Congratulations to Cody Bellinger for winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award! While I’m actually writing this post before the award is announced, the case for Bellinger is pretty clear — no National League rookie had a bat like his while playing in so many games. As a bonus, Bellinger also recorded strong numbers on the basepaths and became one of 12 first basemen to add four or more games in center field since free agency began in 1974. Using a swing that the Dodgers helped him build, he hit the third-most home runs in a rookie season, ever. Bellinger had a top-20 rookie season over that time span in the National League and deserves his award for regular-season excellence.
But, as a member of the Baseball Writers Association, I had the benefit and honor of fulling out a full ballot for this award, not just one name. It’s down the ballot where things got difficult. It’s down the ballot where I began to wonder how much the future matters when believing the past. It’s down the ballot where I hemmed and hawed, considering the qualities of players as differently excellent as Luis Castillo, Paul DeJong, and Rhys Hoskins.
Maybe it seems like folly even to bring up the future when discussing the past. One thing happened, and we should reward what happened without an eye for repeatability. However, when we attempt to reward someone for what happened, the future finds its way into the discussion.
For example, defense. When we evaluate defense, we’re trying to do so with less information than when we evaluate offense. Even the most active shortstops and center fielders get half as many chances in the field as they do at the plate, and that’s without considering the quality of those chances. Most defensive plays aren’t particularly challenging; they don’t help the evaluation of a player’s quality all that much. If you look at outfielders, for example, you’ll quickly find that as few as 10 chances going in one direction or the other will massively shift the metrics.
It’s not necessarily that we’re looking to the future version of DeJong to tell us what sort of defender he was this past year. It’s more that we might not even know what sort of defender he was this past year until we also have a future version of him to fill in the sample. In other words, for any player who receives much of his value from defense, it’s meaningful to me that his defensive work came in an even smaller sample than his games played would suggest.
Here’s a table that compares DeJong’s defensive chances with the offensive chances of another great rookie from 2017.
|Paul DeJong’s Defense||295||15||5.1%|
|Rhys Hoskins’ Offense||212||25||11.8%|
Of course you have to add DeJong’s hitting back in, and he did have 52 extra-base hits at the dish. If you follow this metric, and add up standout plays against chances on both sides of the ball, you find that DeJong came up with a standout play 9% of the time, Hoskins also 9%.
You can’t just consider standout plays, though. When it came to the everyday, ho-hum work like taking balls and swinging at strikes, Hoskins was far superior. The shortstop in St. Louis was one of the worst all time when it came to strikeout versus walk ratio by a hitter. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 80th worst among the 15,580 player seasons of more than 400 plate appearances since we started tracking strikeout rate.
Hoskins struck out 1.25 times per walk, and DeJong struck out six times per walk. They were equally likely to provide a standout play once you looked at their number of chances on both sides of the ball. I put Hoskins over DeJong on my ballot, even though both had excellent seasons.
There still was one last player to consider who provided many of the same questions, but in a different way. Over in Cincinnati, Luis Castillo was an exciting young pitcher who deserves recognition for what he did this season. Should he have made the ballot over DeJong? Maybe.
While we can’t compare “standout performances” the same way between Castillo and DeJong, we can at least get an idea of how many chances they had to change the game. So let’s look at Castillo’s batters faced and defensive balls seen compared to DeJong’s plate appearances and defensive chances.
|Plate Chances||Field Chances||Combined Chances|
I love watching Castillo pitch. I think he might be an ace — now that he’s got two fastballs, a plus changeup, and at least an average slider — and that he’ll be huge for the Reds going forward. But, when tasked with rewarding his work in 2017, I just couldn’t get past the difference in the volume of chances between him and DeJong.
It’s worth pointing out that Castillo did have nearly 100 more chances to change the game than Hoskins, but that’s not the same disparity we see above, for one. And then, once you bring quality back in, Hoskins was 58% better than league average in most of his chances. Castillo? If you use his best one-number assessment relative to league average (ERA), he was 29% better than league average.
In the end, I’d love to congratulate all four young players for their outstanding work in 2017. But if we have to line them up for the handshake, my order is Cody Bellinger, Rhys Hoskins, Paul DeJong, and Luis Castillo.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.