As we go into the final stretch of the 2016 regular season, there is finally a big enough sample size to make an educated guess at this year’s Rookie of the Year candidates. The NL ROY is pretty straight forward. You’ve got Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, who’s hitting .302 with 21 bombs on the year, his teammate Kenta Maeda, who has been a savior for the starting rotation (3.22 ERA in 125.2 IP), and then there’s Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz (batting .312 with 14 homers), who came out of nowhere this year to give the Cards a fighting chance in the NL Central. My guess is that Seager wins in the NL, considering his 5.0 WAR ranks 5th out of all position players in baseball.
On the other hand, the AL Rookie of the Year has already been narrowed down to two players: Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer and Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin. This debate isn’t quite as simple as “Seager or Diaz,” because outfielders and pitchers aren’t graded on the same scale. While they do have some stark differences, Naquin and Fulmer do share a handful of similarities. They are both former first-round draft picks, and even though neither of them will play a full season, both are essential to their respective team’s chances at winning the AL Central.
If the Tigers make the playoffs in 2016, Michael Fulmer deserves team MVP. With all due respect to Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera (my favorite active player to watch), Nick Castellanos, the Martinez’s (Victor and J.D), and Ian Kinsler, who are all playing very well this year, the innings pitched by Michael Fulmer will be the determining factor in whether or not Detroit makes the postseason. What’s scary to think is, Fulmer would have likely spent most of the season in the minors if not for Jordan Zimmermann’s injury. It’s hard to call the injury to Zimmermann a blessing, so maybe silver lining is more appropriate term.
Fulmer’s performance to this point has saved the Tigers’ pitching rotation. His 2.42 ERA is tops among rookies, and 5th best of all starters who’ve thrown 100+ innings. Baseball-Reference has Fulmer pegged for 4.0 WAR, placing him second (behind Corey Seager) among all rookies, and tied for 5th-highest of any pitcher in baseball. He’s never thrown more than 124.2 innings before, so the only downside to Fulmer is the fact that he hasn’t been going very deep into games. He doesn’t strike a ton of batters out, but he’s not walking them either. Fulmer’s best skill is his ability to induce weak contact, as he’s holding opposing batters to a .215/.284/.353 slash line. His 1.13 GB/FB ratio makes him out to be slightly groundball-inclined, and combining that with his remarkable 0.9 HR/9 should display just how good Fulmer has been at minimizing damage.
Judging by Fulmer’s numbers, and the fact that Detroit would likely be nowhere near playoff contention without his contributions, it would be pretty easy to call it a done deal and crown Fulmer as Rookie of the Year right now. If not for a voice in my head screaming “Pitchers can’t be Rookies of the Year! They can’t be MVP either!” I would probably be talking about how Fulmer’s already earned the AL ROY, instead of why Naquin might get it instead. For the record, it’s not my own voice telling me that. It’s the voice of a lifelong friend (an ex-pro and current MLB scout) saying this. As you can imagine, he was a hitter, not a pitcher. By the numbers, Fulmer has been the best rookie in the AL, but some voters might share the same sentiment as my scout friend. It may sound crazy that Fulmer would be denied votes for being a pitcher, but even Ken Griffey Jr. was denied Hall of Fame votes for silly reasons, so it’s certainly possible.
This is where Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin comes into the picture. If you can’t picture Naquin taking home ROY honors in the AL, you probably don’t remember Chris Coghlan winning Rookie of the Year in 2009. Naquin’s had a fine rookie season, batting .318/.384/.603 with 13 home runs in 75 games, but that’s been almost completely against right-handed pitching. Naquin’s been strictly a platoon to this point in his career, and that’s hardly a trait you’d think of when choosing the best rookie this year. Can he be the best rookie if he can’t face left-handed pitching? He hasn’t totally floundered versus lefties – batting .250 in 24 at-bats – he just isn’t being given the chance.
