Friday, December 26, 2014

Questionable Rookies of the Year: 2000s

In past years I've looked at where writers went wrong in determining MVP and Cy Young winners. Now I re-examine their missteps in the Rookie of the Year races.

2000 AL Kazuhiro Sasaki over everyone else
Of the nine American Leaguers who received votes, Sasaki ranked seventh in bWAR with 1.3. He had a nice season with a 3.16 ERA (146 ERA+), 1.17 WHIP, 11.2 K/9 rate and 37 saves in 40 attempts, but hardly a great one (4.30 FIP, 2.52 K/BB ratio). I'm more impressed by third-place Mark Quinn, who hit .294/.342/.488 with 20 home runs in a tough hitter's park in Kansas City, and runner-up Terrence Long, who batted .288/.336/.452 with 18 homers and 104 runs in an even tougher park in Oakland. Meanwhile, Sasaki benefited enormously from Safeco Field, where he had a 1.60 ERA and 0.92 WHIP as opposed to a 4.97 ERA and 1.45 WHIP everywhere else. I'm generally opposed to relievers winning awards because they pitch so infrequently and can't impact games nearly as much as position players. There are exceptions, of course, of a reliever has a truly outstanding season or if it's a weak year for position players, but Sasaki's year definitely doesn't qualify as "outstanding"; he wasn't even one of the top 60 relievers per fWAR.

2002 NL Jason Jennings over Austin Kearns
Jennings might be the most mediocre Rookie of the Year in recent memory. How he won with a 4.52 ERA, 4.68 FIP, and 1.46 WHIP is beyond me (think it had something to do with that 16-8 record of his?). Granted, he pitched half his games at Coors Field during the height of the steroid era, so his numbers weren't quite as bad as they seemed, but they're still very mediocre. Outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Austin Kearns, who finished second and third, respectively, had better cases. Wilkerson whacked 20 home runs, scored 92 runs, and worked 81 walks while slashing .266/.370/.469 (117 OPS+) and playing 153 games for the Montreal Expos, including 73 in center field. Kearns, a right fielder, only played 107 games but raked when he suited up, batting .315/.407/.500 (134 OPS+) with 13 home runs. Those are huge rate stats for a rookie, even after adjusting for the era. Seeing as how Kearns was worth 4.1 bWAR for Cincy while Wilkinson was only worth 1.2, the former deserved to win (Jennings was worth 2.7, for what it's worth).

2003 NL Dontrelle Willis over Brandon Webb
Remember them? Willis and Webb were two tremendous young pitchers who flamed out before they were 30. Both debuted in 2003 with incredible promise, culminating in the Rookie of the Year going to Willis while Webb finished third. Looking, back, it's clear Webb should have won. Not only did he pitch 20 more innings than Willis, but his ERA was nearly half a run lower despite pitching in a much better park for hitters. As such, Webb's 165 ERA+ dwarfed Willis's 127 mark. Webb also held a sizable advantage in pitching bWAR (6.2 to 3.9) and WHIP (1.15 to 1.28) with slight edges in FIP, strikeout rate, and K/BB rate. So why did the writers choose Willis? He went 14-6 while Webb was barely above .500 at 10-9, primarily because he played for a better team. Willis won because of narrative, as he helped pitch his Marlins to the postseason and World Series glory while Webb starred for a .500-ish D-backs squad. Furthermore D-Train, an electric 21 year-old southpaw, was more exciting to watch than Webb, who was three years older and more polished.

2006 AL Justin Verlander over everyone else
Not sure why Verlander was the runaway winner here when Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Liriano both had better cases. I think it's because the hard-throwing Verlander went 17-9 and pitched the previously mediocre Tigers to the World Series, even though his other numbers weren't really anything special (1.33 WHIP, 4.35 FIP, 2.07 K/BB ratio).  Jonathan Papelbon, the runner-up, was literally unhittable, what with his 0.92 ERA (that's not a misprint) and 517 ERA+, not to mention a 0.77 WHIP, 2.14 FIP and 5.77 K/BB ratio. He had a five-win season, which is nearly impossible for a reliever to attain given their workload. Third-place Francisco Liriano was also way better than Verlander on a per-inning basis and pitched more than twice as many innings as Papelbon, albeit still 65 fewer than Verlander. Even so, His 2.16 ERA (208 ERA+), 1.00 WHIP, 2.55 FIP and 4.5 K/BB ratio all put Verlander to shame. Even though Liriano made just two starts after August 1st, he was still worth more than Verlander per bWAR (as was Papelbon). It's true that Verlander pitched wire-to-wire while Liriano and Papelbon made only one appearance in September, but if anything his late season performance should be held against him, as he faltered down the stretch with a 5.86 ERA over his final nine starts. Had Liriano just stayed healthy, I think he beats out Verlander.

2010 AL Neftali Feliz over Austin Jackson
The 22 year-old Feliz was a top 10 reliever, finishing a league-high 59 games with a 2.73 ERA (165 ERA+), 2.96 FIP, 0.88 WHIP, and 40 saves in 43 chances. He also struck out more than a batter per inning and totaled nearly four times as many strikeouts as walks. While Feliz was more dominant compared to his fellow relievers, Jackson was more than twice as valuable with 5.1 bWAR to Feliz's 2.3. Jackson, a top 10 center fielder, batted .293/.345/.400 (102 OPS+), scored 103 runs, and stole 27 bases in 33 attempts in addition to his strong defense at a premium position. I suspect the writers dinged Jackson for his meager four home runs and 41 RBI, but I'll take the everyday center fielder and leadoff man over a one-inning reliever any day.

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