As noted here earlier, later on Monday the BBWAA will announce the two winners of the 2012 Rookie of the Year Awards. It’s expected that the winners will be Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, although the latter could conceivably lose in an upset. The awards are given to the best rookies from the American and National Leagues. No awards exist for the worst rookies from the American and National Leagues. This is because such a gesture would be incredibly cruel and while baseball does have a cruel sense of humor, it usually isn’t so blatant about it. The best rookies get awards, and the worst rookies try not to get noticed as they set their sights on improving or finding other work.
There’s not a whole lot to say at this point about Trout or Harper, though. They were awesome and they’ll probably be awesome later. There’s also not a whole lot to say about the Rookie of the Year award — sometimes the winners go on to accomplish big things, sometimes they bust, and what happened in the past doesn’t mean anything as far as Trout and Harper are concerned. For now, I’m tired of thinking about the best. I’m more interested in thinking about the worst.
What I wanted to do was identify the worst rookie season in modern baseball history. This is something one could make very simple or very complex, depending on one’s dedication to the task and belief in the principle that complex is always better. I went with very simple. I defined modern baseball as beginning in 1969, when the strike zone changed and the mound was lowered. I set no playing-time minimums. I sorted position players and pitchers by WAR because I am that uncreative (or intelligent. Let’s go with intelligent?). Before I reveal the big winner, let’s pay a visit to the player page for one Andy Larkin.
In 1996, a 22-year-old Larkin started a game for the Marlins. He went right back down to the minors, and he stayed in the minors in 1997. That year, in triple-A, he posted an ERA over 6. He opened 1998 at the same level, but an injury to Eric Ludwick opened up a slot in the Marlins’ big-league rotation. Up went Larkin, and by the time Larkin was finished pitching for the Marlins that season, he’d reached 74.2 innings. He’d also allowed 87 runs, with 43 strikeouts, 55 walks, and a dozen dingers. Opposing batters torched him for a .966 OPS, and his FIP landed at 6.45. The Marlins went 3-11 in Larkin’s starts and 0-3 in games in which Larkin relieved. When Larkin pitched in triple-A in 1998, he was also bad. Andy Larkin had a disastrous rookie season. He would briefly re-emerge in the majors in 2000, but he sucked again, and that was basically the end of him. As a major-league pitcher anyway.
But Larkin isn’t my winner, mostly because he didn’t play enough. My winner who played enough is 1999 Cristian Guzman. In 1999, a 21-year-old Guzman was the regular shortstop for the low-budget Minnesota Twins. He started 126 games. According to our leaderboards, he was worth -3.1 WAR. That is 2012 Yoenis Cespedes‘ WAR, with a minus sign in front of it. In 2012, Yoenis Cespedes slugged .505.
Let’s be clear, here: it wasn’t entirely Guzman’s fault. I mean, he was the guy responsible for how his body played, but Guzman was rushed, and he was in way over his head. Sure, in 1998, he was an Eastern League All-Star. But in 1998, he also batted .277/.304/.352 while committing 32 errors in double-A. He hit one home run and drew 21 walks while striking out 111 times. Guzman shouldn’t have made the majors to begin 1999, but the Twins didn’t try to re-sign 1998 shortstop Pat Meares, and a path was cleared. The 1999 Minnesota Twins were bad.
Said manager Tom Kelly of his young team, in the middle of the 1999 season:
“There’s a few who are maybe not showing the progress we would like to have seen. You’d be very naive to think they’re all going to improve. That’s ridiculous. We’re not miracle workers.”
“Probably none of the rookies should be in the big leagues,” Kelly said in response to a question.
“I keep explaining to the coaches you have to instruct them like they’re in Triple-A or Double-A; you have to lower your sights a little.”
Over 456 plate appearances — far too many of them from the number-two slot in the order — Guzman batted .226/.267/.276 in 1999, with one home run and four times as many strikeouts as walks. In the field, he committed 24 errors, and on the basepaths, he was thrown out trying to steal almost as often as he successfully stole. By wRC+, he out-hit only Eli Marrero, and he was out-hit by the likes of Abraham Nunez and Mike Caruso. Somehow, Guzman even found a way to be less valuable than his overall numbers, as he struggled worse with runners on and in high-leverage situations. As for second-half improvement? Guzman’s first-half OPS was .534. Guzman’s second-half OPS was .554. His September OPS was .317. Which isn’t to say that Guzman didn’t accomplish anything in the second half:
After [Jacque] Jones, who went 3 for 4, capped a seven-run outburst off reliever Paul Spoljaric in the fourth inning with his homer, many of the 21,136 fans in attendance mockingly cheered.
Spoljaric threw the next pitch over Cristian Guzman’s head.
Both benches and bullpens emptied as Guzman charged the mound and tackled Spoljaric. Spoljaric left with a black eye. Both were ejected.
Guzman’s numbers might have been worse still were it not for his 17 bunt singles. That year, 16 whole teams in baseball finished with fewer than 17 bunt singles, and the Mets had exactly 17. When you’re playing a baseball video game, and you’re hopelessly overmatched, bunting a lot is one way to try to give yourself a chance. That was Guzman’s strategy as a rookie. It was pretty much the only thing that worked for him.
The feel-good part of the story? Guzman stayed in the majors. The next season, he improved by 3.1 WAR. The season after that, he improved by 3.9 WAR and made the All-Star team. Guzman hung around as a regular for a while, and he made his millions. He played in the playoffs. He collected nearly 1,500 hits. Guzman had a better major-league career than the overwhelming majority of professionals in the modern baseball era.
But Guzman’s 1999 rookie season was a complete and utter catastrophe. Maybe Guzman needed to have that season in order to have his subsequent seasons. But that was one terrible, terrible season.