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After a rookie renaissance the past couple years, some top prospects have struggled this season

BALTIMORE (AP) — Jackson Holliday’s debut with the Baltimore Orioles went south in a hurry when the 20-year-old infielder managed only two hits in 34 at-bats, striking out in exactly half his plate appearances.

If it’s any consolation, there are a few other top prospects who can probably relate.

Colt Keith in Detroit? He’s hitting .177. Wyatt Langford of the Texas Rangers? He batted .224 before landing on the injured list. Milwaukee’s Jackson Chourio has been a little better, with four home runs to his credit, but the highly touted outfielder is hitting .214 with an on-base percentage of just .262.

None of those three were sent back to the minor leagues like Holliday — not yet, at least — but their struggles are indicative of a trend through the first month and a half of the season. Just when it appeared baseball’s young standouts had mastered the transition from Triple-A to the majors, a few of the game’s prized prospects showed up and went through a humbling experience.

“I think this game is so hard already. Pitching is incredibly hard to hit, harder than ever before. The world we’re living in right now, and the microscope these guys are under, makes it way more difficult,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “It’s just how it is right now. With social media, pressure, and all these things, it’s challenging.”

What makes this season a surprise is that it comes on the heels of a couple great years for rookies. Last year’s class of rookie hitters produced the second-most wins above replacement on record according to FanGraphs, trailing only 2015. Corbin Carroll of Arizona, the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2023, also finished fifth in the MVP vote.

There were a number of theories on why rookie hitters seemed so ready so fast: They’d had experience in the minors with new rules like the pitch clock. The development process is more advanced than ever. Teams invite more prospects to spring training, where they can face better pitching. And so on.

So when the Orioles brought up Holliday on April 10 — it was actually something of a surprise when they left him off the opening day roster — the expectation was that he could contend for Rookie of the Year honors right away. When he started slowly, fans at Camden Yards kept giving him big ovations when he came to the plate — a warm gesture but one that may have only added to the pressure.

Holliday was the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft out of high school, and he was already in the majors less than two years later. Langford was actually drafted last year at No. 4, and he made the opening day roster for the Rangers this year after playing only 44 games in the minors — an example that underscored how aggressive teams had become with their top prospects following rule changes that created incentives to bring players up instead of delaying the start of their service time.

Keith had a great 2023 season in the minors, and Detroit signed him to a six-year contract worth over $28 million before he’d ever played a big league game. Chourio’s deal was even bigger: eight years, $82 million.

“Jackson’s going to be fine. He’s going to be a good player,” said Brewers manager Pat Murphy, who gave Chourio the day off Thursday and left him out of the starting lineup Friday and Saturday. “This little breather we’re giving him here is I think an indication of like perspective and things like that. It’s about the Brewers first, not about Jackson Chourio. But Jackson’s a big part of this. This little period of not playing in the front end will be beneficial to him.”

So some patience is in order. As good as Carroll was last year, he’d actually made his debut in late August the previous season, so he had some games under his belt before his 2024 breakout. The same was true for Gunnar Henderson of the Orioles, who was called up in 2022 and actually struggled early in 2023 before surging in the second half to win Rookie of the Year in the American League.

“The spotlight has never been brighter on the youngest of players at this level because we spotlight them at the youngest of development in A ball and Double-A, so their arrival is met with a lot more notoriety, popularity and expectation,” Detroit manager A.J. Hinch said. “No one loves back-in-the-day stories, but we used to be 100 or 200 at-bats before anyone was noticed, but now you’re expected to contribute the minute you step in the building.

“So the adjustment period from level to level we never talk about in the minor leagues and let happen, but the one into the big leagues is getting shorter and shorter for our tolerance as an industry.”

Players in rookie seasons produced an OPS of .701 last year. This year it’s down to .641, which would be the lowest mark since 1992. It’s fair to expect that number to rise as the season progresses and new players gain experience — but the April-only OPS for rookies also dropped from .677 in 2023 to .648 this year.

Orioles general manager Mike Elias had a theory of his own last month — that the gap between pitching in Triple-A and the majors was actually growing, because injuries were causing top minor league pitchers to be called up.

“I doubt there’s a lot of teams leaving a lot of really good pitchers in Triple-A right now. There’s a lot of really good pitchers up here in the majors because you need it,” Elias said. “It’s really tough making that jump.”

It’s not clear whether teams will scale back their aggressiveness with top prospects — or how the adjustment will go for a pitcher like Paul Skenes — but a little patience from fans and the players themselves can’t hurt. The best Baltimore rookie so far this year has been outfielder Colton Cowser — who hit .115 in his 26 games with the Orioles after he was called up in 2023.

Cleveland manager Stephen Vogt went hitless in 32 at-bats after starting his playing career in 2012. He was 0 for 25 that year with Tampa Bay, then was traded to Oakland and ended up playing 10 big league seasons.

Now he’s managing top Guardians prospect Kyle Manzardo, who is 3 for 17 with seven strikeouts in his first seven major league games.

“It’s the biggest jump in any sport,” Vogt said. “You’re going from a place where there’s a few guys that have played in the big leagues, some people who might one day, to every single person is a big leaguer. There’s no breaks, there’s no easy at-bats. You got the best defenders in the world trying to catch the ball and now all of a sudden you’re seeing pitches in situations that you’ve never seen before. A lot of people misrepresent that. They don’t understand how big of a jump it truly is.”

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AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland and Steve Megargee in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

By NOAH TRISTER
AP Baseball Writer

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