2021 is MLB’s Year of the No-Hitter; here’s why it’s also the Year of the Old Rookie


If the 2021 season is going to earn a moniker, à la 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher,” it won’t be “Year of the Old Rookie.” (It’s more likely to be “Year of the Pitcher II,” “Year of the No-Hitter,” or whichever sequel this season serves as to ’68.) The season’s first quarter has featured plenty of surprising performances from over-age rookies, however, to the extent that it’s time to pay attention. 

Coming into Thursday, three of the six best performing rookie position players, as determined by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement calculations, were partaking in their age-28 seasons. 

There are several reasonable explanations for the rise of the old rookie. It’s still early in the season, meaning that small-sample madness is very much in play. It’s also possible that teams are being more conservative with their actual top prospects after an odd developmental year, causing a watered-down rookie field (though MLB‘s adjusted rookie eligibility rules, allowing some players to retain their status into this year, would seem to counterbalance that effect). 

Whatever it is that’s causing old rookies to lead the way, and however sustainable it may or may not prove to be, we wanted to use this chance to highlight the performances of three players who are making the most of their opportunities. (Do note the players are listed in alphabetical order.)

Seth Brown, who will turn 29 in mid-July, was a 19th-round pick from an NAIA school (Lewis-Clark State College) — in a sense, then, it was almost a given that he would be dismissed as organizational depth. To his credit, he was able to transform his swing during his minor-league development, allowing him to tap into his raw power and produce a pair of 30-homer seasons, including a 37-dinger season in 2019 as part of Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate. 

So far this year, Brown has nearly doubled his big-league career plate appearance total while batting .210/.281/.432 (103 OPS+) with five home runs. He has a patient approach (his swing rate is just 42 percent) and he has enough raw juice to produce a max exit velocity (113. 7 mph) that puts him in company with Nate Lowe, David Peralta, and Xander Bogaerts


TruMedia

That seems like a promising combination, but there is a catch. Brown is pull-happy to the extent that only Mike Zunino has been more likely this season to hit a ball to his dominant side. (No other batter is within four percentage points of either of them.) Predictably, Brown is an easy and obvious shift candidate, having faced an optimized defense in roughly 93 percent of his trips to the dish and having recorded all of two hits on 21 grounders. 

Athletics manager Bob Melvin has used Brown almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers to date. Provided he can keep walking and slugging enough to overcome his deficiencies, that seems likely to remain his role heading forward.

Adolis García, 28, passed through waivers untouched this spring, suggesting no one (the Rangers included) believed that he would be nearing Memorial Day as the rookie leader in home runs (11), runs batted in (30), and Wins Above Replacement (1.9). Overall, he’s hitting .288/.331/.568 in his first 132 at-bats.

García has never wanted for intrigue. He has above-average raw power and speed, demonstrated by his 93rd percentile average exit velocity and his 81st percentile sprint speed. What’s held him back is his combination of swing-and-miss and an approach that has resulted in a 0.20 walk-to-strikeout ratio — that’s eight walks versus 40 strikeouts. For reference, García’s chase rate is the 14th highest in the majors, while his contact rate ranks 131 (out of 155 qualifiers). 

It’s possible for a batter with that combination of blemishes to succeed — see Nicholas Castellanos, Tim Anderson, Javier Báez, or Salvador Pérez — it’s just not likely. García figures to get the rest of the season to prove to the Rangers that he’s one of the exceptions. 

Yermín Mercedes received plenty of attention when he started the season on an eight-for-eight heater. He’s cooled down recently, posting a .624 OPS during the month of May that has dropped his seasonal line all the way to … uh, .358/.405/.555. (He still leads the majors in average, and he still ranks fifth in the AL in on-base percentage.)

Mercedes, who turned 28 in February, originally joined the White Sox as a minor-league Rule 5 pick in winter 2017. He had previously spent time in the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles organizations, but he wasn’t held in high regard because of a low-yield profile. Put another way, he’s a right-handed hitter without a defensive position. 

Mercedes has nonetheless solidified himself as the White Sox’s starting DH thanks to his bat-to-ball skills. He’s not a hyper-contact hitter, the way Nick Madrigal or David Fletcher are, but he makes a good deal of contact and he’s shown he can hit pitches located in each quadrant of the zone. Take a look at his batting average heat map, as provided by TruMedia:


TruMedia

The downside to Mercedes being able to hit anything is that he tries to hit everything — yes, including 3-0 pitches from position players. His swing-happy approach has resulted in the fourth-highest chase rate among 155 qualifiers. It’s fair to be concerned about pitchers taking advantage of his overzealous nature — indeed, he’s seen a lower rate of in-zone pitches in May versus April — but the White Sox have every reason to give him time to make his own adjustments.





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