Gary Sanchez as Rookie of the Year

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about Michael Fulmer, I’ve been chosen as a voter for this season’s American League Rookie of the Year Award. And while I don’t yet know how I’m going to vote — and while I’m not supposed to tell you how I’m going to vote — I am supposed to supply content to, and there’s nothing wrong with going over my thought processes in the public sphere. I already have to go through this stuff anyway. Might as well get some articles out of it, so that I can further consider reader responses.

Most years, this vote would be seemingly easy, at least as first place goes. Fulmer’s been up most of the season, and he’s got a low ERA to show for it. Low ERAs aren’t as common now as they were a couple years back. But there’s an increasingly legitimate contender, who goes by the name of Gary Sanchez. Sanchez wasn’t supposed to get to this point. He’d made one single appearance before the month of August. But — well, you know. You know all about Gary Sanchez. Has he done enough to deserve some hardware?

The Fulmer case, again, is easy. Lots of playing time, low ERA. Both of those are good. Fulmer has been a terrific rookie.

Yet you could say the Sanchez case is also easy. Plain and simple, Sanchez presently leads all the AL rookies in our version of WAR. So he’s played less than Fulmer has. Who cares? Value should be value, regardless of how it’s concentrated.

One of the factors allowing for debate is that voters are given precious little guidance. Guidance is provided only for the MVP awards, and even those generate arguments every single season. No real instructions are provided with the Cy Young ballot. Nor with the Rookie of the Year ballot, or with the Manager of the Year ballot, and so on. So with the rookies, you have to decide, what’s the point? Do you want to reward the best overall season? The rookie who simply played the best? The rookie who you think will become the best veteran?

Considering playing time, Fulmer has spent the most days making a difference at the major-league level. Yet Sanchez has put together the most remarkable performance. I was reading an article the other day where Justin Verlander argued that voting for Sanchez would simply be voting for a hot streak. He’s not wrong, but Sanchez hasn’t just been some hot hitter. He had one of the hottest streaks in baseball history. I don’t think he should be that easily dismissed, especially given the rest of the package. He’s a power-hitting catcher with strong defensive skills. Sanchez already looks like a star. The Yankees might well expect more from him in 2017 than the Tigers will from Fulmer.

We know what Sanchez has done, in less than two months. We know that Statcast supports him. I think we probably know that Sanchez isn’t really as good as his batting line, but we also know that Fulmer probably isn’t as good as his ERA. There isn’t much in the way of precedent with regard to voting for a two-month player, but Sanchez’s rookie performance is almost unprecedented. If he’d been up all season, and if in the rest of his games he was exactly replacement-level, he’d still lead rookies in WAR. Why should that hypothetical player look like a more impressive rookie?

It’s very much fair to say that Sanchez has been able to ambush big-league competition. Opponents haven’t had that much time to adjust. In August, Sanchez ran an amazing 239 wRC+. In September, the walks are down, and the strikeouts are way up. Yet Sanchez has still posted a wRC+ of 122. The adjustments have begun, yet Sanchez still has shown enough power to remain afloat. He’s not a flash in the pan.

A cautionary tale might be Tyler Naquin. Between June and July, Naquin was fantastic, in a sample size similar to Sanchez’s. In those two months, Naquin was worth 2.3 WAR, with a 203 wRC+. The rest of the time, however, Naquin has been worth -0.2 WAR, with an 85 wRC+. He hasn’t hit for power. Opponents adjusted. I think that’s the sort of thing critics have in mind when they think about Sanchez’s candidacy.

But it’s worth noting that Sanchez hits the ball harder than Naquin does. And Sanchez is the superior defender, at an arguably more critical position. Sanchez with an 85 wRC+ would still be a fairly useful catcher. And based on current projections, Sanchez already forecasts as a top-five backstop. Like anyone, Sanchez could and will slump. Seasons are made up of peaks and valleys, not daily consistency. But Sanchez doesn’t look anything like a replacement-level catcher. And it’s not even necessarily his fault he’s played so little.

I can’t speak to when a prospect is or is not ready to be promoted. But the fact of the matter is that, before August, Sanchez was blocked. The Yankees had Brian McCann behind the plate, and Carlos Beltran was the regular DH. Only when Beltran left did Sanchez find room, and still more room was made when Alex Rodriguez went away. Based on results, it sure looks like Sanchez could’ve been ready earlier. I don’t know to what extent that should be held against him. Team circumstances allowed Fulmer to reach the bigs when he did. It wasn’t all about the player.

I know this piece has been put together rather loosely. There are just a lot of different things to think about, and no clean and flowing way to arrange them. From start to finish, Michael Fulmer has had the most notable rookie season. This is mostly because he had such an early start. But since his own start, Gary Sanchez has had the most outstanding rookie season, and by one measure he’s already caught Fulmer in value. So there’s a question of how to weigh playing time. And there’s a question of whether it would be appropriate to essentially “imagine” Sanchez over a bigger sample. Fulmer has perhaps done a little more in the bigs. He’s worked through more adjustments. Sanchez has established himself as probably the better player. Before Sanchez’s first start behind the plate, Fulmer already had a 2.42 ERA over 104 innings. It’s a damn miracle there’s a conversation to be had in the first place.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Last year there was a fairly serious discussion about Yoenis Cespedes’ N.L. MVP candidacy due to a very similar offensive stretch over a similar sample to what Gary Sanchez has produced, and in this case there is no Bryce Harper to compete with. While this is not Gary’s true talent level, he has done more than enough to deserve A.L. Rookie of the Year.

OddBall Herrera
7 years ago
Reply to  jdbolick

Or how about 2008 Manny? He got up to fourth on the NL MVP ballot even though he was only in the NL for 53 games, and he had guys a lot better than Fulmer standing in his way.