By definition, the NL Rookie of the Year award is about a smaller sample size than the other awards. It just focuses on players in their first season in the big leagues.
Well, not really. It's just players who fit specific criteria to make it seem like this is their first season in the majors. However convoluted the requirements might be, we're dealing with a signficiantly smaller population for this award than the others. As such, this article may not be as extensive as the Cy Young piece. I had ideas of going through each team to select a rookie and then building a list from there.
What I realized, though, is that all rookies are not created equally. Some teams don't have one rookie that's worth talking about. Others have five or six, making it hard to narrow down. Instead of all that, I thought I'd throw together some more lists. The results might shock you. What got me was how young the guys on my ballot were.
The other thing that surprised me as I did a little background research here is how many of the former NL ROY winners went on to have successful careers. Sure, Chris Coghlan's injury means he'll have a ways to go to get back into form, but the only other questionable selection in the past decade was Jason Jennings, and he won 58 games in six years with Colorado. Scott Wiliamson in 1999 was sort of a bust, since he was never a star player. But, Williamson was a serviceable part of a team for years. Same with Todd Hollandsworth, who had a 12-year career, but was never as good as that first season in LA. Before him, you have to go back to Jerome Walton in 1989 to find a guy who didn't really pan out.
Since 1980, that's four guys who failed to become big-time players. We could nitpick the list a little more, sure, but almost every player on it went on to have a solid career. That's very different from my impression of the award. I always thought it was a crap shoot, that the player who wins isn't necessarily ticketed for stardom. Did that influence my picks? Let's find out...
My (Fictional) Ballot
1) Jason Heyward, RF, Atlanta Braves - There will be some debate on this pick around the blogosphere as the awards are announced. Some people will insist that Buster Posey deserves consideration here, but I just can't see it. Heyward's numbers don't jump off the page enough to sway everyone over, as he was third behind Mike Stanton and Ike Davis in home runs by a rookie with 18 and his batting average was a fairly pedestrian .277.
We don't just look at numbers like home runs and batting average, do we? No, we look at things like on-base percentage, which Heyward had a jaw-dropping .393 and a walk rate of 14.6 percent. That's right in line with his walk rate last year in the minors, so it wasn't a fluke. We can also look at his weighted On Base Average (wOBA), which at .376 was the 15th highest in the National League.
Let's not stop there, though. Let's look at his defense in right field, which was actually pretty good. Heyward made six errors (four fielding, two throwing) in just under 1,200 innings in right. He started one double play and had five outfield assists. Heyward had the third-lowest assist total of qualified right fielders in the NL and the lowest fielding percentage. Of course, we also have more advanced ways of looking at defense. Heyward had the third-highest UZR in the NL, even though he had the second-lowest arm rating. Heyward made the most of his range and that was reflected in his ratings. He wasn't a Gold Glover right fielder, but he was above-average and saved about 10 runs defensively for the Braves.
This award is supposed to look at position players and pitchers equally. Luckily, we have a stat like WAR to help do just that. If we knew nothing that I mentioned above, Heyward still led all NL rookies in WAR, both on Baseball Reference (4.4) and FanGraphs (4.9). For comparison, Hunter Pence has never posted a WAR higher than 4.1, according to FanGraphs. That's how good Heyward was as a 20-year old rookie and why he deserves this award.
2) Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants - If Posey had started the season in the majors as Heyward did, we might have had a horse race for this award. As it was, Posey just didn't have enough time in big leagues to catch Heyward's impact.
Don't mistake that for Posey being outperformed by Heyward. By all accounts, Posey was a beast. He only may have gotten 443 plate appearances, but he still posted a .200 isolated power average, a .305/.357/.505 slash line and a .368 wOBA, just a tad under Heyward's. His fWAR total of 3.9 was the second-highest of any rookie by a good margin.
Posey hit the same number of home runs as Heyward (18), but had less doubles. He also had less walks, but also had many less strikeouts. In short, Posey was a much better contact hitter than Heyward in their rookie seasons, but Heyward was more patient at the plate.
There is no question that Posey's bat is special, and why he's up for this award in the first place. He, along with Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff, turned a moribund Giants offense around and made it good enough to come back and win the NL West. The question Posey has to answer is about his defense.
