September 22, 2003

The 2003 Aaron's Baseball Blog Awards: Rookie of the Year

Ideally, baseball's "official" awards would mean a lot. The MVP would really be the Most Valuable Player in the league, the Cy Young Award would go to the best pitcher, and the Rookie of the Year would have been the best rookie. Of course, that's not always how it goes.

There has been a major shift in the way votes are cast, particularly in the MVP balloting. As recently as a decade ago, it seemed like the voters genuinely tried to award the MVP to the player they felt had the best season (of course, in some cases they were wrong, but that's another issue). For the most part, that is no longer the case. Instead, voters now give the award to the player who had the best season...while playing for a contender and/or being a "good story."

In some cases, it seems like voters decide on the MVP extremely early in the year and then spend the rest of the season trying to find ways to either pump that player up or push another player down. Ichiro! got that treatment early this season and it only died down when he slumped horribly in the second-half, and even then the hype stopped begrudgingly. Albert Pujols was all but proclaimed the MVP after about two months of the season and I've read many articles in which it seems as though all the writer is trying to do is to fight off any and all competition for Pujols.

The same things happen in the other awards too. Dontrelle Willis burst onto the scene this year and Dontrelle-Mania! was all over the place. He was selected to the All-Star game on the basis of 82 major league innings and I can't begin to tell you how many Dontrelle Willis stories I saw in various media outlets. For the most part, that early hype has carried through the entire season and now, despite Willis clearly not being the best rookie in the National League (more on this in a moment), I believe he will win the NL ROY award in a landslide.

Now certainly, none of us are without biases and even the best of us are swayed by hype and media attention now and again. That said, when I decide how I would vote for these awards, I do so by asking myself one very simple question in each and every instance...

Who has been the best _____ in the league this season?

It's short, it's simple and it's to the point. And it works for every award.

For the MVP, insert "player." For the Cy Young, insert "pitcher." For the Rookie of the Year, insert "rookie." It even works for lesser awards. Basically, you name the award, and I can fit something into that blank space to make that one sentence work.

As I did last season, I wanted to make sure to voice my opinion and make my selections for all of the major awards this year. But the playoffs are starting next week and I'm fairly certain that'll be the main topic of discussion on this blog for the majority of the next several weeks, which doesn't leave much room or time for making award selections at the end of the season.

So, because of all of that, I am going to make my awards picks this week, starting today, despite there still being about a week's worth of games yet to be played. 97% of the season seems like it is enough for me to make my choices and if something extraordinary happens in the final few games, I can always amend my selections accordingly.

Today I'll make my picks for the AL and NL Rookie of the Year awards and I'll do the Cy Youngs and MVPs later this week (so make sure to come back!). Enjoy...

National League Rookie of the Year:

1) Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks

2) Dontrelle Willis, Florida Marlins

3) Scott Podsednik, Milwaukee Brewers

Let's talk about Scott Podsednik first and then deal with the two pitchers in a little bit.

Podsednik is a minor league veteran who made his major league debut with the Seattle Mariners, back in 2001. He got 6 at bats with Seattle that year and then 20 more with them in 2002. The Brewers claimed him off waivers last off-season and he's had a hell of a year for them in 2003.

Podsednik began the year as a bench player/spot-starter and played off and on throughout the first month of the year, starting just 9 of the team's first 37 games. After a good first month in limited action, the Brewers gave Podsednik a shot at the everyday center field job in mid-May. He took it and hasn't looked back.

Podsednik is batting .315/.380/.427 on the year, with 95 runs scored and 42 stolen bases. A left-handed batter, he's been particularly good against right-handed pitching (.332/.398/.435), but has held his own against lefties too (.266/.331/.406).

Among NL center fielders, Podsednik ranks 3rd in both "Runs Above Replacement Position" (31.3) and "Value Over Replacement Position" (38.6), behind only Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones in both metrics.

At 27 years old, Podsednik doesn't have nearly as much potential as some of his fellow 2003 NL rookies. And, with a .283/.339/.419 career hitting line in Triple-A, it's quite possible he has been hitting over his head this season. Even if both of those things are true, he has definitely had one of the best seasons of any rookie in the National League and he's been a very valuable pickup for the Brewers.

Okay, now that I've talked about Podsednik a little, let's get to the interesting stuff...

I am almost certain that, when the actual voting is done, Dontrelle Willis will win the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year award. And I am even more certain that he doesn't deserve it.

