AP Photo / John Bazemore
If you’re just now joining us for the start of the 2022 Major League Baseball season, perhaps the first thing you need to know is that the league is absolutely stacked with promising rookies at the outset.
As ranked by MLB.com, 53 prospects who placed within their respective organizations’ top 30 talents opened the season on major league rosters. Included among them are three elite hitters in Bobby Witt Jr., Julio Rodriguez and Spencer Torkelson, plus an unusually live-armed hurler in Hunter Greene.
As he’s 27 years old and a veteran of nine seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, Seiya Suzuki isn’t technically a prospect. He is nonetheless a rookie, and certainly one under the microscope after signing an $ 85 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.
So how are these guys doing so far? Let’s take a quick look and form some knee-jerk opinions that we may or may not come to regret later.
Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City Royals
Witt came into the year ranked no lower than No. 3 on the major prospect lists, and basically anyone who bothered to look at his swing could pick up ample Mike Trout vibes.
This is to say that the hype surrounding Witt was quite real, so good on the 21-year-old for immediately making a statement with a game-winning RBI double in the Royals’ 3-1 win over the Cleveland Guardians on Opening Day:
Witt went on to add another RBI double on Sunday, and his presence has likewise been felt defensively. He’s a shortstop by nature, but his quick-twitch athleticism and strong arm have resulted in two impressive plays (see here and here) already at third base.
There’s always a catch, though. In Witt’s case, those two doubles are his only hits through 16 at-bats. And while he only struck out once in Kansas City’s first three games before whiffing three times on Monday, only three of his first 11 batted balls crossed the hard-hit barrier with an exit velocity over 95 mph.
If we wanted to overreact to this, we’d say that Witt is merely the next coming of David Fletcher and that the Royals have therefore erred in trusting him to be their guy at the hot corner.
Instead, we’ll come down on the side of it being a good thing that he’s at least making contact at a reasonable rate. And lest anyone doubt that the hard contact will start to come more consistently, we’ll go out on a limb and continue to groove on those Trout vibes.
Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners
Rodriguez, meanwhile, likewise came into the season widely ranked as a top-three prospect. And understandably so after what he did in 2021, as he posted a 1.001 OPS in 74 minor league games to go with a .444 average for the Dominic Republic squad at the Olympics.
The sheer potential in the 21-year-old’s stick was there for everyone to see on Saturday when he roped a rally-starting double for his first career hit:
That clocked at 99 mph off the bat, thereby making it one of the batted balls supporting his early hard-hit rate of 50 percent.
Now, if only there were more than just six batted balls in that sample size.
Though he did get hosed on a called third strike opposite Sonny Gray on Sunday, Rodriguez mostly has himself to blame for the fact that he’s struck out six times in 12 at-bats. He hasn’t been able to keep himself from expanding the strike zone, and all five of his whiffs have been against breaking balls.
Though Rodriguez’s defense has yet to become a major storyline, he did have a near-collision with outfield mate Jesse Winker on Sunday. For that, he got a talking-to on the way back to the dugout.
Could all this just be a case of nerves getting the better of the 21-year-old? That’s definitely possible. But he had also never played above Double-A before the Mariners put him on their Opening Day roster, so there could also be some inexperience at play.
Spencer Torkelson, Detroit Tigers
After the Tigers made Torkelson the No. 1 pick of the 2020 draft, there were no minor leagues to send him to on account of the season’s cancellation. As such, he only got to make 530 plate plate appearances in the minors last year before getting the call for Opening Day.
The next stage of Torkelson’s trial by fire is off to a rough start. In his first 11 trips to the plate for the Tigers, he walked three times but also racked up six strikeouts and zero hits.
Like Rodriguez, Torkelson can blame at least one of his strikeouts on an unfairly wide zone:
Jason Beck @beckjason
Not sure if this is the rookie treatment, but all of these strikes were called to Spencer Torkelson against Kyle Crick in the fifth. pic.twitter.com/GAJKuL3Jet
On the whole, though, the 22-year-old hasn’t really been victimized by too many bad calls. A more pressing issue is the rate at which he’s expanded the zone, particularly on bad pitches off the outside edge of the plate.
