Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Plenty of Power in 2015 Rookie Class

As expected, Bryant ran away with the National League award (CBS Sports)
In a year where power made a bit of a comeback in the MLB, 26 rookies reached double digit home run totals, including four who topped 20. With young guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado all showing plenty of power early on, it's safe to say the next generation of sluggers has arrived.

It was fitting, then, when the top rookie home run hitter in each league was named Rookie of the Year on Monday. In the AL that was Carlos Correa, the 20 year-old wunderkind who led all shortstops with 22 long balls. In the NL it was Kris Bryant, a unanimous selection after delivering on the immense hype that preceded his debut.

An awesome spring training made Bryant the frontrunner for the award, and he didn't disappoint after the Cubs promoted him in mid-April. Other than taking three weeks to launch his first big league bomb, everything about his rookie campaign went off without a hitch. He played a smooth third base in addition to displaying light-tower power, the Cubs made the playoffs, and he walked away with NL Rookie of the Year.

Bryant was an easy choice after leading his rookie class in, well, just about everything. He was tops among first-years in WAR (both versions), home runs, RBI, runs, and doubles. He also led National League rookies in OBP, slugging, and OPS. In fact, only one other player in baseball history had as many runs, homers, RBI, doubles, and walks in their rookie season as Bryant. You may have heard of him; his name was Ted Williams.

Comparing Bryant to Teddy Ballgame is both premature and unfair, as Bryant is more of a slugger whereas Williams was the best pure hitter ever, but you get the point. Bryant is already in special company, and this is just the start of what figures to be a marvelous career. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, he has the tools to challenge Trout and Harper as the best players in the game.

The only issue I had with the National League vote was Joc Pederson finishing outside the top five. That would have seemed inconceivable four months ago, when he was battling Bryant for top rookie status. Despite Pederson's second half slide (just nine home runs and a .622 OPS after June 3rd), he still finished the year with more home runs than every rookie besides Bryant and the sixth-best walk rate in baseball, all while patrolling center field for the NL West-winning Los Angeles Dodgers.

Plus, Pederson was severely hampered by his home park while Bryant got a major boost from his. Pederson's OPS was 142 points better away from Dodger Stadium, but that still doesn't come close to matching Bryant's ridiculous home/road split. Bryant was a beast at Wrigley, batting .311/.408/.629 and sending 21 balls over the ivy. Everywhere else, not so much. His road stats; .243/.333/.360 and five home runs. Put Pederson in Chicago and Bryant in LA, and there's a very good chance this award goes to Pederson instead. They're very similar hitters--lots of walks, plenty of homers, and tons of strikeouts--so it will be interesting to see how their careers play out in different settings.

Of course, Bryant and Pederson weren't the only NL rookies to shine this year. Matt Duffy had a tremendous season for the Giants, batting .295 with 4.9 WAR, 12 homers, and 12 steals (didn't take long for San Francisco to replace Pablo Sandoval). Jung Ho Kang had a similarly impressive debut with the Pirates, making a smooth transition from South Korea to the major leagues at 28 and establishing himself as one of the best-hitting shortstops in the game. Justin Bour quietly enjoyed a big breakout with the Marlins, thumping 23 homers and 20 doubles in just 402 official at-bats.

And then there was Noah Syndergaard, who many think has the raw talent to be better than rotation-mates Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom. If you watched the playoffs, you know just how good he can be. With those three, plus Steven Matz and a healthy Zack Wheeler, the Mets have more young starting pitching than they know what to do with. But you know what they say about starting pitching and having too much of it...
Correa crushes another big fly (Red Orange Report)
The American League also featured an impressive collection of young talent, albeit not as strong as the National League's. The Junior Circuit's rookie field was headed by a pair of sensational shortstops, both of whom have yet to play their 100th game in the majors yet.

We'll remember 2015 as the year Carlos Correa took the baseball world by storm, just as Trout, Harper, and Yasiel Puig did in summers before him. Though he didn't debut until June 8th--a full two months into the season--he wasted no time getting his licks in against big league pitching. After just four weeks he was triple-slashing .315/.339/.593 and had already crushed seven home runs, resulting in a last-minute All-Star campaign for the slugging shortstop (based on how thin the AL was at the position, he certainly had a case). Correa came back to earth after that, but still finished the season with amazing numbers, especially for someone who didn't turn 21 until the regular season's penultimate week.

Like Bryant, he helped spark his team to a playoff berth for the first time this decade. Also like Bryant, he gained a huge advantage from his hitter-friendly home park, putting up a .949 OPS at Minute Maid compared to .773 everywhere else.

As good as Correa was, I actually think Francisco Lindor was a tad better. They were about even offensively, with Correa holding slight edges in wOBA (.365 to .358) and wRC+ (133 to 128). Over a full slate of games that difference would be more meaningful, but considering both played 99 it's essentially negligible.

But while Correa held a slight edge at the plate, Lindor was far superior in the field. Correa rated below average defensively, whereas Correa was the best-fielding shortstop in the American League according to FanGraphs. Even if he wasn't, the wide gap between their glovework easily exceeds the narrow one between their bats. Accordingly, Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs both deemed Lindor to be the more valuable player in 2015, Correa's moon shots be damned.

That said, I don't have a problem with Correa winning the award over Lindor, if only because defensive metrics are hard to trust and fluctuate wildly from year to year. The same metrics might say Correa's the better defender next year (though I doubt it). And with power-hitting shortstops all but extinct, Correa's going to be a special player in this game for a long time. He has a higher ceiling than Lindor, and I can't wait to see what he can do in a full season. Or Lindor. Or Miguel Sano.

The rest of the AL ballot more or less checks out, with the exception of poor Lance McCullers. McCullers, Correa's teammate, got shafted even worse than Pederso, as he was left off the ballot entirely. He deserved better after compiling a 3.22 ERA (125 ERA+) and striking out more than a batter per inning across 22 starts. The 21 year-old posted strong peripherals as well, with a 3.26 FIP, 1.19 WHIP, and 3.00 K/BB ratio. But McCullers was destined to be overshadowed this year, both by Correa and by rotationmate Dallas Keuchel--the deserving AL Cy Young winner. Hopefully he gets more credit for his talents going forward, but if the Astros remain competitive I'm sure he will.

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