Let's compare Willis with the man I've chosen as my NL Rookie of the Year, Brandon Webb:

             IP     ERA     W    L    SO9    BB9    HR9    OAVG   SO/BB

Webb 172.2 2.50 10 7 8.6 3.2 0.5 .206 2.66
Willis 149.2 3.37 13 6 8.0 3.2 0.8 .248 2.51

Innings, ERA, strikeouts, strikeout/walk ratio, homers, opponent batting average - Brandon Webb has been better and, in some cases, significantly better. But Dontrelle has those 13 wins and Webb has "only" 10 and when you take that into account, along with all the hype Willis has gotten, there is no doubt in my mind that Willis will be the Rookie of the Year.

Webb has pitched 15% more innings than Willis and he has an ERA nearly 35% lower than Dontrelle's. He also has a strikeout rate that is about 8% better and is holding opponents to a batting average 42 points lower.

Not shown above are two pitchers' opponent slugging percentages. Willis is allowing batters to slug .395 against him, which is over 100 points higher than Webb's .294 opponent slugging percentage. In fact, not only is Webb's slugging percentage against about 34% better than Willis', it is the best opponent slugging percentage of any starting pitcher in all of major league baseball. Think about that for a minute.

And all of that is despite the fact that Brandon Webb pitches half his games in Bank One Ballpark, one of the best hitter's parks in baseball, while Dontrelle Willis pitches half his games in Pro Player Stadium, one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball. When you take all the numbers at face-value, it isn't particularly close. When you consider the different ballparks involved, the gap becomes pretty massive.

But again, Dontrelle has those 13 wins and all that hype, and those are two things that I suspect are much too strong for baseball writers to fight against.

If you look at some of the more advanced pitching metrics, Brandon Webb's advantage over Willis becomes even greater...


Webb 60.6
Willis 32.9

According to VORP, Webb has been nearly twice as valuable over a "replacement-level" pitcher as Willis has been. Webb's 60.6 VORP ranks him 2nd among all National League pitchers (behind only Jason Schmidt), while Willis' 32.9 VORP ranks him 21st.

            Win Shares

Webb 17.01
Willis 12.33

According to "Win Shares" Webb has been about 38% better than Willis this year. Webb's 17.01 Win Shares ranks him as the 9th-best pitcher in the NL. Willis' 12.33 WS put him 22nd.

I don't want to say something overly dramatic, like "anyone who votes for Dontrelle Willis over Brandon Webb should have their voting privileges taken away," but that's essentially how I feel. This is not a close contest and if a person can't see that Brandon Webb has been better than Dontrelle Willis this season, it is ridiculous to think that that person actually plays a part in determining which baseball players win awards every year.

American League Rookie of the Year:

Over in the American League, there aren't any rookie pitchers having years anywhere close to Brandon Webb or even Dontrelle Willis, but there are quite a few hitters who have put together very solid rookie seasons.

1) Angel Berroa, Kansas City Royals

2) Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees

3) Rocco Baldelli, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

For the most part, I think the AL Rookie of the Year race was pretty much decided earlier in the year, just like in the National League. Whereas Dontrelle Mania! took the NL by storm and basically wrapped up the award regardless of actual qualifications, Hideki Matsui had a leg up on the AL competition from the very beginning, courtesy of all the hype and attention he got nationally. And, just like Dontrelle, Matsui is completely undeserving of the award (which I think he will win).

That's not to say Matsui hasn't had a very nice season, just that, like Willis, it has been nowhere near as good as another rookie in his league.

Compare the following two rookies:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     SB      EqA

Angel Berroa .292 .341 .457 16 20 .270
Hideki Matsui .287 .350 .438 16 3 .278

Those are two very similar offensive seasons. Differences of 5 points in batting average, 9 points in on-base percentage and 19 points in slugging percentage. Matsui has an 8-point edge in Equivalent Average, because of the OBP edge and because he plays in a fairly neutral home ballpark, while Berroa plays in a hitter's paradise.

Based on those numbers, I would certainly give the edge to Hideki Matsui. When you dig a little deeper though, things change quite a bit.

Angel Berroa plays shortstop, arguably the most important and most difficult defensive position. Hideki Matsui has played both left field and center field this season, but has been primarily a left fielder.

