First, a little history. The thing that makes the Rookie of the Year fundamentally different from the other awards, I think, is that, like wine* and REM albums, there are good years and bad.
*So I’m told. I don’t know wine.
This is somewhat true of other awards, of course. But only somewhat true. There is always a league MVP ... and year-to-year, decade after decade, the MVPs’ production will be fairly comparable. Oh, sure, there will be outliers on both sides, like a Barry Bonds in 2001 or a Dennis Eckersley in 1992 (huh?). But in general, the award winners all fit into a fairly small array. And over the years, the MVP numbers can look awfully similar.
2011: Ryan Braun: .332, 33 homers, 111 RBIs, 109 runs
2006: Justin Morneau, .321, 34 homers, 130 RBIs, 97 runs
1993: Frank Thomas, .317, 41 homers, 128 RBIs, 106 runs
1985: Don Mattingly, .324, 35 homers, 145 RBIs, 107 runs
1972: Dick Allen, .308, 37 homers, 113 RBIs, 90 runs
1962: Mickey Mantle, .321, 30 homers, 89 RBIs, 96 runs
1957: Hank Aaron, .322, 44 homers, 132 RBIs, 118 runs
And so on. Sure, there are various sizes and shapes of MVPs. Occasionally a high-average speedster like Ichiro or Maury Wills will win. Occasionally a shortstop without huge numbers who exemplifies leadership, like Barry Larkin or Zoilo Versalles, will win. But most of the time your MVP will look like a .300-plus hitter with a lot of homers and a lot of RBIs.
Cy Young Award winners look even more similar. There has been a shift in Cy Young Award thinking the last few years -- more on that when we get to the Cy later in the week -- but in general we get Cy Young winners who look very much like other Cy Young winners.
Justin Verlander, 2011, 24-5, 2.40 ERA
Randy Johnson, 2002, 24-15, 2.32 ERA
Roger Clemens, 1986, 24-4, 2.48 ERA
Dwight Gooden, 1985, 24-4, 1.53 ERA
Steve Carlton, 1980, 24-9, 2.34 ERA
Vida Blue, 1971, 24-8, 1.82 ERA
Denny McLain, 1969, 24-9, 2.80 ERA
Bobby Shantz, 1952, 24-7, 2.48 ERA
And those are just the 24-win seasons.
But Rookie of the Year? Well, a Rookie of the Year season can look like anything. It’s Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. One year you will get a Pat Listach or a Jerome Walton, another you will get a Mike Piazza or a Derek Jeter. Sometimes, the rookie is a fun and goofy home run hitter who kind of came out of nowhere, like Bob Hamelin or Super Joe Charboneau. Sometimes he is a wonderful pitching phenomenon who creates a whole baseball mania, like Mark Fidrych or Fernando Valenzuela or Dwight Gooden or Hideo Nomo. Sometimes he looks like a can’t-miss superstar, like Hanley Ramirez or Evan Longoria or Mark McGwire or Darryl Strawberry. Sometimes he’s just the best guy in an uninspiring crop, like Walt Weiss or Jason Jennings or Todd Hollandsworth.
Part of this is because there are not a lot of rookies to choose from in any given year. Since 1970 there have never been more than six first-year players who got 500 plate appearances and never more than seven first-year players who qualified for the ERA title. There are some second- and third-year players who are still technically “rookies,” and some relievers who are good Rookie of the Year candidates, but the point is that the field is very limited.
But there’s something else: The Rookie of the Year Award is kind of schizophrenic. The reason we usually care about it is because of the future -- the Rookie of the Year is someone we expect will become a big star. It’s like American Idol, only the voters aren’t picking the award based on promise or potential. The award is voted entirely based on the past -- the season that the rookies had. So in 1989, for instance, the voters certainly understood that Ken Griffey Jr. was much more likely to become a superstar than reliever Gregg Olson. But Olson had the better year by the numbers. He had a 1.69 ERA and 20 saves. Griffey hit .264 with 16 homers. WAR actually had their values being very close (Olson led 3.1 to 2.9) but the voters determined that Olson had the best rookie season, and so 26 of them voted him Rookie of the Year.*
*Well, looking back, I’d say that neither Olson nor Griffey had the best season. The best year was had by a rookie pitcher named Kevin Brown. But he finished sixth in the voting. It was a sign. For Brown’s entire career, voters would express disdain for him; he probably should have won two or three Cy Youngs, but instead won zero.