When he does play though, he’s incredibly fun to watch. Naquin has given the Indians exactly what they’ve needed. Following suspensions to Abraham Almonte and Marlon Byrd, as well as the injuries to Michael Brantley, the Indians’ outfield was looking fairly lacking. Without the emergence of Tyler Naquin, Cleveland’s outfield would have consisted of Rajai Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Michael Martinez (prior to the deadline acquisition of Brandon Guyer). While that’s not a terrible trio, it’s much less intimidating than when you substitute Naquin for Martinez.
It’s time to talk about WAR. Wins Above Replacement isn’t incredibly fond of Tyler Naquin’s work in 2016. His overall mark of 1.2 isn’t bad at all, but it hardly stands out. Part of this likely has to do with his platoon limitations, and the other factor here is his defense. Defensive metrics peg Naquin for being worth -1.2 DWAR (Defensive WAR), which certainly takes away from his OWAR (Offensive WAR) of 2.4. If he were even an average defender we’d be looking at a 2-3 win player, instead of a 1-2 win player. Going by WAR, Michael Fulmer has been far superior to Naquin. WAR doesn’t hesitate to say that Fulmer has been more than 3x as productive as Naquin this year, which takes me back to my scout-friend’s comments, and Chris Coghlan.
The 2009 rookie class didn’t feature many standouts. Oakland A’s reliever Andrew Bailey took home AL ROY honors with 26 saves and a 1.84 ERA, meanwhile Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan was the NL recipient, batting .321/.390/.460 with 9 home runs. Coghlan’s slash line looks pretty good, but that’s about it. His 55 walks was the most promising statistic, as he wasn’t hitting for power, stealing bases, and his defense was very poor. Playing all his games in left field, Coghlan’s DWAR was -2.5, which severely hurt his stock as a player. His batting average was all he had going for him, but Coghlan still took home NL ROY honors. If not for a late-season hot streak, during which he hit .384 with 94 hits, Coghlan wouldn’t have even been in the ROY conversation.
So there was an overrated rookie with inflated numbers that won ROY 7 years ago, why is this even applicable? J.A. Happ is why. This year’s AL ROY race is looking a lot like the ‘09 NL debate between Chris Coghlan and the runner-up: Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ. Happ was fantastic in his rookie season, posting a 2.93 ERA in 166 IP between 23 starts and 12 relief appearances. He also threw 3 complete games with 2 shutouts, which doesn’t really happen anymore (especially not for rookies). Much like this year’s comparison of Fulmer and Naquin, neither Coghlan nor Happ played a full season’s worth of baseball that year.
Now let’s go back to Wins Above Replacement. WAR tells a similar story between Happ and Coghlan as it does with Fulmer and Naquin. Due to his defensive struggles, Coghlan had a WAR of 1.0 in his rookie campaign, compared to Happ’s mark of 3.9. Much like Fulmer and Naquin, Happ’s WAR was more than 3x that of Coghlan’s, yet Coghlan won Rookie of the Year. This is the part where, once again, I hear “Pitchers can’t be Rookie of the Year!” in my head. Regardless of the pitcher having superior statistics to the position player, the position player has been favorited.
Neither of this year’s candidates are perfect. Fulmer only pitches about 5 innings per game, and Naquin’s defense (and platoon situation) take away from his hitting prowess. Only 2 games separate the Indians and the Tigers in the NL Central, which gives both of these players the perfect opportunity to show everyone who’s best. It’s possible that voters will side with Naquin, since he’s a (mostly) everyday player. There’s also a good chance that sabermetrics are starting to weigh more heavily than they once did, and voters will endorse Michael Fulmer.
Instead of simply going by who the “best rookie” is, because comparing pitchers to outfielders can get complicated, I’d look at this debate similar to how we decide MVP these days. How did they affect their team’s playoff chances? Are they the most impressive rookie under pressure? Of course this isn’t applicable every year. Sometimes the best rookies will be on non-contending teams. This isn’t the case in 2016. The best rookies in the AL are both in the Central Division, and they’re competing for first place. If you were to ask me who deserves AL Rookie of the Year, I’d tell you: it depends on who wins the AL Central.