Apparently My Rookie of the Year Ballot Was Strange

I was one of 30 people with a vote for the American League Rookie of the Year award. I voted for Aaron Judge. We all voted for Aaron Judge. Not only was Judge’s win unanimous — it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life. When you first get voting privileges within the BBWAA, people will warn you that it can be surprisingly difficult. These awards matter, to players and families and teams and fans, and voters need to give them far more thought than an outsider might think is reasonable. When you have an actual vote, suddenly it feels so much more real, and you can think yourself in circles. It’s no longer hypothetical. It’s no longer just firing off a tweet or three. When you have a vote, there are stakes.

Yet picking Judge was easier than picking shampoo over soap. It was easier than making my coffee with water over oil. Rarely has an award had so obvious a candidate. Judge was so good a rookie he’s a finalist for the league MVP. He just led all of baseball in wins above replacement. Judge wound up at 8.2 WAR; our rookie filter on the leaderboards isn’t perfect, but, using it anyway, there have only ever been four better rookie seasons. And Judge beat the next-best rookie in either league by 4.2 WAR; there have only ever been two bigger gaps. Mike Trout was absurd in 2012. Cy Blanton was absurd in 1935. Aaron Judge was absurd in 2017. Rookies aren’t supposed to do what he did.

It’s no surprise all the voters were on the same page with regard to Aaron Judge. It would be inexcusable not to give him first place. But I was apparently the only voter to give second place to Jordan Montgomery. I didn’t think much about what the other voters would do, because first is all anyone truly cares about. But now I feel obligated to explain myself. You can even read along, if you can bring yourself to think about down-ballot rookie votes. It’s a niche interest.

Judge surprised most everyone. It was surprising that he was so very good, but it was somewhat surprising he was good at all in the first place. When we did our preseason staff predictions, just two of 54 people picked Judge as their AL Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, 40 people picked Andrew Benintendi, and I was among them, because Benintendi felt like the safest. I liked Benintendi. I still like Benintendi. I think he’s one of the better young everyday players around.

I wound up voting Benintendi for third. Out of the BBWAA voters, 23 of 30 put him in second. Again, I’m the only person who voted Montgomery for second, and only one other voter even had Montgomery on the ballot. I didn’t think it was that easy to miss the boat, but maybe Montgomery was too easy to overlook. He wasn’t Judge. He wasn’t Gary Sanchez. He wasn’t Luis Severino, and he wasn’t Aaron Hicks. Montgomery was fairly quiet, yet he was also effective over just about a full season.

To be totally honest with you, I’m still thinking about what I want the Rookie of the Year to *be*, and this was my second straight year voting. I’m still thinking about how I’d like to balance performance against playing time. I don’t use it as a vote for the players I think will go on to have the best careers. I’m a fan of, say, Mitch Haniger. Also Matt Chapman. Also, I don’t know, Jakob Junis and Rafael Devers. A good rookie is positioned to be a good sophomore, but in any case, I want the award to be backward-looking. And I want it to be about more than just plain WAR. WAR does a pretty good job on its own of balancing performance and playing time, but I prefer to put extra weight on the latter.

I don’t like that I don’t have it down to a precise formula, but my thinking is that I strongly prefer to recognize players who played over a full or a near-full season. A rookie can be great for a month or two, but when you have just about a whole year, opponents have the opportunity to adjust to you. They have the opportunity to learn your strengths and weaknesses, and I think a critical part of any young player’s big-league experience is dealing with the adjustments that get made. Many players can be good for one month. Fewer can be good for five or six months, to say nothing of five or six years. I guess I think of things almost in terms of WAR, but with an additional playing-time filter. I’m impressed by, say, Matt Olson’s 2017, but he played in 59 games. For me, he didn’t get sufficient exposure.

