A Deep Dive Into My National League Rookie of the Year Ballot

Voting for baseball’s various awards is a small part of BBWAA membership, but it’s an undeniably cool part of it, one of the things you dream of doing when you’re a kid. As a member of one of the BBWAA’s smallest city-chapters, I’ve been fortunate to be asked to vote in most of the years I’ve been in the BBWAA, and it’s a responsibility I take quite seriously. I loved baseball for decades before I was employed in the game’s orbit, so it’s important to me to get my microscopic contribution to its history right.

This year, my vote was for the National League Rookie of the Year award. While you only submit three names on your official ballot and I was reasonably sure of who those names would be, my rough draft contained 10 players. I make ballots that are longer than necessary for the express purpose of making sure I’m exercising proper due diligence. Going into my ballot for the 2017 National League Cy Young award, I did not expect Gio Gonzalez to rank fifth (he was eighth in WAR in the NL), but I felt — and still do — that it should be more than a FIP ranking. There’s a philosophical quandary when it comes to BABIP-type measures, after all, and it’s hard to entirely chuck out success that actually occurred simply because that success isn’t necessarily predictive.

Here’s my final 10-player ballot for National League Rookie of the Year. (Naturally, I only submitted three names, as that’s all the form has space for, and because I didn’t want to leave the BBWAA’s secretary-treasurer, Jack O’Connell, questioning my functional literacy.)

10. Kevin Newman (.308/.353/.446, 110 wRC+, 2.4 WAR)

Several other players could have taken the final spot on my imaginary ballot. Some readers will probably object to me leaving off Sandy Alcantara and his 2.4 WAR, but his worse xFIP (5.17) than FIP (4.55) meshes with something that ZiPS saw in Alcantara’s 2019. The system is exceptionally skeptical of Alcantara’s low HR/9, and while I don’t dismiss performance that isn’t predictive outright, there were a lot of excellent back-ballot candidates, and it was enough for him to miss the ballot. You can even shave another couple of runs off from his -0.2 WAR as a hitter.

Merrill Kelly lost -0.6 WAR as a hitter, enough to demote the reliable-if-unexciting innings-eater. Dakota Hudson‘s FIP-ERA difference was simply too large for me to overlook. Adrian Houser got too much of his value from low-leverage situations. Christian Walker’s numbers weren’t thrilling for a first baseman. Some of these objections are quibbles, but this was a very close decision. In the end, I went with Kevin Newman, who hit as well as Walker did while playing three infield positions. Given how volatile defensive numbers are, I didn’t want to be overly reliant on one year’s worth of data at short, which is what I’d have ended up doing in a straight WAR ranking.

9. Mike Yastrzemski (.272/.334/.518, 121 wRC+, 2.2 WAR)

Of the players on the ballot, Li’l Yaz is the one of whose future performance I’m most skeptical. Teams have been wrong about minor league veterans many times in the past, but I’m still not sure they were completely wrong about Yastrzemski. A .251/.342/.442 career line in Triple-A doesn’t scream starting major league corner outfielder, but I can’t deny that his performance actually happened. He also put up his 2.2 WAR in relatively few plate appearances. And it’s worth noting that ZiPS has always liked his defense in the corners, and there’s a real chance that his true ability may be closer to his DRS (+8) than his UZR (+0.8), adding a few runs of value.

8. Zac Gallen (80 IP, 2.81 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 1.6 WAR)

I don’t consider voting for Rookie of the Year to be the same challenge as a theoretical Most Valuable Rookie award would be. Philosophically, I think there’s space for “peak value” here just as there is in Hall of Fame voting, and there’s no clear guidance from the Hall stating that this is an inappropriate belief. Quantity still counts for a lot — I wouldn’t want to give the award to a player with 0.3 WAR in 10 PA — but I think ranking truly outstanding contributors highly is justifiable, especially when those contributions are sustainable. Gallen wasn’t an elite prospect (Eric and Kiley had him ranked 12th in the Marlins system prior to his trade to Arizona), but I think he did enough in 2019 to establish himself as a legitimate No. 2 or 3 starter. He’s not a true-talent sub-three ERA pitcher, but there’s room for improvement in his walk rate and while 80 innings isn’t a lot, it was enough to rank him eighth on my ballot.

7. Bryan Reynolds (.314/.377/.503, 131 wRC+, 3.2 WAR)

I surprised myself by ranking Reynolds this low; I expected him to end up fifth when I started my ballot. I have fewer concerns about Reynolds than Yastrzemski going forward, but the excellence of the two players who ended up coming in just ahead of him was enough to push him to seventh by the smidgeniest of smidgens. BABIP is more predictive for batters than it is for pitchers, but I have a hard time buying Reynolds’ .387 BABIP (ZiPS agrees) and don’t think his center field defense is likely to end up being as adequate as his small sample numbers suggest. Reynolds has done enough to establish himself as a legitimate starter, but I don’t think there’s real star upside here.

