Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Harper, Trout Top Rookies

The Rookie of the Year results were announced on Monday, and there weren't too many surprises. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, neither of whom were old enough to drink when the season began, took home the trophies.

Trout, as expected, won unanimously by collecting all 28 first place votes and becoming the youngest player to win the AL award, beating out Lou Whitaker's 1978. Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes finished second on the strength of his 23 home runs, 16 steals and 137 OPS+. In a normal year, he takes home the trophy, especially given the prominent role he played in Oakland's division-winning season. Yu Darvish, the most anticipated Japanese pitcher since Daisuke Matsuzaka, finished third after winning 16 games, piling up 221 strikeouts and posting the second highest K/9 rate in baseball behind Max Scherzer. He also had the third lowest H/9 and HR/9 ratios despite calling The Ballpark in Arlington, a notorious hitter's park, home. His 89 walks (fourth most) and inconsistency were concerns, but if he can improve his command he'll be able to achieve his Cy Young potential. It will be interesting to see if he can avoid the pitfalls, namely wildness, inconsistency and fragility, that plagued Matsuzaka and made Boston rue the day they ponied up more than $100 million to make him a Red Sock.

Fellow starting pitchers Wei-Yin Chen (fourth) and Jarrod Parker (fifth) rounded out the AL ballot. Chen proved to be a nice pickup for the Orioles, stabilizing the rotation and serving as the de facto ace after knee surgery derailed Jason Hammel's career year. The Taiwanese southpaw made 32 starts and led the team in wins (12), strikeouts (154) and innings pitched (192.2). As for Parker, the 23 year-old emerged in his A's debut after Arizona traded him, Ryan Cook and Collin Cowgill for Trevor Cahill, Craig Breslow and cash. Parker won 13 games with a 3.47 ERA while posting the second lowest HR/9 ratio in the Junior Circuit (only Felix Hernandez was better). His glaring home/road splits are something to keep an eye on next year.

The National League race was much tighter. Bryce Harper became the second youngest winner ever (behind Dwight Gooden) and captured 16 of 32 first place votes. However, he won by a difference of only seven points. Runner-up Wade Miley received a dozen first place votes and had a legitimate claim to the award after going 16-11 with a 3.33 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Most impressively he walked just 37 batters in 194.2 innings of work while fanning nearly four times as many. If Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson bounce back next year, Arizona is going to have a formidable starting rotation. Cincinatti's Todd Frazier did a great job filling in for Scott Rolen, providing Harper's numbers without the flair. He got three first place votes for his efforts. Fourth place Wilin Rosario earned the remaining first place vote. Colorado's slugging backstop led all catchers with 28 home runs and his .530 SLG, but also led them in errors and passed balls. His combination of prodigious power and defensive struggles reminds me of Mike Napoli.

Norichika Aoki, a 30 year-old Japanese rookie, placed fifth. The Brewers leadoff hitter batted a solid .288, reached base nearly 36 percent of the time and displayed some pop with 51 extra base hits. He also stole 30 bases and scored 81 runs. Nothing special here; just a very steady, underrated ballplayer. Had nearly identical numbers to Alejandro De Aza.

Yander Alonso, Matt Carpenter and Jordan Pacheco all tied for sixth with one point apiece. Alonso led all rookies with 155 games played, but his counting stats were unimpressive and none of his numbers stand out besides his 39 doubles and .348 OBP. To be fair, he does play for the Padres.Carpenter proved to be a decent replacement for Lance Berkman by batting .294/.365.,463 and figures to put up good numbers as a regular next season. Pacheco, like his teammate Rosario, had issues in the field but compensated with terrific production at the dish. He batted a Coors Field-inflated .309, cracked 32 doubles, and drove in 33 runs over the season's final two months. Could be the next Garrett Atkins.

Now I would like to direct your attention to the two winners.

Trout, the five-tool stud projected as a future Mickey Mantle, struggled in his initial call-up two summers ago. The 19 year-old barely batted his weight and had more strikeouts than hits. He showed flashes--a long home run here, a nice running catcher there--but clearly wasn't ready for the Show. Little more than a year later he's looking back on an MVP caliber season, the greatest campaign ever produced by  20 year-old according to bWAR. Better than Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and all the rest. He paced the major leagues in runs (129), stolen bases (49) and bWAR (10.7) something no rookie had ever done before. He was the only American Leaguer to go 30/30 (Ryan Braun did so in the NL) and became the first rookie to turn the trick. He helped the Angels overcome their 6-14 start and make a run at a Wild Card berth. He overshadowed Albert Pujols, the greatest hitter in baseball for over a decade. He took away home runs and our collective breath. He did it all. His all-around contributions rivaled anything Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio or Ken Griffey Jr. ever did.

Trout was so good that he made everyone outside of Washington D.C. forget about baseball's LeBron James, reducing the Chosen One to mere afterthought. Even when Trout wasn't stealing the headlines, the controversy surrounding Stephen Strasburg's premature shutdown became a dominant storyline in the second half. Meanwhile, Harper had the best season by a teenager since Tony Conigliaro, though it was not without its fair share of ups and downs. Harper's rollercoaster season was marked by a strong start, brutal middle and torrid finish. At the end of the day he produced a solid .270/.340/.477 (119 OPS+) batting line while scoring 98 runs, smacking 22 homers and swiping 18 bases. He also provided 5.0 bWAR (setting a new record for teenagers by obliterating Mel Ott's previous mark), made his first All-Star team (becoming the youngest position player to do so) and gave the Nationals a much needed shot in the arm when their lineup was devastated by injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Morse, and Wilson Ramos, sparking the Nats to the best record in baseball.

Interestingly, both debuted on the same day, April 28th, after wasting nearly a full month in the minors. Here are what their numbers might have looked like had they made the Opening Day rosters:

162 Game Projections (each actually played 139)
Harper 114 runs, 167 hits, 30 doubles, 10 triples, 25 home runs, 68 RBI, 20 steals, 296 total bases
Trout 150 runs, 212 hits, 31 doubles, 9 triples, 34 home runs, 96 RBI, 57 steals, 367 total bases

Impressive, no? If both teams played their budding superstars from Day 1, the Nationals probably would have won at least 100 games and the Halos probably would have made the playoffs.

But that's in the past. The real question is; what can these guys do for an encore? Will they pick up where they left off, or will they suffer through extended sophomore slumps like the ones that plagued Jason Heyward and Eric Hosmer? Trout just had one of the greatest seasons of all time, so he's a sure bet to regress. I'm also less than enthusiastic about the way he finished the season, batting .287/.383/.500 from August 1st onward. Harper, on the other hand, ended the year on fire. I think his 2012 numbers are his floor for next year and expect him to at least hold steady if not improve.

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