The Tight NL Rookie Of The Year Race That Isn’t

Think about how many of the major awards are all but sewn up with just under a week before the ballots are due, won’t you?

Clayton Kershaw is clearly winning the NL Cy Young, probably unanimously. Felix Hernandez, despite a late push from Corey Kluber and an atrocious outing in Toronto on Tuesday, is still the favorite to win the AL Cy Young, though I guess I’m less certain of that each day. Mike Trout is obviously the AL MVP, becoming a three-time winner at age 22. (Oh.) Jose Abreu is even more obviously the AL Rookie of the Year, since Masahiro Tanaka missed so much time. There’s a fair amount of uncertainty about the NL MVP, but Kershaw’s momentum continues to build, and he’ll get a #narrative boost if the Dodgers clinch the NL West with him on the mound on Wednesday night. I won’t even bring up the managerial awards, because they’re less interesting and impossible to discuss.

But then there’s the NL Rookie of the Year, and that might be the award that’s hardest to pin down. With apologies to Ken Giles, Ender Inciarte, Joe Panik, Kolten Wong, and a few others, it’s pretty clear that this is a two-man race. It’s either Billy Hamilton, or it’s Jacob deGrom. That’s it, and with deGrom’s surprisingly effective rookie season now coming to an end with the Mets’ decision to shut him down in advance of his final start, this seems like an opportune moment to get into it.

Hamilton, for a while, has been seen as the front-runner, and it’s not hard to see why, because he was seen that way since before the season started. In our 2014 staff predictions, Hamilton was tied for first along with Gregory Polanco and Archie Bradley. Polanco came up late, impressed early, then stalled out; Bradley struggled with arm injuries and never made it up to the big leagues. It wasn’t just us, though, because you yourselves participated in our crowd projections, and Hamilton won there, collecting 19% of the vote.

deGrom wasn’t even mentioned in the comments of either of the two projection posts, nor should he have been, because he wasn’t really on the radar, starting out with Triple-A Las Vegas. As best as I can tell, deGrom had never even been referenced in the pages of FanGraphs until Eno started talking about his changeup in May, after deGrom’s first two major league starts (which, unintentionally, I was in attendance for). deGrom wasn’t Matt Harvey or Zack Wheeler or Noah Syndergaard or Rafael Montero; he was ranked in the 7-12 range of Mets prospects whether you were looking here, at Baseball America, or at Minor League Ball. Most projections considered him a 3/4 starter or a reliever. And why not? Entering his age-26 season, he’d thrown fewer than 300 professional innings. He’d pitched only 83.1 innings in college. It’s not so much that we missed this, but that there wasn’t anything to miss, not yet, anyway.

That’s two very different paths to a similar outcome, in the sense that in total value, there’s not a ton of difference between the two. Hamilton, entering Tuesday’s game, has been worth 3.4 WAR. deGrom’s season ends at 3.1 WAR and 3.5 RA9-WAR. That’s all close enough to essentially call it a wash.

You can make your own choices about which one you prefer. There’s reasons to like either one. Hamilton was the early favorite who played all season long, added value on the bases and in the field, and was at least mediocre at the plate, rather than unthinkably awful, even showing some power with six homers. deGrom was at times dominant, but because he came up six weeks into the season and missed several August starts with a trip to the disabled list, pitched only 140.1 innings. deGrom was objectively “better,” but Hamilton was in the bigs all year, and that has value. If deGrom wins this, he’ll do so with the lowest innings total of any starting pitcher in a non-strike year, beating the 160.2 innings that Dontrelle Willis had in 2003, and that’s not nothing. Months worth of “is the ROY front runner” articles probably don’t have as much actual value, but you never know how the perception of the voter is going to work.

There’s really two questions that are going to drive this in the actual voting, however, since there’s no “can a pitcher win” issue as there is in the MVP: Will the difference in playing time between the two matter? And how much will Hamilton’s late-season collapse hurt him?

Those are important questions, because these two could not have had more divergent second halves, to the point that Hamilton’s best hope may have been that since both the Mets and Reds were never seriously in the playoff race, few people were paying attention. It was that bad.

This first table shows the worst qualified hitters in baseball in the second half (stats, again, not including Tuesday night):

Matt Dominguez Astros 210 .176 .202 .271 0 .211 29 -1.4
Andrelton Simmons Braves 197 .203 .240 .278 1 .231 42 0.1
Billy Hamilton Reds 246 .204 .259 .262 18 .238 45 0.3
Brock Holt Red Sox 213 .219 .278 .271 6 .251 52 -0.2
Omar Infante Royals 243 .228 .267 .290 5 .246 52 -0.5
Jay Bruce Reds 210 .199 .243 .332 3 .252 54 -1.2
Javier Baez Cubs 206 .168 .228 .340 4 .255 56 -0.6
Coco Crisp Athletics 207 .199 .271 .274 3 .247 56 -0.8
Salvador Perez Royals 237 .228 .236 .345 0 .254 57 0.3
Derek Jeter Yankees 245 .231 .274 .298 4 .258 58 -0.5

This is ranked by wRC+, though Hamilton managed to at least gain some value back in other areas. This is really, really ugly, especially if for some reason you thought the Brock Holt Experience was going to run indefinitely, and it’s something of a continuation of an issue for Hamilton. Needing to get off to a quick start to ward off the worries of those who saw his 2013 .308 Triple-A OBP, he didn’t, putting up a 68 wRC+ in April and just a 79 wRC+ in May. In June, it should be noted, he was outstanding, with a .327/.348/.500 line that gave hope that he’d figured out some of his issues, and while a lot of that was obviously BABIP-fueled, he seems like the most obvious player in the game to outperform BABIP expectations.

