Handicapping the Awards: Rookie of the Year

Projecting the Rookie of the Year award is simultaneously easier and more difficult than the Cy Young. It’s easier in the sense that there are fewer rookies than non-rookies and that, in most seasons, there’s a definite top tier of candidates that crowds out the rest of the pack.

What makes it a bit trickier is that the standards for rookies are applied a bit more haphazardly by writers. Because rookie ballots feature only three players — as opposed to five for the Cy Young and 10 for MVP — we see fewer players actually included in the final voting. Ideally, you’d like to bring in all the voters, crack open their skulls, and somehow read their brains to see how everyone would rank at least the top 10 rookies. My lawyers, however, inform me that this is extremely illegal and also totally gross.

In the end, I’m less confident about the Rookie of the Year model than the MVP or Cy Young versions. While, historically, ZiPS identifies about seven of the top 10 MVP and Cy Young vote-getters, the model only gets three of the top five rookies. Hopefully, as the electorate becomes more and more analytically inclined, I’ll be able to improve the model.

ZiPS 2018 AL Rookie of the Year Projections
Rank Player Percentage
1 Shohei Ohtani 63.1%
2 Gleyber Torres 15.6%
3 Shane Bieber 7.4%
4 Miguel Andujar 7.1%
5 Lou Trivino 3.4%
6 Joey Wendle 1.7%
7 Daniel Palka 0.7%
8 Ryan Yarbrough 0.4%
9 Ronald Guzman 0.3%
10 Hector Velazquez 0.3%
NA Field 0.1%

The greatest challenge of projecting the AL race is figuring out what to do with Shohei Ohtani. There’s no guidance available on how two-way players ought to be treated, so there’s a lot more guesswork than usual. Comparing apples to oranges is tricky enough — although rendered less tricky by the fact that they’re frequently right next to each other at the grocery store — but how do you treat something that is an apple and an orange at the same time? Applange and orpple both sound terrible.

In the end, I decided to treat Ohtani as a hitter only. Since he very conveniently has an identical ERA+ and OPS+ right now, I added 200 plate appearances at his current offensive rates (he’s faced 200 batters) in an attempt to give him credit somehow for his pitching. Adding pitching and hitting together doesn’t work that elegantly outside of WAR, but we know voters aren’t just ranking players by WAR. While the result doesn’t feel crazy, I hate having to use a kludge. Nevertheless, it’s unavoidable in this situation.

Gleyber Torres’s UCL tear in 2017 created a bit of uncertainty regarding his 2018 campaign, with ZiPS hedging a bit and projecting him to be “only” a league-average player at 21. The injury and the half-season of missed playing time didn’t hinder his development one bit, and it would be a shame if teammate Miguel Andujar’s rookie season overshadowed Torres; Andujar has the prettier offensive numbers, but Torres is the better overall player. ZiPS sees Andujar at only 7.1%, regarding Torres as a better player for the final quarter of the season, but when I address the matter with writers who aren’t as smitten with advanced stats as I am, Andujar seems to have more hype at the minute. That’s obviously outside the scope of a model like this, but it does make me wonder if we’ll get the Yankee rookies in the right order.

I think the model is a bit high on Shane Bieber, simply because I’m not sure if a 10-win pitcher, even one with a FIP that suggests his current ERA is a bit higher than it “ought” to be, is going to be able to edge out any of the three named hitters. The fact that Bieber was not really established for good in the majors until mid-June also puts him at a disadvantage.

It’s fun to see Lou Trivino included here given his emergence this season in a dominant Oakland bullpen. He always threw in the upper 90s, but he never really dominated the high minors like one would expect given the velocity and not-terrible control. Both ZiPS and Steamer regarded him as a contributor, but nothing even remotely like this. It’s not impossible for a reliever to take Rookie of the Year honors — Andrew Bailey, Huston Street, Scott Williamson, and Todd Worrell all did — but I’m not sure what it would take for a non-closer to get elected.

ZiPS 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Projections
Rank Player Percentage
1 Juan Soto 40.4%
2 Ronald Acuña 15.8%
3 Brian Anderson 13.2%
4 Jack Flaherty 8.1%
5 Walker Buehler 7.5%
6 Christian Villanueva 6.7%
7 Dereck Rodriguez 4.7%
8 Jesse Winker 1.6%
9 Harrison Bader 1.2%
10 Joey Lucchesi 0.6%
NA Field 0.3%

I actually have to agree with the model here that Juan Soto’s case isn’t impregnable at this point. Not that Soto isn’t completely awesome — he is — but Ronald Acuña is a phenom, as well. Coming into the season, Acuña had the third-best offensive WAR that ZiPS ever projected for a rookie — behind Mike Trout and Kris Bryant — and he’s pretty much lived up to that hype. Acuña’s top comp in ZiPS coming into the season was Adam Jones; that may, in the end, actually be a significant underrating of his future prospects.

What makes Soto so absurd is that, prior to 2018, he had maxed out in the South Atlantic League. I didn’t even run a projection for him coming into the season, generally preferring not to run “official” forecasts for hitters until they reach High-A, but Soto’s gone from the Sally League to Rookie of the Year favorite at shocking speed. ZiPS projects Soto, like Acuña, to be a superstar for a long time.

Jack Flaherty and, more surprisingly, Dereck Rodriguez are both having solid rookie seasons, but I think their chances are fairly long given the names at the top. I think even Brian Anderson will have difficulty getting traction in the voting, even though his WAR is between Acuña’s and Soto’s at the moment — mostly, though, because he’s compiled a lot more plate appearances. Anderson may end up leading NL rookies in RBI and runs scored, but I think this is a fight for third place.

Harrison Bader is interesting due to his astounding defensive numbers. Bader’s playing at a 20-runs-per-150-games pace by UZR and even better by DRS, but we’ve yet to see a candidate ever get significant traffic in the Rookie of the Year voting from advanced defensive numbers. I think it’s a bridge too far for the general voting populace at this point, though I’m highly interested to see if the Cardinals have ended up with their own version of Kevin Kiermaier or Kevin Pillar.

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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ZiPS is a bit more optimistic on Luis Andujar’s chances this year than I am.

Carson Cistulli

Miguel was busy, so Luis took his place in the table for a moment. Miguel’s back now, though.