Pick your favorite rookie

With only a few games left to play, the National League Rookie of the Year award is far from settled. In recent years, stud prospects like Ryan Braun, Hanley Ramirez and Ryan Howard have posted strong rookie seasons to earn the award, but there is no clear front-runner this year.

The closest we have to anointed future stars are Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson. Some fans expected Colby Rasmus of the Cardinals to fit that bill, but his second half at the plate has relegated him to second-tier status.

It’s easy to come up with 10 or 12 names that will each garner some votes. It’s tougher to settle on a handful of favorites. I’ll try to present the cases for five candidates in some detail, then throw in some honorable mentions. Feel free to place your votes in the comments.

Tommy Hanson

Even though it’s been years since the era of Glavine, Smoltz and Avery, there’s a certain mystique whenever a highly touted Braves pitching prospect arrives. Hanson had that imprimatur, and he delivered.

He debuted in early June and didn’t get hit with a loss until his ninth start, on July 25. His stat line couldn’t look much better: 11-4, 2.98 ERA, 107 strikeouts against 44 walks in 120 innings. Had he performed at that pace for six months instead of four, he would get some Cy Young Award votes, as well.

J.A. Happ

Happ will see Hanson’s 11-4, 2.98 ERA, and raise him a 12-4, 2.85 ERA. If you had to pick a pitcher to build your team around, you’d definitely take Hanson, but it’s arguable who has done more for his team this season.

Happ started the year in the bullpen, making a dozen appearances, striking out 17 in 19.2 innings. He made his first start on May 23 and, again bettering Hanson, didn’t lose a decision until two months later. He’s only had a couple of hiccups in the rotation, throwing two shutouts amid 14 quality starts.

Happ may get a few cheap votes as the best candidate from a playoff team. He might also benefit if voters see him as a full-season contributor in comparison to the players who spent April and May in the minors.

Andrew McCutchen

If we go strictly by Wins Above Replacement, McCutchen is your man, at 3.0, compared to 2.6 for Randy Wells and 2.4 for Garrett Jones. That’s all the more impressive because the Pirates didn’t recall their young center fielder until the beginning of June.

Since then, McCutchen has done two difficult things: hit major league pitching, and play a credible center field. There was no awkward transition period, as he hit .400 in his first 25 at-bats. He’s suffered through a bit of a September swoon, but that has to be weighed against his sparkling .304/.387/.618 August.

McCutchen and Hanson are very similar candidates: mega-prospects made good from June to September. A weak Pirates club isn’t going to help McCutchen’s candidacy, but without a clear alternative, it’s easy to see him winning the award anyway.

Casey McGehee

McGehee is a surprisingly strong candidate. The 26-year-old reclamation project has hit .300, slugged .500 and saved the Brewers from giving Bill Hall even more playing time. (The downside: He’s kept the Brewers from giving Mat Gamel playing time, as well.)

His offense is more impressive than you might think. Despite coming into the season with an unclear role—perhaps a platoon mate, maybe a utilityman—he performed credibly (.344 OBP) in 32 pinch-hit plate appearances, and he has almost identical lefty-righty splits.

The big question mark is his defense. He played some second base, but that was born of desperation. UZR doesn’t like him at third, and I don’t think you’ll find many fans who will defend his glovework. McGehee may not be the best candidate, but between his shiny .300 average and the Brewers’ campaign to get him votes, we’ll be hearing a lot more about him until the results are announced.

Randy Wells

Measured by WAR, Wells (2.6) has had a better season than either Hanson (2.3) or Happ (1.8). Six months ago, that was unthinkable. He has a more pedestrian win-loss record (11-10), which will hurt him among more traditional voters, but he has made more starts than Hanson or Happ, and he hasn’t had a single outing in which he gave up more than five earned runs. (The flip side is that he’s had four of those five-run outings, all since Aug. 9.)

It’s tough to imagine Wells getting enough votes, especially since the Cubs have fallen out of the race. A case can be made for him, though, as the player who best saved his team from disaster. Little was expected of him this year, but as the Cubs lost man after man to injury, Wells served as the innings eater the team didn’t know it needed. He’s the pitching version of Casey McGehee.

Also in the running

Five more names for your consideration:

  • Everth Cabrera (SD): The Rule 5 pick made good. You can make a case for him if you like his glove, but the advanced stats sure don’t.