Here are this year’s top five AL rookies, by FanGraphs WAR:

  1. Aaron Judge
  2. Matt Chapman
  3. Jordan Montgomery
  4. Mitch Haniger
  5. Andrew Benintendi

Here are this year’s top five AL rookies, by Baseball Reference WAR:

  1. Aaron Judge
  2. Matt Chapman
  3. Mitch Haniger
  4. Jordan Montgomery
  5. Matt Olson

Here are this year’s top five AL rookies, by the average of the two WARs:

  1. Aaron Judge
  2. Matt Chapman
  3. Jordan Montgomery
  4. Mitch Haniger
  5. Andrew Benintendi

I thought briefly about Yulieski Gurriel, but I didn’t think he was good enough. I thought briefly about Trey Mancini, but I didn’t think he was good enough. The numbers pointed me to Montgomery over Benintendi. Chapman’s a talented young player, but he got into just 84 games, and a lot of his value came from his defensive metrics. Haniger, I also like, but he got into just 96 games, against Benintendi’s 151. Montgomery made 29 starts, surpassing 150 innings. With my extra playing-time consideration, I was left looking for any reason to bump Benintendi over Montgomery. I couldn’t find one. Benintendi did have a little extra playing time, himself, but the performance wasn’t there.

By wOBA allowed, among starting pitchers, Montgomery just ranked in the 79th percentile. By expected wOBA allowed, he ranked in the 75th. By wOBA, among regulars and semi-regulars, Benintendi just ranked in the 49th percentile. By expected wOBA, he ranked in the 57th. Montgomery did a better job, relative to the average, and while DRS liked Benintendi’s outfield defense, UZR thought less of him, and Statcast thought he was mediocre. It’s a given that the numbers will have some amount of trouble with any left fielder in Fenway Park, but I don’t think the defense put Benintendi over the top. Montgomery wasn’t a great starting pitcher, but he finished with an 88 ERA- and an 89 FIP-. He allowed a lower wOBA in the second half than in the first. I have my own concerns with how deep Montgomery might be able to work in individual starts, but Benintendi just didn’t set that high a bar to clear. And Montgomery finished with the same FIP- as Drew Pomeranz and Kyle Hendricks.

This post is probably long enough. And if you wanted to distill it down into a sentence, it would read: Aaron Judge was great, and Jordan Montgomery was underrated. I wouldn’t rather have Montgomery as a player than Benintendi. There’s the whole pitcher-versus-position-player thing, and Montgomery is almost 25, whereas Benintendi is 23. I’m a believer in Benintendi’s bat control, and I think he’s going to become really good. He has the eye, and he has the bat speed. But Montgomery this past season was a quality starter. He didn’t do much to draw attention to himself, but his results are his results, and they bode pretty well for what’s to come. The Yankees’ fate isn’t going to turn on Jordan Montgomery. Yet he’s a real part of their present and future, and he was a heck of a rookie for a heck of a long time. Maybe more people would’ve noticed, too, if Judge hadn’t cemented himself as the Rookie of the Year by June.

We hoped you liked reading Apparently My Rookie of the Year Ballot Was Strange by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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insidb
Member
insidb

This seems perfectly defensible and well-reasoned. Chapman v. Montgomery reminds me a lot of last year’s Sanchez v. Fulmer: you’re forced to make evaluations that account for playing time, reliability of defensive metrics, and positional value and impact. The MVP vote is equally challenging this year, because Altuve and Judge are so close that you have to even look beyond bWAR and fWAR. As you said, though, it really does matter: there are a world of homers that think the MVP race has a clear leader.

Those fans certainly care, and more voters should put the same effort as you into their decisions.

Towel
Member
Towel

I don’t think you have to account for the reliability of defensive metrics for a guy like Chapman. It was pretty clear he was one of the best, if not the best, defending 3bs in all of baseball.

insidb
Member
insidb

I won’t argue that; it’s simply a matter of whether or not it’s sufficiently/effectively accounted for in WAR.

Joseph Meyer
Member
Member
Joseph Meyer

Even if it is clear that Chapman is the best defensive 3b in baseball, quantifying exactly how value to associate with that is hard and that is where the reliability of defensive metrics must be questioned.

Towel
Member
Towel

The best defending 3b in baseball who also had a 108 wrc+ seems pretty clearly more valuble than 150 innings of 4.07 FIP pitching.