It didn’t last, obviously. July was an 83 wRC+. August was 74. September, even before Tuesday’s 0-3, was a nearly unthinkable 17. Again, assuming that his value is entirely based on his offense is selling him short, because his defense has been well-received across the board, and despite some stolen base efficiency problems, he’s been a valuable player on the bases. Unfortunately, the net result here is one excellent offensive month, four mediocre ones, and one absolute catastrophe.

Now, the best pitchers in baseball in the second half:

Corey Kluber Indians 13 96 47.3% 30.8% 4.5% 5.6% 1.88 1.85 2.24 3.7
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 12 94 47.6% 29.0% 5.1% 5.3% 1.82 2.15 2.59 3.2
David Price – – – 12 84.2 44.1% 26.2% 4.3% 7.1% 3.61 2.43 2.74 2.6
Max Scherzer Tigers 13 88 38.0% 26.9% 6.7% 6.7% 2.97 2.73 3.10 2.4
Carlos Carrasco Indians 9 71 50.0% 27.7% 4.0% 6.4% 1.77 2.00 2.27 2.3
Alex Cobb Rays 12 77.1 54.1% 23.9% 6.9% 1.6% 1.51 2.38 3.19 2.2
Marcus Stroman Blue Jays 12 73.1 57.7% 20.2% 5.1% 3.8% 3.56 2.50 3.03 2.2
Jacob deGrom Mets 10 66.2 50.0% 27.9% 5.8% 3.8% 2.03 2.03 2.61 2.1
Chris Sale White Sox 11 73 36.4% 32.1% 6.7% 9.2% 2.34 2.77 2.82 2.1
Phil Hughes Twins 12 80 37.8% 22.5% 1.5% 7.3% 3.15 2.78 3.13 2.1
Jose Quintana White Sox 12 73.2 40.5% 20.7% 5.8% 3.7% 3.18 2.73 3.57 2.1

That’s ranked by WAR, to show how much value deGrom has generated despite his lesser amount of innings, and those are some impressive names. (Also, holy good lord, Corey Kluber). Eno explained how deGrom improved his secondary pitches, partially thanks to Johan Santana. August Fagerstrom regaled us with GIFs of deGrom striking out eight consecutive Marlins to start a game last week.

Again, though, to display it like this shows the main issue here. This award isn’t for “best rookie of the second half,” it’s for “best rookie in 2014,” or at least it should be. Fairly or (mostly) not, finishing strong counts in the minds of some voters. Think about how long ago Kershaw’s missed time in April seems compared to Giancarlo Stanton’s lost September. As voters sit down to fill out their ballot, what’s going to be fresh in their minds is two months of deGrom being brilliant, and two months of Hamilton being atrocious. That Hamilton had some success earlier on in the year shouldn’t be lost; then again, that’s not how human nature works.

If it sounds like I’m talking myself into deGrom, I think I am. Hamilton’s season was a success in many ways, but I don’t know that we’re walking away from it any more convinced that he’s the answer the Reds need. The biggest strike against deGrom — maybe the only one, really — is that he didn’t pitch as much as you would have liked in the bigs this year. But really, it’s not like he was mediocre for a while and then had a great finish. In his debut, he held the Yankees to one run over seven innings. He held the Pirates scoreless over 6.2 innings in his third start. In his fourth, he struck out 11 hitters. Only three times all year did he allow more than three earned runs.

So really, for me, it comes down to this: If deGrom had made three more starts that weren’t total disasters, are we even talking about this? I’m not sure that we are. Hamilton had his moments. deGrom, despite being around less, had more. What stopped Hamilton from being more valuable was his own performance; what stopped deGrom was opportunities given, plus he had the likely boost of finishing well while Hamilton did not. deGrom is the choice for the Rookie of the Year on these pages, and I think, in a tight vote, the actual voters will agree.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or

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James K
9 years ago

Plus, Hamilton’s WAR (both fWAR and rWAR) is bouyed by bananas defensive metrics that really shouldn’t be taken seriously. deGrom is the easy choice.

9 years ago
Reply to  James K

Why should they not be taken seriously? Lagares, Hamilton, and Bradley all have about the same defensive value by WAR. DRS has him in the top 5 centerfielders. He definitely passes the eye test.Is it not possible that Hamilton is a great centerfielder who has had a great defensive year?

9 years ago
Reply to  tct

I think he’s arguing more that defense is just overvalued when it comes to WAR — any type.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rick

I’d have to agree, and this is coming from one of the biggest Juan Lagares fans out there. 4 wins seems a little generous for a player with a 101 wRC+, and 3.4 seems a lot generous for a guy with an 80 wRC+.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rick

That’s fine if he wants to make that argument, but you have to be consistent. You can’t say that Hamilton’s defense is over valued, but Heyward and Simmons are valued correctly defensively. It seemed to me like he was saying that Hamilton’s defense, individually, was over valued instead of making a generalized statement about the value of defense in the WAR calculation.

Alex Gordon
9 years ago
Reply to  tct

Nobody takes my defense seriously…

Gordon Lightfoot
9 years ago
Reply to  Alex Gordon

I do.

9 years ago
Reply to  James K

“While were at it, we probably shouldn’t count Trout’s offensive numbers toward his AL MVP, because they are too good” <– #sarcasm