2021 was generally viewed as a weak year for rookie hitters in fantasy baseball. The lack of production felt particularly strong when compared to some of the monstrous rookie campaigns in recent history. It reached a point in mid-August when I launched a podcast to dig into why this might be happening.
Now that 2021 is behind us, and now that we're already seeing rookies being elevated in '22 drafts (looking at you Bobby Witt Jr.), it's time to check in and see how first-year players fared last summer.
We'll start by researching how rookie bats performed as a whole. The goal is to determine if this was a league-wide issue. If so, the likeliest explanation would be the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season.
The above graph shows the amount of fWAR that rookie hitters accumulated in every season dating back to 2002 (which is when Fangraphs began using batted-ball data, plus 20 years is a worthwhile sample of recent history).
First impressions? Holy 2015! Let's also ignore 2020 since it was just a 60-game season.
As for how the '21 class performed, they checked in with 41.8 total fWAR. This ranks ninth out of 19 seasons (excluding 2020). WAR is a great starting point to get a sense of things, but it's also a cumulative stat. Theoretically, more rookies receiving playing time could yield a higher WAR total.
We'll next look at how '21 rookies performed in terms of wOBA (weighted on-base average). For those unfamiliar, wOBA is used similarly to OPS. Unlike slugging percentage (which is used to create OPS) it doesn't assume that a double is worth twice as much as a single.
Since wOBA is a rate stat we can use 2020 here. By this metric, the class of '21 rates quite poorly. The only years that last season's rookies rank ahead of are 2013 and 2014.
One issue with wOBA is that it isn't park or era adjusted, and we're obviously comparing eras here. So the final leg of our league-wide evaluation will be looking at wRC+ by season.
When adjusting for parks and era, the 2021 rookie bats move back up towards the middle of the pack. (wRC+ is another rate stat, so 2020 is back in play).
Meanwhile, 2015 is once again an impressive outlier. For those wondering, that season featured the historic debuts of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Kris Bryant.
Based on these findings we can suggest that on a macro-level scale, 2021 wasn't actually an awful season for first-year hitters. However, it also wasn't a particularly impressive group. Next we'll look to see if there were any standout sluggers.
It's important to look for any impact performers from last summer because that is how we typically think of memorable rookie classes. Impact performers are also what we care about for fantasy purposes.
We'll once again start with fWAR. This isn't perfect because it's a counting stat and won't properly reflect rookies who dominated for only half the season. Still, it's a good starting point to get a sense of the best rookie campaigns from the past 20 years.
Mike Trout is so special, man.
By focusing back on 2021 we can see that we didn't have many standouts last year. Jonathan India ranks 24th on the list, but it took him 150 games to compile those stats. Then we don't have another '21 rookie until Randy Arozarena at No. 49 and Adolis Garcia at No. 73.
It's noteworthy that none of this trio were your typical top prospect call-ups, either. It's fair to say that by individual fWAR, 2021 didn't feature any superstar rookies.
Our next check-in will center around individual stats, including homers, RBI, runs, and stolen bases. These are four of the most fantasy relevant categories after all. Maybe we had some '21 bats on the rookie leaderboards.
And we do! Among all rookie hitters since 2002, the 2021 season featured three of the top 13 home run seasons. Ryan Mountcastle (33), Adolis Garcia (31), and Patrick Wisdom (28) stand out. Unfortunately, home runs are easier to come by in the Juiced Ball Era, so the impact of these is tougher to justify.
For runs scored we have India finishing 13th (98) and Arozarena finishing 14th (94).
When looking at RBI, we have Garcia finishing 13th (90) and Mountcastle finishing 17th (89).
The top 2021 rookie for stolen bases checks in at No. 33 thanks to Jazz Chisholm's 23 thefts. It isn't a huge surprise that nobody ranks higher in steals; they just aren't as common these days, but that's a deep dive for another day.
Lastly, let's go back to wRC+.
As a reminder, wRC+ is a rate stat, so this metric will account for players who went on strong runs for less than a full season. I used a minimum of 200 plate appearances, though. This was done to ensure the rookies produced enough value.
And there he is -- Franky Two Hits himself. Yes, Cubs first baseman Frank Schwindel had the 12th best wRC+ among rookie hitters since 2002. Interestingly, he fits the mold of India and Garcia as 2021 rookie standouts who weren't top 100 prospects entering the year.
We then need to scroll all the way down to find Arozarena at No. 73, Wander Franco at No. 79, and Jonathan India at No. 99. The elephant in the room is the impact Franco could've had if he played more than 70 games, but based on the results that actually happened, this is another disappointing outcome for the '21 rookie class.
For what it's worth, raising the minimum number of PAs to 400 would put Arozarena at No. 27 and India at No. 36. Schwindel and Franco are no longer eligible. This reinforces the notion that the best '21 rookie bats produced more as compilers rather than true impact hitters.
Jarred Kelenic, Andrew Vaughn, Alex Kirilloff, Ke'Bryan Hayes, and Brandon Marsh are examples of top prospects who failed as rookies last season. These are some of the players fantasy managers were most excited about back in spring training (plus Franco).
However, the class was ultimately salvaged by India, Arozarena, and a few others when looking at specific stats.
The league-wide analysis we first conducted showed that, on a whole, rookies weren't that poor offensively (finishing 13-of-20 in wRC+ since 2002).
The second half of our analysis reinforced the idea that 2021 didn't feature any standout rookie performers, which is why it feels as if it was such a subpar class. Furthermore, many of the top prospects we expected to produce simply didn't, which added to the "rookies were bad" narrative.
As for 2022, I'm more optimistic about the incoming crop of rookie hitters than I was before conducting this exercise. The league-wide rate stats weren't abysmal, so the theory that the shortened 2020 ruined young players isn't as concrete.
Perhaps it did, or maybe it hurt prospects on a case-by-case basis (Arozarena, after all, played a lot in 2020). Regardless, the minors returned in 2021. I'm not necessarily targeting top prospects in redraft leagues as aggressively as I was in 2017-19, but I'm also not shying away either.
Thanks for reading!