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Thursday, October 23, 2003

Baseball Primer’s 2003 N.L. Rookie of the Year

Whatchoo pitchin’ bout, Willis?

This was a strange year for rookies in the NL. Not one of the top four vote-getters in the Primer ROY voting was even expected to contribute much, if at all, in 2003. Two of the four weren?t even on their team?s Opening Day roster, while a third player was there only as a placeholder for a suspended player and didn?t come back permanently until May. The odds-on candidate going into the season struggled for two months, then actually played quite well for the rest of the season, ending up over .300 with a .366 OBP ? and got just one third-place vote in the final tally.


The Primer voters gave their NL ROY award to Arizona?s Brandon Webb, in a surprisingly easy win. Webb picked up two-thirds of the first place votes, and was the only rookie mentioned on every ballot. Milwaukee?s Scott Podsednik got the other first-place votes and finished second, while Florida?s heavily hyped Dontrelle Willis was third. Jason Phillips, Marlon Byrd, and Jae Weong Seo rounded out the voting.

Brandon Webb

The 24-YO Webb was called up for the first time on April 21, after Randy Johnson went on the DL with a sprained knee. He made his first major league start on April 27 in the first game of a doubleheader in Shea Stadium, and shut out the Mets for seven innings, allowing just three hits and fanning 10. His reward for that outing was a return trip to the minors after the game, as Johnson was activated for the second game, but he was back 5 days later when thew Big Unit went back on the DL. All Webb did was to reel off 12 more quality starts in succession. In his first 26 starts, he allowed as many as four runs only twice, before stumbling in his final two efforts (one of which was in Coors Field). He wasn?t running up numbers just against the lesser lights of the league, either. In his second start, against Atlanta, he allowed 3 hits and 1 run in seven innings. In four starts against the Giants, he had three quality starts and allowed 10 runs in 28 innings (3.21 ERA). He shut Houston down twice, allowing just five hits and three runs in 13 innings, and he also managed a 7 IP, 1 run performance in Coors Field in his first appearance there. While he didn?t have the most Win Shares among NL rookies (Podsednik had 22 to Webb?s 17), Webb?s performances for a club that was in postseason contention until fading in September (through no fault of his), despite losing its top two pitchers and its closer for significant portions of the season, earned him the award.

Scott Podsednik

At the start of the season, the Brewers were committed to an outfield of Geoff Jenkins, Alex Sanchez, and Jeffrey Hammonds, with John VanderWal the #1 reserve. Podsednik and Jason Conti were the fifth OF candidates, and they both made the opening day roster because Jenkins was hurt. Podsednik got a couple of early looks and did fairly well, so when Jenkins was activated, Conti went down. Then Hammonds got hurt (surprise!) and Sanchez struggled, and Podsednik started playing more frequently. By mid-May, Podsednik had taken the CF job away from Sanchez even though he wasn?t hitting much at that point, thanks primarily to a near-.400 OBP. He cemented the job by hitting .373 in June with a .453 OBP, and when the Brewers briefly caught everyone?s attention with a 10-game winning streak in August, Podsednik was in the thick of things every day, scoring 14 runs and adding 10 points to his OBP over that stretch. He finished at .314/.379/.443, scoring 100 runs, and as noted above led NL rookies in Win Shares with 22. Podsednik is 27, and this might be as good as it gets for him. But the Brewers will take it, at least until Dave Krynzel is ready.

Dontrelle Willis

Willis came up on May 9 when the Marlins placed Josh Beckett on the DL, and didn?t pitch particularly well in his first three starts. With Mark Redman about to come off the DL, there was some thought that Willis might go back down if he struggled against the Reds in his fourth start. But Willis manhandled Cincy for eight shutout innings, held the Reds to just one run in seven frames the next time out, and was off to the races. The crown jewel was a one-hit 1-0 shutout of the Mets on June 16, which triggered a string of starts in which Willis allowed just 2 ER in 34 2/3 innings. He hit a rough patch in August, allowing 20 ER in 26 IP, which probably cost him votes from the Primer crew. But he recovered to finish strong, winding up with a 14-6 record and a 3.30 ERA, walking 58 and fanning 142 in 160 1/3 IP, and totalling 14 Win Shares to lead Florida?s staff. Willis is just 21, and the Marlins will have to be careful with him for the next few seasons while his arm matures to avoid the Dwight Gooden career path. With their other young starters, they should be able to resist the temptation to ride him hard.

