Monday, October 08, 2007

Rookie of the Year

The regular season is over, and thus it’s time for the annual hot stove favorite question, “Who should win the awards?” I am not immune to such general baseball fan amusement, and so I will begin here with the Rookie of the Year awards. I will also be contributing these ballots to the Internet Baseball Awards, which are now hosted by Baseball Prospectus.

As always, we begin in the modern league with modern rules that got shortchanged in the 1998 expansion. Like last year, the majority of the top AL rookie candidates are starting pitchers. Unlike last year, there were not three rookies who turned in star caliber performances; this year’s group is solid but unflashy with the exception of the big name, Daisuke Matsuzaka (+15 RAA, +43 RAR in 204 innings). The other two are Jeremy Guthrie (+17, +41, in 175) and Brian Bannister (+14, +36 in 165).

Sorting out these three, is there any reason to deviate from the RAR rankings? Obviously small differences in RAR are not particularly meaningful; on the other hand, if I can’t find a compelling reason to favor one of the candidates, I might as well go with the numbers. Guthrie had a .18 advantage in RA, but this is offset by the additional 29 innings from Dice-K. In eRA, they are basically even (4.33 to 4.27 in Guthrie’s favor), but in FIP, Matsuzaka has a big edge (4.41 to 4.95). Some are always bothered by giving it to a Japanese player who has pitched at a high level for many years. However, the rules state that he is eligible, and I don’t see why not. The ROY is the top newcomer to the major leagues; it need not imply that the man who wins it is wet behind the ears. Since the BBWAA gave many of the early awards to Negro League veterans, it certainly seems as if they felt the same way.

As an additional twist, Matsuzaka at age 27 is actually younger than Guthrie (28), and just a year older than Bannister. I have him atop the starting pitcher heap.

Matsuzaka’s countryman and teammate, Hideki Okajima, is the top rookie reliever (+25, +30, in 69), edging out the Indians’ Rafael Perez. This is not enough to propel him above any of the starters.

Among hitters, there is only one candidate that I find compelling. Names like Delmon Young and Travis Buck may draw consideration, but I see them as inferior in value to the pitchers and to Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia hit pretty well in his rookie campaign, 11 runs better than an average hitter, good for +33 RAR when his position of second base is considered. Obviously defensive value needs to be considered. I am not particularly well qualified to evaluate defensive performance or the relative merits of defensive metrics--I try very hard to understand all of the various offensive evaluation methods, but I simply don’t keep up with the defensive side of things.

That being said, I trust MGL’s Ultimate Zone Rating figures, but try to look at other metrics as well. MGL has only released the top and bottom players at each position for 2007, so figures are not available for most players. In lieu of that, the duel approaches provided by Chone Smith (link goes directly to spreadsheet, or the comparable figures in one category from Jin-AZ) will be the basis for evaluating defense here. Pedroia comes in at a consensus -1, so we can assume that he is an average defensive second baseman.

At +33 RAR and +16 RAA, he trails all of the pitchers in RAR. However, I do slide him ahead of Bannister. Bannister fanned just 4.2 per game, and his 4.84 FIP is well above his actual RA due to his low %H of .266. Thus, I see the AL race as:

1) SP Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS
2) SP Jeremy Guthrie, BAL
3) 2B Dustin Pedroia, BOS
4) SP Brian Bannister, KC
5) RP Hideki Okajima, BOS

In the National League, the opposite situation holds—the pitching candidates cannot hold up against the wave of batting candidates. There are two tiers of batters, separated by ten RAR--the tier features Ryan Braun (+38 RAA, +54 RAR in 480 PA), Hunter Pence (+20, +39 in 482), and Troy Tulowitzki (+20, +39 in 666). Perhaps the Rockies have made a deal with the devil after all. The second tier includes James Loney (+29 RAR), Kevin Kouzmanoff (+27), Josh Hamilton (+27), and Yunel Escobar (+26).

Focusing on the top candidates, Braun’s mashing to the tune of .322/.366/.631 is truly impressive. Braun led all NL hitters with 300+ PA with that SLG, bettering his teammate Prince Fielder by fifteen points. Such a performance while playing a neutral position like third base would seem to make him a lock for the award.

As has been widely discussed in the sabermetric blogosphere, though, Braun’s defense seems to be truly dreadful. He comes in at -24 in Chone’s consensus and -14 in Chone’s own metric. Factoring this in, his 15 RAR lead over Pence and Tulowitzki is down to nothing.

If Tulowitzki and Pence were average defensive players, then I would still favor Braun, as I have far more confidence in the offensive statistics. That is not the case though. While Pence comes in as dead average in Chone’s figures, Tulowitzki comes out as a defensive star, with a +20 UZR adjusted to 150 games. This turns what would be a pick-em into a no-brainer: Troy Tulowitzki should be the NL Rookie of the Year.

Among pitchers, the top RAR figure was actually turned in by Philly’s Kyle Kendrick (+28), just a head of Tim Lincecum and Yovani Gallardo. One starter who deserves additional consideration is Micah Owings. Despite being just three runs above average and 23 above replacement, he came to the plate 62 times, hitting .333/.349/.683, good for 13 RC in 40 outs. An average pitcher would figure to create around one run in forty outs, so Owings added 12 runs with his bat, pulling up to +36 RAR. While I’m sure he will not maintain this prodigious offensive performance going forward, it had real value in 2007, and so he’ll crack my ballot.

As for the second-tier hitters, they all rate at about -3 defensively, so I’ll take Hamilton because he’s a warm and fuzzy story and played the toughest defensive position:

1) SS Troy Tulowitzki, COL
2) 3B Ryan Braun, MIL
3) CF Hunter Pence, HOU
4) SP Micah Owings, ARI
5) CF Josh Hamilton, CIN

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