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November 16, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Rookie Spoilers

by Jim Baker

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That collective groan you heard yesterday emanated from all the sportswriters in the land as they contemplated an early end to the bubbling hot stove spring that the Alex Rodriguez free agency represented. Seeing him get his situation situated by Thanksgiving is not what baseball wordsmiths had in mind when he parted ways with the Yankees prior to Game Four of the World Series. That he returned from whence he came makes it that much more anticlimactic. Now we'll all have to find something else to talk about.

Like the National League Rookie of the Year Award, for instance. As a follow-up to last week's effort, I'm returning to that topic today to give you the answers to the trivia quiz I administered. It was a brutal one--the kind where you should be proud of yourself if you got three out of the 14 right. BP reader Gary Moore did more than that, and is our champion. I asked you to name the player who got the sole vote that prevented the Rookie of the Year's choice from being unanimous on the 13 occasions that has occurred. As a bonus, I asked you to name the one player who received a split vote with the eventual winner. These are the answers, along with an examination of just how out there the solo vote was at the time and how it stood the test of time.

2004: Bobby Crosby, Oakland A's
Depriver: Shingo Takatsu, Chicago White Sox
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? In terms of WARP3, yes. The rookie leaders were Crosby (6.7), Zack Greinke (6.1), and Takatsu (6.0).
How does it look in hindsight? Very bad. I guess the lesson here is not to vote for 36-year-old rookies, as Takatsu barely lasted another season in the bigs. A vote for any of the other eight men who received lower places (Daniel Cabrera, Greinke, Alexis Rios, David DeJesus, Ross Gload, John Buck, David Bush, or Nate Robertson) would look better now, at least in terms of how much they've produced since 2004. This isn't to say Crosby's career is working out especially well. While he may have had the best rookie year in 2004, Alex Rios is looking like the Most Likely to Succeed among the group at this juncture.

2001: Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners
Depriver: C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland Indians
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? No. WARP3 count in Ichiro's favor: 10.0 to 6.0. It could have been 15.0 to 6.0 and it wouldn't have mattered to Chris Assenheimer of the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram, the sole Sabathia supporter: "I took a lot of heat for it. But there were also a lot of people who agreed with it," Assenheimer told John Donovan of SI.com in 2003, while admitting that Ichiro had the better season. "When I voted for Sabathia--even before, when Ichiro was having a great season--people were saying, 'This guy's not a rookie.'"
How does it look in hindsight? Ichiro has been demonstrably more valuable in every season since then, Sabathia's 2007 Cy Young Award notwithstanding.

1991: Jeff Bagwell, Houston Astros
Depriver: Orlando Merced, Pittsburgh Pirates
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? No. Merced was a first baseman who didn't even slug .400.
How does it look in hindsight? As misguided as this was at the time, it looks much worse now. To add paint to the illustration, Merced finished his career spelling Bagwell in Houston.

1990: David Justice, Atlanta Braves
Depriver: Delino DeShields, Montreal Expos
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? Yes, at least by our metrics. DeShields had a WARP3 of 6.4 to Justice's 4.5. Justice showed more power, while DeShields stole more bases (42 to 11), and played a more important defensive position (second base).
How does it look in hindsight? In the long run, the majority got it right. Justice improved while DeShields never really outdid his rookie showing. Justice won the career WARP3 war, 73.6 to 54.0.

1986: Todd Worrell, St. Louis Cardinals
Depriver: Kevin Mitchell, New York Mets
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? If the vote was based on versatility, then yes, as Mitchell played every position but pitcher, catcher, and second base, while Worrell only relieved. Otherwise, probably not. Mitchell actually finished third in the voting behind second baseman Robbie Thompson of San Francisco, who received no first-place votes.
How does it look in hindsight? Worrell never got much better, while Mitchell went on to hit his peak three years later with the Giants before training issues weighed him down.

1984: Dwight Gooden, New York Mets
Depriver: Juan Samuel, Philadelphia Phillies
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? Probably not. Gooden was 19 and terrified the league, while Samuel was 23 and couldn't field worth a lick.
How does it look in hindsight? As a predictive tool, the Samuel vote looks a little better in that he went on to have three or four better seasons than his rookie year, while Gooden only had one (his incredible 1985). Both fell apart early, though, which is more to be expected from a pitcher. Gooden ended up with more career value (81.5 to 53.4 in accumulated WARP3).

