Last April 17th, BP Wrigleyville, then in its infancy, commemorated Kris Bryant Day by looking back at the debuts of some of the franchise’s most iconic players. Despite our initial wariness about celebrating yet another holiday manufactured by the greeting card companies, we came together to celebrate and put the heralded prospect’s arrival in historical context.
Following his much ballyhooed debut, Bryant would go on to be the unanimous National League Rookie of the Year. This season, he, along with fellow sophomores Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler, have not only arrived, but are crucial pieces of a team with legitimate World Series aspirations. It remains to be seen how they follow up their rookie campaigns, so in the waning days of Cactus League ball, let’s look back at how Cubs luminaries followed up their first big league seasons.
Ernie Banks (1955)
.295/.345/.596, .343 TAv, 7.6 bWARP
There are good sophomore campaigns, and then there’s what Banks did in 1955 to announce himself as one of the preeminent sluggers in baseball.
Banks made his debut in mid-September 1953 and garnered only 39 plate appearances, making his promising, but average 1954 season (19 home runs, .275/.326/.427, 2.7 bWARP) his rookie year.
Banks took a gigantic leap forward the following season, putting together the second best campaign of his career by TAv and third best by bWARP and home runs (44). He finished third in the National League MVP voting, behind a pair of Brooklyn-ites in Roy Campanella and Duke Snider. The team would win just 72 games, in what would become a depressing trend for Cubs greats in their sophomore seasons.
So, just how good was Banks’s follow up to his rookie year? Banks played parts of 19 seasons, but more than 13 percent of his career bWARP came in 1955.
There’s a long speculated rumor* that in Robert Zemeckis’s Director’s Cut of Back to the Future, Marty and future Mayor Goldie Wilson discuss Bank’s just completed 1955 season in the diner. Film historians believe it to be cinema’s first reference to “bWARP.”
*That rumor was begun by me in the mid-afternoon hours of March 24, 2016. I was a Film major, so you should probably just take my word for it… and maybe lend me a few dollars.
Ron Santo (1961)
.284/.362/.479, .284 TAv, 1.8 bWARP
Santo was just 21 when he started 154 games at third base for the Cubs in his second season, and dramatically improved in every major statistical category from his rookie season.
Santo hit .284/.362/.479 with 23 home runs, making it the first of his 11 seasons with at least 20 home runs. In one particularly hot 35 game stretch starting in late June, Santo hit .331/.391/.566 with seven home runs, . Unfortunately, he also managed to lead the league in double plays grounded into with 25. Despite that dubious distinction, Santo was one of the handful of bright spots in an otherwise miserable summer on the North Side.
The Cubs would lose 90 games, and even with Santo, Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman forming an imposing middle of the lineup for a team that mashed the third most home runs in the NL, the Cubs scored the second fewest runs in the league. Problem, thy names were roster depth and on-base percentage.
Billy Williams (1962)
.298/.369/.466, .292 TAv, 3.0 bWARP
A year later, Williams, 24, would put together his own outstanding second full season. By 1962, Williams had spent parts of three seasons with the Cubs. After cups of coffee with the club in 1959 and 1960, he would breakthrough as the 1961 NL Rookie of the Year. It was during his sophomore season, however, that he would establish himself as one of the game’s best outfielders.
While Williams’ home runs decreased slightly (25 to 22), his numbers improved in every other offensive category. Williams was named to the first of his six All Star Games, and he was in the midst of 13 consecutive seasons with at least 20 home runs.
The team, however, would lose 103 games, just the second Cubs ever team to lose at least 100 games, and the last to do it before the 2012 edition. If you want to look at the Old Style as half full, though, Williams and Santo, in their second seasons, had joined Banks as the centerpieces of a team that would post multiple winning seasons in the 1960s.
Ryne Sandberg (1983)
.261/.316/.351, .246 TAv, 3.2 bWARP
Of the four hitters on this list, only Sanberg regressed, at least offensively, from his first to second seasons. This was due to an absolutely brutal second half. Sandberg’s OPS peaked at .755 after the first game of a July 4 doubleheader in Montreal, but he would hit just .240/.295/.296 over his final 83 games. By many categories, it was the worst offensive season of his career.
Such was Sandberg’s defensive prowess, though, that he was still a three-win player. In 1983, Sanbderg won the first of his nine consecutive Gold Gloves.
The following season, that magical summer of 1984, Sandberg’s OPS would increase by 220 points and his extra base hits total would double (37 to 74) from 1983. You might recall two of those extra base hits:
Greg Maddux (1988)
249.0 IP, 3.18 ERA, 3.11 DRA, 13.4 K%, 7.7 BB%
In 1987, the rookie Maddux was one of the worst pitchers in baseball (6.02 DRA and 1.64 WHIP). Just one year later, the sophomore was the staff ace, albeit for a 77 win team. Maddux’s wins tripled (6 to 18) as his walks and baserunners allowed decreased, and his luck improved significantly (opponent’s BABIP went from .325 to .270). For his efforts, Maddux was named to the first of his eight All-Star Games.
Maddux’s best start of ’88, and maybe of his career, came on May 11 against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley. That afternoon, he pitched a 10-inning complete game shutout, striking out eight and allowing just three baserunners. Maddux retired the last 18 Padres he faced, including punchouts of Roberto Alomar and John Kruk.
Despite his 134 pitch masterpiece, though, the game continued on into extra innings. After Sandberg tripled to lead off the home half of the tenth, Lance McCullers intentionally walked Mark Grace and Andre Dawson. Rafael Palmeiro would ground into a fielder’s choice to keep the contest scoreless. Vance Law would then lay down a sac bunt that would score Sandberg, and make a winner out of Maddux.
The Professor was off and running in his second year, and the next season he would finish third in the Cy Young voting for a division winner.
In their sophomore seasons, all five players not only established themselves as everyday major leaguers, but showed flashes of what would one day land them all in Cooperstown. Nobody is looking that far ahead with the Cubs 2016 collection of second year players. Heck, at this point in spring training, it’s tough to even see the start of regular season for the cacti. It’s coming, though, and the team’s sophomores will go a long way to determining its fate.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.