On Rookies of the Year, past and present


Joc Pederson has hit 17 home runs in less than half a season, and is likely to hit more than 30. But that may not be enough to win the National League Rookie of the League Award.

Chris Heston has six wins, a tied-for-NL best two complete games, 3.76 ERA and a no-hitter, but he’s not likely to be in the top five among NL rookies. Nor should he.

Joey Butler is batting .336, which would rank third in the AL if he had enought plate appearances to qualify, and Steven Souza has 12 home runs, tied with Alex Rodriguez for 15th in the AL. Neither Ray will be the AL Rookie of the Year, nor should they.

It’s an extraordinary season for first-year players — maybe the best ever — and with the promotions of Minnesota outfielder Byron Buxton, Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor and Cubs catcher Kyle Schwarber, it’s going to get better.

Of Baseball America’s top 11 prospects this offseason, seven made their debuts in the majors this year (Pederson made his last year). Two — Joey Gallo and Buxton — were promoted directly from AA; a third — Addison Russell — after just 11 AAA games.

According to gammonsdaily.com, 21 players no older than 22 have made their debuts in 2015 — with three-and-a-half months still to go.

Of course, age is relative. Bryce Harper, who won’t turn 23 until the postseason, has been the youngest player in the NL since he arrived in 2012. He must wonder where all these kids have been.

Some of them would have been here sooner, but duplicity is fast becoming a front-office requirement (the Cardinals’ alleged hacking of the Astros aside). The 2013 Astros kept George Springer down at age 23 despite a 1.010 OPS at AA-AAA, while the big-league team lost 111 games and turned its outfield over to Robbie Grossman, Brandon Barnes and L.J. Hoes. The 2015 Astros promoted shortstop Carlos Correa, 20, after 24 AAA games, and pitchers Lance McCullers, 21, and Vincent Velaszquez, 23, after six and five AA games.

Who needs AAA? A change in philosophy? Or perspective from a team which has been in first place instead of last for the first time in more than a half dozen years?

The Cubs farmed Kris Bryant to start this season because of the rules regarding free-agent and arbitration eligibility. The Cubs said they were sending Bryant down to work on something they never specified — presumably his home run trot. There must be someone at the players association who hopes the two weeks of 2015 the Cubs traded for control of Bryant in 2020 costs them a playoff spot. (The Cubs might have searched harder for a big-league position last year for Bryant, when he hit 43 minor-league home runs, but for the team contol issue).

Bryant is likely to be the NL’s most-decorated rookie, no matter how many homers Pederson hits, though the latter’s superior defense could make it close. And either of two players not even in the majors on Memorial Day — Gallo or Correa, or maybe even Buxton — is likely to be the AL’s honored rookie.

That may not top 2012 when the two players now perhaps the best in baseball — Mike Trout and Bryce Harper — were Rookies of the Year. But Wade Miley was the NL runner-up in 2012, and you’d be no more likely to win an argument on Miley’s behalf vs. this year’s runner-up than Miley would with his manager (the 2012 class also included Todd Frazier, Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes).

Looking back at Rookie of the Year votes is a lot like rereading something you wrote a decade ago. It may have made sense then, but time provided a sufficient rebuttal. And Rookie of the Year voting is only on a player’s first year, not a projection of his future value. Buxton’s offense may lag, but over the next decade it might catch up to his defense and base running. Given his fleetness, that’s making up some ground.

Remember that when the votes are counted this fall.

Here’s a look back at some interesting tidbits of the Rookie of the Year voting (Note that from 1948-1979 only first-place votes were cast):