Jason Phillips

Phillips started the season with the Mets because Mike Piazza had to sit out a suspension for a spring training incident. He went to Norfolk on Piazza?s return, got a brief callup in mid-April, then returned for good on May 16 when Piazza tore his groin, and eventually took over the 1B job when Tony Clark failed to produce (although he did start 26 games behind the plate). He posted numbers comparable to Podsednik?s final totals: .298/.373/.442 in 119 games. Like Podsednik, Phillips is also 27. Because of Podsednik?s extra defensive value (decent defensive CF vs 1B/weak defensive C) and additional playing time, I think he rates the edge over Phillips here. Win Shares sees it the same way, as Phillips gets just 13 WS.

Marlon Byrd

Byrd was handed the Phillies? CF job before the end of last season, and was being touted going into the season as a strong ROY candidate. Byrd spent some time on the DL in April, and spent the better part of the time that he was active struggling to clear the Mendoza line. He sat a lot even when he was healthy, and on June 1 he was hitting just .193/.261/.277. He then caught fire, hitting well over .350 for the next two months, and was moved to the leadoff slot at just about the same time that the Phillies? team woke up and starting playing like the team people expected them to be in the preseason. Byrd?s early struggles, coupled with the Phillies? late collapse, dropped him off the ROY screen entirely, as he got just one third-place vote on the Primer ballot. But Byrd did wind up hitting .303/.366/.418, playing above-average defense in CF, and totalling 16 Win Shares. He?s 26, and next year could be the year we see the real Marlon Byrd from day 1.

Jae Weong Seo

Earlier in the season, there were a number of people who felt he was pitching better than either Webb or Willis, and was being hurt by the Mets? lack of run support. Like Byrd, her picked up one third-place vote. Seo did pitch much better than his 9-12 final record would indicate, although a miserable July and August (42 ER in 63 1/3 IP) and the Mets? shoddy defense dragged his final numbers down. For the season, the 26-YO Korean righty posted a 3.82 ERA in 189 1/3 IP and gathered 9 Win Shares. I don?t think he rates above any of the five other players on this list, and I?d also put him below Miguel Cabrera (who might just have the best career of any of these rookies).


My guess is that Willis will win the media vote, although there was a lot of buzz for Webb and a somewhat smaller buzz for Podsednik late in the season. I?d guess Willis, Webb, Podsednik, with scattered votes for Phillips, Byrd, and maybe Cabrera.


Mike Emeigh Posted: October 23, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 18 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. DCW3_ Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613686)
I think it's worth mentioning that Willis was an excellent hitter for a pitcher in 2003 (61 OPS+), while Webb was a lousy hitter, even for a pitcher (-35 OPS+). Of course, it's only 60 PA--but that's still 1/10 of a full season in which Willis hit like Barry Bonds relative to his position. I'm just curious as to how much, if any, consideration Primer voters give to pitchers' hitting in MVP and ROY races. As a tiebraker in a race closer than Willis/Webb, perhaps?
   2. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613688)
I didn't forget about Reyes; I just don't think he's likely to be nearly the player that Cabrera is likely to be. I see Reyes as Juan Pierre with a bit more power (low-.400s SLG rather than high-.300s).

-- MWE
   3. Sam M. Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613691)
It's hard to see much difference between Cabrera and Reyes in their rookie seasons (Cabrera: .465 SLG, .325 OBP, .793 OPS v. Reyes: .434 SLG, .334 OBP, .768 OPS while playing SS). I tend to think Reyes was more impressive if you look at the month-by-month splits, because of how he began to dominate the league after struggling early. I'd guess his WARP was higher, but I don't know for sure. But I'm also biased, of course. I think these two are unquestionably the most valuable rookies in either league, and are very, very likely to have the best careers. If you had Reyes, you'd be crazy to trade him for any other rookie -- except perhaps Cabrera, and vice-versa.

