When you watch the Chicago Cubs this season, you are watching one of the best collections of rookie ballplayers ever assembled. That is not a hyperbolic proclamation born of Cubbie Kool-Aid-fueled fever dream, but an immutable and intransient fact. Mind you, I’m not saying I’m not somewhat intoxicated on the potent cocktail of talent and potential the Cubs have been serving up this season, just that my conclusions aren’t being skewed by it.
Or so I say.
Only a few days ago, I looked at Kris Bryant’s historic pace in terms of WAR by a rookie. That only tells part of the story though, as Bryant isn’t the only first-year player putting in work on this playoff-bound roster. His 5.2 WAR is great, but the Cubs have gotten 8.5 total wins above replacement from rookies. So that got me to thinking: how does this group of Cubs cubs stack up against other collections of farm-fresh fledglings? And how would one even go about quantifying an answer?
My first step was to heat some water and get some coffee going in my French press. I have found that beer tends to be the best lubricant for the cogs of composition, but given the time of day and the tedium of parental responsibility, I was forced to turn instead to caffeine. Step 2 was to split-screen FanGraphs and Excel and get to work.
I reasoned that the quickest way to determine the greatest individual team seasons in terms of first-year-player contributions would be to filter by rookie seasons and then sort by WAR. I know that might not be perfect, but I found this the simplest way to get started. I only went back as far as 1900, so my apologies to those members of the Columbus Solons or Louisville Eclipse whose exploits may have gone overlooked.
Looking at WAR alone, however, would have been incredibly irresponsible. While it’s a great aggregate measure, it’s very easily skewed by individual performance. For instance, the 2012 Angels (10.5) are one of only 9 teams in the last 115 years to have an aggregate rookie WAR total greater than 10. But when you consider that Mike Trout accounted for 10.2 on his own, it looks less like a group effort and more like LeBron James in his first go-round with the Cavs.
I chose to leave that season in the mix, but the numbers came out in the wash anyway. Said wash was really a pretty simple calculation, as I strove to determine which group of rookies had the greatest relative impact on their team over the course of a season. As such, I looked at plate appearances, home runs, runs, RBI, and WAR relative to the overall team totals in those categories. In other words, I sought to determine how much of the load the rookies carried. Oh, I also checked on average wRC+ of rookies vs. that of the team as a whole.
From there, it was simply a matter of sorting the percentages and ranking each, then tallying the ranks. Like golf, the lowest score would be the best. As you can see below, the 2015 Cubs stack up very favorably with the top 10 teams in terms of rookie WAR. If you’d like to see how I arrived at these totals, or if you just want to point and laugh at my decidedly rudimentary spreadsheet skillz, you can do so here.
I’d make the case that the Cubs should actually be placed higher on the list though, given the presence of those 1914 Federal League teams. After all, that short-lived organization had just formed in 1913 and only became a “major” league the following season, and would thus have been replete with first-year players. So while I’m going to tip my cap to the Whales for giving us Wrigley Field, I’m not willing to validate the seasons above for the purposes of this project.
I suppose you could argue that my decision to excise the Fed teams was driven by confirmation bias, and you may be right. I may be crazy. But I think I’d be a lunatic to look at 1-4. Bad Billy Joel callbacks aside, this Cubs group stands out by any measure.
That ’82 Twins team had 9 rookies with more than 200 plate appearances and another 4 who accumulated more than 500. In total, they accounted for 67% of their team’s plate appearances, 70% of the RBI, 71% of the home runs, and nearly 74% fo the WAR. Tom Brunansky led the way with 5.4 WAR, while Kent Hrbek (3.3) and Gary “The Rat” Gaetti (1.4) followed.
While they’ve still got a month to go, there’s no way the Cubs are going to come close to catching that Minnesota squad in terms of contribution. Then again, the Twins finished dead last in baseball with a 60-102 record that season. The 1909 Reds squad sitting between the Twins and Cubs on the list above fared much better, finishing in 4th place in the 8-team NL with a 77-76 mark. But at 78 wins with 27 games left to play, the Cubs have assured themselves the most wins out of this elite group.
So while those Twins and Reds rookies may have carried their teams to a greater extent, their loads were much lighter, so to speak. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, then, to say that what we are seeing from the Cubs is actually somewhat unprecedented. No other team has had this degree of success while relying on rookies for such a large percentage of overall production. Go ahead and read that again if you like. Pretty cool, huh?
Of course, that may not mean anything to you if they’re not able to win on a bigger stage. To that end, consider that Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler will no longer be rookies next season. And they should be better. But I didn’t seek out to project any future performance when the idea for this column germinated in loam of my gray matter. I simply wanted to put into perspective just how special this season has been for the Cubs thus far.
Too often, we only realize the importance of a series of events when viewing them through hindsight’s corrective lenses and I guess I just wanted to hand spectacles out to my readers. So let’s raise our glasses in a toast to this Cubs team and its collection of rookies, to what they have been and they may yet be. Cheers!