At one time or another, Kansas City Royals fans have probably asked a simple question: why can’t our team get a star rookie right away? Before the season, there were three clear top prospects in baseball: Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez, Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman, and Kansas City’s Bobby Witt Jr. There were arguments to made for all three, and the future looked bright for all three.
And yet, with only September left, it is Royals fans who are on the outside looking in. Rodriguez is a superstar already, runner up in his first Home Run Derby and the recipient of one of the potentially most lucrative contracts in baseball history; he is a shoo-in for American League Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, Fangraphs rates Rutschman as being worth two and a half times more valuable than Witt on a per-game basis, and even though he has played almost 40 games fewer than Witt he has far surpassed him in total Wins Above Replacement.
In general, the Royals’ rookies have been disappointing. There’s no way around it. Witt doesn’t walk at all and therefore doesn’t get on base much, which severely limits his ceiling. Kyle Isbel, Nate Eaton, and Sebastian Rivero have been very good defensively, but they haven’t been able to hit at all. Nick Pratto is striking out over 35% of the time and has a batting average way below the Mendoza Line. MJ Melendez has shown some skills at the plate but is a black hole defensively (and at multiple positions no less). Vinnie Pasquantino has been an offensive force right out of the gate, but he sort of has to—as a first baseman and designated hitter, that’s his one job.
Overall, 10 Royals rookies have accrued 20 or more plate appearances. Per Fangraphs, only two of them have accrued more than 0.5 WAR. Seems bad, right?
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The fact of the matter is simple: rookies struggle. Young rookies particularly struggle. It’s certainly frustrating to watch Rodriguez and Rutschman succeed immediately, and it’s infuriating the Royals haven’t ever been able to come up with a star that hit the ground running like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or Carlos Correa or Pete Alonso or Kris Bryant or...well, you get the point. However, those guys are the exception. Most rookies have a very hard time of it.
I pulled together a list of all 22, 23, and 24-year old rookie seasons since 2000, since those are the ages of the Royals rookies. I also set the plate appearance minimum at 200, since Witt, Melendez, and Pasquantino have hit that number already and Pratto and Massey should (key word being should) hit that number by the end of the year. What I found was somewhat surprising: there wasn’t much difference in performance between rookie ages. What was not surprising was that the median performance was not so hot.
Median rookie performances by age, 2000-2022
The median rookie with over 200 plate appearances barely scrapes the 1.0 WAR mark, with below average wRC+ figures and single-digit home run totals. Yes, there are rookies who do well. But among 429 rookies between the ages of 22-24, only 65 had a wRC+ north of 120, and only 42 had a WAR north of 3.0. Meanwhile, poor performance is the norm: 139 rookies had a wRC+ under 85, and 151 rookies—35% of the set—failed to hit 0.5 WAR.
With this perspective, the rookie struggles among the Royals make sense. Witt has a decent chance at hitting 3 WAR on the year, and if he did, that would put him in the top ~10% of all rookies in the 22-24 age range. That’s pretty good! And even if Melendez, Pratto, Massey, and Pasquantino only end up in the 0.5 to 1 WAR range on the year, well, they’d be right in line with their peers.
So even though it is definitely frustrating to watch other superstars develop in their rookie seasons, that is still rare. Far more common is to see what we’re seeing now: particular glimpses of brilliance in the midst of persistent struggles as young players try to adjust to one of the most competitive sports leagues in the world.
What happens next matters. Can some players take a leap into stardom? That’s the big question. We’ll see next year, which is arguably more important than this one.