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November 12, 2007

Prospectus Today

Rookies of the Year

by Joe Sheehan

Monday afternoon, the 2007 Rookies of the Year were announced. The AL's winner wasn't a big surprise, as Boston's Dustin Pedroia picked up 24 of 28 first-place votes, was the only player named on every ballot, and won in a landslide. Pedroia led AL rookie hitters in Value Over Replacement Player by a wide margin (more than than ten runs clear of the Rays' Brendan Harris), was second among rookies in OBP, and fourth in SLG (minimum 300 PA). He was slightly above average defensively at second base as well. He was a reasonable winner in what wasn't a big year for AL rookies.

Pedroia winning dominates the story, but the down-ballot results are more interesting. Delmon Young's out-tastic performance as the Rays' everyday right fielder earned him three first-place votes and a second-place finish in the race. Young wasn't the second-best anything in the AL this year-well, he did lead the circuit in outs made-and was a below-average player overall. The writers who voted for him were simply using the wrong tools, such as batting average and RBI, to measure performance.

Worse than that error is the complete absence of the player who led AL rookies in VORP from every single ballot. The Orioles' Jeremy Guthrie (38.2) was slightly better than the Red Sox' Daisuke Matsuzaka (37.0) and the Royals' Brian Bannister (34.9). Matsuzaka had a better strikeout rate in more innings than the other two, and was less supported by his defense. His high ERA (4.40) and poor stretch drive hurt him in the voting, but he was essentially as valuable as any rookie in the league.

The comparison of Guthrie to Bannister, however, is a joke. Guthrie had better marks in ERA, RA, VORP, and Support-Neutral numbers than Bannister did, and in more innings than Bannister threw. He had a much better strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Stuff score. The only things Bannister did better than Guthrie were not allow home runs and get credited with wins. The difference in the two pitchers' records (12-9 for Bannister, 7-5 for Guthrie) is the difference in their vote totals, and those figures had nothing to do with how well they pitched. That Bannister finished third while Guthrie was ignored is a black mark against the voting pool. It's 2007; everyone should be able to look past the traditional stats and figure out which player is better than the other.

In the NL balloting, Ryan Braun barely edged Troy Tulowitzki, 128-126, to pick up the hardware. This was a very tough call, and it's not clear whether the closeness of the vote reflects the difference in the performance of each player's team, a desire by the voters to show they're not cowed by big hitting numbers, or an actual understanding of the defensive difference between the two.

That difference was astronomical, probably enough to overcome Braun's staggering edge at the plate. In about two-thirds of a season-remember, the Brewers didn't call Braun up until May 24-he was worth 50 runs above a replacement-level hitter. Tulowitzki, who played from Opening Day, was worth 30. Defensively, however, Braun was wretched, costing the Brewers 15 runs as compared to a replacement-level third baseman. Tulowitzki, meanwhile, was a terrific defensive shortstop, saving the Rockies 46 runs above replacement. When you translate those performances to wins, you find that Braun was worth 3.9 wins above replacement (WARP), and Tulowitzki a whopping 8.5 WARP.

This isn't just the difference between the two in one system. John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions estimates the difference between the two defensively at more than 50 runs, and the gap between them will be comparable whether you use Ultimate Zone Rating or Probabilistic Model of Range or any of the play-by-play systems out there that evaluate defensive performance. Ryan Braun was an amazing hitter in 2007, and in most seasons would have deserved the Rookie of the Year Award. This year, however, he was up against arguably the best defensive player in the league, someone who's also a good hitter in his own right. Troy Tulowitzki wasn't robbed by much, but he was robbed.

Again, looking down-ballot can cause the stomach to turn a bit. Kyle Kendrick, who like Bannister benefited from his teammates more than the average bear, got a second-place vote-yes, someone out there thinks Kyle Kendrick was better than Ryan Braun-and finished fifth. Tim Lincecum did basically everything better than Kendrick except pick his teammates (even with twice the walk rate, Lincecum had a better K/BB than Kendrick), and got no votes. This probably bodes ill for Lincecum, who may have a few 8-14, 3.17 years ahead of him as the Giants retain only the older players who can't hit.

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

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