rather than lefties or switch-hitters. For the 12 who are not Myers in this smaller sample, the median five-year OPS+ is 99, and the only guy to take a star turn is Matt Holliday. In other words, Wil Myers may be monumentally talented, but if he recovers from here and reaches the star-level upside so many still see in him, he will be an historical anomaly. It’s 11-to-1 he doesn’t get there.

Arismendy Alcantara

As you would expect, Alcantara’s struggle as an up-the-middle defender, at age 22, isn’t nearly as damning as that of Myers, who struggled nearly as badly, but as an older player without defensive value. Of the 147 players (again, since 1969) who went to bat at least 300 times and played predominantly one of the four up-the-middle positions at age 22, roughly 20 percent were worse than Alcantara at the plate. Yadier Molina had exactly Alcantara’s 70 OPS+. Carlos Gonzalez (yes, that one) had a 71 OPS+ when he was 22. Johnny Damon came in at 73. Gary Carter was at 66. Omar Vizquel, 50. Brandon Phillips, 48. In broad strokes, Alcantara has lost not an ounce of upside.

There’s something sinister here, though, something that has to be part of the input for Alcantara. Here it is: In 300 plate appearances with the Cubs in 2014, Alcantara struck out 93 times. That’s a clean 31 percent of all trips, which is the fourth-highest strikeout rate ever recorded by a 22-year-old. Open that up to anyone 25 or younger, and he’s still 21st. Of all batters since 1969 who had at least 300 plate appearances in their rookie campaign (there have been 1,008 of them), Alcantara has the 10th-highest strikeout rate.

Those facts are inextricably linked, of course, to the fact that strikeout rates are soaring league-wide. While Alcantara has the 10th-highest strikeout rate, he’s not the batter with the 10th-worst strikeout problems. (At least, I don’t think he is.) To set things better into perspective, I went through the top 100 rookies in strikeout rate over that large sample, and compared their strikeout rates in those seasons to the league-average strikeout rate in the given season. I then divided one by the other, to get a league-adjusted strikeout skill on the same scale as OPS+ or wRC+. For instance, Bo Jackson (our fearless leader in this new stat) struck out 36.4 percent of the time as a rookie in 1987. The league struck out only 15.5 percent of the time that year. Jackson’s SOr+, then, is 235—his rate, divided by the league’s, times 100 to make it all neater.

Ballpark adjustments would be nice. A built-in regression coefficient would be even nicer. There are a bunch of nuances that would be nice to capture, and I’m sure even if they all were captured, it’d turn out there’s a better way to do this math than the way I’ve done it. This is what I have, though. By adjusted SOr+, Alcantara ties for 60th among those 100 most prolific rookie whiffers of the last 45 years. His SOr+ is 152, meaning he struck out half-again as often as the league-average batter. That’s not great, but 10 years ago, it would have come out to a 25-percent strikeout rate, instead of 31 percent, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Alcantara is still guilty of striking out a lot, but clearly, the league setting softens the significance of that profligacy.

Or does it? I formulated SOr+ to serve the assumption that strikeout rate can be adjusted this way, that the league’s strikeout rate is driven by some unknown macro-level force, or by the objectives, usage patterns and overall skill level of the league’s pitching pool. I can’t prove that that’s true. It might just as well be that the league is allowing hitters with poor contact rates to play more than they ever have before, or that batters are more willingly trading contact for power than they have in the past. It’s probably some blend of all of these. If that’s true, comparing Alcantara’s strikeout rate to his historical peers by expressing it as a percentage above the league-average rate probably understates the problem. I also subtracted the league-average strikeout rate for all 100 of those high-strikeout rookies from their own rates. Alcantara ties for 40th in the group, not 60th, if we go this way, which basically captures the marginal percentage of plate appearances lost to strikeouts by that batter, relative to their league. (He comes in 10.6 percentage points clear of the league average, which comes out to 32 strikeouts a league-average hitter would not have had in Alcantara’s number of trips.)

