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November 11, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies

Superstars, All-Stars and Busts

by Nate Silver

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A couple of people have asked me what I think about the selection of Jason Bay, rather than Khalil Greene, as the National League Rookie of the Year. Greene was probably the better selection from a sabermetric standpoint. He out-VORPped Bay, 37.8 to 32.3, and out-WARPed him 6.0 to 5.1. There are legitimate gripes that the writers did not take the offense-deadening effects of PETCO Park sufficiently into account, and might have neglected Greene's strong finish.

Nevertheless, the two candidates were fairly close. Bay missed more playing time than Greene did, which accounted for some of the difference in VORP. He probably has more star potential than Greene does, though we'll see what PECOTA has to say in a month or two; slow middle infielders like Greene tend not to age very well. The writers have certainly made bigger mistakes, and at the very least, it's hard to chalk this particular one up to some sort of newsprint-fueled hubris; Internet Baseball Awards participants also preferred Bay by a small margin.

The more interesting comparison isn't between Bay and Greene, but between Bay and Bob Hamelin. Both are slow power hitters who reached the big leagues relatively late. Bay hit 24 doubles and 26 homers in his rookie year; Hamelin hit 25 doubles and 24 homers, albeit in a strike-shortened debut. Bay hit .282 on the season. Hamelin also hit .282. Even their sabermetric stats are similar; Hamelin's 5.4 WARP3 score is just a hair away from Bay's 5.1. Does being a Rookie of the Year winner increase a player's chance of success in the future, or does it jinx him?

The Rookie of the Year award has been given out 116 times, from its inception in 1947 through today, including split ballots in 1976 (NL) and 1979 (AL, a memorable dead heat between Alfredo Griffin and John Castino). I went through each winner, excluding Bay and Bobby Crosby, and placed them into one of five broad categories:

  • Superstar (18). The player had a Hall-of-Fame caliber career, and was one of the very best players at his position for a long period of time. He had at least a couple of seasons in which he was one of the best players in his entire league.

  • All-Star (26). The player was one of the very best players at his position for a short period of time, and had a career of reasonable length, or was significantly better than average at his position for a long period of time. He made several All-Star teams.

  • Regular (45). The player was a major league regular for a reasonable period of time, and performed at an average or slightly-above-average level relative to his position. (Exceptions may be made for players such as Sam Jethroe and Kazuhiro Sasaki, who were in their 30s when they won the ROY.)

  • Fringe (15). The player was better than replacement level, but was not a starter for the bulk of his major-league career.

  • Bust (10). The player did not make a substantial contribution in the major leagues subsequent to his rookie season.

For the most part, these categories work out pretty precisely, but as with any taxonomic system, there are judgment calls at the margins. Bob Allison and David Justice had pretty similar career profiles. Justice finished with 305 home runs, Allison 256, but Allison played in an era in which dingers were harder to come by. Each made three All-Star teams. They both had strong plate discipline and unremarkable batting averages. Both were injury-prone. But Justice played just a little bit longer than Allison, and was just a little bit better on defense, so I classified him as an All-Star and Allison as a Regular. The judgments are even murkier when it comes to players who are still active. I classified Derek Jeter as a Superstar but Nomar Garciaparra as an All-Star. Jeter is just a few points ahead of Nomar's pace in career WARP, but I expect him to age a lot better.

All told, the breakdown between stars and scrubs works out thusly:

People tend to remember the Hamelins and the Mark Fidryches and the Pat Listaches, but in truth they are very rare, occurring less than 10% of the time. Another 13% of players fall into the purgatory known in the Netherlands as Hollandsworthland. The rest of the Rookie of the Year winners can be divided about evenly between major league regulars (39%) and All-Stars/Superstars (39%). Success, whether moderate or better, is the rule here.

None of which tells us anything in particular about Bay or Crosby. Of course, we have more information to go on than the mere fact that they won the ROY award. Albert Pujols did not have the same chance as Jerome Walton of crashing and burning; Pujols debuted at 21 and immediately became an MVP candidate, whereas Walton debuted at 23 and was barely better than league average. Bay and Crosby, for their part, had rookie campaigns that were about average in so far as ROY seasons go, and they are most likely headed for Regular status, although I think PECOTA will see breakout potential in both. (Bay, in spite of the parallels I described earlier, had a notably better minor-league track record than Hamelin did. He also does not appear to have eaten Cecil Fielder).

The truth is, players like Hamelin serve an important purpose in baseball, which is to allow managers to scare the bejeezus out of their newly anointed young star. It's pretty easy to envision Jack McKeon walking out to the mound at some point during the past season, whispering "Hamelin" in Dontrelle Willis's ear, and walking quietly back to the dugout to spit sunflower seeds, fully expecting his pitcher to strike out the side. We've now gone ten full seasons without a true Rookie of the Year bust, and can only imagine what might have been next year if Calvin Pickering hadn't exhausted his eligibility.

--

Rookies of the Year were placed in categories as follows:

  • Superstars (18): Ichiro Suzuki (2001 AL), Albert Pujols (2001 NL), Derek Jeter (1996 NL), Mike Piazza (1993 NL), Jeff Bagwell (1991 NL), Mark McGwire (1987 NL), Cal Ripken (1982 AL), Eddie Murray (1977 AL), Carlton Fisk (1972 AL), Johnny Bench (1968 NL), Rod Carew (1967 AL), Tom Seaver (1967 NL), Pete Rose (1963 NL), Billy Williams (1961 NL), Willie McCovey (1959 NL), Frank Robinson (1956 NL), Willie Mays (1951 NL), Jackie Robinson (1947).

