Sunday, May 22, 2016

How Valuable Were 2003's Young Baseball Stars?

Remember 2003? Hilary Duff was a huge multi-platform star, "Freedom Fries" were all the rage, Lance Armstrong was still a demigod to many fans, and people still believed Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs. And, of course, Shawn Green and Kevin Millwood were two of the 10 best young players in baseball. Wait, hold up. What was that last one?!

Well, according to Rising Stars: The 10 Best Young Players in Baseball, Green and Millwood were indeed among the best young pups in the game.

I found the book -- which was produced by Sports Illustrated for Kids -- on a shelf in my school's basement and couldn't resist peeking at the 10 players it featured.

In retrospect, most of the players in there seem like they totally fit. Jeter and Guerrero are future Hall of Famers, Jones and Wagner should forever be remembered in the Hall of Nearly Great, and Nomar and Casey had terrific peaks. But Millwood and Green? Millwood joined the Braves' Big Three in the late '90s, but I remember him as just that -- a good fourth starter. Green, meanwhile, made a couple All-Star teams but never resonated to me as a superstar.

Let's retroactively use stats to see if the 10 guys in the book were, in fact, the best 10 young players in the game at that time. I classified a young player as younger than 30 in 2003, when the book was published. Then, I sorted player stats from 2000-02, the three seasons before the book came out. Based on that list, I looked up the top 10 in Fangraphs WAR from those seasons to see if the book matched reality.

Here, once again, are the book's "10 Best Young Players in Baseball":

Top 10, according to Rising Stars (in order of book appearance)
1. Derek Jeter
2. Kevin Millwood
3. Sean Casey
4. Nomar Garciaparra
5. Jason Kendall
6. Billy Wagner
7. Vladimir Guerrero
8. Andruw Jones
9. Shawn Green
10. Alex Rodriguez

And now, here are the actual best young players in the game. Let's look at the position players first:

Top 10 position players under 30, according to fWAR
1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Todd Helton
3. Andruw Jones
4. Vladimir Guerrero
5. Chipper Jones
6. Bobby Abreu
7. Troy Glaus
8. Jason Giambi
9. Scott Rolen
10. Carlos Delgado

Missing the Cut (These players were listed in the book, but here's where they ranked in fWAR)
Shawn Green (14th in fWAR among under-30 position players from 2000-02)
Derek Jeter (20th in fWAR)
Nomar Garciaparra (22nd in fWAR)
Jason Kendall (54th in fWAR)
Sean Casey (75th in fWAR)

So a few of the position players named by Sports Illustrated for Kids ranked statistically among the best young guys in the game. Still, it seems a little odd that Kendall and Casey sneaked onto the book's list.

Now, let's look at the young pitchers in 2003:

Top 10 pitchers under 30, according to fWAR
1. Pedro Martinez
2. Javier Vasquez
3. Andy Pettitte
4. Tim Hudson
5. Bartolo Colon
6. Barry Zito
7. Matt Morris
8. Jeff Weaver
9. Brad Radke
10. Mark Mulder

Missing the Cut (These players were listed in the book, but here's where they ranked in fWAR)
Kevin Millwood (16th in fWAR among under-30 pitchers from 2000-02)
Billy Wagner (97th in fWAR)

Wow. It seems like the book neglected some of the most notable young guys in the game -- especially Oakland's "Big Three" -- in favor of the less-valuable Millwood and Wagner.

Key Takeaways
So what was the point of this "study"? Well, first off, I had fun. (Sorry for partying.) But I also think I uncovered some interesting nuggets. (Well, interesting to me. Shut up.)
  • The book omitted some really important guys. I guess the slippery definition of "young" probably affected the selection process, but it seems like there were some better choices than the 10 picked for the book.
  • The no-brainer selections: A-Rod, Andruw Jones, Vlad, Jeter, and Nomar. Good job, book.
  • The defensible selections: Green, Millwood, and Wagner. I owe apologies to Green and Millwood, who were both at least top-20 guys from 2000-02. I think they both just petered out shortly after the book was published.
  • The bad selections: Jason Kendall and Sean Casey. Neither guy really belonged in the book. If you had a choice of a young catcher in 2003, you probably would've selected Jorge Posada over Kendall. Meanwhile, Helton or Giambi could have replaced Casey if the book was looking for a first baseman. As the photo up there shows, Casey was "the definition of 'a nice hitter,'" which never should have been confused with a "rising star."
  • Dang, Oakland's "Big Three" was really freaking good. It's amazing that the A's never even came close to winning a title right around the turn of the millennium.
  • Javy Vasquez! The guy was really good. Before he came to New York, or course.
  • Of that top-10 position player list based on fWAR, four of them spent their washed-up years with the Yankees. Neat-o.
  • As many people have pointed out, MLB is currently in the midst of an unprecedented young-player boom. The 2016 under-30 team would wax the 2003 group.
  • He's the definition of "a nice hitter"

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Follow Francis Tolan on Twitter @frantweet

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