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Danny Valencia’s Rookie of the Year Case

Sometimes early impressions stick with us and play disproportionate roles in our judgments. Case in point: this week’s FanGraphs Audio, in which we discuss postseason awards. After spending a good chunk of the show’s 40 minutes discussing the Cy Young and MVP cases, we kind of gloss over the Rookies of the Year. They seem so obvious. Jason Heyward stands out from the pack in the NL. In the AL, Austin Jackson established himself early and is the rookie WAR leader. Does that mean his case is as clear-cut as Heyward’s?

Beyond Jackson, the only player any of the panelists named as an alternative was Rays’ catcher John Jaso. Playing catcher certainly helps his case, as does his .377 OBP and .345 wOBA. Since his recall in mid-April he has accumulated 370 PA, mostly batting leadoff against right-handed pitchers. The platoon role obviously cuts into his playing time, which affects his WAR. A negative DRS hurts a bit, too, but it still leaves Jaso with 2.3 WAR, sixth among AL catchers. That certainly makes a strong case, but I’m not sure it’s stronger than Jackson’s.

Yesterday, a commenter asked a good question: Why hadn’t anyone mentioned Danny Valencia? I’m sure we could give a number of reasons, but I think it really comes down to one thing: Valencia has accumulated just 273 PA this season, which means he won’t appear on any default leader boards. That’s nothing but laziness on our parts. Considering what a remarkable season he has put together, he certainly warrants at least a mention for the AL Rookie of the Year award. Consider this post a mea culpa.

For years, third base has been a weak spot for the Twins. They’ve had a mix of good and bad defenders play there, but on the whole none of them could hit. Here is their 3B wOBA since they lost Corey Koskie:

2005: .306
2006: .309
2007: .293
2008: .320
2009: .309

Of course, the only year they fielded remotely respectable offensive third basemen, they finished with a -11.3 UZR, fourth worst in the majors.

Heading into the 2010 season Valencia represented the possibility of an upgrade at the position. He put up excellent offensive numbers through AA, though he did struggle a bit at AAA. Even so, Baseball America ranked him the Twins’ No. 6 prospect and had nothing but good things to say about his offensive skills. “He has the bat speed to get to good fastballs and trusts his hands, staying back on breaking balls and using the whole field,” they wrote on their prospect list. They also praised his ability to play third, but noted that he would need more work to fulfill his potential defensively. Still, it sounded like he could be a solid answer to the team’s void at the hot corner.

Apparently the Twins didn’t think Valencia was ready at the start. They optioned him to AAA, leaving the third base job to Brendan Harris and Nick Punto. That predictably turned out poorly. Harris hit just .170/.260/.239 through May, and Punto hit .221/.287/.284 in limited duty thanks to a groin injury. The Twins needed help, and even though Valencia struggled with his power stroke in AAA they called him up in the beginning of June.

For his first month the power remained dormant, as he had just one double in 50 PA, a .022 ISO. But in July he surged, producing a .492 wOBA on the strength of six doubles and a homer. While he came back down to earth a bit in August, Valencia has again torn the cover off the ball in September, a .417 wOBA through 53 PA. It all adds up to a .373 wOBA in 273 PA, which amounts to 2.8 WAR. Despite the two-month handicap, Valencia still ranks fifth among AL third basemen in WAR.

Considering Valencia’s torrid production during his three and a half months, I think his case is a bit more solid than Jaso’s. He has a higher WAR in fewer plate appearances. For those who don’t like to make cross-position comparisons, especially with catchers, based on WAR, Valencia also has a better batting component than Jaso. For that matter, he has a higher batting component than Jackson. That, I think, should earn him consideration for the award.

When the votes are tallied in November, I still believe that Jackson will win the AL ROY award. He has gone wire-to-wire as the Tigers’ center fielder and leadoff hitter, and has put up attractive numbers. He might have an unsustainably high BABIP, but that shouldn’t factor into the award voting. Valencia makes a strong case, and if he had come up maybe three weeks earlier I think he’d be in more serious consideration. But because Jackson has put up his numbers in more than twice the number of plate appearances, I think it goes to him. The Twins might have found their third baseman of the future, and I wouldn’t complain at all if he snuck in and won the ROY. But right now Jackson still looks like the man.