  • Chris Coghlan (FLA): Great bat (.319/.389/.457), but weak glove in LF, and who outside of the division has heard of him?
  • Dexter Fowler (COL): His 27 stolen bases will get attention, but he’s got ugly home-away splits, which isn’t a good thing for a Rockies hitter whose season OPS is under .800.
  • Garrett Jones (PIT): 21 home runs and a .301 average since the beginning of July, but it’s tough to give a full-season award to somebody for a great half-season on a bad team.
  • Colby Rasmus (STL): Three months ago he had the award wrapped up. Then he not only fell apart, but McCutchen also came along and did everything better. Rasmus is the superior defender, but his second-half OPS is a dreadful .596.

My vote is for McCutchen, Hanson and McGehee, in that order. But in a race this close, if you ask me again tomorrow, I may well change my mind.

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  1. John Dorhauer said...

    Its Tommy Hanson. As a die-hard Cardinal fan, I hate not picking Rasmus – but he hasn’t performed. Tommy is a stud. I watched him in the Fall League, and saw what he had first hand but wondered how he would translate that in the bigs. He did not disappoint – he proved his worth at the top level of the game. He is not only the best rookie in this batch, he projects as the best for years to come.

  2. Brian said...

    Unless something drastic happens in their final starts, I don’t see how it’s even defensible to choose Hanson over Happ.

    Hanson pitched to a 2.98 ERA and 1.19 WHIP over 120 innings.  Happ meanwhile posted basically the same ratios (2.85 and 1.22) over 164 innings, in a better hitters’ park.

    For that matter Wells put up a 3.18 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in fewer innings than Happ.

    It’s always hard to compare hitters to pitchers but among the pitchers Happ clearly had the best season.

  3. Devon said...

    J.A. Happ’s Home ERA is 4.04 (69 IP), but on the road he’s 1.99 (95 IP)!! I haven’t looked too deep, but I’m pretty sure the 1.99 road ERA is closer to his true value as a pitcher than the 4.04, due to the park effects of Citizens Bank. Hanson’s split is 3.34 (Home) and 2.61 (road). My vote slips over to Happ.

  4. Brady Slater said...

    Hanson performed to hype, fitting right in as a pillar in that rotation and helping lift the Braves back into contention. He’s the pick. Happ’s role in Philly is far more fluid. He was a surprise, but not a necessity the way Hanson was for ATL. McCutchen, Rasmus, Fowler … what a future in CF!

  5. Michael said...

    I know that Randy Wells won’t win the award (not after the last month and a half), but that he isn’t mentioned in Buster Olney’s breakdown of the top NL ROY candidates.  Instead of McGeehee and Wells, he includes Coghlan and Jones.  The latter two are better “prospects,” but haven’t had better 1st-year seasons than Wells and McGeehee.  I don’t really know the history of voters favoring better prospects, but this would seem to be an instance of Olney suggesting they do, right?

  6. Doug said...

    I think Hanson will win it, but I think that McCutcheon deserves it for the reasons mentioned above.

    As for McGehee, he is having a nice year, very unexpected, but if he finishes anywhere above 4th, its more evidence that the voters don’t know very much.  This whole “campaign” business is garbage.  Maybe if the Brewers spent less money on PR and more on players and player development, they wouldnt be looking at yet another losing season.

  7. Jeff Sackmann said...

    @Brian – The biggest difference in performance shows up in peripherals.  Happ has a 4.34 FIP with a ridiculously high strand rate.  Hanson is at 3.61.  Some of that can probably be ascribed to CBP being homer-happy, but not all of it, as Hanson K’s 1.5 more per 9 and walks about the same number.

    @Doug – I feel the same way about campaigning for awards and all-star spots, etc., but there are few PR teams in baseball better than the Brewers.  They’ve built a lot of excitement about the team in Milwaukee and kept a lot of going this year despite a disappointing performance on the field.  You certainly can’t fault MIL for not spending on players or player development—the payroll keeps going up and they are among the top spenders in the draft as well.

  8. Brian said...

    @Brady – You’re correct that Hanson helped lift the Braves into contention.  By the same token, Happ helped lift the Phillies to the division title.  And his fluid role is another thing in his favor.  He made a seamless transition from the bullpen to starting when that was what the team needed.

