What If: Could Jose Altuve have won a Rookie of the Year award?

Justin K. Aller

Let's explore a what if scenario about Jose Altuve's rookie season and his Similarity Score brethren.

Don't ask me why, but Saturday night, I started poking around statistical sites instead of, you know, doing what normal people might do on a Saturday night. What is that anyways? Go to discotheques?

At any rate, my curiosity was drawn to the best hitter in Houston's lineup these days, Jose Altuve. After browsing through his hitting stats so far to see if he's made any progress or breakthroughs (short answer: not really, except for his outstanding line drive rate).

In the course of that meander, I checked out Altuve's five best Similarity Score players courtesy of Baseball Reference through their Age 22 seasons. If you're not familiar, Similarity Score takes a look at a player's career to that point and tries to assign a value to how similar they are. I believe 1,000 is perfect and it goes down from there.

Altuve's top comp right now is Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Some of the others in his top 5 are Steve Sax and Pete Rose, along with a couple players from the turn of the century, deadball era.

It's the Sax and Carew comps that got me thinking about a fascinating What If. Sax, Rose and Carew are all notable because they won Rookie of the Year awards. Altuve did not.

This fascinates me.

Because he got called up in the middle of the 2011 season, Altuve didn't play enough or do well enough to garner votes for his true rookie season. By 2012, when he broke out and earned his first All-Star appearance, Altuve wasn't a rookie any longer and thus, was ineligible.

What if he had played more? What if he hadn't debuted until 2012? Was there any way that Altuve could have won Rookie of the Year himself, just like his Similarity brethren?

To answer this, I first looked at Altuve's line itself. His batting line in his rookie season was unimpressive at .276/.297/.357 with two home runs and seven steals. That's not winning many awards, is it?

However, in 2012, Altuve broke out big-time, hitting over .300 for much of the season before tailing off at the end. What if he had played more than 57 games in 2011? Would his line have been good enough to make an impression?

So, using FanGraphs' Game Logs, I took the first 147 games of his career, covering 625 plate appearances and stitched them together. That assumes Altuve had come up at a reasonable time in his rookie season of 2011 and played like a starter. How would he have done?

More impressive than in his initial stint. Altuve's batting line moves up to .283/.318/.389 with a weighted On-Base Average of .311 and a weighted Runs Created+ of 100. That means Altuve, according to wRC+, was pretty much league average through is first 147 games. Not bad for a 20-21-year old.

In the counting stats, Altuve would have finished with 33 doubles, 167 hits, five triples, seven homers, 78 runs scored, 39 RBIs and 23 steals.

Now that we have Altuve's base line for this fictional "rookie season," how does he compare to his National League compatriots? Could he have won the award with that line?

Let's focus on just the hitters, because it's easy to compare them to Altuve in a more objective way (though awards voting is typically much more subjective). We're going to look at thiree stats: wOBA, wRC+ and plate appearances. The four hitters garnering votes in 2011 for the National League were Freddie Freeman, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Darwin Barney. Here's their numbers:

wOBA wRC+ PA
Freeman 0.348 119 635
Ramos 0.335 111 435
Espinosa 0.324 103 658
Barney 0.294 80 571

No luck there. Altuve had better numbers than Barney, so he might have at least gotten votes. His numbers were also on bar with Espinosa and both played up the middle. However, it seems unlikely that Altuve could have beaten out either Ramos or Freeman for votes.

Okay, so how about if he had been in the American League that year? Well, here's what the 2011 ballot looked like for hitters: Eric Hosmer, Mark Trumbo, Dustin Ackley and Desmond Jennings.

wOBA wRC+ PA
Hosmer 0.343 114 563
Trumbo 0.328 108 573
Ackley 0.337 117 376
Jennings 0.355 127 287

No luck there, either. Altuve would have been better than Jennings and Ackley just in playing time, but not in effectiveness. Trumbo's numbers here are just a smidge better than Altuves, but he also had the home runs to carry the day. Nope, it looks like Altuve would have been just the third-best hitter on this ballot, too.

The picture gets even murkier when you switch to 2012. No way Altuve beats out Bryce Harper in the NL or Mike Trout in the AL. He probably doesn't even beat out Yoenis Cespedes, Yu Darvish or Jarrod Parker in the AL.

He might have had a shot to finish second behind Harper in the NL, given that the second and third finishers were Wade Miley and Todd Frazier.

No matter how we slice it, it doesn't look like Altuve would have had much of a chance to win either league in either year. I guess he'll have to settle for having a career like Sax, Carew and Rose.

That is, if DDJ doesn't supplant him first...

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