I am not a scout. I am not a sabermagician. I have no professional, college, or even high-school baseball experience, either as a player or as part of a front-office or coaching staff.
In fact, my direct association with the game ceased to exist around the 6th grade, when, while picking grass while "manning" right field, I had an epiphany: carrying a lifetime .057 batting average wouldn't be opening any doors for me in the world of baseball.
In other words, I'm no expert. You can take everything I am about to write with a grain of salt, dismiss what I say, and disagree with me entirely.
But be prepared to eat that grain of salt on a serving of crow, as I am 100% correct.
Introduction to the 600/1200 Rule
Like clockwork, there is a time each season where I abandon hope of the Royals winning the pennant and instead start to wonder what will happen next year and beyond (see DANSSTOAD). That moment arrived about a week or two ago, and while I still check the boxscores each day, it's less with an interest in seeing the score, and more an eye at individual performances, to see if there's any reason to be optimistic about the future of our younger players.
Specifically, my main concern was whether our core of younger players (Butler, Gordon, Callaspo, and Aviles) would ever be able to hit well enough to anchor a playoff-bound offense, Or, more simply, whether these guys would ever turn into all-stars.
This naturally lead to a couple of questions:
1. How does one define an all-star?
2. Is it even possible to predict if Player X will become an all-star?
I took a bit of an arbitrary approach to #1 -- I defined an "all-star" as any player capable of amassing an .800 OPS or higher. (Similarly, I have defined a player with a .900 OPS or greater as a super-star.)
I'm sure I'll catch a little flack from some on the site, as not all .800 OPS'ers are built the same -- for example, OBP is likely much more important than SLG. That said, an .800 OPS is an .800 OPS, and for a team that's only featured four guys over the last three years to have topped that mark (Callaspo, Sanders, Aviles, and DeJesus), we should be ecstatic if we can add two or three more names to the list, no matter how that OPS was arrived at.
To answer #2, I decided to look at commonalities between all of the players that managed to cross both the .800 OPS and .900 OPS thresholds over the last nine years. What I found was a melange of different playing types, ages, positions, and backgrounds. Some of the guys on the list were perennial all-stars (Pujols, A-Rod, etc.), some guys who were rookie sensations (Ryan Braun, Hanley Ramirez, Evan Longoria), and some were guys that seemed to come out of nowhere (Russell Branyan, Nelson Cruz, Jack Cust, Ryan Ludwick, Raul Ibanez.)
It was this last group, the Late Bloomers, that intrigued me the most -- with little exception, the majority of these players had been in the league for a few years, perhaps sporting a decent minor league pedigree, but never showing enough at the major league level to warrant extended playing time.
Despite the seeming disparity in player profiles, after a bit of digging, I was a bit surprised how easy it was to spot future all-stars. They all had the same thing in common -- and I was even more surprised that I had never come across this idea previously, even though it intuitively made sense. Maybe this has been explored and discussed countless places before, maybe it''s already so obvious to the majority of baseball fans that it doesn't even warrant discussion, even among casual observers of the game. But this discovery was new to me, so there's likely one or two of you that will find this at least a little interesting.
So what was the common thread?
Basically, there were two central precepts at play here. Which leads to Rule #1:
Rule 1: The first 600 at bats in a player's career don't
After looking at the career statistics of all 100+ players who had managed to post an OPS of .800 or greater over the 2000 - 2009 seasons, one thing proved to be true. No matter how poorly they had done in their initial 600 at bats (even if spread across several seasons), it had little to no bearing on how they would perform later on. This was almost universally true for all of the future all-stars, with only a handful of exceptions (roughly 6 - 7 %) which I'll get into later.
Here are but a few examples of how the first 600 at bats are irrelevant:
1996 ATL 292 at bats OPS .763
1997 KC 263 at bats OPS .653
Career OPS .830
1996 KC 165 at bats OPS .770
1997 KC 240 at bats OPS .668
1998 KC 282 at bats OPS .728
Career OPS .854
2003 NY 623 at bats OPS .788
Career OPS .847
1997 SEA 26 at bats OPS .500
1998 SEA 98 at bats OPS .699
1999 SEA 209 at bats OPS .734
2000 SEA 140 at bats OPS .630
Career OPS .829
2007 TOR 290 at bats OPS .678
2008 TOR 326 at bats OPS .755
2009 TOR 269 at bats OPS .915
The list literally goes on and on, but I think you get the idea. Whether you chalk up this phenomenon to small sample sizes or as a "necessary adjustment period" to major league pitching -- the fact is, you shouldn't dismiss a player based on his first 600 at bats, particularly if the player has shown a tendency to hit well in the minors. What's sort of interesting is that age really doesn't play a factor -- it's mainly a function of opportunity.
