The Rookie of the Year raceBy
In the last two weeks we’ve looked at the two big races for the American League hardware. In the Cy Young race, I noted that the contending three pitchers were Weaver, Verlander and Sabathia. At the time, I marked Sabathia as the favorite. This is likely no longer the case given Sabathia’s recent struggles and how well Verlander has pitched, but the three contenders remain the same. In the MVP race, I argued for the inclusion of Curtis Granderson into the top tier of contenders. Granderson’s hitting the ball as well as anyone in the American League not named Jose Bautista right now, but one thing holding him back is the low mark he has received this year from UZR. At the time I argued that I didn’t Granderson’s defense to be nearly this bad, and recently Keith Law has chimed in to the same effect. Granderson’s candidacy is still alive. Spread the word.
The logical next step is the Rookie of the Year award. Like the Cy Young and the MVP, the Yankees have a candidate for the award in Ivan Nova. In this race, though, there’s a clear lack of a frontrunner. Each contender has a unique shortcoming, whether self-inflicted, team-inflicted or voter-inflicted. The race promises to be a free-for-all down the stretch. How does Nova stack up against the other candidates, and does he have a chance to win?
The only reliever in contention for the AL Rookie of the Year is Angels’ closer Jordan Walden. Walden has appeared in 49 games this year and has 26 saves. Over 47 innings pitched he’s boasted a 9.57 K/9, a 3.64 BB/9, and a 3.31 xFIP to match his 2.87 ERA. By Fangraphs’ reckoning this performance has been worth 1.6 fWAR; Baseball Reference values this at 1.5 bWAR. Walden should see some support from voters who place a high importance on the save statistic. After all, Neftali Feliz did take home the award last year as a closer. Walden could be a strong candidate to win.
Another candidate is Walden’s teammate, first basemen Mark Trumbo. Trumbo’s game is his power. He hasn’t hit for average (.259) and he hasn’t taken very many walks (4.6 BB%, .297 OBP), but like Jim Thome he has mashed some taters. In 438 plate appearances, Trumbo has 23 home runs and a .488 slugging percentage, so despite his anemic on-base skills, Trumbo has still put together a .333 wOBA. UZR is a fan of his fielding so far and grades him out at six runs above average, giving him an overall total fWAR of 2.1. Baseball Reference is a little more bearish, grading him at 1.6 bWAR. Trumbo has been more valuable to the Angels according to these metrics than Walden has, but whether voters view it the same way remains to be seen. Trumbo is a one-dimensional player offensively, and this may scare away some voters. Perhaps if he manages to slug his way to 30 he’ll become even more desirable.
While it’s hard to believe he’s eligible, Jeremy Hellickson has pitched his way into the conversation for the award so far this year. This year Hellickson has thrown 134.1 innings of 3.30 ERA ball with a 10-8 record. He hasn’t really been as good as his ERA would suggest, though, and in a lot of ways Hellickson has taken a step back from the superb numbers he put up in a small sample last September. His strikeout rate of 6.03/9 and walk rate of 3.35/9 are both worse than league average and support an ERA in the 4.50 range, as his 4.30 FIP and 4.56 xFIP indicate. Given that Hellickson hasn’t racked up a ton of wins, doesn’t play in a huge market and won’t be on playoff team, it’s hard to imagine him taking home the Rookie of the Year award. I imagine he’ll bounce back next year with a vengeance.
One very strong candidate for Rookie of the Year is in Seattle, second baseman Dustin Ackley. A midseason callup, Ackley has accumulated only 211 plate appearances. He’s adjusted well though, hitting .286/.370/.481 with 5 home runs, good for a .372 wOBA and a 140 wRC+, best amongst rookies. He’s done all this while playing good defense, and so while he’s only played in 50 games(!), he’s already accumulated 2.3 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR. It’s an impressive start for Ackley, but it’s likely that his lack of playing time will hamper his campaign for AL Rookie of the Year. Had the Mariners called him up earlier instead of waiting until June 17, he’d likely be the clear favorite. Ackley’s candidacy then remains a perfect illustration of the question posed to Fangraphs’ readers on Friday. How do you value someone who puts up tremendous production in a shorter context against someone who puts up less production rate-wise but more overall production in a longer context? It should be an interesting question for voters to grapple with, because rate-stat wise Ackley is the best position player candidate in the class.
Michael Pineda may have the strongest statistical case for the American League Rookie of the Year, certainly as a pitcher. He’s thrown 141 innings of 3.77 ERA ball, striking out 9.1/9 and walking 3.13/9. His FIP and his xFIP are right at that level, 3.60 and 3.57, respectively. Pineda is hurt by a subpar win-loss record, currently 9-7, but at least he’ll have a shoulder to cry on in Felix Hernandez. Fangraphs values his performance at 2.3 fWAR, and Baseball Reference has him at 2.2 bWAR, higher than any other candidate aside from Ackley. Simply put, Pineda’s been fantastic. He’s seen his ERA regress to the mid-3 level supported by his peripherals in recent weeks, but it shouldn’t detract from his excellent overall season. Whether voters are able to look past this, him tiring down the stretch, and a mediocre win-loss record is another question.
It doesn’t really feel right to put Ivan Nova in the same class as Pineda and Ackley, but it’s possible it will happen this November when the ballots are revealed. This is largely because Nova is currently the owner of a 12-4 win-loss record, one that might lead you to believe he’s been better than Pineda. He hasn’t been. Still, Nova has been impressive, particularly compared to preseason expectations. He’s thrown 117.2 innings of 4.21 ERA ball, a number which aligns neatly with his 4.11 FIP and 4.31 xFIP. His calling card has been ground balls so far, and he’s gotten them nearly 55% of the time. His strikeout rate (5.28 K/9) and walk rate (3.21 BB/9) are both below league average, but it’s possible he’ll flash better strikeout ability down the stretch thanks to the addition of his slider.
At the end of the day, Nova’s statistical profile isn’t all that impressive when put next to players like Ackley or Pineda. In fact, it’s nearly identical to Orioles’ rookie pitcher Zach Britton. Yet the fact that Britton sports a 6-9 W-L record and plays for a non-contending basement-dweller means his chances are virtually nill, while Nova stands a good chance of contending. If Nova manages to win fifteen games, he may sneak his way up the ballot. Can’t you hear a writer defending his vote by saying, “I voted for 15-game winner Ivan Nova. The pitcher’s job is to win games. Period.” Ivan Nova certainly can.
I mentioned to Joe on Friday that I would be pushing hard for Granderson to get the AL MVP, even if Jose Bautista deserved it more. It’s a total homer move. My brain knows that Bautista should likely be the winners, as it does that Pineda or Ackley should be the winner here over Nova, but I still can’t help but root for the hometown fellas to take home the hardware. How cool would a Sabathia-Granderson-Nova sweep be? Forget your sabermetrics, win-loss is where it’s at.