I anticipate years of accusations that the media favors Reyes because he plays in New York, debates about the value of Reyes' defense with sub-debates about which metrics most accurately measure how good he is (or isn't) with the glove, speculation about where the Marlins will trade Cabrera when he (a) becomes arbitration eligible, and then (b) approaches free agency . . . .

The comparison to Juan Pierre, though? Ouch.
   4. mike green Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613692)

Cabrera had laid a foundation for his major league work in the minors. Reyes had hit poorly in Norfolk the first half of the season, and less than 1/2 a season is not much of a sample size.
I'm with Mike Emeigh...Cabrera is a far better offensive prospect. If Reyes is to be summoned by Cooperstown 25 years from now, it will be on account of his glove. This doesn't seem that likely.
   5. Robert S. Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613693)
Yay, Primates!

I saw all but two of Webb's starts this year and was damn impressed with the kid. I can't imagine he'll realistically be quite as dominant next season, but he's got excellent stuff and I do think he can be an effective pitcher for a long time.
   6. Fadeaway: The Baseball History Podcast Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613694)
I for one did take Willis' hitting into account when voting, but I still thought Webb had the superior year.

Of course, my first-place vote went to Scott Podsednik, making the above a moot point anyhow.
   7. Cliff Floyd the Barber Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613695)
mike green-

I'm wondering how you're able to be so sure that Reyes isn't as good as a prospect as Cabrera; your argument seems to be based soley on small sample size, which proves that both outcomes are inconclusive.

I also don't see Cabrera's minor league stats as that more impressive than Reyes. It's my understanding that Carolina, where Cabrera put up impressive numbers, is AA. Reyes, while not putting up the same incredible numbers as Cabrera, held his own at the same level (.756 OPS).

As for the Juan Pierre comparison, him and Reyes do have similar career minor league OPS (R: .769, P: .765) but the significant difference in age (3-4 years) suggests to me that Reyes will be a much better player.
   8. Ben Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613696)
Reyes held his own at AA, but Cabrera destroyed it. That's a pretty critical difference. Also, Reyes struggled badly at AAA. Given that Cabrera hit better once in the show, it's pretty clear that Cabrera is the superior offensive prospect. Reyes, in his best years, is still going to be posting an empty BA. Cabrera has shown a lot more power than Reyes.
   9. Josh Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613697)
Why is Seo on that list over Cabrera?he collapsed in the second half, while Miguel generated the NL Champions offense. I mean, the kid is batting clean-up for a world series team. Seo is the fifth pitcher for a 90 loss team.

C'mon now...
   10. Sam M. Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613698)
I don't want to be overly harsh, but neither Ben nor Josh has the slightest clue what he's talking about.

Seo: He struggled mid-season, but came on strong late (though he was 1-3 in September, it was with a 1.71 ERA in five starts, during which he had a 22-9 K/W ratio and gave up just 25 H in 31.2 IP). Hardly a "collapse in the second half." His problems in July and August were due to blister problems on his pitching hand. I'll be accused of bias for saying this, and maybe I'll be guilty of it, but I'd rather have Seo than Willis.

Nor, by the way, do I see what the fact Seo was pitching for a last-place team has to do with anything -- except that it makes the success he had all the more impressive.

Reyes: He hardly "struggled badly" at Norfolk. He was in a slump when the Mets called him up, but it had knocked his average down to .269. He'd also drawn 15 walks in 160 ABs, and stolen 26 bases. I guess we can agree to disagree whether that's "struggling badly" for a 20 year old getting his first taste of AAA ball.

Empty batting average? We'll see. Over a third of his hits in the minors were for extra bases; he stole a very high number of bases with an excellent percentage; and his walk rates improved significantly at every level (including the majors) after an early adjustment period. And this record compiled when he was very young for each level when he arrived.

