Punch line: From a look at prior Gary Sanchez-like late-season callups, starting a career with stellar hitting in a rookie quarter- to half-season does not predict a great or even solid career – unlike with starting pitching, given my recent Luis Severino post showing that “there's almost no precedent for a starter to perform like 2015 Severino yet then fail to have a good-to-great career.”
Two of my earlier baseball memories of late-season rookies who Sanchezed it up are Sam Horn in 1987 (in 46G & 177 PA: 14 HR, .278/.356/.589, for a 143 OPS+) and Kevin Maas in 1990 (in 79G & 300 PA: 21 HR, .252/.367/.535, for a 150 OPS+). Sanchez beats that hitting with his .351/.429/.730 line (200 OPS+), and 2.3 WAR in 1/5 of a season is all the more unbelievable, basing partly on his plus defensive value as not just a catcher, but a really good catcher – unlike Horn (a DH) and Maas (whose 9 errors and -1.3 dWAR in barely 1/3 of a season at 1B show that he was a first baseman only in the sense that he owned a first base glove and was sent out there to embarrass himself by Stump Merrill, which is to say he was a first baseman like I’d be an bongoer if you gave me a bongo and told me to bang my forehead into it a lot).
Ok, so Gary has surpassed both homer-slugging oafs I remember as the height of super-performing late-season callups – but is that enough for us to say confidentily that he’s going to have a solid or great career? So I did a Baseball Reference Play Index search for guys who’ve had a Sanchez-like late-season rookie callup, then looked at the careers those folks went on to have.
This is similar to my recent Severino post, which looked at rookies who pitched like Severino’s stellar 2015, and had a finding that surprised me:
Is a Severino-like stellar rookie performance for 60+ innings something a lot of stiffs luck into? Or do only guys who end up with strong careers do that well at age 21? … Almost everyone on the list either would meet our wildest expectations for Severino (Fernandez, Hernandez, Bumgarner, Gooden, Strasburg) or at least had a #2-level starter career we'd happily take (Sanderson, Gullickson, Burns, and Wacha's up-and-down career so far). The only two flops are pretty non-analogous…
It’s hard to define what’s enough Sancheziness to count as a Sanchezy late-season callup, but I had to draw the line somewhere, so I figured this made sense: (a) in 24-80 games (i.e., at least a month but less than a half-season) with at least 100 PA, (b) a PA/HR ratio of 15 or under (i.e., like Mass’s 14.3 or Horn’s 12.6), and (b) an OPS+ of at least 140 (i.e., like Horn’s 143 or Maas’s 150). Basically, I searched for every star rookie who lacked the full season that would’ve given us more confidence his performance was a true predictor of a great career, but who was so unbelievably great in a small yet nontrivial sample size that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that you’re seeing a true superstar.
It's a really short list, which I would’ve thought meant “all super-duper-stars,” but it’s also a really weird list, by which I mean it not only had mostly mediocre players, but also had only recent players: the only ones before 1998 were, yep, Sam Horn and Kevin Maas. Then I realized that in lower-homer eras than 1987-present, even top sluggers rarely logged PA/HR ratios of under 15. So I raised the PA/HR maximum to 20, but then raised the OPS+ threshold to 150 to make sure the season still was truly stellar. That made the list… well, only a little less short or weird.
What first jumps at me is how recent the list is. Stellar late-season callups like Sanchez have occurred (a) about annually since 2009, (b) roughly once every several years from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, and (b) almost never before the late 1980s. I have no idea why.
The most important point is that very few of these guys went on to very good careers – and more than half ended up replacement-level chaff. Grouping them by career WAR, and excluding only Sanchez:
• Stellar careers – 2: Willie McCovey (64.4 career WAR); Gene Tenace (46.8).
• Very good careers – 1: Gregg Jefferies (19.4); Brett Lawrie (15.0 and counting)
• Mediocre careers – 3: Erubiel Durazo (9.1); Allen Craig (5.0); probably Khris Davis (at age 28, 6.7 WAR through 3.5 years)
• Replacement-level careers – 7: Phil Plantier (2.3); Kevin Maas (1.5); Randy Ruiz (0.8); Rico Brogna (-1.1); Mike Jacobs (-2.4); probably Ryan Schimpf (1.7 WAR in his 2016 rookie half-year, but a 28 year-old rookie who’s 5’9” and hit in the .240s in several years each at AA and AAA); probably Mikie Mahtook (1.2 in his 2015 rookie half-year, but -0.8 this year, and he’s about to turn 27)
Not an encouraging list. Most damning fact: That the briefly exciting but famously disappointing Kevin Maas (1.5 WAR) had almost the median career -- because so many hovered around zero career WAR.
But Sanchez is more promising than most of these guys, in a few ways: (1) Sanchez’s hitting is the best of them, and maybe a 200 OPS+ is a better success predictor than the 150-188 OPS+ the others had; (2) Sanchez was a highly touted prospect, unlike many who seem to have lucked into their performances – like the most recent two, Schimpf and Mahtook; and (3) Sanchez, at 23, isn’t like the folks who earned their callups when they were too old to be serious prospects – like Schimpf (age 28), Ruiz (30), and the several 25 year-olds (Maas, Mahtook, Davis, Craig, and almost Jacobs, who was called up two months before his 25th birthday).
But this list is still a big caution about assuming Sanchez has proven he’s slated for a career as an All-Star big-league catcher: Tearing it up in a short-season rookie callup just does not predict a productive career. The Severino comparison is unintuitive, but look: A rookie pitching like a #1 starter for about 1/3 of a season is a predictor of greatness – but hitting like an MVP seemingly isn’t.
Which is funny, because most of us now have Sanchez, yet not Severino, penciled in as a Yankee great of the Trump administration years of 2017-2025. Poke holes in my amateur little studies if you want, but at least take them as a cautionary note: Assuming Sanchez is destined for a great career is every bit as premature as assuming Severino isn’t.