  • 2009: Chris Coghlan hits .321 and outpolls Andrew McCutchen, who is fourth, 105-25. Four years later, McCutchen is MVP. Voters erred in 2009: McCutchen stole 22 bases to Coghlan’s 8, outslugged him by 11 points and outplayed him in the outfield — Coghlan’s -2.5 WAR on defense wasn’t accounted for.
  • 2008: Geovany Soto over Joey Votto. That wasn’t so bad — Soto slashed .285/364/504 to Votto’s .297/368/506 — but the margin was 31 first-place votes to 1.
  • 2007: Chris Young hits 32 homers and doesn’t win Rookie of the Year because Ryan Braun (34) hits more.
  • 2004: Zack Greinke is fourth in the AL voting, behind Daniel Cabrera, Shingo Takutsu and Bobby Crosby. Cabrera was third despite a 5.00 ERA (Greinke was 3.97); Crosby hit 22 homers as a rookie, never reached 10 again.
  • 2003: Miguel Cabrera was fifth, which was probably higher than he should have been, given that he only played 87 games and had just a .793 OPS. Jose Reyes would have been higher, but believe it or not, was hurt. Cabrera did hit three homers in the NLCS. 
  • 2002: Worst winners ever? Jason Jennings (16-8, 4.72 ERA) and Eric Hinske (24 homers).
  • 1994: Bob Hamelin (288/382/589) beats Manny Ramirez (269/357/521), as he should. Hamelin’s career was over four years later. 
  • 1993: Pedro Martinez pitches 107 innings despite making just two starts, wins 10, saves two, fans 119 and has a 2.61  ERA. He finishes ninth with two votes, behind Kirk Reuter, who fans 31 in 85.2 innings and a Marlin named Chuck Carr. who hits .267 and was out of the majors for good before he turned 30. MIke Piazza and Tim Salmon were unanimous winners.
  • 1992: AL winner Pat Listach is good (.290, .701 OPS, 54 steals) but Kenny Lofton is better (.285, .726, 66 steals). Hall of Fame voters didn’t appreciate Lofton after his career either.
  • 1989: Ken Griffey Jr. is third, behind relievers Gregg Olson (1.69, 27 saves) and Tom Gordon. Griffey’s talent was promising, but his production (.264, 16 homers, 16 steals) was ordinary.
  • 1988: Before the defensive revolution, Roberto Alomar is fifth, despite 24 steals, 24 doubles and a 4.0 WAR, better than everyone who finishes ahead of him (Ron Gant, Tim Belcher, Mark Grace) but winner Chris Sabo.
  • 1986: Barry Bonds hits just .223, and that dooms him to sixth despite 16 homers, 36 steals and 65 walks. His 3.5 WAR is higher than everyone else who receives votes, including Barry Larkin, who finishes seventh in just 41 games.
  • 1984: Maybe the best rookie year ever for pitchers — Dwight Gooden is the NL winner and second in the Cy Young; Orel Hershiser is third in the rookie voting and Ron Darlng sixth. Roger Clemens is sixth in the AL in 20 starts and Mark Langston second.
  • 1982: Three second basemen in the top six and Ryne Sandberg is the worst of them. Steve Sax and Johnny Ray were 1-2.
  • 1981: Rookie catcher Tony Pena hits .300 and throws out 43% of base stealers, but finishes sixth. Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines are a deserving 1-2.
  • 1978: In the AL, Paul Molitor, who’s in the Hall of Fame, finishes behind Lou Whitaker, who should be. In the NL, Ozzie Smith concedes 229 points of OPS to Bob Horner, but his defense makes it close, Horner winning 12-8.
  • 1975: Hall of Famers are second in both leagues: Jim Rice in the AL and Gary Carter in the NL. Rice (.309/.350/.491) gets a half vote, which kept teammate and MVP Fred Lynn (.331/.401/.566) from being unanimous. John Montefusco (15-9, 2.88, 243.2 innings) is the NL winner.
  • 1974: George Brett is third in the AL to Mike Hargrove and Bucky Dent. Brett’s rookie .676 OPS didn’t stay there for long.
  • 1969: Former Portsmouth, Ohio High teammates Al Oliver and Larry Hisle are third and fifth respectively to winner Ted Sizemore. AL winner Lou Piniella is traded out of Ball Four by the Seattle Pilots in spring training. Too bad. Sounded like he would have fit in. 
  • 1968: One of the closest races ever between two deserving rookies in the NL: Johnny Bench (.275, 15 homers, 47% of base stealers caught, 5.0 WAR) edges Jerry Koosman (19-12, 2.08 ERA, 6.0 WAR) 10.5 to 9.5.
