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The American League Rookie of the Year Award has been considered a foregone
conclusion since about early May, thanks to the hot starts of the Mariners
and their first-year sensation, Ichiro Suzuki.

Should it be, though?

Here are the performances of Ichiro and the Indians’ C.C. Sabathia:

            AVG   OBP   SLG    PA   SB/CS   EqA   RARP   Rank
Ichiro     .342  .375  .461   580   40/13  .306   36.8      2

        W-L     ERA      IP    H   BB   SO  SNPct.  SNWAR  Rank
C.C.   13-4    4.33   135.0  110   71  121   .557     2.1    21


Ichiro is having a very good season, one about as good as a no-walk,
moderate-power player can have. Not shown above is his excellent play in
right field, with a terrific throwing arm. He’s also performed at a
ridiculous level with runners in scoring position (.486/.535/.606); that’s
not necessarily an ability, nor does it say anything about his character
under pressure, but it has meant some additional runs on the scoreboard.
He’s played at about the same level as Magglio Ordonez and Trot
Nixon
, with his extra plate appearances–largely a function of his
lineup position and team–giving him the edge on those two and the #2
ranking among AL right fielders.

In a normal year, though, Sabathia could be a runaway candidate. He made the
Indians’ rotation with a good exhibition season, making him the youngest
regular starter in the major leagues. Despite concerns about his command
that kept him from pitching into the seventh inning for most of the first
half, he stayed in the rotation and has been excellent during the Indians’
run to the top of their division, while improving his strikeout rate and
strikeout-to-walk ratio each month. On a Support-Neutral basis, Sabathia has
been comparable to the Mariners’ Aaron Sele, who has been mentioned
in some places as a Cy Young Award candidate.

Something I’ve harped on for a while is that the Rookie of the Year Award,
more so than the other major awards, is often won by Labor Day. A rookie who
gets off to a hot start and fades will always beat out a comparable, or even
slightly better, performance by a player who starts poorly or perhaps
doesn’t even get called up until May. I think that’s the case here, helped
by the backstory that follows Ichiro, but it should be noted that a
20-year-old jumping from Double-A is a pretty good story as well.

One of the arguments made in MVP discussions against great players on great
teams is that the player’s performance had no marginal value, and therefore,
should be downgraded. The classic example is Albert Belle, who was
the best player in the AL in 1995 for an Indians team that went 100-44 and
ran away with the Central division. He lost the MVP to Mo Vaughn, an
inferior player on a team that won its division by fewer games.

It’s an invalid argument of course, one that penalizes a player for having
good teammates. But it is made, and if there were a group of people
determined to support Sabathia, that would be a big part of their case.
Without Ichiro, the Mariners would have a ten-game lead and still are only
slightly concerned with the A’s. Without Sabathia, the Indians might be
behind the Twins, and worried about the White Sox.

If the season were to end today, my Internet Baseball Awards ballot would
have Ichiro followed by Sabathia. But the two players are closer than you
might think, close enough that six weeks of work could change their
respective standing. Ichiro may be a worthy Rookie of the Year, but he has
company, and he shouldn’t be ceded the award based on the shape of his
season or his level of fame.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.