There is a big jump in how Baseball Reference views Posey's WAR and how FanGraphs does. BBRef has him at 3.0 while FanGraphs has him at 3.9. That's almost an entire win difference between the two systems. As clack pointed out on Friday, this is because each site handles defense differently. FanGraphs calculated Posey's fielding section of WAR as 3.0 runs above average.
The interesting thing here is that they only have UZR data for him as a first baseman and not as a catcher, where he played most of his games. That's because they don't calculate UZR for catchers, since a catcher's defense isn't tied into how many balls are hit into his "zone." Instead, they rely on Defensive Runs Scored, which Posey ranks pretty highly on. He's got 4 DRS, which ties him with Humberto Quintero and three others for third in the major leagues. Posey has less innings than all but Q and Minnesota's Drew Butera. Still, that's a good sign for his defensive ability behind the plate, right?
Baseball Reference paints a different picture. They have him at a flat zero for defensive WAR added, giving him points only for positional scarcity. That's despite Posey ranking fourth in the National League in caught stealing percentage. So, basically, the only way BBRef has him as a decent fielder is that he plays a difficult position in an average way.
What's unclear is how much either calculation takes into account his defense at first base, which was below-average, according to UZR. Posey did play more games at catcher (75), but he got a significant number of games at first (30), and those should figure into his defensive value.
However it's calculated, the questions about Posey's defense aren't as quantifiable as the questions about Heyward's. What makes for good catcher defense? We've talked about that quite a bit with Jason Castro, and I'm not sure anyone has a great answer. Having not watched Posey through those 100-plus games, I don't feel qualified to weigh in on how he compares defensively behind the plate. What I do know is that these questions are enough to drop him from that top spot on my ballot, but were not sufficient for me to drop him anymore.
3) Ike Davis, 1B, New York Mets - It's odd. With all the talk about defense so far, I'm going to continue it in discussing a first baseman. That's not generally a position you think of as being a defensive asset, but it appears Davis was one for the Mets. What I'm also surprised about is that Davis hasn't been hyped more. Maybe it was that New York had a bad season or maybe I just didn't clue into it, but I would have expected a little more media attention for the rookie first baseman, since he's from the Big Apple and put up a very solid season.
How good was he? Well, he was almost as good with his bat as Posey and Heyward, but wasn't quite there. He walked more than Posey, but less than Heyward. He struck out more than both of them and didnt' finish with counting numbers that drew big attention either. His slash line was a decidedly pedestrian .264/.351/.440 and his wOBA of .345 was less than each.
Still, Davis had a fWAR of 3.3 and a bbWAR of 2.5, which made him the third-highest rookie on FanGraphs. The area that Davis seemed to excel in was his defense, though. FanGraphs has him as 9.2 runs above average and having saved 13 defensive runs, a higher total than either Heyward or Posey. That's from a first baseman, too.
The area that Davis seemed to excel at was preventing and playing bunts. He was plus-3 runs on bunts, according to FanGraphs and started 15 double plays. He was also very good at limiting errors. He had just nine errors in almost 1,350 tries. Errors can be misleading as a stat, but since the first baseman is involved in so many plays during the course of a game, that few is at least noteworthy. He's also got a plus-10 runs in the John Dewan's Plus-Minus system, according to Baseball Reference, which also shows how valuable he was at first.
That value, though, comes at a position that is easy to replace. Heck, the Astros were able to take a pretty terrible left fielder and put him at first, where he did an average job. So, Davis is hurt by playing well at a position where many players can excel. That shouldn't take away from his season, though, and he deserves to finish third here.
4) Jhoulys Chacin, RHP, Colorado Rockies - Ahh, the first surprise on the list. Chacin may not have pitched as much as the next guy on this list, but he did so very effectively. The 22-year old also had a losing record and didn't get to double-digit wins, which means he won't actually get real consideration for this award. But, he really, really should.
Just look at his strikeout rate. In 137 1/3 innings, he struck out 138. Starting 12 of his 21 games at Coors Field and pitching in three more at home, Chacin gave up eight of his 10 home runs. Sure, the humidor has lowered the Coors Field park factor to manageable levels, but it's still a great hitter's park. For a rookie to be that stingy with the long ball is almost as impressive as his 142 ERA+. His FIP and xFIP both bear out that his ERA number wasn't inordinately low, as his BABiP was just slightly lower than average at .294.
