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November 16, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The Rookies of the Year

by Christina Kahrl

First, let me lead off with a disclaimer: this year, I was not an elector for Rookie of the Year. That said, this year's selections weren't much easier than last year's AL Rookie of the Year slate. So what I say here is based purely on my complete lack of responsibility for the outcomes of this year's voting.

As we head into a week's worth of commentary on the awards, and before moving directly into commenting on the two awards, I should also note that at season's end I found myself a bit skittish about expressing who I thought should win one, some, or all of the awards. If you care and ask, "why?," what I found myself entrapped in is the sense that, as a potential voter, it's a weird thing to wind up essentially being a cheerleader of my own potential responsibilities and the validity of the selections. As the days to come will document, I found myself in a somewhat amusing contretemps of possible doublethink: having already handicapped the results of all of the awards before the season because of how I thought the BBWAA might vote based on what I anticipated among likely outcomes for the year, I found myself wondering if, casting my ballot, I wouldn't either wind up validating that cynicism, or becoming part of that same world view. But we'll get to that before the week's up, and I promise to get over it.

So, the rookies. The National League's slate was the more fun of the two, given how much joy Buster Posey and Jason Heyward gave us during the season. Here again, in the interest of full disclosure, before the season my pick was Heyward. That said, the electorate's strongly favoring Posey over Heyward, as 20 of 32 electors voted Posey first, nine went for Heyward, and vice versa for second place. While my March convictions need to be chucked out the window, there are good reasons why the voters were right to vote as they did. And hopefully, the question of whether one or the other player was a worthy winner because of his playing for a playoff team was made irrelevant by the coincidence that both were. First, let's go to a table:
 

Guy
Points
1st
VORP
TAv
SNLVAR
WXRL
WARP2
Buster Posey 129 20 32.5 .300 - - 4.4
Jason Heyward 107 9 33.3 .308 - - 5.1
Jaime Garcia 24 1 32.0 - 4.8 - 4.0
Gaby Sanchez 18 2 22.4 .283 - - 2.1
Neil Walker 3 - 29.8 .290 - - 2.1
Starlin Castro 3 - 23.9 .268 - - 2.4
Ike Davis 2 - 21.3 .290 - - 3.1
Jose Tabata 1 - 14.9 .278 - - 2.7
Jonny Venters 1 - 17.6 - - 1.7 2.2

You can charitably suggest that the voters figured out something that the Giants had not, at least not initially, in that his not getting to play about a quarter of the season wasn't because he couldn't play, but because of Brian Sabean's initial judgment that the kid needed to learn that they call things 'freeways' in California. That, or miss out on service time. Whatever the motive, it certainly wasn't the kid's fault, or entirely in his control. Give Posey another month, and the raw counting stats like VORP and WARP don't end up favoring Heyward, wiping out the strongest arguments the Braves' equally wonderful rookie had going for him. Add in Posey's play at an up-the-middle position where the shortage of talent is habitually remarked upon, and you can see why things swung his way. You could also argue that Heyward lost a lot of his initial lead in terms of his public profile with a relatively quiet June and July, hitting .248/.354/.327 at a time when Posey was arriving on the scene and making an immediate splash.

Which isn't really fair to Heyward, but between these two, somebody had to lose, and the fact that the process reflected how close the two were in terms of the quality of their performances, you can't say Heyward was robbed or Posey is the new Todd Hollandsworth. Even if Heyward had gotten the three first-place votes that didn't go to himself or Posey, he would still have lost to the Giants' catcher.

That bring us to that segment of the vote that were a bit more mystifying. Keep in mind, both Posey and Heyward didn't show up on one of 32 ballots. Maybe that's one guy figuring that everyone else would cover and he'd get to laud a good rookie, but that's not what the process is about. Gaby Sanchez got three votes higher than third place? Neil Walker got a second-place vote? It's easy to overreact to these things, but I'd say this just reminds the sabermetric set of the work to be done, and they bug me less in isolation than somebody leaving Posey or Heyward off his ballot entirely. Sanchez didn't have a lot to recommend him over Ike Davis except a full season's worth of playing time, but these aren't votes for the best future. While I don't really get Sanchez getting anything more than a third-place vote, I don't see how anyone not named Posey, Heyward, or Jaime Garcia gets any of this year's first- or second-place votes. In a general sort of way, I would have liked to have seen Starlin Castro and Davis do better, but at least they showed on more ballots than the two Pirates.

There are also the utterly unrepresented to lament: not a single vote for Madison Bumgarner (26.6 VORP), let alone Dan Hudson (32.2)? You can understand Chris Johnson not showing up anywhere (24.2 VORP), but Walker and Tabata only got individual votes, and that both were on the ballot of Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says more about the voter than their virtue. As it stood, with just 11 starts for the Diamondbacks, Hudson would have represented a variation on the already contentious Willie McCovey argument from 1959, when McCovey won the RotY with just 59 games played.

To swing over to the American League, expectations were validated, at least insofar as mine were concerned. Neftali Feliz was my pick, which makes me feel all-knowing and wise, so let's just skip over my putting Oakland's Chris Carter on that ballot. This was even more straightforward than the National League, in that Feliz garnered 20 of 28 first-place votes, with the Tigers' Austin Jackson getting the other eight. Both men showed up on all of the ballots. By a simple WARP2 tally, this outcome wasn't particularly unfair, as Feliz tallied 4.5 WARP2 to Jackson's 3.9. The VORP count is a bit more interesting: Jackson came in first at 28.5, followed by Wade Davis at 24.4, and then Feliz at 20.4.

Now sure, in the abstract, I suppose we could all rend our garments and utter scoldy lamentations about the error of getting hung up on saves, since Feliz's 40 is a nice, big, gaudy number that must have appealed to the easily impressed. And it was happily associated with an upset division- and pennant-winner, so shame, shame on the Old Guard! But then we're also the crowd that's going to rend said garments all over again over Jackson's outlandishly high BABIP, a number that was downward-bound before he conveniently ran out of enough season to bring him down closer to initial expectations. A bit more rending, and we'll all catch a chill, but the ballot just wasn't as challenging as the senior circuit's, and I don't see real reason to feel anything but happy for the winner. Feliz managed a 93 percent save-plus-hold clip, one of the best marks in baseball, behind Heath Bell by a tick, tied with Joakim Soria, and a notch ahead of Brian Wilson. He wasn't just a closer notching the glorified footnote, he was among the game's best closers.

Keep in mind, the AL's field of rookies was weak enough that you can't even really get wrung out over any oversights. It was delightful to see a lone voter tab John Jaso with a second-place vote, which might well represent the high-water mark of Jaso's recognition on the national stage. Davis got the majority of third-place votes, barely beating out the Twins' Danny Valencia, which seems right. Carlos Santana's utter absence is the upshot of his early season-ending injury; add two months of playing time to his tally, and he might have had a decent shot as a third-party candidate.

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

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