A Case for Desmond Jennings as AL ROY

Barring an epic meltdown in the season’s final week, Craig Kimbrel is almost certain to take home the National League Rookie of the Year award, and rightfully so – he’s been the best reliever in baseball this year. However, the picture is much more crowded over in the American League, where Mark Trumbo, Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson, Michael Pineda, and Jordan Walden all lead AL rookies in at least one category, and will likely all get support when the ballots are cast.

While those five each have counting stats that stand out from the crowd, none of them have made the same impact as Tampa Bay outfielder Desmond Jennings. Because the Rays opted to keep him in Triple-A until July 23rd, Jennings has only played in 56 games, far short of the record for fewest games played by a Rookie of the Year winner – Ryan Howard‘s 88 games played in 2005. However, since getting called up, Jennings has been one of the best players in the game, and his output has helped push the Rays back into playoff contention.

At the plate, Jennings has posted a 147 wRC+ (meaning his offensive performance was 47 percent better than league average), second best among AL rookies. That mark trails only Toronto’s Brett Lawrie, who managed to play just 43 games in Toronto due to injuries. For comparison, Jacoby Ellsbury is going to get MVP votes, and he’s posted a 148 wRC+ this season. What Jennings lacks in quantity, he has made up for in quality, performing at the same level as most of the game’s superstars.

It’s easy to dismiss Jennings as a viable candidate based on the fact that he’s only played in the majors for the final two months of the season, but the reality is that the voters have a history of rewarding terrific performances in smaller doses. Howard won them over in 2005 by swatting 22 home runs down the stretch for the Phillies, Buster Posey captured the award last year despite not joining the Giants until early June, and perhaps most tellingly, relief pitchers have been heavily represented among recent winners.
If Kimbrel wins the NL trophy as expect, he will join Neftali Feliz, Andrew Bailey, Huston Street, and Kazuhiro Sasaki as relievers to take home the award since the year 2000. In each case, the voters focused on how dominant they were in a smaller sample, choosing them over position players and starting pitchers who played in a far greater percentage of their team’s innings.

Number of Batters Faced in ROY Season

Neftali Feliz (2010): 269
Andrew Bailey (2009): 323
Huston Street (2005): 306
Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000): 265

Closers have routinely been rewarded for their excellence in retiring around 300 batters in a season. With six games remaining, Jennings has already come to the plate 254 times this year, and will end the year with more plate appearances than batters faced for either Feliz or Sasaki in the years their excellence was rewarded. If we include his time spent as a defender as well (he’s made 105 putouts as an outfielder), it’s clear that he’s been directly involved in as many run saving situations as any of the closers who have been won the award.

Voters have established that this level of quantity is sufficient for recognition if the dominance is clear enough in a shorter number of appearances. Well, in the last 20 years, no American League rookie with at least 250 plate appearances has posted a better wRC+ than Jennings 147 mark this year. Even expanding to the National League, the only rookies to post a higher mark than what Jennings has put up are Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, and Mike Piazza.
Clearly, Jennings has played at a level that would have made him the obvious choice had the Rays called him up earlier. So, now, the question is simply whether a financially motivated decision to keep him in the minors should be held against Jennings, or whether his late season run of greatness should be enough to garner consideration along with those who played at a lower level over a longer period of time.

With Howard and Posey, the voters have clearly shown that they are willing to consider players who spent a good chunk of their season in the minors, only to come up and play well in the second half of the season. They’ve also rewarded four closers for seasons in which other qualified candidates had much larger amounts of playing time. The recent history of the Rookie of the Year balloting shows that quality can trump quantity, and in the American League this season, that should hold true as well.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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