Things start to look uglier for Alcantara after that adjustment, obviously. Some of the 20 players who move from being worse off than Alcantara to being better are among the really encouraging players in this sample—Larry Walker, Brad Wilkerson, Alex Gonzalez, Will Venable, Jason Bay and Jayson Werth, for instance. Truth be told, whether it’s 40, 60 or the whole list of 100, the sample is one of players who (at least) had a miserable adjustment period to the Majors. A table of so many names would be unwieldy, but to give you an idea, I count 35 players who posted more than one average or better season on that list of 100 big-strikeout guys. Using history as heuristic, Alcantara has only a bit better than a one-third chance of becoming what the Cubs hope he becomes.

I think we even need to adjust downward from there, because there is some strikeout threshold that completely forestalls adding value at the plate. It’s not Alcantara’s fault that the league is strikeout-mad these days, and even if what he showed in these first 300 plate appearances is all he’ll ever be offensively, he’s probably not really a 31-percent strikeout batter. Regression should bring him back to the pack at least a little bit. It’s possible to find oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time, though, and simply never produce what would have been possible for you in another time or place. If the strikeouts around the league don’t abate, Alcantara might never reduce his whiff rate all that much, and if he never reduces his whiff rate much, he’ll never be a good hitter at the MLB level. He’s not Chris Davis. He’s not Giancarlo Stanton. He needs balls in play. The coming season will begin to tell us whether he’ll be able to find them.

Jackie Bradley, Jr.

Bradley had a 50 OPS+ in 423 plate appearances in 2014. That’s ugly. That means he was half as productive as a league-average hitter. Since 1969, only 31 players have posted an OPS+ between 40 and 60 in at least 300 plate appearances at age 24, and 24 of the other 30 were better than Bradley in their campaigns. It’s hard to get anywhere near the amount of playing time Bradley did when you hit as badly as Bradley did.

Yet, scanning that list, there’s some room for hope. Damion Easley, Brady Anderson and Luis Valbuena went on to productive offensive futures after beginnings about as humble as Bradley’s. Valbuena had exactly a 50 OPS+ in his age-24 season, in 2010, and matched Bradley’s raw .531 OPS exactly, too. More importantly, Dave Concepcion and Ozzie Smith are on the list, too. Smith was actually even worse than Bradley, at 24. Bradley still has a chance of making his hay in the field and becoming a bottom-of-the-order bat no one minds using, and seeing him linked with other players who achieved something similar is encouraging. We’re talking about a 25-percent chance of recovery, but that’s something.

However, this wasn’t Bradley’s first shot at the league. He also got a bit over 100 plate appearances with Boston in 2013, and he wasn’t much better then than he was this season. His 54 career OPS+ at ages 23 and 24 combined is the sixth-worst figure by any player since 1969, assuming a minimum of 500 total plate appearances. Does that make him even less likely to recover offensively and blossom as an all-around player?

In short, no. Surprisingly, 13 of the bottom 50 players on the list of age-23 and 24 performers went on to a modicum of success. Even better, you can stop comparing Bradley to shortstops at a certain point. Michael Saunders had a similarly awful stretch at these ages. Tony Armas did, too. Jermaine Dye, Michael Barrett and Juan Uribe are within range. Hitters have been as bad as Bradley has been, then gone on to hit well. The odds are against it, but the door is open there.

Again, we must deal with the pernicious strikeout problem. Bradley has fanned in 28.7 percent of his plate appearances to date, making him the 16th-most strikeout-prone of the 709 players who saw at least 500 plate appearances during their age-23 and 24 seasons since 1969. Obviously, he fares better if the numbers are adjusted for the league context, but as noted during the discussion of Alcantara, it’s hard to know whether that’s the right thing to do or not.

In this case, the rising strikeout rate across the league is compounded by another phenomenon working against Bradley: It’s never been harder to be a left-handed hitter, especially facing left-handed pitchers. Maybe that will change soon, and if it does, Bradley will benefit. Unless and until that change comes, though, Bradley has a lot to overcome in order to recover any offensive value.

***

You might wonder why I chose 1969, and not some more recent or more distant point in time, as the starting point for all these data sets. There are a few reasons, and they’re actually important to the point I’m trying to convey.

