It’s pretty rare for a player who was still a rookie at age-29 to ever stumble into a full-time role. But that’s precisely what Justin Ruggiano is looking to do this spring. A minor leaguer since 2004, Ruggiano didn’t lose his major-league rookie status until 2011, when he was 29-years-old. Not surprisingly, the list of 29-year-old rookies that go on to have successful careers is pretty short, and the Miami Marlins seemed to agree at first, as Ruggiano began 2012 in the minors. But a combination of his performance, and the club’s need for hitting, propelled Ruggiano back into the majors at age-30. This time, he didn’t disappoint. After 320 plate appearances with a .313/.374/.535 slash line, and a .390 wOBA, Ruggiano has emerged as a sleeper. But given the track record of players with his path to the majors, he’s already fighting against the odds.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but very few 29-year-old rookies go on and continue to have productive major-league careers. These players are, much like Ruggiano, minor-league journeymen who finally reach the majors due to either playing on a really bad team, or being rewarded by their organization for their persistence in the minors. Most of these guys get their brief major-league appearance, and are pushed off the roster the following season by a more promising young player. That’s essentially what happened with Ruggiano, as the club decided to begin last season with Emilio Bonifacio and Chris Coghlan in center. It was hard to blame the team in that instance, not only was Ruggiano unimpressive as a 29-year-old, but the history of those types of players were not encouraging. Since 1969, only 46 players have lost their rookie eligibility during their age-29 seasons. You can count the number of players who went on to be full-time regulars on one hand. You’ll notice the first name on that list is Hideki Matsui. We’re going to eliminate him going forward as his situation was unique, and he shouldn’t be evaluated like a minor-league journeyman.
If we look at how these players performed the following year, the list shrinks to just 17 players (You can click on the Season 2 tab to see the full list of players). The only qualifier I placed on that list was that the player needed to receive at least 180 plate appearances, which isn’t too much to ask. You’ll notice Casey Blake, Coco LaBoy and Greg Olson emerge as consistent performers in both seasons, and guys like Ron Coomer, Aaron Guiel and Frank Menechino see their roles increase a bit. While Ruggiano saw his role increase at age-30, he remains about middle-of-the-pack in this group, with 320 plate appearances. Few of those players, outside of Blake, are household names, and you can see why once you look at their performances the next year.
By age-31, only three players from our initial list were full-time guys.
Blake is the outlier here, as he remained a full-time guy through age-36. Coomer had a few more years with 500+ plate appearances, but hovered around replacement level. Ellis was really good last year, and is looking to build on that performance in 2013. That’s it. That’s the road ahead for Ruggiano.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, there are some big concerns about his performance last season. Ruggiano’s slash line was not only an extremely small sample, but his .401 BABIP suggests that a good deal of his performance was driven by luck. And that 26.3% strikeout rate means his average is about to take a huge tumble. Given the success of Blake, Ellis and Coomer, there’s a tiny chance Ruggiano is able to hang around and become an average contributor. But given the history of similar players, and what we know about trusting small samples, you might want to reconsider penciling him in as a sleeper.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.