The only real downside to Chacin's resume were his walks. He had a BB/9 rate of 4.00 and did not get enough swings outside the strike zone (27.9 percent). Hitters waited for the pitch to be over the plate and Chacin was still able to get them out. That's also despite having a fastball with a negative run value (-3.3).
His best pitch was his slider, which he threw 14 percent of the time. It was a very effective pitch, however, ranking as a top 20 slider in the majors, right along side Zach Greinke, Mat Latos and Brandon Morrow. There could be some durability questions with Chacin down the road, as he had over a 30 inning jump from 2009 (though he threw roughly the same number of innings in 2008). Still, he put together a solid rookie season that deserves mention here.
5) Jaime Garcia, LHP, St. Louis Cardinals - Garcia and Chacin ran very, very close. Garcia obviously led the NL rookies in wins with 13 and had the first sub-3.00 ERA for an NL rookie since Roy Oswalt in 2001. If we cared a lick about ERA and wins, he'd be a no-doubt selection for this ballot (and pretty high at that).
We don't care about wins or ERA, though, and we don't care about the Cardinals. Much as I wanted to slight Garcia for that terrible team he plays for, I had to respect the season he put together. It's remarkably similar to Chacin's, once you get past the old-school statistics. Their FIPs and xFIPs were very similar. While Garcia had a lower strikeout rate, he also had a lower walk rate and home run rate.
Garcia is a ground ball pitcher. That's why he limits his home runs (0.50 HR/9 and 7.3 percent HR/FB) and why he doesn't strike many people out. Dave Duncan preached to him that he needed to pitch to contact, not strike guys out. Strikeouts are fascist anyways. Ground balls are more democratic.
Garcia actually stood out with his polish as well. He threw four pitches and all of them had positive run values. His cut fastball was his best pitch and he threw it about 20 percent of the time. He had a higher percentage of swings outside the strike zone than Chacin, but he also had a much higher strike zone contact percentage. That was by design, I assume.
Garcia rounds out the last of the rookies to post WARs over 3.0, according to FanGraphs. While he was slightly ahead of Chacin in that, I believe that was based on the extra seven starts he got over Chacin and not that he was more effective.
1) Mike Stanton, LF, Florida Marlins - Mark my words. There will be people who put Stanton at the top of their ROY ballots. He will finish in the top 5 and possibly in the top 3. He will not deserve it.
I don't want to take anything away from what he accomplished at such a young age or what he might do in the future. But, I cannot in good conscience look at his numbers and say, "This man is tangibly better than Jason Heyward or Buster Posey." It's just not true.
Why am I so sure? Why can't I get my nose out of my math book and just look at some of his mammoth home runs? This guy was born to be a baseball player and looks like a greek god on the field. I'm a crazy baseball nerd who never played the game, right?
Well, YOU don't think that. You read the site regularly and probably think the same was the rest of us do around here. So, you will be astonished at Stanton's strikeout rate of 34.3 percent. That's right, over 30! And the crazy thing is that's not far off from his minor league average. I don't care if he hit 20 homers in less than 400 plate appearances. He had a slash line of .259/.327/.509 despite a BABiP of .330. If you say that Chris Johnson's stats are BABiP-fueled (we'll get to him more in a minute), then what would Stanton's stats look like with a lower BABiP? Dave Kingman?
I will grant, at least, that Stanton has proved to be a better fielder in right than Heyward. He had 17 defensive runs scored, which was tied for the fifth-highest total in the majors. As a 20-year old rookie. Stanton did it much like Heyward did, with remarkable range. Stanton, however, also had a great arm to go with it, as his 10 outfield assists can attest. His UZR was remarkably similar to Heyward's, especially when you look at UZR/150.
The problem Stanton runs into is that his bat just doesn't have the kind of value as those other guys. He can hit for power all he wants, but until he consistently gets on base, he isn't going to be a star player. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't win you any awards.
2) Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs - Yeah, shortstops who start most of the season as a rookie should get attention on the ROY ballot. Playing as a 20-year old in the majors? Even better! Playing in a top 4 media market? Where do I sign up to go to his trophy presentation.
As Lee Corso says, "Not so fast, my friends."
There is a difference between playing shortstop and playing shortstop well. Castro gets credit for playing a tough defensive position, but there is no evidence yet that he played it particularly well. He caught a lot of flak when he came up about his string of error-filled games, but his real problem came in starting and turning double plays. While Castro's range was second-best in the National Leauge behind Brendan Ryan, he and Ronny Cedeno were the only two players to post negative run values on double plays.