Now take a look at how the "average" major league shortstop hits and how the "average" major league left fielder hits:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      EqA

Shortstop .266 .327 .402 .255
Left Field .280 .357 .467 .284

When compared to the other players at their positions, Berroa and Matsui come out on completely different ends of the spectrum. Matsui and his .350 OBP and .438 SLG are both below-average for a major league left fielder, and his EqA of .278 is about 2% worse than average. On the other hand, Berroa and his .341 OBP and .457 SLG are both significantly better than the average major league shortstop and his EqA of .270 is about 6% better than average.

And that's just on offense. When you take defensive contributions into account, that is when it starts to become a blowout in Berroa's favor.

Early in the year, Berroa had a lot of problems with errors, committing 19 in his first 63 games. As the year went on, he became very sure-handed and he has made just 5 errors in his last 88 games. Of course, I generally don't even pay attention to errors because of the massive amount of flaws involved in using that stat to judge defensive play, but it is worth noting that he has made a huge improvement in at least one aspect of his game.

I have watched Berroa play at least a couple dozen times this season and I think he is a good defensive shortstop, and the numbers would seem to back me up.

Among American League shortstops, Berroa ranks 1st in Range Factor (4.80), 6th in Zone Rating (.859) and 2nd in double plays turned (103). He also ranks 6th among AL shortstops in defensive Win Shares.

Meanwhile, Hideki Matsui is a left fielder. I have watched him quite a bit this year too, albeit less than I've seen Berroa, and I generally think he is a solid defensive left fielder and was even passable in his stint in center field. Of course, most of the numbers disagree with my personal observations. Among the 8 AL left fielders who have played regularly there all year, Matsui ranks 7th in Zone Rating (.844), ahead of only Manny Ramirez. In fact, among all major league left fielders with everyday playing time, Matsui's Zone Rating ranks 18th, again ahead of only Ramirez.

Win Shares (which doesn't break down outfielders into left, center and right) ranks Matsui 24th among AL outfielders defensively. With his time in CF factored in, it's tough to say whether that is a good ranking or a bad one. There are 6 left fielders ahead of him however, so it's probably not great.

But let's give Matsui the benefit of the doubt and say that he is an above-average left fielder. Even with that, the gap between he and Berroa is a big one. Berroa plays a more important and valuable defensive position and he plays it better than Matsui plays his position. And Berroa's offense has been better than the average shortstop, while Matsui's offense has been worse than the average left fielder.

In looking at some of the more advanced performance metrics, the gap between the two becomes quite clear...


Berroa 26.9
Matsui 23.2

Berroa 34.1
Matsui 21.1

Berroa holds a 16% edge in RARP and a 62% advantage in VORP. And those are just counting offensive value. You add in Berroa's defensive edge and I think it's pretty clear who the better rookie has been.

Of course, Berroa and Matsui aren't the only contenders. Tampa Bay center fielder Rocco Baldelli has gotten a lot of attention of his own this season and has had a very solid year. He's hitting .289/.326/.419 with 11 homers, 32 doubles, 7 triples and 24 steals.

Here is how Baldelli and Berroa, along with a couple of other potential candidates, Mark Teixeira and Jody Gerut, compare in RARP and VORP:


Berroa 34.1
Gerut 20.1
Baldelli 16.9
Teixeira 15.8

Berroa 34.1
Baldelli 19.8
Gerut 18.6
Teixeira 14.6

The gap between Berroa and Baldelli offensively is even bigger than the gap between Berroa and Matsui. And that is accounting for the fact that Baldelli plays center field, a much less offensive position than left field. With Teixeira and Gerut, Berroa has a big edge offensively and he plays shortstop, whereas Teixeira has played primarily first base and Gerut has been mainly a corner outfielder.

So, unless you think either Baldelli, Gerut or Teixeira has been significantly more valuable defensively than Angel Berroa (which is very unlikely), I think it's pretty clear Berroa beats them out too.

In the end, my vote goes to Berroa, because he has produced as well or better than any of the other rookie hitters offensively, and he's done so while playing a premium defensive position and playing it very well. Of course, just like in the National League, I highly doubt the most deserving player will win the award and I would guess that Berroa won't even finish 2nd.

All of which brings me back to my point about the awards not meaning as much as they should. They're still fun to argue about though...

Link of the Day:

Will Carroll Weblog

Today's picks:

San Francisco (Schmidt) -110 over Houston (Miller)

Total to date: + 3,095

W/L record: 240-236 (1-0 yesterday for +135 and back over 3,000 yet again.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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