Since Major League Baseball’s expansion era began in 1961, 13 rookies 29 or older have had Fangraphs wins above replacement of 2 or higher.
Of those, only Casey Blake bettered his rookie fWAR and only Blake and Ed Charles finished with career fWARs of 10 or better.
Older rookies are in their prime when they arrive, with little time for growth in their games.
Whether Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel can join the exceptions after age-29 breakthroughs is a prime question for the Cubs in 2022. They are the only active players on the list of 13.
Wisdom built his 2.3 fWAR on 28 home runs and an .823 OPS in 375 plate appearances. Schwindel made the most of 239 plate appearances with 13 homers, a 1.002 OPS and a 2.1 fWAR.
Over a full season of 600 plate appearances, Wisdom’s fWAR would project to 3.7 and Schwindel’s to 5.3. A Fangraphs chart explaining WAR lists 3 to 4 as ‘‘good player’’ and 4 to 5 as an ‘‘all-star,’’ with 5.3 just over the line into ‘‘superstar.’’
The highest fWAR among older rookies since 1961 was Charles’ 4.1 for the Athletics in 1962. Stuck in the minors behind Braves Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, Charles blossomed after a trade to the A’s. He hit .288/.356/.454 with 17 homers.
Charles added fWARs of 3.7, 3.0 and 2.9 in an eight-year career with the A’s and Mets. A 19.0 career fWAR and 86 homers suggest a star-level career had he found a big-league home at 24 or so.
In MLB cups of coffee with the Blue Jays, Twins and Orioles in 1999 to 2002, Blake had only a .643 OPS in 125 plate appearances. He retained rookie status when he broke through with the Indians in 2003.
He responded with 17 homers, a .723 OPS and a 2.0 fWAR. Blake bettered that with a 3.4 fWAR the next season and a 4.5 with the Dodgers in 2009. Playing through 2011, Blake finished with a 22.2 fWAR, 167 homers and a .778 OPS
In terms of lasting success, Charles and Blake are exceptions. Coco Laboy, Wayne Kirby, Hal Breeden and David Newhan had career fWARs lower than their rookie seasons, meaning their WARs were negative for the rest of their careers. Ex-White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi posted a 3.3 fWAR as a rookie in 2005 and added just 3.3 more in three more seasons. Rich Amaral started at 2.5 but added only 1.6 more. Kenji Jojima added 0.8 to his rookie 2.8.
Chris Stewart (2.8 as a rookie in 2011, 9.1 overall) put together a 12-year career as a backup catcher. Nori Aoki (2.4 in 2012, 9.6 overall) hovered close to the role player/solid regular dividing line with fWARs of 2.2 and 1.9 in the second and third seasons of a six-year career.
But the only two who approached star level were Blake and Charles. They show it’s not impossible for Schwindel and/or Wisdom to have lasting success. But for late-starting careers, the Blake-Charles level of success is a special treat to be savored while you can.