Creating a Cheat Sheet for Predicting MLB Rookie of the Year

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2013

Rookies in Major League Baseball tend to be a mixed bag, because the game is very difficult and everyone develops at their own pace. So when you think about predicting the Rookie of the Year award, luck plays as much of a role as anything. 

Or does it?

As the 2013 season gets set to begin and predictions start rolling out from experts and analysts across the web, you are going to see a lot of different rookies bantered about as being in the hunt for the prestigious honor. 

How do they come to their conclusions? Is there some magic formula we are overlooking when looking at potential Rookie of the Year winners?

At the risk of stating the all-too obvious, playing time is the biggest factor. You have to play in order to put up numbers, so that is the simplest way to make a prediction. When people say they like St. Louis pitcher Shelby Miller to win the National League honor, it's because they know he will be in the rotation when the season starts. 

Going beyond playing time, though, we want to look at finding any noticeable trends from past Rookie of the Year winners to help you make a better, more informed decision when you are making predictions. 

First, here is a look at the last 10 players to win the Rookie of the Year award in the American and National League. 

 Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels  2012  Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
 Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay Rays  2011  Craig Kimbrel, CP, Atlanta Braves
 Neftali Feliz, CP, Texas Rangers  2010  Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants
 Andrew Bailey, CP, Oakland Athletics  2009  Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida Marlins
 Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays  2008  Geovany Soto, C, Chicago Cubs
 Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston Red Sox  2007  Ryan Braun, 3B/OF, Milwaukee Brewers
 Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers  2006  Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida Marlins
 Huston Street, CP, Oakland Athletics  2005  Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies
 Bobby Crosby, SS, Oakland Athletics  2004  Jason Bay, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
 Angel Berroa, SS, Kansas City Royals  2003  Dontrelle Willis, SP, Florida Marlins


As you can see, past Rookie of the Year winners have been a mixed bag as far as having long, sustained success in the big leagues. But looking at this group, here are some things we can take away, as well as questions we can ask that will help determine what will happen in the future. 


Position players and closers have a decided advantage

Of the last 20 winners, 17 of them have been either position players or closers (13 position players, four closers). That actually follows the trend you see in MVP voting, where the writers struggle with how to identify how starters impact the game. 

Unless, you are a starting pitcher who has a natural charisma that extends beyond the baseball field (Dontrelle Willis), get off to an incredibly hot start that carries you even when you stumble in the second half (Justin Verlander) or post a low ERA even without the best peripheral stats (Jeremy Hellickson). 

That isn't meant to sound like a slight against Hellickson, Verlander or Willis, who all presented very strong cases for the award the year they won it. It is actually meant to highlight those starting pitchers who didn't win. 

For instance, in 2009 Andrew Bailey won the AL Rookie of the Year after recording 26 saves, 91 strikeouts with an ERA of 1.84 and allowing just 49 hits in 83.1 innings. Certainly, for any reliever, those are outstanding numbers. 

But was that season really better or more valuable to Oakland than what Rick Porcello did for Detroit in 2009?

As a 21-year-old, he started 31 games, pitched 170.2 innings with a 3.96 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 89-52 wasn't impressive, but he threw more than twice the innings that Bailey did, is four years younger (if you think that kind of thing should factor into a Rookie of the Year ballot) and had to turn a lineup over multiple times to succeed. 

Voters want the big shiny stats that they can easily identify, especially for pitchers. Things like wins and losses, saves and ERA will be at the forefront of their mind. They don't necessarily want to put things into context. 

Because of that, if you are a good closer, it is going to be easier to win Rookie of the Year than it would be as, say, a league-average starter. Even if the starter is throwing more than twice the innings of the reliever. 


The cream usually rises to the top

Going over these 20 names, there are several who have turned into superstars. Just look at the last five years: You have Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Buster Posey, Craig Kimbrel and Evan Longoria. 

The point being that almost all of these names have been some of the best prospects in baseball the year that they won the award. 

From 2004-12, Baseball America has ranked 15 of the 18 Rookie of the Year winners in its annual Top 100 list. The three players not ranked were Dustin Pedroia, Andrew Bailey and Chris Coghlan. 

There is some legitimate rationale for why none of those three players made the list, though Pedroia is the obvious outlier considering the career he has had. The Red Sox second baseman is so unique because there are very few players, let alone second baseman, in the history of baseball at his size who have been able to put up the numbers he has. 

Bailey has always been limited to the bullpen. Top-100 lists are about projecting future impact and upside, and there just isn't a lot of value to having a relief-only prospect. Certainly, you would be hard pressed to put a reliever in a top-100 ranking. 

Coghlan, while he was the 36th overall pick in the 2006 draft, never had elite tools that translated to the big leagues. He had a fluky second half (.372/.423/.543) that catapulted him to an award he probably shouldn't have gotten over Andrew McCutchen, J.A. Happ or Tommy Hanson. 

Of the 15 players ranked in the Baseball America Top 100 the season they won Rookie of the Year, only Kimbrel and Street—two relief-only pitchers—were ranked outside the top 75. Bay was the lowest-ranked position player (No. 74 in 2004). 

Trout, Harper, Posey, Feliz, Hellickson, Longoria and Verlander were all top-10 prospects, though Harper was the only player who ranked No. 1 the year he won the award. 

The point being that you need to pay close attention to these preseason prospect lists that are out there, because odds are very good that the Rookie of the Year in both leagues is going to appear very high on that list. 


How much does Major League experience the previous year help?

