— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.