Look, if you want to say Miguel Cabrera is a great prospect, I'm with you. If you even want to say he's a better offensive prospect than Jose Reyes, I'd say you might be right. IMO, any player who can do what they both did as 20-year old rookies has HOF potential, but it's anybody's guess which, if either, of them will realize it. For my own two cents worth, I wouldn't trade a shortstop with Reyes's potential for a third baseman/corner outfielder with Cabrera's, but I don't feel the need to say silly negative things about Cabrera to make my case. I'll just enjoy Jose Reyes making your statements look foolish for the next 10 years.

   11. I Love LA (OFF) Posted: October 24, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613699)
Here are their respective stats:


.462 .353 .815 30/35 age 19 FSL
.425 .331 .756 16/42 age 19 Eastern
.356 .333 .689 15/25 age 20 Norfolk
.434 .334 .768 13/36 age 20 MLB


.421 .333 .754 38/85 age 19 FLS
.609 .429 .1038 31/49 age 20 Eastern
.468 .325 .793 25/84 age 20 MLB

   12. jason Posted: October 25, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613701)
So does anyone think that Webb is a candidate for the Cy Young? Take a look at BP's support neutral W/L stats. He's number one in percentage in the NL and comparable with anyone else in terms of total support neutral wins. It's a stretch, but not as much you might think.
   13. Roger McDowell spit on me! Posted: October 25, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#613703)
I'm with Sam on this. They are both great prospects and to be debating the relative worth of two 20 year olds, who are likely to be playing as teammates in All Star games for a number of years is kinda silly. One point that might eventually end up in Reyes' favor will be the position Cabrera settles into. If the Marlins do keep Lowell for another couple of years, then Cabrera becomes a corner outfielder, which makes him a little less valuable than if he plays 3rd. That said, I did trade Reyes for Cabrera in my fantasy league this year.
   14. Doug Posted: October 25, 2003 at 02:53 AM (#613713)
Re: Posednik and "this may be as good as it gets"

Would be interesting to know how many "significant" players (maybe, those playing 100 or more games in at least 5 seasons - or something along those lines) reached their peak in their first full season, and how old they were that first year.

I seem to recall reading that Dan Driessen was such a player, and maybe Alvin Davis also (but not so sure about him).

Re: Marlon Byrd's turnaround

I would suspect it must be very unusual for someone hitting under .200 on June 1 to end up over .300 for the year - although the comment about sitting out a lot early in the year makes the turnaround seem less extraordinary.

Nevertheless, the more conventional pattern is, I suspect, for a new hitter to hit well the first time through the league and not so well the second or third time as the pitchers adjust to exploit his weaknesses. The counter-pattern should augur well for Byrd's future success.

   15. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 25, 2003 at 02:53 AM (#613722)
Even though Reyes and Cabrera had similar performance levels, the shapes of their performances were very different. Cabrera's BA was nearly 40 points lower than Reyes's, and more of his value resulted from his secondary skills. So I took a look at the performances of 20-YO players across history to see whether, and to what extent, we could find similar performances.

Probably the best matches for Reyes, among 20-YO, are Travis Jackson, who hit .302/326/.428 for the Giants in 1924, and Claudell Washington, .308/.346/.424 for the A's in 1975 (and who was also 40/55 as a base stealer). There are fewer players with Cabrera's combination; Ruben Sierra's 1986 (.264/.302/.476) probably comes closest, and Cabrera's BB rate was substantially higher. Most of the players with similar power production levels either had higher BA's (like Orlando Cepeda in 1958) or better walk rates (like Willie Mays in 1951).

An interesting comp, for the purposes of this discussion, is a 20-YO converted infielder who wasn't even expected to be on the major league team out of spring training but who got a shot when a veteran outfielder went down, and proceeded to hit .280/.322/.447. Neither his power production nor his walk rates were quite as good as Cabrera's 20-YO numbers, but they were better than Reyes's, and his strikeout rate was very comparable to Reyes's. Three years later, that player was the league MVP and led his team to a WS title, and he's now in the HOF.

