The Tampa Bay Rays could not have asked Wil Myers for anything more than what he delivered in his first season in the big leagues in 2013. He hit to a .293/.354/.478 line (131 OPS+) with 13 home runs, transforming the Rays lineup on his way to the AL Rookie of the Year award. Given how good that season was, though, it is terrifying that his second year has caused our confidence in him to evaporate.
In 2014, Myers slipped to just a .222/.294/.320 line (77 OPS+), and the wrist injury that sidelined him for much of the season cannot explain that entirely. Myers faces major concerns with regards to his ability to handle pitches down and away along with his overall pitch recognition. We know how talented he is–we’ve heard unremittingly about the different sound the ball makes when it comes off his bat–but will his various issues stop him from ever tapping into his potential again? As the Rays formulate their plan to fix Wil Myers, let’s take a look at the history of similar players suffering through sophomore slumps and attempt to determine the probability that he will be fine.
Our first task here is to define what a “sophomore slump” is. One definition that makes sense off the top of our heads is a player declining by 20% compared to the league average, say going from a 100 OPS+ (exactly the average) to an 80 OPS+ (20% below). The issue with that, however, is that going from 100 to 80 is far different than going from say 150 to 130. In the latter case, the player may be declining, but the difference is smaller compared to the whole and he is still a great player. With that in mind, a definition that makes sense to me is a 20% proportional decline from a player’s rookie season to his second year. The formula is simple: take the difference between the second year total and the first year total and divide it by the first year total. To illustrate what that does, going from a 100 OPS+ to an 80 OPS+ would still be a 20% drop, but going from 150 to 130 would be just 13.33%.
My first thought when pursuing this article was to look at Rookie of the Years who experienced sophomore slumps by our definition. We even see some nice anecdotal evidence that Myers could be just fine–Carlos Beltran, Carlton Fisk, and some guy named Pete Rose appear on that list. In order to get any reasonable sample size, though, we would have to look at not just power-hitting corner players like Myers but also players at other positions and even pitchers. Just 39 of the 134 Rookie of the Years fit our definition, and a third of them are pitchers. There are eight more players who won their awards more because of their speed and defense than their hitting. Does it really make sense to compare Wil Myers to them either?
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how second-season performance affected career outcomes for players who managed an OPS+ between 125 and 145 in their rookie years (minimum 350 plate appearances). I divided the 127 such players into five groups: 1) players who improved proportionally by 20% or more, 2) players who improved by 5% to 20%, 3) those between -5% and 5%, 4) the players who declined by 5% to 20%, and 5) the players who declined by 20% or more. In regards to the distribution of the players among the groups, 11 each were in Group 1 and Group 2, 26 were in Group 3, 46 were in Group 4, and 33 were in Group 5. That is not a typo–more than 60% of the sample declined by more than 5%, a statistically significant value no matter how you slice it. That is a sobering reminder for how difficult it is to be a well above-average hitter in the major leagues.
In any event, I looked at the groups and compared how their careers went following their rookie years. I used their numbers after their rookie years and not their career numbers because there were several players who faded quickly and thus had misleading career OPS+ scores. On the whole, the players managed a 116 OPS+ after their rookie years, significantly above the league average. If Myers ended up there, the Rays could not complain. However, there was major variation between groups. Here’s a table of how the players in each of the groups performed after their rookie seasons.
[table id=12 /]
The results were that players were generally fine unless they were in Group 5. Groups 1, 2, and 3 all being significantly above the 116 overall average and Group 5 being significantly below. (For those of you that care, all four values were significant at the α=.01 level.) Of course, Myers is in Group 5, and that does not paint a pretty picture regarding his future. There are a few very good players in the group–Hack Wilson, Tim Raines, and Jim Delahanty–plus two solid outfielders in Yoenis Cespedes and Jason Heyward. Myers certainly has the talent to join them, and that has to make Rays fans feel a little better about his poor year.
But here’s the reality: major league right fielders managed a 110 OPS+ on the whole in 2014, and just six players out of the 33 in Group 5 managed a mark that high after their rookie years. That also ignores the fact that Myers had the seventh-worst proportional decline in the sample at 41.2%. Of the bottom 15, just one player (Earl Webb) wound up being above-average, with 10 of the remaining 13 (excluding Myers) ending up at least 10% below.
We can pick and choose some examples of players overcoming sophomore slumps like what Wil Myers experienced, but it is clear that he faces a difficult journey as he aims to reach his upside. If Myers is truly a transcendent talent, then we will look back at this and laugh about how bleak his future seemed after his second year. There is an uncomfortably high chance, however, that he will never turn out as hoped.