Because of this system, you will look back at Rookie of the Year balloting and see that Mike Hargrove won over George Brett; Gary Mathews won over Mike Schmidt; Bob Grim won over Al Kaline, Marty Cordova won over Andy Pettitte. But in those cases, the winner had better years than the player who would become the bigger star. There have been some years, though, when the voters just blew it:
2009: Chris Coughlan over Andrew McCutchen
WAR suggests that McCutchen (2.2) was a lot better than Coughlan (0.9) that year. Add this to the fact that he has become one of the game’s best players, while Coughlan has not, and, well, this was just a miss. McCutchen, even then, was just so much more dynamic a player than Coughlan -- more power, better speed, a much better defender. But Coughlan hit .321 and had more at-bats.
2008: Geovany Soto over Joey Votto
Votto had the higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and hit one more homer, and yet Soto won the Rookie of the Year Award in a landslide. Soto got off to a massive start, which undoubtedly affected the voting. Votto was the better hitter then. He’s obviously the better hitter now.
2004: Bobby Crosby over Zack Greinke
Crosby hit .239 but bashed 22 homers. Greinke went 8-11. Greinke was probably better anyway. He certainly wound up the better long-term choice.
1992: Pat Listach over Kenny Lofton
I have to say: I’m not exactly sure how this one happened. Lofton had the better on-base percentage and slugging percentage, he scored three more runs, hit four more homers and -- here’s the big thing -- while Listach stole an impressive 54 bases, Lofton stole 66 (and was caught six fewer times). Here were similar players, and Lofton was A LOT better than Listach. This just seems bizarre. And it wasn’t particularly close -- Listach got 20 of the 28 votes. Lofton would also go on to a 65 WAR career, which is borderline Hall of Fame, while Listach was never a full-time player again.
1986: Todd Worrell over Barry Bonds
There was no such thing as WAR in 1986 ... but if there had been, people would have been surprised to see that Bonds -- even hitting .223 -- had a higher WAR (3.3) than Worrell (2.4), who went 9-10 with 36 saves and a 2.08 ERA for the Cardinals. See, Bonds walked enough to get his OBP into the respectable .330 range, he hit 16 homers, he stole 36 bases, and he played a stellar center field. Bonds, incidentally, finished sixth in the balloting. But he finished first among rookies in WAR. So, yeah, chalk one up for the stat.*
*WAR doesn’t always name the player with the brightest future, though. In 1983 Darryl Strawberry won the Rookie of the Year, though several other players, including Mel Hall, Gary Redus, Billy Doran, Jose Deleon and Craig McMurtry finished with higher WAR. Strawberry ended up with the best career of the bunch (though Doran had a terrific career too).
1978: Bob Horner over Ozzie Smith
Smith’s WAR (3.0) was higher than Horner’s (2.0), but mainly because Horner only played half a season. He hit 23 homers in 323 at-bats, which wowed people more than Ozzie’s defensive pyrotechnics.
1977: Eddie Murray over Mitchell Page
Well, the writers got the future right -- Murray, obviously went on to the better career. But Page had a significantly better year (5.8 WAR) than Murray (2.9 WAR). Page hit 24 points better, his OBP was more than 70 points higher and he outslugged Murray by 50 points -- it wasn’t even close. But Murray won (I suspect because he hit more homers and drove in more runs) and, of course, Murray went on to a Hall of Fame career, while Page’s career sadly disintegrated, much of it through no fault of his own.
