Season-ending awards routinely evoke differing passionate opinions amongst baseball fans, writers, and players. A perfect example of that is the debate as to whether Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera should win the American League MVP, which has continuously raged for the better part of September.
With that in mind, I was surprised to see the overwhelming majority of the FanGraphs staff vote for Bryce Harper as the NL Rookie of the Year over left-hander Wade Miley. While arguments can certainly be made for Harper, I thought Miley had a slightly better resume to be crowned the best rookie in the National League this season.
And, I suppose, that definition is where some of the confusion lies in my part. The Rookie of the Year is defined as the best rookie, not the most valuable rookie. That difference in terminology has always led me to vote for the rookie who compiled the best numbers without giving extra consideration to a position player because they largely play every day, and thus, often provide more value to their respective teams — which is why pitchers rarely win MVP awards.
Perhaps I’m alone in interpreting the award in that fashion. It was surprising, however, to see Wade Miley and Bryce Harper so far apart in the voting, despite identical +4.8 WAR seasons. Miley has the fourth-highest WAR of any pitcher in the National League, while Harper owns the third-highest WAR of any NL center fielder. The numbers are so close. There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut decision.
Miley played a huge part in salvaging the Diamondbacks’ starting rotation. The team’s two stalwarts from last season — Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson — failed to reproduce their success, due both to ineffectiveness and injury. Kennedy was nothing more than league-league average. He soaked up 200-plus innings, but merely posted a 98 FIP- and a 96 ERA-. Hudson, on the other hand, only made nine starts and saw his season end with Tommy John surgery.
With that in mind, the Diamondbacks needed someone to step up and anchor the rotation. Miley was not only the starter who experienced the most success on the mound, but he averaged 6.4 innings per start. Working consistently deep into games helped save the bullpen from overwork. It’s hard to imagine the Diamondbacks’ bullpen compiling the fourth-best FIP in all of baseball without Miley stepping into the rotation with such a high level of success.
The Diamondbacks’ left-hander also has the advantage in playing time. He spent the entire season in the big leagues, while Harper joined in the last week in April. That is a month’s more value Miley provided his team.
Harper evens the scales, however, with his his defensive value — in which he compiled an +8.9 UZR and one of the best arm numbers (+6.6 ARM) in the league. He’s more than a than just a bat. He augmented the Nationals’ production on both offense and defense, which negates much of the advantage Miley has with stabilizing a rotation in potential crisis and overall playing time.
The tipping point for me comes on a razor-thin point, in which Miley performed better compared to his position than did Harper. Miley’s 76 FIP- means he performed 24% better than the league-average pitcher. Harper, on the other hand, posted an impressive 122 wRC+, meaning he performed 22% better than the league-average hitter. Both statistics are park-adjusted, as well, which helps cut out the background noise of Chase Field being more hitter-friendly than Nationals Park.
In terms of which performance is more objectively impressive, Bryce Harper wins in a landslide. He was essentially a five-win player as a 19-year-old, while Wade Miley did so at 25 years old. Perhaps that comes into play for some people, which is fine. That simply did not affect my evaluation of which player had a statistically better rookie season.
When it came down to it, the race was so close that an extremely minor point swung my favor to Miley. He performed a little better compared to the league average than did Harper. That’s why he got my vote.