Baseball BeatJune 29, 2003
Is Rocco Baldelli The Real Deal?
By Rich Lederer

Rocco Baldelli, the 21-year-old rookie center fielder for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, caught the American League by storm in April when he hit .368 and was among the A.L. leaders in batting average, hits, doubles, and RBI. Baldelli has become a favorite among fans, and he has been compared to some all-time greats, including Joe DiMaggio. It is obviously premature to elevate Baldelli to such status, but the comparisons are intriguing owing to Rocco's raw talent, credentials (Minor League Player of the Year last year), defensive position, and Italian heritage.

Given that the season is now nearly half over, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine how Baldelli is performing and check who the closest comparables may be at this point.

Through June 27, Rocco has accumulated the following "counting" statistics:

              G   AB   R   H  2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO  SB
Baldelli     75  305  38  95  17  6  5  38  12  65  12
Rocco's "rate" stats thus far:
               BA    OBP    SLG    OPS
Baldelli     .311   .341   .456   .797
Baldelli's projected stats for the year are as follows:
               G   AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR RBI  BB   SO  SB
Baldelli     158  642  80  200  36  13  11  80  25  137  25
Except for Rocco's strikeouts and walks, those numbers are very special for a first-year player who would just be a junior had he gone to college rather than straight to the pros out of high school, which he did as a first-round pick in the 2000 draft. In fact, there have only been 15 players who have put together seasons of .311/.341/.456 with 11 HR and 60 extra base hits at or before the age of 21 (with thanks to Lee Sinins and his one-of-a-kind, easy-to-use sabermetric baseball encyclopedia):

Hank Aaron
Cesar Cedeno
Orlando Cepeda
Joe DiMaggio
Jimmie Foxx
Ken Griffey Jr.
Al Kaline
Mickey Mantle
Mel Ott
Vada Pinson
Albert Pujols
Alex Rodriguez
Frank Robinson
Hal Trosky
Ted Williams

For the record, Cepeda, Ott, and Williams each accomplished the above combination of stats twice.

By deleting HR as a criteria and substituting Baldelli's projected SB total of 25 or more, we get the following select list:

Cesar Cedeno
Ty Cobb
Joe Jackson
Alex Rodriguez

This list includes three of the greatest players ever and a fourth (Cedeno) who, according to Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, was the FOURTH best CF of all time based on career value up to age 25.

Furthermore, by deleting the "rate" stats (BA, OBP, and SLG) from the original criteria and using Baldelli's projected "counting" stats only (HR, XBH, SB, R, and RBI), we get a very narrow list of only three players:

Cesar Cedeno
Andruw Jones
Alex Rodriguez

If we further restrict the above lists to those who played CF, we get the following seven players:

Cesar Cedeno
Ty Cobb
Joe DiMaggio
Ken Griffey Jr.
Andruw Jones
Mickey Mantle
Vada Pinson

Rocco vs. Cesar

Cedeno is the only CF who appeared on more than one screen, and he showed up on all three. Interestingly, Cesar's second major league season as a 20-year-old in 1971 resembles Rocco's projected counting stats this year:

             G   AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB	
Cedeno     161  611  85  161  40   6  10   81  25 102  20		
Baldelli   158  642  80  200  36  13  11   80  25 137  25
Cedeno technically didn't qualify that year because he "only" hit 10 HR rather than 11, but their numbers are eerily similar. Cedeno qualified the following year in 1972 when his rate numbers increased appreciably (BA from .264 to .320, OBP from .293 to .385, and SLG from .398 to .537) and his counting stats rose measurably, primarily as a result of becoming a much more disciplined hitter:
             G   AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB
Cedeno     139  559  103  179  39   8  22   82  56  62  55
As shown, Cesar more than doubled his BB total while reducing his SO by 40%. His SO/BB ratio declined from a very poor 4.1 to an excellent 1.1. Most importantly, Cedeno's OPS+ skyrocketed from a career-low 97 to a career-high 162, a remarkable achievement from one year to the next.

Unsustainable Pace

Nate Silver, in a special to, wrote a great article in early May about Baldelli flourishing despite poor plate discipline. At the time of Silver's story, Baldelli was hitting .355 with a strikeout/walk ratio of 8.5. According to Silver, Baldelli's batting average on balls in play (BIP) was .453, higher than anyone over the course of a full season (with Hugh Duffy's .433 in 1894 topping the list, Babe Ruth's .423 in 1923 the best in the modern era, and Rod Carew's .411 in 1977 the highest since World War II). As Silver concluded, Baldelli's batting average on BIP was so far out of line with the norms that it was safe to say that Rocco had benefited at least partially from good fortune--perhaps with respect to hitting singles, which is more subject to luck than any other component of offensive production.

