A year ago, Jay Bruce was coming off a superb 2010. In his age-23 season, he'd hit .281/.353/.493 with 25 home runs in 148 games, including .306 with 15 home runs in just 186 at-bats in the second half. With that surge in mind, Bruce appeared to be an obvious breakout candidate and even sleeper MVP pick in some quarters.
Likewise, Andrew McCutchen and Colby Rasmus had played well as 23-year-olds in 2010. All three had come up through the minors as prized prospects and with the belief that young players mature and improve as they head into their peak seasons (generally 25 to 30), there were big expectations for the trio.
I wasn't necessarily quite so sure. Before the season, I wrote an article headlined "Why Jay Bruce may have reached his peak." The article was based on some anecdotal evidence that not all good age-23 hitters take a big leap forward. Here's how the three guys performed in 2011:
2010: .281/.353/.493, 124 OPS+, 4.4 HR%, 10.1 BB%, 23.7 SO%
2011: .256/.341/.474, 119 OPS+, 4.8 HR%, 10.7 BB%, 23.7 SO%
Bruce failed to capitalize on his big 2010 second half and basically showed the same performance and skill set as 2010. He did make his first All-Star team and remained healthy, playing in 157 games.
2010: .286/.365/.449, 121 OPS+, 2.5 HR%, 10.7 BB%, 13.6 SO%
2011: .259/.364/.456, 127 OPS+, 3.4 HR%, 13.1 BB%, 18.7 SO%
McCutchen had appeared to make The Leap with a monster first half, hitting .291/.390/.505. He was one of the best players in the National League, but tailed off to a .216 average in the second half. Some felt he got too homer-happy and while he did hit a few more home runs and draw more walks, the decrease in batting average meant his overall production was essentially identical to 2010. The numbers show that he struck out more often in the second half and his batting average on balls in play dropped from .319 to .251. Some of that could be attributed to bad luck, but that could also be the result of hitting too many fly balls.
2010: .276/.361/.498, 132 OPS+, 4.3 HR%, 11.8 BB%, 27.7 SO%
2011: .225/.298/.391, 89 OPS+, 2.7 HR%, 9.5 BB%, 22.1 SO%
Rasmus actually was good through April, hitting .301 with a .392 on-base percentage, but then he hit .253 in May and .213 in June and somewhere in there he feuded with Tony La Russa. The Cardinals traded him to the Blue Jays, he hurt his wrist and hit just .173 in 35 games with Toronto.
So what can we predict for their futures? I thought I'd run another little anecdotal list of similar players. I checked all outfielders who were regulars at age 23 since 1969 and posted an OPS+ between 115 and 145. This eliminates the guys who were superstars early on, like Reggie Jackson or Ken Griffey Jr. or Vladimir Guerrero, and gives us a list of players with similar production. How much better did these players get?
The short answer of what the chart means: Nine of the players showed a noteworthy improvement from their age-23 OPS+ to their average OPS+ from 25 to 30. (Those eight: Jack Clark, Tim Raines, Danny Tartabull, Rickey Henderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Rice, Bobby Murcer, Dave Winfield, Amos Otis). Two would have a late-career surge in their 30s (Ellis Burks, Luis Gonzalez). The list has produced three Hall of Famers (Henderson, Rice, Winfield) and two more Hall candidates in Raines and Palmeiro, plus Andruw Jones if you want to consider him. But the list also contains guys like Lloyd Moseby, a terrific all-around player at 23 in what proved to be his best season. Or Willie Montanez, who hit 30 home runs as a rookie but only hit 20 once more in his career.
Based on this chart, there's about a one-in-three chance that a 23-year-old who has already put up good numbers will improve. Considering we're talking about three players here ... I guess that means one of the three will make The Leap.
My pick, not surprisingly, would be on McCutchen. He has the best all-around game of the three, draws walks and strikes out considerably less than the other two. His second-half struggles are a concern and he needs to get back to a solid approach at the plate and take his home runs when they come.
That doesn't mean Bruce doesn't have a 40-homer season in him or Rasmus puts it all together in Toronto.
In the end, we don't really know. As our SweetSpot blog affiliate says, you can't predict baseball.