Another cool example is Casey Blake, who is OPS'ing over .881 right now. Here's his first 6 years in the majors:
1999 .677 OPS
2000 .646 OPS
2001 .746 OPS (NY) .521 OPS (BAL)
2002 .521 OPS
2003 .723 OPS
Blake was 26 years old when he logged his first ML at bat, and it wasn't until age 30 when he got extended playing time in 2003 (557 at bats). It would have been very easy to write him off as a scrub based on those pitiful numbers. One thing to realize is that he had only logged just a shy over 600 at bats from 1999 - 2003 (including his 557 at bats in 2003). So, according to the 600 rule (which I am stretching a bit here, if only slightly), you shouldn't give up on him. And true to the rule, he's OPS'd over .800 in 3 of the 6 years since.
Of course, there are a few instances where common sense dictates that it is indeed okay to give up on the player, like with Tony Pena, Jr., where there's nothing in either his major league or minor league profile that would suggest he would ever hit better than he does currently.
Considering the mildly disappointing starts to both Gordon and Butler's careers, (and "disappointment" is of course subjective and debatable), this was encouraging news, as their sub .800 OPS's seemed to belie what was their true talent. But then I discovered rule #2:
Rule #2: ...But the first 1200 at bats do matter.
Almost without fail, everyone who has posted a .800+ OPS season over the last ten years has posted an OPS of .800 within at least one 500-600 at bat stretch during his initial 1200 at bats.
Among all of the players who had managed an .800 OPS in a single season from 2000 - 2009, about 93% had posted at least an .800 OPS in one of their first two seasons (or equivalent). For those players who had managed to make it to superstar level (.900 OPS or higher), the baseline was an OPS of about .850 OPS during one or both of their first two seasons.
What's interesting here is that this was true across the board, regardless of position. For example, you may have often heard, like I had, that catchers take a long time to develop.
It is for this reason that for years I have waited patiently for John Buck to blossom into an all-star caliber hitter. He had often showed flashes, he had the build, but he just hadn't put it all together. Had I applied the 1200 rule after his first 1200 or so at bats, I would have realized earlier that my waiting was in vain.
The simple truth is, if a player is ever going to hit .800 OPS or greater over a sustained period of time, the proof of their ability to do so should be evident within their first two years. A brief look at all of the premiere hitting catchers (Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada, Javy Lopez, Joe Mauer) over the last ten years has proven this to be true. It didn't take them years to adjust -- they basically came up and started hitting -- if not in year one, in year two.
In other words -- if you're good enough to start hitting, you're going to do it right away, otherwise it's not going to happen.
Of course, sometimes it does happen. Sometimes a guy who fails to post an .800 in their first 1200 at bats goes on to have an excellent career.
Ironically enough, this was the case with our own Carlos Beltran (though he logged a .791 in his first full year), and there are a handful of other guys to which this applies (Gary Sheffield, Luis Gonzalez, and Sammy Sosa are among some of the more notable guys) These counter-examples are rare, and even in most of the cases, if they didn't clear .800 in their first 1200, they did it in their first 1800. And while it's probably a little unfair to note, some of these guys were heavily rumored, if not confirmed, to have used steroids, so there's at least the possibility that they've skewed the results.
The corollary is the other type of guy who posts an .800 season without having one in his first 1200 at bats. These are the flukes -- the Edgar Renteria's, the Juan Encarnacion's, or the Shea Hillebrand's. At most, they will likely only provide one or two more .800 OPS seasons, but it is usually a crapshoot when and where that will occur.
While some of these players may add value to their team defensively, the odds are very heavily against them repeating their .800+ seasons, so astute general managers will know not to rely on them to be offensive sparkplugs for their respective teams.
Not so astute general managers end up spending millions of dollars on guys like Gary Matthews, Jr., and to a lesser extent, Jose Guillen. While the Rule of 1200 may tell you who will become a star, it's just as likely, if not more likely, to tell you who won't become a star (or maintain their current stardom.)
What does this mean for the Royals?
What's sort of unique about the four players I mentioned at the top of this agonizingly long post was that they all could go either way with this, depending on how generous you feel.
Right now, only Aviles is in the running for future all-star, under these two rules. Although of the four, he's the one I feel least likely to actually be able to capitalize. Most of Aviles' offensive value was tied up in a very unsustainable high batting average. It would appear his .800+ OPS of 2008 was a fluke, but considering the current state of the Royals, it wouldn't hurt to give him a season to prove otherwise.
Callaspo's probably in the best shape under this scenario, provided he's able to keep on his current pace. His minor league numbers provide a lot of reason for optimism here, too.
As for Gordon and Butler, it's difficult to get too excited. A year ago, I saw a future George Brett and David Ortiz. Now, and especially in light of the trend I've seen among the players I surveyed, it seems more likely we're looking at something like Shea Hillebrand and John Olerud. Not terrible, but certainly a let down considering the hype surrounding these players.
Of course, Butler still has about 400 at bats remaining of his 1200, so if he picks things up, we can begin to dream a little again. And even if he doesn't manage, he's still young, but if this study proved anything, it doesn't matter what age people are when they get their chance -- they'll either hit right away or they won't. And if they don't, there's little reason to expect they'll start doing it later.