  • 1965: Second basemen are 1-2 in the NL. Joe Morgan was second despite outhitting Jim Lefebvre (.271-.250), outslugging him (.418-.369), outrunning him (20 steals to 3) and outwalking him (97 bases on balls to 71). It didn’t hurt Lefebvre that his Dodgers won the pennant while Morgan’s Astros were ninth.
  • 1964: A great year for offensive rookies who 50 years later just miss  Hall of Fame admission. AL  winner and batting champ Tony Oliva (.323/.359/.557) and NL winner Richie Allen (.318./.382./.557) each fell a vote short when the Golden Era committe voted last winter. Oliva and Allen combined for 37 of the 40 Rookie of the Year votes. Wally Bunker’s 19-5, 2.69 ERA was worth one vote in the AL; Rico Carty (.330/.388/.554) and Jim Ray Hart (.286/.342./.498, 31 home runs) one each in the NL. For debut seasons, 1964 is hard to beat, though injuries and controversy dogged its class.
  • 1962: No sabermetrics at play 53 years ago. Ken Hubbs leads the NL in strikeouts (129) and grounded into double plays (20), has a 0.0 WAR and an OPS 207 points lower than runner-up Donn Clendenon, and yet is a near-unanimous winner. A Gold Glove winner as a 20-year-old, Hubbs died in a plane crash two years later. Clendenon was rescued from the expansion Expos by the Miracle Mets and became a star of the 1969 Series.
  • 1959: Perhaps no Rookie of the Year played less than Willie McCovey, who hit .354 and slugged .656 in 52 games after a late call-up. He must have made an impression — he was a unanimous pick, giving the Giants two in a row after Orlando Cepeda (.312/.342/.512) was likewise in 1958.
  • 1956: Rocky Colavito gets the call a few weeks in, hits 21 homers, slugs .531, has a .903 OPS, and gets one vote. Luis Aparicio, with the benefit of a full season, gets 22, despite an OPS .250 points lower and a WAR nearly a point lower (2.4-1.5). Aparacio had the better career, but 59 years later, Colavito looks like the better rookie.
  • 1954: A great year for rookies, though none of them win. Hall of Famer Al Kaline (.276/.305./347) is third in the AL and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks (.275/.326./.427) and Henry Aaron (.280/.322./447) are second and fourth, respectively, in the NL. Twenty-game winner Bob Grim (AL) and Wally Moon (.304/.371/.435) are more deserving.
  • 1948: There’s just one Rookie of the Year for both leagues in the first two years. Alvin Dark hits .322 to win the second award for the Boston Braves, ahead of World Series foe Gene Bearden, who wins 20 for the Indians and saves the Series clincher, and Hall of Fame outfielder Richie Ashburn, who hits .333 for the Phillies. War hero Lou Brissie, who wins 14 games for the Athletics after nearly losing a leg in World War II, is fourth.
  • 1947: Jackie Robinson is the first Rookie of the Year, but it’s close. Robinson hits .297, steals 29 bases and walks 74 times; Giants pitcher Larry Jansen is 21-5 with a 3.16 ERA in 248 innings. Robinson is the first of four Dodgers winners in the first seven years, all signed from the Negro Leagues. Don Newcombe (1949), Joe Black (1952, and the first black pitcher to win a World Series game that year) and Jim Gilliam followed.
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2 Responses to On Rookies of the Year, past and present

  1. Will says:

    Re 2008: Soto was a catcher, while Votto was a firstbaseman. That should make a big difference, given that their hitting stats were quite similar. And if it was OK for 17 voters to award their first place vote to Soto, then why not 31? Sometimes a large margin doesn’t mean that the winner was a lot better than the runner-up, but only that there was a great deal of unanimity about which of the two was more deserving.

    • I agree with all of that, and that Soto won because he was a catcher, even if he wasn’t a very good defensive catcher (nor was Votto a good defensive first baseman). And maybe it’s hindsight that prompts the question. But their stats are virtually identical. Their WAR is identical. And yet the vote isn’t. But perhaps I’m going about this all wrong. Maybe the issue isn’t the 31, but the vote for Votto. Maybe that’s the vote that should be questioned.

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