Baldelli hit .368 in April despite striking out 27 times and drawing only three walks. He batted .314 in May, while his strikeouts declined to 17 and his walks increased to six. However, Baldelli has reverted to his April form during June by striking out 20 times and walking three times, while going .244/.278/.407. Rocco bruised his knee a couple of weeks ago, but his poor production this month is more a function of not putting the ball in play coupled with a decline of almost 200 points in his batting average on BIP from his April level than anything else. For the season, Baldelli now has 65 SO and only 12 BB, equal to a ratio of 5.4.

The "Freak" Show and the Two-Bit Actors

As Silver pointed out in his article, Shawon Dunston, Benito Santiago, Alfonso Soriano, and Garry Templeton are the only players who have had SO/BB ratios greater than 5.0 among players who hit at least .300 with a minimum of 500 plate appearances. Soriano is also one of only three players ever to record 137 or more SO with 25 or fewer BB in a single season. The "Freak of Nature" or "FoN" for short, as he is called by Aaron Gleeman of Aaron's Baseball Blog, struck out 157 times and walked 23 times last year. The other two were Bo Jackson and Corey Patterson. Jackson had 16/25 in 1988, and Patterson had 142/19 in 2002.

What makes Soriano unique among the above players who never met a pitch they didn't like is his combination of power/speed and defensive position. Other than Templeton, all of these players had above-average power at some point in their careers and all of them had above-average speed for a good portion of their careers. However, only Bo Jax was able to hit 20+ HR with 20+ SB in a single season--and he did it twice. Soriano posted 18 HR/43 SB and 39/41 seasons back-to-back in his first two years, and he is on pace for 42/42 this year.

Coming Full Circle

DiMaggio is interesting in that he is the only player on any of the above lists with a BB total equal to or lower than Baldelli's in the comparable year. The difference though is that The Yankee Clipper only struck out 39 times, or nearly 100 times fewer than Rocco's projection for 2003. In fact, Joe D.'s rookie year was the only one in which he had more strikeouts than walks. Incredibly, DiMaggio retired with 361 HR and 369 SO, the best ratio of HR/SO of anyone with 300 or more round trippers. Only Yogi Berra, with 358 HR and 414 SO, was anywhere close to DiMaggio's ratio.

Rich Knows ARod and He's No ARod

Trying to find comparable players, ARod is the only player other than Cedeno on three of the lists. However, ARod was brought up to the show when he was only 18 in 1994, and he played two partial years before enjoying what should have been an MVP season in 1996 at the age of 20. Baldelli, by comparison, played partial seasons in "A", "AA", and "AAA" in 2002 at the same age when ARod put together one of the finest seasons ever by a SS. The difference in age, production, and positions suggests that ARod will likely remain unapproachable not only as far as Baldelli is concerned but beyond the reach of more than 99% of all past, present, and future players.

As a result of this study, I believe the sky is the limit for Baldelli but only if his plate discipline improves significantly from today's extraordinarily poor level. Realistically, it would seem to me that Baldelli's upside offensively may look more like Cedeno's or Pinson's (or perhaps Willie Davis) among retired players or Andruw Jones (or possibly Carlos Beltran or Vernon Wells) among active players. On the other hand, if Baldelli's plate discipline doesn't improve much, then I would venture to guess that he and Corey Patterson will have somewhat parallel careers more along the lines of a Shawon Dunston or Garry Templeton--two players who, like Baldelli and Patterson, were very highly regarded as "tools" players with unlimited potential when they broke into the big leagues but who failed to live up to their high expectations.

Rookie of the Year?

In the meantime, Rocco may not want to look now, but Angel Berroa, the Kansas City Royals shortstop, has virtually the same rate stats as Baldelli, so Berroa, whose numbers have been going up of late while Rocco's have been going down, may actually be considered the frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award in the American League. Berroa, with 54 SO and 12 BB thus far, also needs to improve his pitch selection if he is going to become a legitimate star. Baldelli's and Berroa's strikeout rates per AB are almost identical, while the latter's walk rate is slightly higher. Having said that, if I were choosing a team to build around, I would go with Baldelli over Berroa because Rocco has a distinct advantage in age (21 vs. 25), suggesting that he should have considerably more upside over the course of his career than his fellow rookie.