Because there are rules for rookie eligibility in baseball, it is possible for a player to debut in the big leagues one year and then win Rookie of the Year the next. In the case of Edinson Volquez, he can pitch three full seasons in the big leagues and still get votes. 

We see it all the time, where a big-name prospect will get called up either midway through a season or in September, then use that as a springboard for big things to come the next season. 

But does that brief experience really tell us anything about predicting who will have a successful rookie season?

To refresh your memory, the rules are that a player is a rookie if he has less than 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched and less than 45 days on a major league roster excluding September roster expansions. 

So using our list of 20 players as a reference, here is how their previous experience in the big leagues breaks down: Thirteen had recorded service time in the big leagues before their first full season. 

The only players who didn't have previous experience before making the jump were Willis, Street, Braun, Longoria, Coghlan, Bailey and Harper. Willis and Bailey were the only players who skipped Triple-A altogether. 

If you think that previous experience can serve a player well, there really isn't enough sufficient evidence given this sample size to say it does. Trout struggled in 2011 (.220/.281/.390), though a lot of that can be attributed to irregular playing time and just a natural development curve. 


Does starting the year in the big leagues help?

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to prospects, even those with superstar potential who appear to be ready to make the leap, is that most of them only luck into playing time during their rookie season because of an injury or the incumbent big leaguer is performing so badly that the team has no choice but to call someone up. 

It seems silly right now, but Trout was "blocked" in Los Angeles last season so Vernon Wells could take up a roster spot. Harper was a 19-year-old in Triple-A working on his pitch recognition. 

Suddenly, Wells reminds everyone why he was just taking up space and Jayson Werth gets hurt. All of a sudden we see two potentially historic talents debut at the same time and take the baseball world by storm. 

Posey was held in Triple-A for the first two months of the 2010 season. Longoria got called up a week into the 2008 season, then signed what turned out to be the most team-friendly contract in North American sports just days later. Braun spent 34 games at Triple-A in 2007 before Milwaukee brought him up. 

Because teams tend to be so reluctant to just hand a starting job to a rookie right out of spring training—or they are concerned with service time issues to save money—we can see that there is a strong chance that whoever wins the award this year isn't on a 25-man roster when the season starts. 


Putting all the pieces together

With all this information at our disposal, we can finally start to put some pieces together and figure out the players who will battle for the Rookie of the Year honors this season. 

The obvious candidates include Shelby Miller (St. Louis), Julio Teheran (Atlanta) and Jedd Gyorko (San Diego) in the National League and Aaron Hicks (Minnesota) and Carter Capps (Seattle) in the American League because they have guaranteed jobs out of spring training.

Of those five, only Capps is not on Baseball America's Top-100 list for 2013. He is also going to start the season in a set-up role for the Mariners, since Tom Wilhelmsen is the incumbent closer. 

Hicks seems like a long shot in the American League because he is making the jump from Double-A to Minnesota with no experience at Triple-A. Willis in 2003 was the last player to do that. 

No two players are the same, so it would be foolish to dismiss Hicks in that regard. But he has struggled moving up the ladder throughout his minor league career. He hit .251/.353/.382 at Low-A in 2009, repeated the level in 2010 and hit .279/.401/.428. After moving up to High-A in 2011, he hit just .242/.354/.368. He was pushed to Double-A in 2012 and responded by hitting .286/.384/.460. 

Hicks is just 23 years old and is loaded with tools, including plus defense in center, plus-plus arm strength and a very good approach at the plate, but the jump has been an issue for him in the past. Moving two levels is something he hasn't done yet, especially when you go from Double-A to MLB

Starting pitchers are at a disadvantage because it is harder to put up those "Wow" stats over the course of 180 innings, leaving Miller and Teheran in a lurch. You can also throw pitchers who should get called up very soon (Trevor Bauer in Cleveland, Gerrit Cole in Pittsburgh, Dylan Bundy in Baltimore) in that group. 

Gyorko seems to fit all the criteria we have presented, including being ranked in virtually everyone's top-100 list, even if it is in the lower quarter. He doesn't have a lot of power, which won't help him playing most games in San Diego, so he will have to hit for a high average to impress voters. 

Of all the likely candidates to watch this year, Wil Myers with Tampa Bay could be the safest bet. Even though he is starting the season in Triple-A, everyone expects the Rays will call him up around June 1 to delay his arbitration clock. 

Myers is the big power bat the team needs in the middle of the lineup. There is some swing-and-miss in his game, which could hold his average down. But because he has plus-plus power and showed it last year in the minors (37 home runs between Double- and Triple-A), he can put up big stats the voters like. 

One of the elite hitting prospects, Myers is ranked in the Top 5 of Baseball America's preseason list. As long as he is able to play in 100-110 games, he should be able to stand out in a crowded rookie field. 

Another name to watch in the National League is Adam Eaton, who would have been the consensus choice to win the award if not for an elbow injury that will keep him out for 6-8 weeks. He has a guaranteed spot in center field and a great approach at the plate to be the spark plug at the top of a lineup. 

While Eaton isn't as highly regarded as some of the names we have already talked about, he was a consensus top-100 prospect, usually ranking in the back half of most lists because his offensive upside is limited due to the fact he doesn't project to hit for much power. But a center fielder who can hit .280 with a .350 on-base percentage, a lot of doubles and really good defense at a premium position is an extremely valuable asset.

As long as Eaton's elbow doesn't flare up on him when he eventually does return, he should play enough to stay in the mix for the award. 

None of this is purely scientific, but it is the best that we can do when trying to figure out what is going to happen when it comes to rookie in baseball. 


If you want to talk more about rookies, or anything else baseball related, be sure to hit me up on Twitter


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