The Change: Severino, Gray, Owens, Norris & Rookie Pitchers or Rookie Hitters?

Rookie hitters are performing better this year than they ever have in the free agency era. Right now, rookie non-pitchers have a 93 weighted runs created plus, one better than in the second-best year for rookie hitters (2006). That’s also impressive because there are only four years in which rookies have managed a wRC+ over 90.

We spend so much time drooling over rookies that this might be a sobering result. The best rookie class of all time is still 7% worse than league average with the stick. You *could* use this to argue that rookies are a bad scene in redraft leagues.

Of course, that number is an overall number. If you focus on the rookies that have done well, they were almost all well-regarded, right?

Turns out maybe no. Check the list of rookies, and even though Kris Bryant leads it by WAR, the sticks by themselves are a much less predictable crew. Sort this year’s rookies by wRC+, and you’ll see that for every highly-touted leader like Miguel Sano and Carlos Correa, there’s a Matt Duffy and Randal Grichuk. And for every Big Prospect that hit like Kris Bryant or Joc Pederson, there’s a Blake Swihart and Rusney Castillo.

So it looks like it is worth pointing out that, even though rookie hitters have been improving, they’ve still only been worth 12% less than league average since 2010. Check out how the rookie hitters have faired compared to the rookie pitchers. Even with improvement, it’s clear which class performs better.

Rookies

The best season for rookie hitters has pushed hitters equal to pitchers. Both rookie pitchers and hitters are about 7% worse than league average right now. But if you zoom out, you see that rookie pitchers do better than hitters, by about 50% — 12.5% worse than league average for hitters since 2010, 108 ERA-, 107.3 FIP- for pitchers over the same time frame. This is also rookie starting pitchers, so this isn’t an artifact based on dominant relievers.

If you had to choose between dipping into a pool of rookies for your hitting or your pitching, it’s better to look for rookie pitchers.

Of course, you still have to choose the right one, especially since the bust rates on pitching prospects are always much worse than the bust rates on hitting prospects. Perhaps teams make their minds up on rookie pitchers faster, so the bad rookie pitchers get demoted and the good ones help float the rookie starters’ overall numbers to a better place.

Those bust rates are predicated on prospect rankings, so let’s take the newest crop of rookie pitchers and see how they look in that regard. (Baseball America and ESPN rankings are mid-season, FanGraphs’ is preseason.)

  Baseball America ESPN FanGraphs Average
Daniel Norris 18 15 17 16.7
Luis Severino 17 51 26 31.3
Jon Gray 35 42 28 35.0
Henry Owens 47 37 33 39.0

Given the fact that Daniel Norris‘ playing time isn’t dependent on the health of another pitcher in his rotation, and the the fact that he’s easily the highest-rated pitcher on the list, he’s the easy answer to the question “Which newly-called up rookie pitcher should I pick up in my redraft league?”

But read his writeups and you’ll immediately notice that this is no sure thing. Kiley McDaniel:

Norris sits 91-95 mph with occasional life and a hard, plus 74-76 mph curveball that’s really improved the last couple seasons from a softer version. Norris also adds a 83-85 mph slider that flashes above average with clearly differentiated shape from his curve, along with a mid-80’s changeup that’s average to slightly above at times.

Norris still isn’t perfectly online, he can elevate at times when he locks his landing knee and these things lead to a flatter fastball and giving up more hard contact. That said, he’s athletic enough to make all of this work and, when it’s right, the stuff is electric. There’s 2/3 starter upside and Norris now has the command to get there much faster than many would’ve guessed before this season. It’s also worth noting that Norris is quite a character, the real life Matt Foley, literally living in a van that is often near a river.

If you believe he really has found that command, then you’re in love with the upside. If you (like the author) remain cautiously optimistic about that command, though, you’ll want to see more from him before you are giving him starts in your 12-teamer. You may also wonder if he’ll improve the peripherals on his slider (10% whiffs on 112) and curve (6% whiffs on 51) as he figures out how to sequence and command his pitches better.

PITCHf/x has little to tell you about Luis Severino, as only 10 pitches sit in the database so far. But in those ten pitches, he’s shown a high-velocity fastball with a little cut, a change with great movement and velocity gap, and a decent looking frisbee slider. In his writeup, McDaniel emphasized that the risk markers were mostly due to mechanics, so if you are interested in this year and this year alone, Severino looks like the best bet here. He’s healthy, throwing hard, and his team needs him to start now. Watch his velocity in the early going, that’s the one marker that has changed radically over the years.

There isn’t a lot of daylight between Jon Gray and Henry Owens, and neither is coming into a great situation for a pitcher. They’re also very different, in that the lefty Owens has two non-fastballs that should help his average velocity work, while Gray is a big velocity righty with a tight slider and a changeup with great fade but not much drop. Gray’s command might be better, but if you’re temped to move him ahead of Owens, you always have to remember that home park. At least Gray doesn’t throw a curve ball.

With the high bust rate of pitching prospects in your mind, and yet the better production as a lure, it makes sense to act cautiously but energetically when it comes to the rookie pitcher. Get him on your roster, play him if you must, but also act quickly. He may figure it out eventually, but that rookie pitcher may also spend a lot of time in the minors or on the shuttle as he does work towards usefulness.

Rookie Pitching: lightning worth trying to catch in a bottle, just make sure you’ve got room on your bench to help hide em as you weather the storm.

We hoped you liked reading The Change: Severino, Gray, Owens, Norris & Rookie Pitchers or Rookie Hitters? by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Wobatus
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Wobatus

Gray and Owens both tonight, and both have been pitching better of late. Love the Norris van story, although I have to imagine he could have gotten a batter deal than $10 grand on a 1978 VW van. Unless it is souped up in some way. But it seems like he isn’t profligate with that signing bonus so no worries.