1975: Fred Lynn, Boston Red Sox
Depriver: Jim Rice, Boston Red Sox
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? Lynn hit for higher average, got on base more, and showed more power while playing a more demanding defensive position (and playing it very well). Without even getting into modern metrics (Lynn's WARP3 is twice as high as Rice's), there is nothing in their performances that suggests Rice was the equal of Lynn that year. Lynn was, after all, the first rookie to win the Most Valuable Player Award. It should be noted, though, that it was hard to mention one without the other in 1975. As Rob Neyer noted in his Big Book of Lineups, "It was George Blankert of the Quincy Patriot Ledger (who) split his vote between Lynn and his teammate Jim Rice….Lynn and Rice were teammates and friends, so giving Rice half of a Rookie of the Year vote was 'nice.' But it didn't make much sense."
How does it look in hindsight? Oddly enough, while it was not an accurate assessment of events at the time, as a predictive tool, it may be the most prescient award vote ever, in that their careers are finished in a dead heat, at least in terms of WARP3. The final tally was extremely close, with Rice at 83.2 and Lynn slightly better at 83.5. While it seemed like they were going to play side-by-side all the way to Cooperstown, it didn't work out like that. Between them, they really only had four seasons that lived up to what was expected: Lynn in 1975 and 1979, and Rice in 1978 and 1986.

1970: Thurman Munson, New York Yankees
Depriver: Roy Foster, Cleveland Indians
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? Yes, in that Foster out-homered Munson 23 to six. No, in that Munson's WARP3 was twice as high (7.6 to 3.7). Also, that The Sporting News had Foster as its Rookie of the Year in 1970.
How does it look in hindsight? Foster got injured and his play went downhill; he was done in two years. (He was, however, traded away from and back to the Indians between the end of the 1971 and beginning of the 1972 seasons.) Munson became a perennial All-Star and won the MVP award in 1976.

1967: Rod Carew, Minnesota Twins
Depriver: Reggie Smith, Boston Red Sox
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? I wouldn't call it a stupid vote, because Smith was obviously a good player, but I wouldn't want to defend it in a court of law; Carew's .292/.341/.409 trumped Smith's .246/.315/.389. Thinking in the context of the times, Smith had more home runs (15-8) and RBI (61-51). He also appeared to be the better basestealer, nabbing 16 out of 22 while Carew was caught on nine of his 14 attempts. Smith's Red Sox also beat out Carew's Twins for the pennant, and some voters like that sort of thing.
How does it look in hindsight? Carew made the Hall of Fame, of course, and Smith didn't, but he had a very, very nice career which included seven trips to the All-Star Game.

1964: Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins
Depriver: Wally Bunker, Baltimore Orioles
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? It's hard to overlook .323/.359/.557, although Bunker was only 19 when he went 19-5 for the O's.
How does it look in hindsight? Anytime you pick a pitcher over a hitter your pick has a chance of looking most unprescient. Although Oliva's career was plagued by knee miseries, Bunker's arm did not respond well to the early heavy use, and he barely made it out of the '60s.

1962: Ken Hubbs, Chicago Cubs
Depriver: Donn Clendenon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? Not really, in that Clendenon played in only half of the Pirates' games and only came to the plate some 250 times, while Hubbs missed only two games. He was clearly a better hitter than Hubbs, though. There was also a great deal of difference in their ages, with Hubbs being six-plus years younger.
How does it look in hindsight? It's impossible to say, really, as Hubbs played only one more season before being killed in a plane crash. Clendenon had his moments, but only six season as a regular.

1957: Tony Kubek, New York Yankees
Depriver: Frank Malzone, Boston Red Sox
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? Yes, Malzone had a much better WARP3 than Kubek, 6.2 to 3.2, not that anybody knew that at the time, but the indicators were there for the savvy voter. However, as with Hubbs and Clendenon, there was a big difference in their ages, with Kubek being five-plus years younger.
How does it look in hindsight? Both became mainstays of their clubs but had relatively short careers. Malzone finished with slightly more career value.

1953: Harvey Kuenn, Detroit Tigers
Depriver: Tom Umphlett, Boston Red Sox
Was the iconoclastic vote reasonable at the time? They were both singles hitters, only Kuenn hit a lot more of them--209 to 140. Retrofitting their numbers, Kuenn had a WARP3 of 3.5, while Umphlett was at 2.5.
How does it look in hindsight? Not good, considering that Umphlett immediately stopped hitting and was out of the majors within two years of the vote. After his rookie year, the Red Sox flipped him along with the troublesome Mickey McDermott for Jackie Jensen. He then hit .219 and .217 and posted negative WARP3s in both years. Kuenn, meanwhile, made the All-Star team in eight different seasons and accumulated 2,092 hits. His rookie line of .308/.356/.386 was pretty close to his career line of .303/.357/.408. It would be interesting to know which player's rookie year best approximated the rest of his career.

This brings us back to Monday's award announcement in which Ryan Braun bested Troy Tulowitzki by two points. Not that it's supposed to be a function of the institution, but it will be interesting to see how the RotY vote serves as a predicting tool in the years to come. At this very moment, Braun is looking like Albert Pujols II with the bat, while Tulowitzki appears to be someone who can dominate his position defensively like one of the greats. A lot can happen, of course, and both will probably experience position changes along the way, and award-winner Braun much sooner than runner-up Tulowitzki, of course; he'll have to be slid over to first or an outfield corner pretty soon. Tulowitzki seems likely to eventually move to Braun's position, third base, like his similarly-tall predecessors at short, Mssrs. Ripken and Rodrigue.

That's a worry for another day, though.

Many thanks to Derek Jacques and David Laurila for their research.

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