None of this jibes with scouting reports that peg Torkelson as more of a good hitter with power than a power hitter. He also made it as far as Triple-A last year, so his early issues may be more so a matter of too much adrenaline than not enough experience. The following link comes with an NSFW warning, but he certainly sounds amped up.
On the plus side, the rook has at least made his presence felt on defense:
In all, the Tigers shouldn’t be panicking just yet. The day off that they gave Torkelson on Monday could prov to be just what he needed.
Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds
It’s been a while since a rookie starting pitcher took Major League Baseball by storm. Not counting two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani in 2018, the last one to really do so was Michael Fulmer in 2016.
If anyone’s going to break that streak, why not Greene? Just look at him go … er, throw:
In leading the Reds past Atlanta with five innings of three-run ball on Sunday, the 22-year-old righty topped 100 mph 20 times in the process of striking out seven batters.
As noted by MLB.com stat guru Sarah Langs, it’s not exactly ordinary for a starting pitcher to bring that much heat:
Sarah Langs @SlangsOnSports
Most 100.0+ mph pitches as SP, single game since 2008 (pitch-tracking era, incl PS):
6/5/21 deGrom: 33
8/19/15 Eovaldi: 28
5/31/21 deGrom: 27 – 10/3/14 Ventura: 26 – 6/15/16 Syndergaard: 24 – 6/6/16 Paxton: 24 – 4/18/16 Syndergaard : 21
** TODAY Greene: 20 **
7/3/21 Alcantara: 20
Mind you, it wasn’t all good for Greene in his debut. He did walk two batters and surrender home runs to Travis d’Arnaud and Matt Olson on fastballs that caught too much of the zone. Control and command, then, are things he still has to master.
In the short term, Greene could simply try to get hitters off his fastball by putting more trust in his slider and changeup. The former is a good-looking pitch with two-plane break, and it drew five whiffs on the 11 swings that Atlanta hitters took against it.
In any case, hopes for the 22-year-old should be nothing but high. Even if it doesn’t happen overnight, he has lots of time to make the leap from thrower to pitcher.
Seiya Suzuki, Chicago Cubs
How good has Suzuki been so far? Well, his slash line of .375 / .538 / .750 through three games is amazing and yet also somehow sells him short.
For starters, he truly clobbered his first major league home run on Sunday. It came off the bat at 111 mph and traveled an estimated 412 feet:
Suzuki came to the Cubs off a 38-homer season for the Hiroshima Carp in 2021, so all he did with that home run was further add to the data points that suggest he can be a dangerous power hitter in the States.
Plus, it already looks like he’ll be able to translate the discipline through which he walked 20 more times than he struck out over the last three seasons. His four strikeouts are balanced against four walks. Further, he’s swung and missed as many times as he’s expanded the zone: once.
Oh, and that one swing outside the zone? It produced an RBI single on an inside fastball that he was strong enough to muscle into the outfield.
In short, wow.
Elsewhere in the current world of rookies, there’s already an unlikely folk hero in Cleveland in the person of Steven Kwan. The Guardians outfielder is 9-for-13 with five walks on the side, which comes out to a .789 on-base percentage.
Shifting to Houston, Jeremy Pena is thus far doing the impossible of making Houston Astros fans forget about Carlos Correa. He’s 6-for-16 with two doubles and one heck of a first home run:
Also replacing a franchise legend is Joey Bartwho’s taking over for Buster Posey behind the plate for the San Francisco Giants. To this end, it’s not the worst sign that he absolutely demolished his first home run on Friday.
A couple more to keep an eye on are San Diego Padres infielder CJ Abrams and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Josh Lowe. The former has flashed some impressive leather, while the latter already has more walks (3) than strikeouts (2) through 12 plate appearances.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.