Commentary: Should Mariners brace for sophomore slumps from Julio Rodriguez and George Kirby?
March 29, 2023 Updated Thu., March 30, 2023 at 8:54 p.m.
SEATTLE – Two Mariners. Two sensational rookie seasons. Two backs carrying massive expectations.
The first is center fielder Julio Rodriguez, the dynamite Dominican who captured American League Rookie of the Year honors last year at 21 years old. There’s “talented” and then there’s “generationally talented,” and there are signs Rodriguez is closer to the latter. The Mariners wouldn’t have signed him to a contract that could pay him more than $400 million if they didn’t think so.
The second is starting pitcher George Kirby. Kirby doesn’t have the international appeal of a Julio, but he did manage to finish sixth in ALROY voting last year after logging a 3.39 ERA over 130 innings.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe these two would improve upon their inaugural seasons and, in turn, help thrust the Mariners into contention for the division title and perhaps the World Series. But should fans be worried about the dreaded sophomore slump?
That was a question, not a prophecy.
Major League Baseball is a league in which adjustments are as necessary to success as skill. And with each pitch and at-bat, teams gather information on how to best their future foes.
A few examples of first-year phenoms that dipped in Year No. 2 much to the chagrin of their fan bases and glee of their opponents:
• Cody Bellinger: Between his rookie season in 2017 (in which he had 39 home runs in 132 games to go along with a .933 OPS) and his MVP season in 2019 (47 homers and a 1.035 OPS), the then-Dodgers outfielder posted 25 home runs in 2018 with an OPS of .814.
• Livan Hernandez: After finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting and winning World Series MVP in 1997 – when the former Marlins pitcher went 9-3 with a 3.18 ERA – Hernandez posted a 4.72 ERA in 1998 while leading the NL in hits allowed.
• Troy Tulowitzki: The shortstop has five All-Star appearances to his name and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting in his third full season. But after placing second in the NLROY race in 2007, the former Rockies shortstop saw his OPS dip from .838 in Year 1 to .732 in Year 2 before surging to .930 in 2009.
• Wil Myers: The former AL ROY hit .293 and logged an OPS of .831 with the Rays in 2013 before plunging to .222 and .614, respectively, his sophomore season – then made the All-Star team two years later.
Tale of the tape
Rodriguez caught the attention of the baseball world as a Mariners rookie last season. But should fans be worried about a dreaded sophomore slump? Here’s how his numbers (and Year 2 projections) compare to the first two seasons of other rookie phenoms.
There are plenty of other examples. Hall of Famer catcher Gary Carter – second in Rookie of the Year voting in ’75 – had a notoriously rough second season before rattling off 10 straight All-Star appearances later in his career. But what does this mean?
That the sophomore slump is possible – but maybe not probable.
Three years ago, Chris Gauthiers of batflipsandnerds.com sorted through 18 Rookies of the Year between 2010-2018 and found slight drops from a players’ first years to their second.
The 12 hitters went from slashing .293/.370/.538 to .282/.368/.492. The six pitchers saw their collective ERA jump from 2.66 to 2.85, although their base-on-ball percentage decreased. As far as greats such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Jacob deGrom? They all got better in Year 2. Same way that Ken Griffey Jr. did in his second season in Seattle.
No doubt there’s a chasm between Rodriguez and Kirby when it comes to expectations. The former is considered by many to be the successor to Griffey in terms of Hall of Fame talent and worldwide fandom. The latter is a mid-first round draft pick who is living up to his potential. It’s possible Rodriguez isn’t as good in Year 2 (think: Fernando Valenzuela, who won the Cy Young his rookie season and finished third the next year), but it’s hard to think he’ll drop off significantly barring injury. Kirby is more questionable.
The Mariners have the talent to make another postseason run and perhaps take a stab at the AL West title (FanGraphs.com projects them winning 85 games compared with the Astros’ 90). But to do so, improvement from their youngsters is imperative – along with the good health that blessed their pitching staff last season.
So what will it be? That’s the beauty and the burden of opening day. One never knows.
As for Julio and George? Fans should expect them to be as good if not better than last season – but should also brace for them to regress.
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