  • All-Stars (26): Carlos Beltran (1999 AL), Kerry Wood (1998 NL), Nomar Garciaparra (1997 AL), Scott Rolen (1997 NL), Tim Salmon (1993 AL), Chuck Knoblauch (1991 AL), David Justice (1990 NL), Benito Santiago (1987 NL), Jose Canseco (1986 AL), Dwight Gooden (1984 NL), Darryl Strawberry (1983 NL), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 NL), Lou Whitaker (1978 AL), Andre Dawson (1977 NL), Fred Lynn (1975 AL), Thurman Munson (1970 AL), Ted Simmons (1969 NL), Tony Oliva (1964 AL), Richie Allen (1964 NL), Frank Howard (1960 NL), Orlando Cepeda (1958 NL), Luis Aparicio (1956 AL), Harvey Kuenn (1953 AL), Gil McDougald (1951 AL), Don Newcombe (1949 NL), Alvin Dark (1948).

  • Regulars (45): Dontrelle Willis (2003 NL), Eric Hinske (2002 AL), Jason Jennings (2002 NL), Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000 AL), Rafael Furcal (2000 NL), Scott Williamson (1999 NL), Hideo Nomo (1995 NL), Raul Mondesi (1994 NL), Eric Karros (1992 NL), Sandy Alomar, Jr. (1990 AL), Gregg Olson (1989 AL), Walt Weiss (1988 AL), Chris Sabo (1988 NL), Todd Worrell (1986 NL), Ozzie Guillen (1985 AL), Vince Coleman (1985 NL), Alvin Davis (1984 AL), Steve Sax (1982 NL), Dave Righetti (1981 AL), Alfredo Griffin (1979 AL), Rick Sutcliffe (1979 NL), Bob Horner (1978 NL), Pat Zachary (1976 NL), John Montefusco (1975 NL), Mike Hargrove (1974 AL), Al Bumbry (1973 AL), Bake McBride (1973 NL), Jon Matlack (1972 NL), Chris Chambliss (1971 AL), Lou Piniella (1969 AL), Stan Bahnsen (1968 AL), Tommie Agee (1966 AL), Tommy Helms (1966 NL), Gary Peters (1963 AL), Tom Tresh (1962 AL), Ron Hansen (1960 AL), Bob Allison (1959 AL), Tony Kubek (1957 AL), Jack Sanford (1957 NL), Bill Virdon (1955 NL), Wally Moon (1954 NL), Jim Gilliam (1953 NL), Sam Jethroe (1950 NL), Roy Sievers (1949 AL).

  • Fringe (15): Angel Berroa (2003 AL), Ben Grieve (1998 AL), Todd Hollandsworth (1996 NL), Marty Cordova (1995 AL), Ron Kittle (1983 AL), Steve Howe (1980 NL), John Castino (1979 AL), Earl Williams (1971 NL), Carl Morton (1970 NL), Curt Blefary (1965 AL), Jim Lefebvre (1965 NL), Albie Pearson (1958 AL), Herb Score (1955 AL), Bob Grim (1954 AL), Walt Dropo (1950 AL).

  • Busts (10): Bob Hamelin (1994 AL), Pat Listach (1992 AL), Jerome Walton (1989 NL), Joe Charboneau (1980 AL), Mark Fidrych (1976 AL), Butch Metzger (1976 NL), Ken Hubbs (1962 NL), Don Schwall (1961 AL), Harry Byrd (1952 AL), Joe Black (1952 NL).
Just a couple of not-so-quick notes on these groups:

  • Yes, I'm ready to classify Ichiro Suzuki as a Superstar. He's averaging better than nine wins above replacement thus far in his career, which is consistent with the level of somebody like Rod Carew or Billy Williams. If suppose that if you wanted to create a further distinction between Superstars and Inner Circlers, Ichiro would belong on the former list, but unless he suffers from some precipitous decline or unexpected bout of homesickness, he certainly deserves a place alongside other Hall-of-Fame caliber players.

  • Two players that I've come to believe are a little bit underrated are Benito Santiago and Alvin Dark. Santiago has never been an MVP type of player, but he's made the All-Star team five times, and has aged remarkably well for a catcher. Dark's career got off to a little bit of a late start--he was 26 when he won the ROY award--but he strung together a series of five Jeff Kent seasons in the early fifties, and I think that renders him better than Regular status. Gil McDougald, who is the other name who might surprise some people on the All-Star list, had a career pretty similar to Dark's.

  • Scott Rolen rarely gets talked about as a future Hall of Fame candidate, but he's accumulated 75 WARP through age 29, versus Brooks Robinson's 59.5. Brooksie aged pretty well, whereas Rolen's injury history suggests that he might not, but Rolen is one of the more underrated players of our time, and I was awfully close to putting him on the Superstar list.

  • One ironic thing is that the Busts are generally far better known than the Fringe players. Does Mark Fidrych belong on the Bust list? My criterion is that a Bust is a player who doesn't contribute anything after his rookie season--by definition, any Rookie of the Year will have contributed something during his rookie season. Fidrych made just 27 starts in the big leagues after his rookie year, and won just 10 of those. Fidrych was a Bust.

  • Speaking of busts, you think the AL voters went wrong all these years ago by tabbing Joe Charboneau for the 1980 award? The number two and three finishers on that ballot were Dave Stapleton and Doug Corbett. This could lead to some HI-larious jokes about our most recent election that I'm not going to make, although there are some interesting parallels between Stapleton and Ralph Nader.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

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