    @Jeff – Right, Happ’s success this year has come in large part from pitching really well with men on base.  While his high strand rate might suggest a regression in future years, it shouldn’t be counted against him for this year’s awards.

  9. Nick Steiner said...

    Right, Happ’s success this year has come in large part from pitching really well with men on base.  While his high strand rate might suggest a regression in future years, it shouldn’t be counted against him for this year’s awards.

    Yes, but his .266 BABIP should.

  10. Sirspud said...

    Wow, I can’t believe I read this and Chris Coghlan isn’t even mentioned among your top candidates.  If nobody outside of his division knows, then I think that’s a slight to guys like you who should be taking of just how good this guy has been.  He has done things that no other rookie has done- namely set hit records for August and September.  Also, i believe he may have lead all NL players in interleague hits this year. There isn’t another rookie out there that you can say that about.  And unlike most of your other listees, Coghlan has performed over a 500 at bat season, and performed extremely well, which I think is much more impressive than these flash in a pan 360 at bat guys, who easily could have slumped and wrecked their numbers in a full season.  As far as J.A. Happ and Tommy Hanson, these guys have performed really well, but over about 20 starts.  Let them start 10 more games and sustain their performance.

    I also don’t really agree with the weak defensive claim.  While Coghlan is not a gold glove candidate, he was thrown out in LF with no prior experience and more than held his own, never at any time being a liability.

    I can understand making a case for others besides Coghlan for ROY, but to merely mention him in a footnote is a mockery.  Sustaining a .319 average with pretty good pop over 500 at bats is impressive for anyone, not just a rookie.

  11. Joe said...

    I’m as big a fan of using advanced stats in deciding post season awards as anybody, but I have a hard time waving away 43 1/3 extra innings at a 2.49 ERA with the argument that his BABIP was unsustainably low.  In this case I’d rather vote for results than components, and the 36% greater workload has to have some weight as well.

  12. Nick Steiner said...

    Joe – the whole point of Defense Independent Pitching stats are to separate pitching and defense.

    Say you have two pitchers on different teams.  One has a defense behind him that has saved roughly 30 runs above average (let’s call them the Phillies), and the other has a defense behind him that’s allowed roughly 30 runs below average (let’s call them the Braves). 

    Each of these pitchers face 50 batters, strike out 20, walk 5, allow 5 home runs and 20 balls in play (of equal quality).  The good defensive team is only going to give up 5 hits on those balls in play, while the bad one will give up 10.  Accordingly the pitcher with the better defense behind him will have a better ERA than the pitcher with the worse defense behind him.  Would you say that pitcher actually performed any better?  Of course not; his defense did. 

    So when you see that Happ’s BABIP is .266, that implies that the defense performed particularly well with him on the mound.  He absolutely should not be given credit for that.

  13. Dylan said...

    I have to agree with Joe. With end of the years awards, you have to go with actual preformance, not who projects to be better in the future. To me it like picking the regular season champs based on Third-order wins.

  14. Nick Steiner said...

    That’s true Dylan.  However, it’s imperative to separate pitcher performance and defense performance.  That means you can’t use ERA.

    The problem with FIP or tRA is that they eliminate timing also, which obviously relates heavily to pitcher performance.  So I would suggest using something like tRA/24 if that makes sense to you.

  15. Dave Studeman said...

    On the other hand, BABIP or DER is a very rough tool to separate fielding and pitching.  In fact, I think the logic behind removing it from consideration is often flawed.

    I’ve looked at this issue in the past and concluded that roughly half the credit for DER variances belongs to fielding prowess (as measured through UZR or whatever) and half due to “lucky placement” of the batted ball (in other words, in a typical fielder’s zone).  I would further hypothesize that extreme differences in DER are much more due to “lucky placement” than fielding.

    So who should get credit for that? Certainly not the fielders, right?  They were sitting where the ball was hit.  In my book, the pitcher should get credit for it.

    Now, I agree wholeheartedly that this isn’t likely to be a strongly repeatable skill. But end-of-the-year awards should be based on real results, not regressed true talent.  Just like pennants are decided on real wins, not pythagorean wins.

  16. Alex said...

    Coghland has been one of the best hitters in baseball since the All-Star break, he has over 100 hits in August and September. He does this playing a position he has never played before at any level. I’m shocked that he is just an honorable mention.

  17. ctina2277 said...

