Is There A Rookie Of The Year Curse?

MIAMI GARDENS, FL: Chris Coghlan #8 of the Florida Marlins hits a solo HR during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

A 1985 Baseball Digest article asked whether Rookie of the Year Award winners were cursed. We take a look at recent winners and re-open the debate.

Well, well, well.

I started drafting this story Saturday afternoon, a few hours before news broke that Ryan Braun has reportedly tested positive for a performance enhancing drug. Braun, of course, won the National League MVP this season, but he was also 2007's National League Rookie of the Year. Braun is appealing the positive test, pointing to a negative test taken immediately after the first. The issue apparently will be decided by an arbitrator weeks from now. In the meantime, Braun's reputation -- and the first part of his 2012 season -- hang in the balance. 

Read on for the original story and then you decide: Is there a Rookie of the Year Curse?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Earlier this week, the Colorado Rockies traded closer Huston Street to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. In and of itself, not a terribly earth-shattering deal. The Padres needed a closer, having lost Heath Bell to the Miami Marlins in free agency this week, and the Rockies needed salary relief. The Padres will pick up $7 million of Street's $8 million salary in 2012.

But there was something about Street's being traded for a PTBNL that made me stop and think. Street was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2005, for goodness sake. Yes, that was six seasons ago but  . . . Rookie of the Year.  Gee, Bobby Crosby was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2004, the year before Street, and look how he's flourished since winning the award ... Oh. Well, look at Chris Coghlan. He won the National League ROY Award in 2009 and is one of the centerpieces of the Marlins as they move into their new stadium and ... Oh. 

Hmmm.

To the Google machine. Typed in "baseball rookie of the year curse."  Voilá!

Right before my eyes was a 1985 Baseball Digest article, via Google Books, titled "Rookie of the Year Award: A Curse or Blessing?" The third paragraph:

For every Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson or Luis Aparicio, there is a Harry Byrd, Don Schwall, Mark Fidrych or Joe Charboneau -- a first-year wonder whose star exploded into memories as quickly as it burst into prominence.

The story goes on to talk about Thurman Munson, Steve Howe, and Steve Sax, among others. Players who achieved greatness early in their careers and then, seemingly in an instant, it was gone. For Munson, obviously, the results were a tragic death; for others, personal demons that robbed them of their full potential.  The last two Rookies of the Year highlighted by Baseball Digest? Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, who won in 1983 and 1984 as New York Mets.

Sports lore is filled with curses. In baseball, there's the Curse of the Billy Goat and the Curse of the Bambino. There's the Sports Illustrated-cover jinx.  There's even the Curse of the Crucible, which apparently has been befuddling World Snooker Champions since 1977.

I've looked at the ROY award winners back to 2000. I mentioned Bobby Crosby and Chris Coghlan up top. Crosby won in 2004 as the rookie shortstop with the A's. His slash that year was .239/.319/.426 for an OPS of .744 and an OPS+ of 93. He was also fourth in the league in strikeouts. Doesn't exactly scream offensive juggernaut. No, Crosby was better known for his defense, especially in 2004, when he had the highest Range Factor among shortstops. He peaked in 2005, both offensively and defensively, ending the year with a bWAR of 4.2, but it was a rapid descent from there. His career ended in 2010 when he split 70 games between the Pirates and the Diamondbacks with a slash of .167/.214./.333.

And there are others like Crosby -- players who won the Rookie of the Year award with less than stellar rookie years and just faded away. Like Angel Berroa (AL 2003), Jason Jennings (NL 2002) and Kazuhiro Sasaki (AL 2000). 

But look at Coghlan. He had an outstanding year offensively in 2009 when he won the National League honors. He had a slash of .321/.390/.460 with an OPS of .850 and OPS+ of 122. But 2010 and 2011 brought a raft of injuries, including surgery on his left knee in mid-2010 and knee inflammation in 2011, which together caused him to miss 119 games over the last two seasons. In just 65 games with the Marlins in 2011, Coghlan batted .230/.296/.368 for an OPS+ of just 81. 

And Coghlan's not alone among ROY award winners suffering significant injuries the year after they won. There's Buster Posey (NL 2010), Andrew Bailey (AL 2009), and Geovany Soto (NL 2008). Bailey and Soto have bounced back from their injuries. We'll have to wait for 2012 to see what happens with Posey.

In the last decade, of course, we've also had ROY winners Albert Pujols (NL 2001), Ichiro Suzuki (AL 2001), Ryan Howard (NL 2005), Hanley Ramirez (NL 2006), Justin Verlander (AL 2006), Dustin Pedroia (AL 2007), Evan Longoria (AL 2008) and Neftali Feliz (AL 2010).  And Braun.  All of these players were consistently good for years after winning the award -- some years were better than others, of course -- but, overall, they maintained and exceeded the level of play that got them the award in the first place.

Are Rookie of the Years winners cursed? I don't think so. Some winners were lucky enough to debut in otherwise weak years for rookies. Others regressed to the mean. Injuries are a part of life in baseball -- especially to pitchers and catchers -- so injuries to Posey, Soto, Street, and Bailey don't lend credence to the idea of a curse.

A few years ago, some researchers at the University of Colorado concluded that in the Modern Era (1969-1993), a rookie could expect to play in the majors for 6.85 years. That was up from 4.3 years in the Early Era (1905-1945) and 6.47 years in the Golden Age (1946-1968). The study didn't look at performance, just service time. And the data has not been updated beyond 1993. But it's telling that the average rookie doesn't even play past his seventh major-league season. 

Cursed? No, I'd say most Rookies of the Year are blessed.

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