1964: Jim Lefebvre over Joe Morgan
Here comes a tangent: One of the more fascinating stories of the 1960s and early 1970s was how unappreciated Joe Morgan was as a young player. When the Reds made the blockbuster traded to get Morgan before the 1972 season, many people thought that they had lost their minds. They had traded away Lee May, who had hit 39, 34 and 38 homers the previous three seasons. They had also traded away Tommy Helms, a local boy and pal of Pete Rose, who had won Gold Gloves at second base the previous two seasons.
Morgan, meanwhile, had a lifetime .263 average, no renown as a defender and a reputation (an unfair one, as it turned out) as a malcontent.
Well, it seems to me that had Morgan won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1964 -- and he should have won it -- the reputation might have been different. And, absolutely, he should have won it. Look at the baseline numbers:
Jim Lefebvre: .250/.337/.369
Joe Morgan: .271/.373/.418
Morgan had more hits, doubles, triples, homers, stolen bases and walks than Lefebvre (who, it should be said, had a really good year). In fact, Morgan led the league in walks. Morgan scored 100 runs. Lefebvre played a better second base -- at least by the numbers of the time (Lefebvre made a startling 24 errors; but Morgan made 27) -- but really it seems almost impossible to look at the two seasons and pick Lefebvre. But the voters did -- undoubtedly pushed by the fact that Lefebvre was playing for the Dodgers, who would win the World Series.
What happens if Morgan wins Rookie of the Year? The next year he made the All-Star team. The year after that he stole 29 bases (second in the league) and in a pitcher-heavy year finished in the Top 10 in walks and triples. He was only 25, so at that point he might have been viewed as a superstar.
But, he wasn’t. He got hurt in 1968, and then had a hidden gem of a year in 1969, when he hit only .236 but walked 110 times, hit 15 homers and stole 49 bases. The next two years were like that too -- low averages, lots of walks, good power (much of it dampened by the Astrodome) and improving defense, and few paid much attention. But the Reds’ GM, Bob Howsam, was paying attention. And he made the trade.
And then, his first year in Cincinnati, voila, Morgan was the best player in baseball -- .292 average, led the league in on-base percentage, 16 homers, 58 stolen bases, league-leading 122 runs -- and would be for the next five seasons. Did it really happen that suddenly? Sure, some of it might be attributed to his friendship with Pete Rose, his playing in a better lineup, his enjoyment of being part of the Big Red Machine. But Joe Morgan was , in many ways, already a great player in Houston. And I think not winning the Rookie of the Year Award played a role in people missing that.
* * *
Obviously, this was a special year for rookie phenoms. Two rookies 20 or younger -- Mike Trout and Bryce Harper -- got 500 plate appearances. Just that -- just two 20-year-old rookies getting to bat 500 times in the same season -- has only happened six times in modern baseball history. It is a rare thing for a 20-year-old rookie (much less a 19-year-old) to play every day in the big leagues.
The previous seasons include:
1915: Rogers Hornsby at 20 hit .313 with 15 triples and went to the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest hitters ever; Whitey Witt hit .245 and went on to a 10-year, moderately successful career.
1940: Frankie Gustine at 20 hit .281 and went on to a 12-year career; Bob Kennedy at 19 hit .252 with three homers; he would play 16 years in the big leagues even though he lost three years to World War II.
1954: Hank Aaron at 20 hit .280 with 13 homers; he went on to be one of the greatest players in baseball history. Al Kaline at 19 hit .276 and he too went on to Hall of Fame greatness.
1963: Bob Bailey at 20 hit .228 with 12 homers, and he had a 17-year career; Rusty Staub at 19 hit .224 and finished his long career with 2,716 hits and 292 homers.
2010: Starlin Castro at 20 hit an even .300 and he has made the last two All-Star teams; Jason Heyward at 20 hit .277 with 18 homers and made the All-Star team.