    The fact that no one outside of the division has heard of Chris Coghlan and that this is your justification for not including him as your top rookies is only a testament of your incompetence Jeff Sackmann and unsatisfactory research. Coghlan has the highest BA of all contending rookies and the highest OBP. He also leads all rookies in AB’s and has been able to sustain his batting average throughout his time with the Marlins. Coghlan leads all rookies in hits, runs, total bases and has the most hits in the entire MLB (not just rookies) since the all-star break. He leads rookies in multi-hit games. He is also only the 2nd NL rookie in the last 60 years to produce 47 or more hits in a month… and he did it in both August and September. Need I continue?
    Furthermore, your argument that “who outside the division has heard of him” not only makes you seem ignorant, it is also false. Buster Olney has spoken well of Coghlan and has written about him, Ken Rosenthal said that Coghlan was his favorite to win NL ROY on MLB Network and if you did a bit more research instead of focusing on the “high profile” rookies you’d know that, although he is not as well represented as other rookies, he is certainly in the top three.
    If your only slight to Coghlan is his glove work, you should take note that prior to starting with the Marlins in LF, Coghlan only started one game in the minor leagues in the OF. He is a natural 2nd baseman. Also, as the season has progressed he has improved his defense considerably.
    A very disappointing, albeit not surprising, article.

  18. Jeff Sackmann said...


    Hey, you spelled my name right!

    I don’t get this “he just changed positions” argument.  That makes him a gamer, a useful guy to have on your team, but it doesn’t make him *good at playing left field*.  I’m looking at value, and he leaks value like crazy playing LF.  UZR has him at something like -10 runs.  That knocks his overall WAR down to 8th out of the 10 guys on this list, ahead only of Fowler and Cabrera, way behind Wells and Jones.  Not his fault that he’s playing out of position, but it makes him a much less valuable player.  If they gave silver slugger awards for rookies, I’d hope he got one.

    I thought it would be evident from context and tone that the reference to who had heard of him had to do with *whether he would get votes* from the mainstream media.  Apparently it was not.

  19. Dan said...

    Chris Coghlan is leading the Majors in BA since the break. (if I’m not mistaken).  Check that out, and get back to me about not having him as one of the top rookies.

  20. Adam W. said...

    Coghlan VORP: 32.7
    McCutchen VORP: 31.9

    Coghlan VORP/PA: .256
    McCutchen VORP/PA: .278

    This really isn’t the slam-dunk case some commenters are making it out to be.

  21. Erick said...

    When was the last time voters looked at defense, anyways?

    A good portion of the voters probably don’t even know what UZR is.

    They’ll look at offensive statistics for position players, and all things considered…offensively, there has been no better rookie in the National League than Chris Coghlan this year.

  22. Adam W. said...

    No one is saying that Coghlan hasn’t had a good season. What we are saying is his range in LF is Brad Hawpe – level bad, and the offensive difference between Coghlan and McCutchen isn’t very pronounced:

    Coghlan 551 PA, .318/.387/.454, .363 BABIP
    McCutchen: 479 PA, .283/.357/.469, .325 BABIP

    McCutchen’s better defense at a premium position is more than enough to make him a better ROY candidate. However, you can see that McCutchen has the superior second-order hitting skills as well.

    Regardless, I can’t see the award not going to Hanson or Charlie Happ… and probably Happ on the strength of the Phillies’ record.

  23. javier valdes said...

    why not Chris Coghlan he play very well for rookies and got rookies award too for month of aug look how he play before voting he did well

  24. Adam W. said...

    “Don’t bother, they’ll probably pull out some kind of mathematical formula disproving Chris Coghlan’s very existence.”


  25. Erick said...

    So I see my question still hasn’t been answered (expected).

    Since you guys are so into defense for this award though…Casey McGehee? Really? Over Coghlan? Ok.

  26. bk said...

    while coghlan isn’t as big a name as say hanson, and his defense in the OF isn’t that good, he deserves to be made a frontrunner in the nl roy disucssion. sure advanced stats have him being a bad OF, but like people mentioned before me he was dumped in the OF. the fact that he has performed so well in his non-natural position if it can’t be reflected as a plus, should at least be seen as something that doesn’t hurt him more than a little.

    like the others before me i’m a bit dissapointed how coghlan was made a footnote. and i’ve known about coghlan since the end of last yr. where do i live? hong kong.

