Rookie of the Year, Playing Time, and WAR

A fair amount of Most Valuable Player and Cy Young discussion has been going around lately, and while it seems a bit early with a month left in the season, I suppose it is understandable. There has been less discussion of Rookie of the Year. I don’t blame anyone for that. I really don’t get that worked up about the individual year-end awards. (I’m not quite brave enough to say that I don’t care, maybe if Greinke hadn’t won in 2009 the story would have been different.) And if I’m not that pumped about the MVP or Cy Young races, why should I be excited about Rookie of the Year?

Still, a number of rookies have been impressive this season, so it is worth discussing. Brett Lawrie, for example, has hit so well in only 26 major league games that he’s already at two WAR for the season, right of there with the best of the American League rookie hitters. What if he (or Desmond Jennings, or whatever player you want to pick) keeps this up? What if they put up more value than any other rookie in less than half of a season? Would you vote for them for Rookie of the Year?

While some components (mostly the fielding component) of Wins Above Replacement WAR stir controversy, I think few would dispute the value of the concept of trying to value players in a way that accounts for their offense, defense, position, and playing time. That last component — playing time — is the least discussed but it is in some ways the real innovation of replacement-level analysis. Prior to various replacement-level metrics, if a player was having a great season by a rate stat (back in those days we used “advanced” metrics like OPS) but missed some time with injury, people would always question how much he “really” helped the team.

Replacement level helps resolve that sort of dilemma by giving players credit for playing time over what a typical-AAA replacement would have contributed in equal playing time (around two wins below average). You can read more about replacement level here. The point is that for questions about awards like MVP, that helps take care of the “yeah, he was great, but this other player with inferior numbers played more games.”

Back to Rookie of the Year: I don’t have any strong opinions on who should get it in either league. The question is whether or not Rookie of the Year is just MVP for rookies. In that case I’d just look at the Rookie WAR leaderboards. I wouldn’t apply it mechanically: there’s enough uncertainty in various WAR components that I’d take the top players and then make distinctions myself as best I could (how to weight the relative error bars of offense and defense for hitters, different metrics for pitchers).

However, at the risk over thinking (which is not always the same as thinking intelligently) this, is Rookie of the Year really just “MVP for Rookies?” I’m fine letting the replacement component of WAR do the “work” on the playing time aspect of player value for MVP, but for rookies, for some reason I’m not sure. Check out the American League rookies for some examples. The leaders so far is a pitcher: Seattle’s Michael Pinedaat 2.9 and 2.8 WAR. [Author Edit: I originally had Alexi Ogando here, but although he’s listed on the leaderboards as a rookie, he isn’t actually a rookie.] From a simple WAR standpoint, however, he isn’t running away with it. Check out the position players. Seattle also has Dustin Ackley right there at 2.6 WAR, but in only 65 games, as he wasn’t called up until the middle of June. Not far behind Ackley are the Angels’ Mark Trumbo, who has been up all year and is currently at 2.1 WAR, but so is the Rays’ Desmond Jennings, who has been on fire over only 38 games and 171 plate appearances. If you think that’s a lot of value in a short amount of time, check out the Blue Jays’ Brett Lawrie, already at 2.0 WAR barely over 100 plate appearances.

It’s not inconceivable that Pineda could slow down and a guy like Ackley could get hot enough that he would pass them in WAR by the end of the season. Heck, it’s a small enough sample left that Jennings or Lawrie could do it, too. Now, if this were just an MVP-type category, I’d have no problem voting for whoever had the highest WAR if it was clear-cut, no matter what the playing time. But for some reason I can’t articulate it isn’t doesn’t seem quite right to do it for Rookie of the Year. It’s not that I’m looking for true talent here. Still, even if, for example, Pineda has a few bad starts and ended the season around three WAR and Lawrie or Jennings stayed aflame to end the season at four WAR, I’m not sure what I would think. Yes, by WAR Lawrie or Jennings would be more valuable in that case, but it seems like rookie going on a hot streak or half a season or less isn’t really “Rookie of the Year” as a player putting up the same or slightly less value for the full season.

Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But hey, it’s a blog: that’s what we do here. I don’t really know what to think; I’m not taking a side. I’m curious to read the thoughts of others. What do you think? Should a player be able to be “Rookie of the Year” in only half of a year of playing time?

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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lester bangs
10 years ago

WAR is the answer to all questions!

(Sometimes it feels like that on the interwebs.)

Bill but not Ted
10 years ago
Reply to  lester bangs


10 years ago