6. Chris Paddack (140.2 IP, 3.33 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 2.4 WAR)

My quality-plus-quantity philosophy was enough to push Paddack to within spitting distance of my top five. Despite spending barely a month above A-ball before he opened the season in San Diego, the right-hander pitched like a 10-year veteran, changing speeds effectively from his very first start in the majors. Like many, I think Paddack needs to further develop his curveball, but the lack of a plus breaking pitch isn’t quite relevant to this ballot. Paddack struck out 10 batters a game and displayed excellent control, and while I can’t rank him any higher than this based on 40 innings of expected performance that never actually happened, he had a terrific rookie season.

5. Victor Robles (.255/.326/.419, 91 wRC+, 2.5 WAR)

It’s hard to remember now given Juan Soto’s explosive 2018 season, but Robles was was supposed to arrive in the Washington outfield before the Childish Bambino. Some may see Robles as disappointing for his mere mortal performance, but we’re still talking about a 22-year-old who had an above-average season in center field. Robles edges out Reynolds and Paddack due to defensive uncertainty. My jury-rigged, Gameday-based zone rating-like defensive numbers for the minors suggest that Robles’ DRS of +22 may not have been all that wacky compared to UZR’s +6.1. A couple of odd plays during the playoffs aren’t enough to change my mind, but in any case, we submit our votes before the postseason starts.

4. Tommy Edman (.304/.350/.500, 123 wRC+, 3.2 WAR)

Am I sure that Edman can do this again? No. Am I sure that he should rank this high on the Rookie ballot? Absolutely. It’s hard to overlook an .850 OPS from a player who can be called on to at least fake shortstop (he didn’t play it in the majors but did in the minors). One of the challenges with Edman is how out of the blue his season was. Like many other hitters in 2019, he hit for power he never had before, and it’s an open question how much of his improvement was real. I think some regression in batting average is likely, but a .346 BABIP isn’t high enough for me to completely discount his performance. Balancing out some of my skepticism is the fact that positional versatility is a tough nut for WAR to crack. It has some value, but it’s difficult to extract from the fog, and the fact that Edman had significant playing time at three positions (second base, third, and right field) and played them all well can’t wholly be ignored.

3. Fernando Tatis Jr. (.317/.379/.590, 150 wRC+, 3.6 WAR)

I really, really wanted to rank Tatis higher. His 3.6 WAR in just 84 games gives him a giant qualitative edge over Soroka or Alonso, but given the entirety of the other two’s seasons, it just wasn’t quite enough for me. As terrific as I think Tatis was, if I were going to credit him for playing time that never existed, I would also have had to consider that there would perhaps have been greater regression to the mean coming for his .410 BABIP. 20 more games likely would have done the trick, but the gap between Tatis and the top two players in playing time was just too wide for me to bridge with theoretical performance. In any case, Tatis is more likely than anyone else on this ballot to contend for other awards going forward, and even Cooperstown acknowledgment, so I imagine he’ll get over this writer ranking him third.

2. Mike Soroka (174.2 IP, 2.68 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 4.0 WAR)

Soroka vs. Alonso was an incredibly tough decision for me. In the end, I think Alonso’s performance was just a hair more sustainable in the present offensive environment, and that broke the tie for me. Soroka’s FIP was still very good, of course, and I see little reason to doubt his continued success in the majors. There’s very little that’s flashy in his profile, but he gets it done with two flavors of worm-burning fastballs, a slider, and a changeup.

1. Pete Alonso (.260/.358/.583, 143 wRC+, 4.8 WAR)

It’s fair to say that Alonso’s skill set is a perfect fit for today’s offensive environment, and is enhanced by the general ease with which batters hit home runs. Still, on a fundamental level, it’s hard to penalize a player for making the most of the conditions under which he played. Do we penalize high batting average hitters in the Deadball Era for not hitting the homers that nobody else was hitting? Do we knock Mel Ott out of the Hall for being skilled enough to take advantage of the Polo Grounds? And even hitting a flubber ball, 53 homers is a lot of round-trippers. A change in the ball could hurt Alonso more than most of the rookies on this ballot, but none of the wins he created can be wiped from the history of 2019. I’m comfortable saying Tatis is a better player than Alonso, but Alonso is my 2019 Rookie of the Year.

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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TheGrandslamwich
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TheGrandslamwich

Gallen was a bit off my radar but everything seems reasonable. Thank you for explaining your ballot and all the great players on it!