On the Sophomore Jinx

From Tom Verducci’s column “Washington’s Monument” in this week’s Sports Illustrated:

“Of the 32 pitchers and 47 position players who received Rookie of the Year Award votes from 2007 to ’11, 59 had a worse ERA or OPS in their follow-up act – a 74% attrition rate.”

But so what? In order to receive ROY votes, you need to have had a phenomenal, better-than-ordinary season.

Do you know what usually happens after a great player has a great season?

They regress!  Sometimes a little.  Sometimes a lot.  When you’ve had good enough numbers to receive a 1st place vote for the ROY Award, it’s likely that you just had a season in which you put up really great numbers.  Really great numbers are also really difficult to repeat year in, year out.

To be honest, while looking at the sentence in Verducci’s column that seemed to state support of the sophomore jinx, I was left thinking “74% attrition rate? That’s all? I would’ve guessed higher.”

Never mind that OPS and ERA are not the greatest barometers for success. Let’s stick with Verducci’s stats and see what happened with MVP and Cy Young vote-getters from the same time period.

I’m considering all non-pitchers who received 1st place MVP votes and all pitchers who received 1st place Cy Young votes from 2007 to ’11 and then seeing if they dropped off in OPS or ERA the following year.

A couple of notes:

1. I’m excluding Brandon Webb from the ERA tally the year following his 1st place votes for Cy Young because he made just one appearance the following season.  We’ll leave his 13.50 ERA out of this.

2. In the case of a couple pitchers who were traded between leagues (Sabathia, Lee), I am including their complete stats for the season, not just their NL (or AL) numbers.

For the more Sabermetrically inclined, I’ve also included WARb.

+ denotes that a player improved in this category the following year
– denotes that a player declined in this category the following year
* denotes that I am disqualifying the rate statistic due to lack of 125 PA or 50 IP in the following season

SEASON NEXT SEASON NEXT
MVP OPS OPS WAR WAR
2011 AL Jacoby Ellsbury 928 682 8.0 0.8
2011 AL Jose Bautista 1056 886 7.7 3.2
2011 AL Curtis Granderson 916 811 5.3 2.7
2011 AL Miguel Cabrera 1033 999 7.3 6.9
2011 AL Michael Young 854 682 2.1 -2.4
2011 NL Ryan Braun 994 987 7.7 6.8
2011 NL Matt Kemp 986 906 7.8 2.3
2011 NL Prince Fielder 981 940 4.3 4.4 +
2011 NL Justin Upton 898 785 5.7 2.1
2010 AL Josh Hamilton 1044 882 8.4 3.5
2010 AL Miguel Cabrera 1042 1033 6.1 7.3 +
2010 AL Jose Bautista 995 1056 + 6.6 7.7 +
2010 NL Joey Votto 1024 947 6.7 6.2
2010 NL Albert Pujols 1011 906 7.3 5.1
2009 AL Joe Mauer 1031 871 7.6 5.5
2009 AL Miguel Cabrera 942 1042 + 4.7 6.6 +
2009 NL Albert Pujols 1101 1011 9.4 7.3
2008 AL Dustin Pedroia 869 819 6.8 5.5
2008 AL Justin Morneau 873 878 + 3.9 3.2
2008 AL Kevin Youkilis 958 961 + 6.0 6.3 +
2008 AL Joe Mauer 864 1031 + 5.3 7.6 +
2008 NL Albert Pujols 1114 1101 9.0 9.4 +
2008 NL Ryan Howard 881 931 + 1.5 3.5 +
2007 AL Alex Rodriguez 1067 965 9.2 6.5
2007 AL Magglio Ordonez 1029 869 6.9 1.8
2007 NL Jimmy Rollins 875 786 6.0 5.3
2007 NL Matt Holliday 1012 947 5.8 5.6
2007 NL Prince Fielder 1013 879 3.4 1.3
SEASON NEXT SEASON NEXT
CY ERA ERA WAR WAR
2011 AL Justin Verlander 2.40 2.64 8.3 7.6
2011 NL Clayton Kershaw 2.28 2.53 6.3 6.2
2011 NL Roy Halladay 2.35 4.49 8.5 0.7
2011 NL Ian Kennedy 2.88 4.02 4.7 2.1
2010 AL Felix Hernandez 2.27 3.47 6.8 3.4
2010 AL David Price 2.72 3.49 + 4.4 2.4
2010 AL CC Sabathia 3.18 3.00 + 4.4 7.0 +
2010 NL Roy Halladay 2.44 2.35 + 8.3 8.5 +
2009 AL Zach Greinke 2.16 4.17 10.1 3.2
2009 AL Felix Hernandez 2.49 2.27 + 5.6 6.8 +
2009 AL Justin Verlander 3.45 3.37 + 5.2 4.1
2009 NL Tim Lincecum 2.48 3.43 7.1 3.0
2009 NL Chris Carpenter 2.24 3.22 6.3 2.7
2009 NL Adam Wainwright 2.63 2.42 + 6.0 5.9
2008 AL Cliff Lee 2.54 3.22 + 6.5 4.1
2008 AL Roy Halladay 2.78 2.79 5.9 6.6 +
2008 NL Tim Lincecum 2.62 2.48 + 7.6 7.1
2008 NL Brandon Webb 3.30 **** 5.4 -0.2
2008 NL Johan Santana 2.53 3.13 6.9 3.1
2008 NL CC Sabathia 2.70 3.37 6.4 5.9
2007 AL CC Sabathia 3.21 2.70 + 6.0 6.4 +
2007 AL Josh Beckett 3.27 4.03 6.2 3.1
2007 AL John Lackey 3.01 3.75 6.0 3.3
2007 NL Jake Peavy 2.54 2.85 5.9 3.8

Well will you look at that!  All this time we’ve been concerned with the sophomore jinx when what we should have been concerned with was the more general “Year After Being Considered for a Major Award Jinx!”

Okay, not really…

To summarize:

* Hitters who did not receive 1st place votes the year after receiving 1st place votes for MVP – 23 of 28, 82% attrition rate
* Hitters whose OPS tailed off the year following 1st place votes for MVP – 22 of 28, 79% attrition rate
* Hitters whose WAR tailed off the year following 1st place votes for MVP – 20 of 28, 71% attrition rate

* Pitchers who did not receive 1st place votes the year after receiving 1st place votes for Cy Young – 20 of 24, 83% attrition rate
* Pitchers whose ERA tailed off the year following 1st place votes for Cy Young – 14 of 23, 61% attrition rate
* Pitchers whose WAR tailed off the year following 1st place votes for Cy Young – 19 of 24, 79% attrition rate

Do you know why players who receive Rookie of the Year Award votes have numbers that drop off the following season?

For the exact same reason that players who received 1st place MVP and Cy Young Award votes have numbers that drop off the following season.

The answer?  Because players who receive those votes have put up phenomenal numbers that season and phenomenal numbers are – by their nature – incredibly difficult to improve upon.

While I haven’t done it, I’m fairly certain that you could also see similar attrition rates among guys who were the HR leaders each season and guys who won MVP Awards in the NBA

I’ll even bet that the attrition rate of folks who had previously set a world record in the 100 meter dash is fairly high.

Exceptional performances are exceptional because they are rare and extremely difficult to achieve, let alone improve upon from one season to the next.

This is not evidence of a jinx of any sort. There is no sophomore jinx. There is no “year after” curse associated with awards. It’s all to be expected.

It’s hard to improve upon what was already amazing.

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