His 1 Defensive Run Saved seems impressive when you look at just the qualified shortstops in the National League. In that, he has the third-highest total behind Troy Tulowitski and Brendan Ryan. But, if you look at all NL shortstops, you'll see that guys like Yunel Escobar, Clint Barmes, Jerry Hairston, Alex Gonzalez and Jimmy Rollins all had more. Heck, even Miguel Tejada had more DRS than Castro and that's in half the innings at short that Castro played.
So, while Castro's season at the plate was decent (.300/.347/.408), he didn't show enough power or walk enough to make up for his lack of defensive skill. Will he get better? Absolutely. He's just a kid. A slightly below average shortstop with both the bat and the glove can be tolerated, since his defensive position still gives him a ton of value. Even with negative totals for batting and fielding, Castro posted a WAR of 1.9. He had a good season, but it wasn't one of the best in the National League.
3) Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Washington Nationals - Oh, what could have been. Strasburg was on his way to cinching this award back in July, before he was shut down for Tommy John surgery. He got a lot of hype and you might think he didn't do enough to justify that.
I know I did. I was wrong. Sure, he only started 12 games and pitched in 68 innings at the major league level. Strasburg was dominant in those innings. He struck out 12.18 batters per nine innings. To put that into perspective, only four National League pitchers have ever struck out that many batters in a season. Randy Johnson did it three times from 1999 through 2001 and Kerry Wood did it in 1998. That's it. That's the list. Strasburg was cruising in on that elite group before he got hurt.
In case you think that was his only claim to fame, his ERA was 2.91, his FIP was 2.08 and his xFIP was 2.15. That's right, his ERA was sub-3.00 and both his FIP and xFIP were nearly a run below that. Strasburg was just good, man. His walk rate was 2.25 and his BABiP was a slightly unlucky .338. Almost 10 percent of the fly balls he gave up went for home runs, despite a HR/9 rate of 0.66.
Strasburg averaged 97.3 miles per hour on his fastball and all three of his pitches had positive run values. Unlike Garcia, all of Strasburg's pitches had significant run values higher than zero. He was able to throw 60 percent of his first pitches for strikes and got a swinging-strike percentage of 12.5. That would have led the NL, had Strasburg qualified.
The most amazing thing about his season? In those 68 innings, he managed to accumulate a WAR of 2.6, according to FanGraphs. Baseball Reference had him at 1.6, but either way, he had a higher WAR total than Starlin Castro and he only made 12 starts. I'm kind of bummed now. I doubt he's able to regain that kind of excellence when he comes back from his injury. Even at 3/4 of that player, he's still an ace for the Washington Nationals and will undoubtedly get some votes for this award.
4) Chris Johnson, 3B, Houston Astros - I'm sure Subber will have more to say about Johnson later today. He was very good for Houston and possibly the best rookie on the team. But, his contributions paled to the rest of the players on this list by objective measures. His WAR, both on FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, simply wasn't as high as anyone else on this list. I love me some Chris Johnson, but I guess I'm not quite enough of a homer to put him on my ballot. Sorry, guys.
5) Mike Leake, RHP, Cincinnati Reds - Is it truly surprising that a fifth starter was left off this list? Leake pitched a lot of innings for the NL Central champs, though he didn't pitch any in September and wasn't very good in August. In fact, Leake wasn't very good this season, period.
The fact that he made the jump straight to the majors is impressive. Forgive me if I expect my rookies to, you know, actually be good instead of just an answer to a trivia question. There have probably been some seasons where Leake could have won this award based solely on who he was and the kind of jump he made. Never mind that his strikeout rate below 6.00 is wretched or that he walked too many batters and gave up too many home runs to sustain a low ERA. His numbers couldn't even sustain his 4.23 ERA, since his FIP was 4.68. His xFIP is closer to his real ERA, simply because it assumes his home run rate must fall.
I'm not so sure it will, though. Leake simply doesn't appear to have the stuff to be anything but a back-of-the-rotation starter. His fastball was his only pitch with a positive run value and even then, when you normalize per 100 pitches, that value drops almost to zero.