  1. That was the first year of divisional play. Divisions are the endoskeletons around which MLB schedules have been constructed ever since they were instituted, and comparing the way young players adjusted to the Majors before that change to the way they have adjusted since doesn’t make sense. Facing a pitcher or pitching staff for the second time is different than facing them for the first time, and facing them for the third time is different still. The circuits that bring players to their second or third encounter with a given pitching staff are much tighter, much shorter, than they once were, and that forces faster adjustments. The exact percentage of the schedule made up of intradivisional games has varied widely even since divisions came into being, but the number is quite high right now. That must be kept in mind, especially because the players under study (and many other young players I might have chosen) played partial seasons. What portion of the inconsistent schedule they drew was beyond their control, but may have had an impact on their final numbers.
  2. To really isolate the schedule issue, I could have restricted the data set to the last 10 or 20 years. That also would have eliminated the problem of studying leagues of different sizes, and would have lessened (though not stamped out) the issue of fluctuating run environments muddling the data. I didn’t, though, because I don’t think baseball has changed as drastically as many people think it has over the last 40 years or so. A great many analyses lately seem to use only relatively small bins of very recent data, and to weight recent comparable players much more heavily than older ones when sketching a player’s future. I understand the temptation to do that, especially with the league at historical extremes in so many different ways right now—pitchers are more specialized than ever, platoon splits are wider than ever, strikeouts are higher than ever, BABIP is less correlated to run scoring than ever. I tend to think, though, that many of those things change the shape of statistics and profiles, not the fundamentals of them. We underestimate, I think, what Myers might have in common with Von Hayes, or what Bradley might have in common with Rick Monday, just because years and years of small changes separate them from one another.
  3. Player development prior to 1969 was a totally different thing than player development since then. Remember, the draft came into being in 1965, and before that, the relationship between big-league and minor-league teams was different. So was the process of acquiring amateur talent. So were the rules about what opportunities that talent needed to get, and when. Though the reserve rule continued to distort players’ timelines until the late 1970s, players who had been drafted and properly shaped by player-development systems began showing up in the league at the end of the 1960s.

The big-picture point here is that historical examinations have value when trying to evaluate a player, even if they’ve fallen out of vogue. The game has changed, and the volatility and variance that seem to rule the day open up the field of possibilities for each of these players far beyond the constraints used here. It’s also true, though, that players are more often having their best years at very young ages than has been the historical norm, and if that trend continues, Bradley, Alcantara and Myers have little time, indeed, to turn things around.

***

Let’s return to those rough estimates of the expectations facing each of these players, and reevaluate:

  • Myers is in more trouble than the intelligentsia generally believe, if history is a trustworthy guide. That would help to explain the somewhat milquetoast return for him, in what was a large trade but not a prototypical blockbuster. The consensus has been that A.J. Preller simply stole Myers, and that the Nationals did especially well to grab two prospects as part of the transaction, while the Rays made a simple quality-for-quantity swap. Maybe the truth is that Myers carries more risk than Baseball Twitter thinks.
  • Alcantara has some things on his side, most notably age, but his prolific strikeouts make him more vulnerable than he would otherwise appear. Because sky-high strikeout rates weren’t a part of his scouting report and are not considered inextricable from his other skills, the issue has not drawn the sort of raised eyebrows others have gotten. It should. Against type or not, Alcantara is a strikeout-prone batter, and that could prevent him from growing into a productive player.
  • The outlook for Bradley is not good, offensively. The huge majority of players in his situation at his age do not ever become even semi-productive hitters. However, there’s ample evidence that he can gain just enough offense—perhaps become a 75 OPS+ hitter, up from his present 55—to more than justify his place in a lineup, so long as he retains elite defensive value. Like other players who show up on lists of comparables, Bradley probably reached the Majors sooner than his bat would normally have allowed, simply because he can so effectively run the ball down in center field. Like the others whose gloves carried their sticks to their parent clubs, Bradley might yet find his offensive stride and become a fine player, even if his value never comes from his work at the plate.

Baseball is a fun puzzle to work on, even though it’s never solved. Scouting reports and mechanical analyses can give us important perspective on a player’s potential. History and statistics, though, are every bit as important. Sometimes, it’s important to ask whether anyone has ever actually done the things you’re expecting a player to do, and to know just how likely (or unlikely) that is.

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