MLB Victims of the Sophomore Slump

We see it every year in every sport. Players will put up phenomenal rookie campaigns, looking poised to be the next great thing. The expectations are high for the second season, with people looking for that rookie to make the next big leap to super stardom. But then they don’t. Sometimes they deviate back towards the mean. Other times they go completely in the tank. But why? For a lot of players, teams have had a full offseason to figure them out. Coaches find holes in their swings or see that they are tipping pitches. Other times, the pressure is just too much. A lot of players ignore the sophomore slump completely (Looking at you Mike Trout and Kris Bryant). Others will bounce back in their third year once they adjust to the adjustments made to them. Let’s look at some Rookie of the Year candidates from last year and see who’s become victim to the sophomore slump.

AL ROY 3rd Place-Trey Mancini

Trey Mancini: Outfielder and part time first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. He broke onto the scene last year with a great rookie year, posting a .293 average with 24 home runs and 78 RBIs. This year, he’s .222/10/23. While the home runs are basically on pace for last year’s total, the other numbers are down. The RBIs are easily explained. Mancini has spent much of the season in the leadoff spot, as opposed to the middle/bottom of the order like last year. Thus, he just has less RBI opportunities. His average has dipped considerably. But, he did post a .278 average for the month of April. Towards the end of April he suffered a knee injury which has been bothering him ever since. And since that knee injury, his monthly averages have been pitiful (.192/.191 for May and June). Add on to the fact that this Orioles team has an abysmal lineup (Outside of Machado, Jones, and Valencia), meaning he has very little to protect him. So is Trey Mancini in a sophomore slump? Yes. Will he bounce back? Assuming his knee fully heals and this Orioles lineup starts hitting the ball better, then yes.

AL ROY 2nd Place-Andrew Benintendi

Andrew Benintendi: The next face of the Red Sox. The guy that I think could be synonymous with Dustin Pedroia among casual fans. Benny came up in 2016 and had a solid 34 games for the Red Sox. He then got to play a full season in 2017, posting numbers of .271/20/90. So far for 2018, he’s put up numbers of .291/13/50. Not only is Benny Biceps not slumping, his numbers have vastly improved. A 20 point jump in average and nearly on pace to post a 30 HR/100 RBI year, Benintendi is showing that he’s more than just a flash in the pan. A big reason for this? Benintendi has spent basically every game this year batting either first or second. When sandwiched in between Betts and Martinez, teams are forced to pitch to you. You can’t risk giving Benintendi the free pass because you don’t want guys on base for JD. Teams are forced to make him beat them and he’s stepped up. So is Andrew Benintendi in a sophomore slump? Definitely not Will he keep improving? With that lineup around him, it’ll be hard not to.

AL ROY Winner-Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge: The 2017 AL Rookie of the Year AND the Home Run Derby Champion. While he posted a very impressive rookie year with a .284 average, 52 home runs, and 114 RBIs, people had their concerns. His pre All Star break average was .329, compared to a .228 average in the second half. He also struck out 208 times for the season. This year however, he’s seemed to settle in, posting numbers of .277/20/52. While his stats are on pace to be slightly down from his rookie campaign, he’s still on pace to put up very solid numbers. The reason? The Yankees got possibly the best power hitting to protect Judge: Giancarlo Stanton. Judge however is also on pace to strike out more and walk less, possibly a result of being pitched to more with Stanton behind him. So is Aaron Judge in a sophomore slump? No Was his rookie season an anomaly? He may put up a few more seasons like his rookie year, but I think we should expect a guy who’s consistently .270/40/100 with 200+ strikeouts and 100+ runs.

NL ROY 3rd Place-Josh Bell

Josh Bell: A nice surprise for a Pirates team that didn’t have much going on. He sported a .255 average with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs. Fast forward to this year and Bell is .248/5/39. Similar average and decent RBI numbers, but the power is way down. What could be the reason for this big drop in power? I saw an interesting stat for Bell. He’s seeing 6% more sliders this year and has a whiff rate on sliders that’s 16% higher than last year. Not only that, his xwOBA is down .112 points for sliders and .119 points for curveballs. xwOBA stands for “Expected Weighted On Base Percentage”. It takes into account the exit velocity and launch angle of balls put in play. What this huge drop means is that Bell just isn’t squaring the ball up on breaking pitches. However, his xwOBA is actually up for 4-seam fastballs, so he can still hit a baseball. Maybe this drop is just the result of pitchers figuring out his weakness. Is Josh Bell in a sophomore slump? Yes Will he recover? His slump is weird because it really only seems to be his power numbers. His walks, strikeouts, and average are all comparable to last year. He’s just not squaring up the ball. If he can learn to read pitchers better and square up breaking pitches, Josh Bell could be the next Andrew McCutchen for the Pirates.

NL ROY 2nd Place-Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong: The Cardinals power hitting middle infielder. DeJong had a very respectable offensive year, especially by shortstop’s standards, putting up a .285 average with 25 home runs and 65 RBIs. It was looking like his was going to put up another similar year, with numbers of .260/8/19. Unfortunately, these numbers are only through 41 games, as DeJong suffered a fractured left hand and hasn’t played since May 17th. However, at his current pace, he would’ve put up numbers of .260/32/76. Is Paul DeJong in a sophomore slump? It’s hard to say because the sample size is small. I’d say no because we really can’t know until he returns to the lineup. Will he be a productive MLB player? As long as his injury doesn’t hold him back, I think we’ll see a consistent 25+ home run player for the Cardinals.

NL ROY Winner-Cody Bellinger

Cody Bellinger: The future of the Los Angeles Dodgers (Along with Corey Seager). Bellinger had a monster season a year ago, hitting .267 with 39 home runs and 97 RBIs in 132 games. This year however, Bellinger’s numbers have dipped (.240/15/38). Some people would chalk up this dip to mentality. Bellinger has been benched this year for not legging out a double and he bunted on a 3-0 count in the ninth inning of a tight ball game. Certainly not headlines you want from you young, budding star. Maybe the pressure of being in the bright lights of one of baseball’s biggest markets has been too much for Bellinger. There is some room for optimism though. Bellinger’s strike out rate is actually lower this year, meaning he’s at least putting the ball in play. He also hit .280 for the month of April. Maybe these numbers are just the result of an extended slump. Dodgers’ fans sure hope so, because Seager and Bellinger could certainly be a potent duo to build around. Is Cody Bellinger in a sophomore slump? Yes Will he bounce back? Absolutely. I tend to think this is just the result of a young player getting too big too fast. Maturity will catch up to talent and Bellinger will be a productive member of the Dodgers

There are plenty of examples of players experiencing the sophomore slump and bouncing back. Carlos Correia is an excellent example. His second season got off to a miserable start. He worked his way towards respectable numbers by the end of that second season. He then exploded in his third season and is now a premiere player in baseball. There’s no formula to predict how and why these things happen (Although today’s advanced metrics certainly help). Only time can tell us what’s in store for baseball’s blossoming young starts. Who knows, maybe slumps can be avoided if you don’t think of them as slumps. As Yogi Berra once said, “Slump? I ain’t in no slump. I just ain’t hitting.”

-Stephen Brown III (@sbtrey23)

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