American League Rookie of the Year

By Jason Wojciechowski on October 9, 2010 at 4:40 PM

The National League Rookie of the Year race is where the action is, with two obvious candidates (Posey and Heyward) as well as a few ballers who had excellent seasons but were overlooked (Jaime Garcia, Neil Walker). The AL hasn't been brimming with tyro talent, so I'll tackle that race today and leave the NL for later.

My list of contenders is taken from the rookie-VORP lists on Baseball Prospectus (position players, pitchers), the only "rookies only" lists that I'm aware of on the advanced-stats sites. I'll be overinclusive to start because what's the harm? The list, then: Austin Jackson (the faorite all along), Danny Valencia (who hit quite well in a half-season with the Twins), John Jaso (old rookie, but a very good OBP-based catcher), Carlos Santana (hardly played, but his hitting can't be ignored), Wade Davis (pretty nice season from a guy in the rotation all year), Neftali Feliz (prime-time reliever), and Brian Matusz (see Davis).

Austin Jackson played center field all year for the Tigers, appearing in 151 games as a slightly above-average hitter, mostly due to a historically high BABIP (.396) that allowed him to reach a batting average just shy of .300 despite a league-leading 170 strikeouts. His lack of power and mediocre walk rate meant that he was only worth about two runs above average with his bat, however (Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Statcorner all more or less agree on this). He added about three runs to that based on good base-stealing, however, nabbing 27 in 33 attempts. Further, Baseball Prospectus has him adding another four runs through above-average basepath advancement in non-stolen-base situations. Jackson's total offensive contributions, then, come to about nine runs above average.

Danny Valencia appeared in just 85 games for the Twins, 81 at third base, but he hit pretty well: .351 OBP, .448 SLG. (I'd take that in Oakland.) Like Jackson, these numbers were batting average / BABIP driven, as Valencia's .345 BABIP helped him along to a .311 average. Unlike Jackson, Valencia didn't add anything on the basepaths (and indeed, according to Baseball Prospectus, actually took a little bit off, racking up -0.4 runs through his legs). Baseball-Reference's (i.e. Sean Smith's) batting runs has Valencia at +6, while Fangraphs reads +8 and Statcorner pegs him at +5. A little bit of that is the inclusion in Fangraphs's number of Valencia's two steals (no times caught), but the rest is who knows what -- differing run environment calculations, perhaps? I don't want to just average, but this ain't brain surgery, it's a fake award vote in baseball, so: +6.

John Jaso, who I just saw hit a go-ahead single for the Rays against the Rangers in Game 3 of their ALDS, is a high-OBP, no-pop catcher. Lucky for him, high OBP matters a lot more than no-pop. Fangraphs has Jaso's .372-OBP season worth +8 (including his four steals without being caught), and Baseball-Reference gives him eight runs with the bat and another one on the bases, but Baseball Prospectus has his overall baserunning contribution at almost exactly average, as his other jogging exploits cancel out his +1 base-stealing. Since Statcorner has Jaso closer to seven runs than eight, we'll call him +7 with the bat and be done with it.

Finally, Carlos Santana. Nobody's going to take him seriously, since he managed just 46 games and 192 PAs, but the guy did hit .401 OBP, .467 SLG in that short time, even stealing three bases, adding up to a +12 from Baseball-Reference, +9 from Statcorner, and +10 from Fangraphs. His baserunning, as you might expect given that he played fewer than 50 games, was negligible. Call him +10, and our leader at the turn.

Games played at particular positions matters, and this is where we're going to lose Carlos Santana, who gets a +2 positional adjustment but just +6 more to account for replacement level. Jaso, with about double the games at catcher (but also a double-handful of appearances at DH), comes in at +4 (Baseball-Reference) or +5 (Fangraphs) and +14 for his slightly-more-than-half-season of games. Danny Valencia's position is essentially average at +1, and his half-season of games gets him +11 above replacement. Austin Jackson gets +2 for being a center fielder and +23 for replacement level.

Between offense, position, and games played, then, Austin Jackson stands at +34, Danny Valencia at +18, John Jaso at +25, and Carlos Santana at +18. It's highly unlikely that Carlos Santana could make up 16 runs on defense in his quarter-season of games played, so he drops out. Valencia gets the same treatment despite twice the games played. This leaves Jaso, with a nine-run gap to make up. Given three straight years of poor marks for defense in his Baseball Prospectus writeups (2007-09), I think it's fair to assume he wasn't ten or more runs better than Jackson on defense. Austin Jackson, then, is our winner among position players. How does he match up with the pitchers?

For now, at least, I favor the Fangraphs method for calculating pitcher wins: FIP (not xFIP, not a batted-ball metric, and not actual runs allowed) to remove the defense (though not completely, since catcher-framing probably matters, dropped popups happen from time to time, and the defense contributes to base-runner situations that can change pitching approaches) but not strip out bad luck on home runs (on the theory that, well, those runs scored, after all). While the "Calculating WAR" series of posts does not appear to mention leverage (and chaining) for bullpenners, a 2010 post by Dave Cameron makes clear that leverage and chaining are part of reliever WAR. What this means, happily, is that I don't have to go through the above machinations for the pitchers. I can just tell you what Fangraphs says and see whether any of the hurlers compares with Austin Jackson's +34 runs.

Without further ado, then. Wade Davis had a solid season by ERA, but his mediocre strikeout numbers resulted in just a 4.79 FIP, and thus +8 runs.

Neftali Feliz, by contrast, had an excellent year, striking out more than a man per inning with low walk and homer rates, adding up to a sub-3 FIP. As a reliever, though, he only got to throw 69 innings, so he winds up at just +17 runs. Since Austin Jackson was very likely not -17 on defense, Feliz is also out of the running.

Brian Matusz finished with a slightly worse ERA than Wade Davis, but a superior FIP at 4.05. He threw about the same number of innings, but those 0.8 runs per nine really add up, as he finished the year +26. That's in the realm of discussion with Jackson, but it's again implausible that Matusz was almost a full win better than Jackson on defense.

Austin Jackson, then, leads the next-best guy, pitcher or hitter, by almost a win before defense comes into play. Since Jackson seems likely to be at least an average center-fielder (John Sickels and Baseball America both said good things about his defense in 2010, his UZR came in at +4, DRS at +21 (!), and Total Zone at -4), or close enough to it that his closest competitor, probably doesn't make up the gap, I'm happy to give Jackson my vote.