I don't dislike the Reds as much as the Cardinals, but I have no love for them. In analyzing Leake, though, I don't need animosity to find his flaws. They are right there for everyone to see. I only included him here because many people were claiming Leake as top contender for this award back at mid-season. How quickly things can change.
Pitchers Left Off
1) Travis Wood, LHP, Cincinnat Reds - Now, here's the Cincy pitcher who really deserves consideration for this award. Unfortunately, he just didn't have enough innings. Wood got by on a low BABiP and a depressed home run rate. His xFIP is quite high in relation both to his ERA and FIP, which suggests he shouldn't be a serious contender for this award in the first place. He put up good numbers in 17 starts and started what could be a nice career. I will be very interested to see if he or Leake get more votes on this ballot.
2) Madison Bumgarner, LHP, San Francisco Giants - I thought long and hard about putting Bumgarner on this ballot. In the end, he just didn't do as much as Chacin or Garcia. He still had an excellent season. After pitching 10 innings last season, the lefty started 18 games this season, posting a 3.00 ERA with 86 strikeouts and 26 walks in 111 innings. His numbers were strikingly similar to Matt Cain's, as their strikeout rate, walk rate, ERA, FIP and xFIP were all within points of each other. The only difference was in batting average allowed and BABiP. Looking at those stats, it's not wonder Bumgarner got the start last night in the National League Division Series.
Hitters Left Off
1) Jon Jay, OF, St. Louis Cardinals - The Chief Justice put together a nice season. His slash line of .300/.346/.422 was very similar to Starlin Castro's, without the attendant bump for defensive position. Jay brought a much-needed versatility to the Cardinals bench, but his success at the plate was largely a product of his high BABiP. If that falls below the .350 he ended the season on, he probably will not hit .300 in the future. He also struck out a little too much without walking enough to play a corner outfield spot, which leaves him as a viable option in center if Rasmus gets traded.
2) Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates - The big third baseman can mash. Much like Mike Stanton, he just can't get on base or hit for a high enough average yet to be higher on this list. Alvarez hit 16 home runs and 38 extra-base hits in 386 plate appearances. He wasn't very good at third base, though, which hurts his WAR total on both sites. He's exactly what the Pirates have been lacking since Jason Bay left, a big slugger to anchor the middle of that lineup. If he can raise his batting average or get on base at rates closer to his minor league track record, Alvarez could be a valuable player.
Guy Too Old To Be A Rookie, But He Is Anyways
1) Hisanori Takahashi, LHP, New York Mets - At 35, Takahashi is waaay too old to be on this list. He is, technically, a rookie and should get at least a paragraph on his season. The Japanese import pitched in 53 games for New York, starting 12 of them. His ERA and FIP were right in line with each other and he posted a surprisingly high K/9 rate. I don't really have the energy to look it up, but I'm sure it's been a little while since a pitcher came close to winning 10 games and saving 10 games in the same season, but that's exactly what Takahashi almost did. For a team that spent money like it was going out of style, Takahashi is a nice, cost-effective addition.
1) Jonny Venters, LHP, Atlanta Braves - Relievers don't have much of a shot at this award, but I wanted to recognize a few rookies who stood out. Venters did for pretty interesting reasons. As a left-handed reliever, you assume he would be a situational pitcher at first. But, it seems that Venters was just used whenever. A 10.01 K/9 rate might do that. Venters was very lucky this season, allowing just 0.11 HR/9 and a .298 BABiP. Only 2.9 percent of the fly balls he gave up were home runs, so his numbers should spike up some next season. For this one, there weren't many relievers better.
2) Drew Storen, RHP, Washington Nationals - Another guy to jump to the big leagues soon after he was drafted, Storen was more polished than outstanding. His K/9 rate was decent and his walk rate fairly low. He didn't give up many home runs and his BABIP was right where it should be. In short, Storen was a slightly above-average reliever who was prone to giving up fly balls. That probably can't continue if he hopes to pitch a while in the majors, but for now, he was one of the best rookie relievers.
3) John Axford, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers - A 27-year old rookie seems odd in this column full of 20- and 21-year olds. But, there is no denying Axford's effectiveness. The big righthander stepped in when Trevor Hoffman struggled and saved 24 games for Milwaukee. He also struck out 11.19 per nine innings and had an FIP of 2.13. If nothing else, the Brewers added a guy who can close for the next four years while being relatively cheap. Those kind of players aren't easy to find.