  27. Nick Steiner said...

    bk – As a Cardinals fan, I’m just as disappointed to see Rasmus as a footnote, when I watched him play all the time and come to love him. 

    Of course, I also realize that the evidence suggests that he hasn’t played as well as the other candidates that Jeff highlighted – just as you, and the others, should realize about Coghlan.

  28. ctina2277 said...

    Jeff, I never wrote Coghlan was a great defensive LF’er. I wrote he was playing a new position and he has made progress in the OF which is to be expected as a rookie, growing pains only further exacerbated by unfamiliarity.

    Secondly, those who are avid fans of the sport and cast votes, I would expect for them to have done better research than you when voting. So your argument of -who knows Coghlan out of the division- is invalid.

    Thirdly, even the analysts on MLB Network said that defense is hardly taken into account for ROY voting. Perhaps if it came down to McCutchen and Coghlan in the voting, one would give the vote to McCuthchen for his superior defense but I doubt it would even come to that. Without a doubt, Coghlan has been the best offensive NL rookie.

    Lastly, I really think you simply put Coghlan as a footnote in the article because he doesn’t play for the “sexy” big market team or maybe because he isn’t on Sports Center every night. Either way, if you were going by stats or how they have helped their team, Coghlan would be more than a footnote. He was one of- if not the- main reason the Marlins were in contention until the final week of the season.

    As I said in my last post, disappointing but I wouldn’t expect anything less.

  29. Adam W. said...

    I’m aware of the shortcomings of VORP. However, people in this thread seem to want to make the case that defense is irrelevant, and VORP at least attempts to measure a player’s total offensive contribution while also adjusting for position.

  30. FloridaFly said...

    Hey… guess who leads the NL in OBP for leadoff hitters? And has shattered numerous rookie records? Andrew McCutchen? Nope.

    I can see your arguement for Tommy Hanson or for JA Happ, but I can not see ANYONE placing another position player ahead of Chris Coghlan. If they do, they are just ignorant.

  31. Dave Studeman said...

    I agree that there’s a clash in perspective in Jeff’s article, giving Coghlan a low rating because of his defense, which most mainstream writers won’t pay a lot of attention to, but also giving him a low rating because he doesn’t play in a major market, which most mainstream writers “pay attention” to.

    But there’s no need for name-calling, guys. Take a deep breath.

    By the way, Dewan’s plus/minus system rates him even more poorly in left, at -16 runs.

  32. Sirspud said...

    @Nick Steiner- I don’t really think that Coghlan and Rasmus are the least bit comparable.  A .254 AVG is a very far cry from .319, and Coghlan is actually well outslugging him as well (.414 to .454). 

    @Adam W- I don’t see where VORP/PA really factors into this discussion.  The fact of the matter is, the end of the year awards are not given to the guy who did the most with the playing time he had.  It’s the guy who had the largest impact.  It’s why platoon and part-time players don’t win MVP awards, even though Matt Diaz can be a monster at the plate.

  33. Nick Steiner said...

    Sirspud – While you are correct that Coghlan has hit far better than Rasmus, the latter plays a tougher defensive position and is a far superior defender by most accounts.

    Going by WAR, Rasmus has actually been the better player this year: 2.4 vs. 2.0 for Coghlan.

  34. Adam W. said...

    While there has been a huge influx of talent at the CF position recently, the average CF still hits worse than the average LF. This has to be taken in to account.

    Coghlan’s biggest weakness in the outfield is his lack of range. Perhaps the reason that he didn’t make those “wacky”, memorable mistakes is because he wasn’t getting to the ball in the first place.

  35. Sirspud said...

    I know this is a statistic analyst site, but I just don’t believe that the fact that Rasmus plays center field is enough to overcome the gap in offensive production.  The Coghlan has had two months where he has gotten hits at MLB record pace really states just how important his contributions have been.  And it’s not like he’s a hitter who gets a lot of hits but few walks- he has very solid plate discipline as well.

    I just don’t believe that the current defensive metrics are accurate enough to show quantitatively that Rasmus is the better overall player.  I’ve seen defensive metrics say that Jeremy Hermida wasn’t a completely atrocious fielder.  Yet I’ve watched multiple balls bounce off his face, arms, legs, crotch, and even seen home run balls hit his arm before going over.  He was a defensive liability.  Coghlan wasn’t.

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