So just having two every-day players that young is rare. But when you add in quality of play, this season is unprecedented. There has never been a season where two players, so young, played so well. Start with Harper, who will surely win the National League Rookie of the Year. Harper, of course, was probably the most hyped high school player since David Clyde. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old with the headline “Baseball’s Chosen One.”
Harper, at first, made a huge impact with his attitude -- one of the most memorable moments of the season was when Cole Hamels purposely plunked Harper, and Harper responded by stealing home. Well, lots of people didn’t like Harper’s in-your-face style. “He plays like me,” Pete Rose says, with pride in his voice, and yes, there’s a bit of Charlie Hustle in Harper. But for much of the year, his value was in his attitude. He struggled otherwise.
Then, the last month of the season, the guy offered a glimpse of what he might do in this game. The last 34 games, he hit .341 and slugged .690. He scored 31 runs in those 34 games. He was a force of nature. And he did not turn 20 until the season ended.
Of course, while Harper’s future seems pretty close to limitless, well, limitless is about how good Mike Trout is right now. Let’s use WAR again. There have been 12 players in baseball history, 20 or younger, who have posted a 5.0 WAR or better. The list is filled, almost exclusively, with Hall of Famers (HOF) or Will Be Hall of Famers (WB). Two of them are Harper and Trout.
1. Mike Trout, 10.7
2. Alex Rodriguez (WB), 9.2
3. Al Kaline (HOF), 8.0
4. Mel Ott (HOF), 7.3
5. Ted Williams (HOF), 6.6
6. Ty Cobb (HOF), 6.6
7. Jason Heyward, 6.3
8. Vada Pinson, 6.3
9. Mickey Mantle (HOF), 6.3
10. Frank Robinson (HOF), 6.2
11. Bryce Harper, 5.0
12. Ken Griffey Jr. (WB), 5.0
You will see Harper there, squeezed in between Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey Jr. Not a bad place to be. But you will notice Mike Trout on top ... by a lot.
Before Trout, the last rookie to have a 30-homer, 30-stolen base season was ... nobody, because it never happened. Before Trout, the last rookie to lead the league in stolen bases and runs scored was ... nobody again. His season was one of a kind, rarer even than a Triple Crown. Though we’ll get into that later in the week.
One more Mike Trout chart. Look at the greatest-ever rookie seasons (bold indicates league leader):
Mike Trout (age 20): .326, 30 homers, 49 stolen bases, 129 runs, 171 OPS+
Albert Pujols (age 21): .329, 47 doubles, 37 homers, 130 RBIs, 112 runs
Mark McGwire (age 23): .289, 49 homers, .617 slugging, 118 RBIs, 97 runs
Fred Lynn (age 23): .331, 47 doubles, 21 homers, .566 slugging, 103 runs
Tony Oliva (age 25): .323, 217 hits, 43 doubles, 32 homers, 109 runs
Dick Allen (age 22): .318, 13 triples, 29 homers, 91 RBIs, 125 runs
Joe DiMaggio (age 21): .323, 44 doubles, 15 triples, 29 homers, 125 RBIs, 132 runs
Ted Williams (age 20): .327, 44 doubles, 31 homers, 145 RBIs, 344 total bases
There were other rookies who had good years. Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes had a terrific season -- good enough to probably win the Rookie of the Year Award the last two or three years -- and he’s a blast to watch play. Yu Darvish was all but unhittable in his first eight starts and in his last six starts ... it was the stuff in the middle that was tough, but there’s still a huge future there. Arizona's Wade Miley had an excellent year (16-11, 3.33 ERA) -- he will probably get some votes. And Kansas City’s 22-year-old Salvadore Perez -- though not technically a rookie, I guess -- might be the best defensive catcher in the American League right now, and his bat has come along way faster than anyone expected.
But over time, 2012 will likely live on as the year that Mike Trout and Bryce Harper entered the stage. Mantle and Mays? Aaron and Clemente? Brett and Schmidt? That’s the beauty of rookies. It’s all possible.