Gary Sanchez Was the Rookie of Your Heart

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll start by telling you that I was raised as a fan of the most Evil of Empires. Yes, I confess to the assembled jury of my readers and the court of the comments, that the Yankees earned my allegiance from an early age, and that I can still be found every now and then in the stands at The House that George Built. I am everything you perceive to be wrong with baseball from an emotional level, and I hold my head up high as I ride my AT-AT walker towards Echo Base to destroy your shield generator.

Here’s the thing. Michael Fulmer was really good in his first run at the league. Like, really good. Rookie of the Year good, as we found out last night. He came up as a 23-year-old and worked a 3.06 ERA in the American League over the course of 159 innings, and his underlying metrics are decently fond of him. Here’s to you, Mr. Fulmer. You shoved. You earned it. But damn if Gary Sanchez wasn’t really good too.

If you read this site, you’re almost certainly familiar with what Sanchez did in his two-month-long methodical demolition of baseball. In case you aren’t, here’s the CliffsNotes version. Sanchez had 229 plate appearances in 2016. Four of them came in May, in a game for which he was called up for the sole purpose of DH’ing against Chris Sale. It didn’t go well. Back to the minors he went, until he re-emerged in August. That’s where the fun started. When all was said and done, Sanchez had hit .299/.376/.657 (!) and tied Wally Berger for the distinction of fastest ever to 20 home runs. Oh, and he played good defense behind the plate. And showed off a howitzer of an arm while throwing out over 40% of would-be stealers.

Voters were left with quite a choice to make. Vote for the consistent effectiveness of Fulmer, or for the historic explosion of Sanchez. Of the 30 writers with ballots, 26 chose Fulmer, including our own Jeff Sullivan. It makes sense. Fulmer performed well for an extended period of time, and there are plenty of players¬†who have had a 220-PA hot streak before. Sanchez certainly isn’t going to slug .657 over the course of his career. If he did, he’d be the best power hitter ever. It’s fairly safe money that any random player, even one who had two months as good as Sanchez, isn’t going to be the best power hitter ever.

What Sanchez did produce, though, is one of the best starts to a career in the history of baseball. He didn’t have the lengthy service time that Fulmer did, and that wasn’t entirely in his control. Sanchez didn’t exactly give the league time to adjust to him — or, in turn, adjust to the league’s adjustments. But Rookie of the Year honors aren’t about who had the best underlying metrics. It’s about who had the best performance. There’s no clear winner by that standard, at least not at first blush. Fulmer probably deserves a bit more credit for having nearly a full season to his name.

But does Sanchez not deserve credit for having an historically great stretch of baseball? Do wonder and amazement, disbelief and stupefied laughs of awe not mean a little something? Sanchez became must-see TV very quickly. Even on the rare occasions when he wasn’t hitting the ball out of the park, he still found ways to put his exciting stamp on the game. Sanchez’s play was unsustainable, which is precisely what made it so important.

New York¬†was done, dead and buried under the small avalanche of prospects they received in return for Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran, and Ivan Nova. It was Sanchez who nearly singlehandedly resuscitated the season for New York. Sanchez, a rookie, who had been a prospect for years and years but never a rookie. We make fun of narrative being a reason to bestow awards. Perhaps it still wasn’t an appropriate reason to honor Sanchez. I’m lucky enough to not have had to make that decision. I don’t take issue with Fulmer winning, either.

The issue, though, is not as cut-and-dry as Fulmer’s margin of victory makes it seem, or it at least shouldn’t be. Is there a point at which we should throw sample sizes out the window and proclaim that a player has sufficiently wowed us enough to bestow an arbitrary award upon him? If that point exists, Sanchez either surpassed it or was within striking distance of it.

The issue is moot at this point. The current exercise is little more than ponderous navel-gazing, a bit of posthumous campaigning for a man who came in second. But I think that magical point does exist. What are sports if not entertainment? Sanchez entertained us in a very special way, not in the Bartolo Colon way of being amusing while being serviceable, but in the Gary Sanchez way of firing a laser and blowing up an entire planet. For a microscopic portion of history, Sanchez was the most dangerous hitter in baseball. He cooled off in September, but was still distinctly above average.

The results of the voting were good and just. Fulmer pitched just about as well as the Tigers could have dreamed of. But Sanchez did what so many children have dreamed of for more than a century. He made the big leagues, and made the game his own. He refused to let go. Sanchez may not have been the most certifiably good rookie in the American League this year. He was not tested for as long as Fulmer was, nor did he have the chance to be brought low so that he could rebuild himself while being watched by the entire world.

But Sanchez was the greatest story among all American League rookies this year. There may not be enough superlatives. It may not count for anything, and maybe it shouldn’t. Then again, maybe it should. We know what the voters think on the matter.

That won’t stop Sanchez from being a fun little piece of baseball trivia and history, regardless of what happens with the rest of his career. In a way, that’s what matters. History will remember him, even if only as a fun fact about the time that a young catcher came up and proceeded to conquer the galaxy.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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Paul G.
Paul G.

I fully support replacing Hayden Christensen with Gary Sanchez in the prequels.