Now I'm not predicting that either Reyes or Cabrera is going to turn into Henry Aaron, of course - the Claudell Washington/Ruben Sierra career paths are probably at least as likely. But when I look honestly at the skill sets of the players involved, I conclude that Cabrera's ceiling isn't too far from Henry Aaron, and Jose Reyes's ceiling is nowhere close to that level.

-- MWE
   16. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 25, 2003 at 02:53 AM (#613724)
Would be interesting to know how many "significant" players (maybe, those playing 100 or more games in at least 5 seasons - or something along those lines) reached their peak in their first full season, and how old they were that first year.

Using version 5.0 of the Lahman DB:

Through 2002, there have been 1369 players who debuted in 1900 or later and who have had five or more seasons in which they played 100 or more games. Of those 1369, 117 posted their highest OPS in their first season of 100 or more games, and never matched that OPS in any subsequent season. Neither Alvin Davis nor Dan Driessen is among those 117, by the way. But Alex Rodriguez is; he's never (to date) matched the OPS that he posted in his first 100+ game season in 1996. Ryan Klesko makes the list, also; his best OPS came in his first 100+ game season in 1995.

The breakdowns by age follow. For each age group, I list the total number of players debuting at that age, followed by the number of players who had their highest OPS at that age.

18: 2/0 (the two 18-YO players were Robin Yount and Phil Cavaretta)
19: 13/1 (the one 19-YO player who had the highest OPS at this age was Tony Conigliaro)
20: 46/3 (this group includes ARod)
21: 137/6
22: 188/14
23: 235/17
24: 241/15
25: 205/24
26: 142/17
27: 86/7
28: 36/3
29: 20/6
30: 8/2
31: 7/2
32+: 3/0 (these three players were Eddie Brown, a 1920s Dodger; Johnny Cooney, who had a long career as a pitcher before becoming an OF; and Eddie Mayo, who had some pre-WWII games but had the bulk of his career during the war with Detroit).

Some notable players to have their best OPS in their first 100+ game season, in addition to ARod, Conigliaro, and Klesko, include Steve Balboni (1984), Tom Brunansky (1982), Cecil Fielder (1990), Shoeless Joe Jackson (1911), Tony Kubek (1957), Ray Knight (1979), Tony Oliva (1964), and Richie Zisk (1977). In Jackson's case, I doubt that was really his peak season; 1910 and 1911 were inflated offense seasons, for their time, and Jackson was probably a better performer later. It would be better to use OPS+ rather than OPS, of course, but I don't have that data readily available.

-- MWE
   17. Sam M. Posted: October 26, 2003 at 01:53 AM (#613733)
Mike E:

Interesting comps. There is one big difference between Reyes and both Washington and Jackson at the age of 20. They had had a significant number of ML at bats as 19-year-olds, giving them a foundation of experience on which to build in their 20-year-old seasons. Reyes compiled comparable stats without that experience.

It's pretty damn exciting to think Cabrera might have a ceiling comparable to Hank Aaron. What that means is that if Cabrera reaches even half his potential, he'll be a great player. I hope the Marlins realize what they have, and decide where to play him and just leave him there. Moving him around the diamond is one good way to ensure he never becomes the player he has the chance to be.
   18. Doug Posted: October 26, 2003 at 01:53 AM (#613735)
Thanks for doing the quickie study on first year performance.

Breakdowns are pretty much what you would expect, although I would have guessed there'd be a bigger difference between the first two groups below.
- Age 18-22 (28.2% of sample): 6.2% peak in first season
- Age 23-25 (49.7% of sample): 8.2% " "
- Age 26+ (22.1% of sample): 12.3% " "
- All ages: 8.5% peak in first season

Cecil Fielder in '90 was a bit of a surprise, as I remember him playing a fair bit for the Jays before going to Detroit, but apparently not quite up to the fulltime player standard (he had 82 and 74 games in '87 and '88). Incidentally, he had .905 OPS in that '87 season, his second best number to the '90 season.

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