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Collette Calls: Rare Air

Jason Collette

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at theprocessreport.net. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

I am assuming that by now, you are beginning your 2012 draft prep in earnest. If you haven't, what exactly are you waiting for? The RotoWire magazine to hit the shelves? I am told that it hit the printers today so look for it to show up very soon. After all, the big brains in the industry are gathering in Las Vegas next week at the Fantasy Sports Trade Association show for their annual conference and they are holding an expert draft Monday night.

If you are into the prep, you have undoubtedly started looking for rookies that you can grab late in drafts on the cheap and hope that you can score a bargain or three with them at the draft. Before you get too excited about what could happen, a look back at history is pertinent.

I will go ahead and date myself and admit that I am turning 40 later this year. No, I have not quite come to grips with that yet despite being the youngest of a tight knit group of friends from high school that still hang out together to this day. Since I was feeling nostalgic after a rather stressful drive home and night of parental responsibilities, I whipped out the old Play Index tool at Baseball Reference to look up just how many players had seen as many as 400 plate appearances in their first season in the major leagues. Would it surprise you as much as it did I that just 169 players met that criteria? That's just about 4.5 rookies per season during that time span. I then narrowed it down to the year I graduated high school, 1990, and found that only 99 rookies had seen 400 plate appearances in their first season from 1990-2011. Quick math will tell you that is an average of just four and a half rookie hitters each season that are getting significant playing time on fantasy rosters. When you consider that the rules also consider Japanese import players as rookies, that gives us an even number and eliminates the headache of identifying which the “half rookie” each season. That means if you are going to bank on rookie surprises, you better figure out which ones are going to get to the big leagues and stay there.

To do that, let's take a look at how these rookies are doing in some of the scoring categories, and we'll start with batting average. If we set the benchmark at .270, the good news is that 64 percent of the rookies in our pool hit that in their first season. If we bump up the requirement to .280, that percentage drops down to just 47 percent. The range in batting average is book-ended by Ichiro Suzuki's amazing .350 as a rookie on one end and Craig Paquette's struggling .219 on the other end. The mean batting average for the rookies was .278.

It will be tough for any rookie to produce a lot of runs because players need to hit in the top half of the lineup to do that and not many get that kind of treatment until they've earned it. If we look at the player pool for rookies that have scored at least 70 runs in their debut season, only 34 percent have been able to do so. Four rookies, Suzuki, Albert Pujols, Dan Uggla and Austin Jackson, have scored 100 runs or more but the list drops off after that. It would likely surprise you to learn that Eric Hinske is fifth on the list and Pat Listach is sixth. The mean total for the group was just 65 runs.

Moving over to the power categories, the numbers get interesting. Only 12 of the qualifying rookies since 1990 hit 20 or more home runs that season: Dan Uggla, Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Eric Hinske, Jose Cruz Jr., Travis Lee, Albert Pujols, Jody Gerut, Marty Cordova, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Braun and Alexei Ramirez. If we reduce the benchmark to 15 or more home runs, we get 32 of the 99 rookies qualifying. The mean home-run total for the group was just 11, which is not surprising considering the strong representation of fleet footed middle infielders in the group like Mike Caruso and Pat Listach. Switching over to RBI, just 23 of our rookies drove in as many as 70 runs their first season. That goes back to the earlier point of rookies typically hitting in the lower half of the lineup when they first come up thus reducing their RBI opportunities. The mean RBI total for the group was just 55.

Stolen base is an area where rookies could go either way. The youngsters have the raw speed to make an impact while they may also struggle with pickoff moves when they first come up. Then there is Tim Raines who was unreal as a rookie and stole bases at will in his rookie season of 1981. He had an 86 percent success rate in his first few seasons and retired with an 84 percent rate and yet we are still waiting to see him in Cooperstown. Only 21 rookies since 1990 have swiped as many as 20 bases in a season with six players stealing 40 or more: Rafael Furcal, Delino DeShields, Chad Curtis, Pat Listach, Ichiro Suzuki, and Quilvio Veras. Only Elvis Andrus has stolen as many as 30 bases over the past 10 seasons as managers do not seem to be as anxious to give speedsters the green light as they were in the mid-to-late 90's. The mean stolen-base total for the group was 12.

If you play in a league that uses OBP, the odds are stacked against you with rookies. Consider that 38 of the rookies had an OBP of .350 or higher that first season while just 12 were at .370 or higher. The mean OBP for the group was .340. If you play in a league that uses slugging percentage and want rookies that slug at least .450, the odds of that are slim as only 32 have qualified against that benchmark since 1990. The mean slugging percentage of that group of rookies was not that high at .420.

If we take the mean scores in each category, we are left with a rookie that gets 460 at-bats, scores 65 runs, hits 11 home runs, drives in 55, steals 12 bases, and has a slash line of .278/.340/.420. Depending on the position, those numbers are anywhere from helpful to hurtful.

When you are planning your rookie draft strategies for this season, do so with an eye on 2013 more so than 2012. Everyone is guilty of high expectations with rookies and each year someone takes a Brandon Belt or Desmond Jennings earlier than they should and are disappointed by that player's lack of playing time, lack of production, or both. If you are projecting playing time and have too many rookies seeing 350 or more at-bats this season, review your numbers carefully. If you get to a point where you have a high-upside rookie projected for 450 at-bats against a known major league quantity of similar skills, always go with the experience as their track record is much safer.

Follow me on Twitter @JasonCollette.

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