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The Dropo Drop-off
Daniel Okrent
May 17, 1999
A hot rookie year doesn't ensure a brilliant career
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May 17, 1999

The Dropo Drop-off

A hot rookie year doesn't ensure a brilliant career

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Though it can't be fun being Ben Grieve (page 76) right now, he probably doesn't have a lot to worry about. Baseball's roadside is littered with the careers of terrific rookie pitchers who quickly devolved into rusty, dented mediocrities. (Remember Butch Metzger, who went 11-4 with a 2.94 ERA for the Padres in 1976 and won only five games thereafter? Can you ever forget Mark Fidrych, who was 19-9 for the Tigers the same year and 10-10 for the rest of his career?) Batters hold up better. They're less prone to sudden injury, and if they've got fatal weaknesses, they're likely to show up during the long grind of a rookie season.

Take Walt Dropo, who with the Red Sox in 1950 enjoyed what might have been the best rookie season ever—.322 average, 34 home runs, 144 runs batted in—only to lurch to .239,11 homers and 57 RBIs in '51. Whitey Ford, himself a rookie in '50, said that American League pitchers shared their notes on Dropo, and by September of that season had come to the consensus that while Dropo's big swing was devastating inside the strike zone, he would flail with futility at pitches just off the plate. But even if Dropo's dropoff in '51 can be traced to the cooperative intelligence of what Ford called "the Great American Pitchers' Union," and even if he would never remotely match his astonishing '50 performance, Big Walt (at 6'5" and 220 pounds, he was nearly Grieve's physical twin) recovered sufficiently to enjoy a sound 13-year career as a .270 hitter. His work with a bat was, for him, of utmost importance, too: Dropo played first base for five teams with all the panache of a very large lamppost.

Grieve will probably right himself. With very few exceptions (like two rookies of the year who quickly fizzled: Joe Charboneau, who hit 23 home runs for the Indians in 1980 and just six more in the next two years before leaving the game, and Bob Hamelin, who, after batting .282 with 24 homers for the Royals in '94, bounced around for four dismal seasons and is now in Triple A), good rookie hitters endure. More suspect are the late-season wonders who mark the baseball sky like shooting stars, come-from-nowhere rookies like Bob (Hurricane) Hazle, who helped lift the '57 Braves to the National League pennant by hitting .403 over 41 games. Hazle, who a year later was out of the majors forever, was 26 in 1957, the same age as last year's most notable rookie meteorite, who until recently was smoldering in Columbus. Grieve may not have much to worry about over the long haul, but I wouldn't want to be Shane Spencer's agent.

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