Rookie Rumble Beyond the Bronx

Only via a distorted view could ex-Yankee prospect Jose Tabata be considered one of the NL's best rookies amid a bumper crop (AP).

The AL and NL Rookie of the Year results announced on Monday — which our man Cliff covered in detail over at SI.com — weren't terribly surprising in and of themselves. Both winners, Giants catcher Buster Posey and Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, should be familiar to anyone who watched postseason baseball, though the writers had to submit their ballots before the playoffs actually began. Both were quite defensible choices who not only had fine seasons but should enjoy long and productive careers. Interestingly enough, both vote tallies featured former Yankee prospects further down the list. On an aging and increasingly expensive team, that can't be a good thing, can it? We'll get to that.

The NL ballot was particularly fascinating, as the top two rookies by most measures were Posey and Braves right fielder Jason Heyward. After hitting tape-measure shots in spring training, the 20-year-old Heyward made the team out of spring training. He got off to a blazing start, .292/.410/.578 with 10 homers through the end of May, but a thumb injury cost him a stint on the disabled list and sapped his power; he hit .270/.386/.401 with eight homers the rest of the way, showing admirable plate discipline for such a young player but much less punch. All in all, he finished with a .308 True Average, good for 14th in the league, and thanks to above-average defense in right field, a solid 5.1 WARP.

Meanwhile, Posey was stuck in Triple-A until late May as the Giants used the "he has to work on his defense" defense to avoid starting his service time clock. He reached the Giants in late May, and spent most of his first month playing first base while Bengie Molina caught. The Giants finally shipped Molina to the Rangers on July 1, and Posey took over the regular catching duties, winding up hitting .305/.357/.505 with 18 homers in just 108 games and 443 plate appearances, 180 fewer than Heyward. He finished with a .300 TAv and thanks to above-average defense (ahem) which included his nailing 37 percent of would-be base thieves, tallied 4.4 WARP.

The NL field also had several other impressive rookies. Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia seized the fifth starter job in spring training and put up a 2.70 ERA in 163.1 innings, good for fourth in the league, while holding opponents to just 0.5 homers per nine and whiffing a respectable 7.3 per nine. The Nationals' Stephen Strasburg burned brightly but briefly, putting up a 2.91 ERA with a jaw-dropping 12.2 strikeouts per nine in the 68 most closely scrutinized innings thrown by any rookie pitcher on any planet in any galaxy before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament and needing Tommy John surgery. The Pirates' Neil Walker, a 2004 first-round pick who'd been thought of as a bust before last year, hit .296/.349/.462 for the Bucs while gamely attacking second base (he was a catcher when drafted and had spent years trying to learn third). The Cubs' Starlin Castro, another 20-year-old, hit .300/.347/.408 while playing above-average defense at shortstop. Astros third baseman Chris Johnson hit an out-of-context .308/.337/.481 but played brutally awful defense at third. Mets first baseman Ike Davis (.264/.351/.440) and Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez (.273/.341/.448) didn't do too badly while stuck in pitcher-friendly ballparks. The list goes on.

The 32 Base Ball Writers Association of America voters for the NL slate were allowed to vote for three players on their ballots, with points allotted in a 5-3-1 fashion. Posey wound up receiving 20 of the 32 first place votes and being named on 31 of the 32 ballots. Heyward got nine first place votes, 20 second place ones, and was named on 31 of the 32 ballots as well. Garcia got one first place vote, one second-place vote, and 16 third place votes to finish third, Sanchez got two first place votes but less down-ballot consideration and finished fourth. The oddity was that Posey and Heyward were each left off one ballot. Yasushi Kikuchi, of the Kyodo News (Japan), was one voter who tabbed Sanchez first; he left off Posey. Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette left Heyward off; he had Posey first, then Walker second — a bit of a stretch already, though easier if you believe there's no way an every-fifth-day pitcher can have more value than a hitter (oh, brother) and that said hitter's well-below-average defense didn't matter (stop already!) — and then...

Jose Tabata.

As in former Yankee prospect Jose Tabata, traded to Pittsburgh in July 2008 along with Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf in a deal for Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady. That Jose Tabata. The kid's had something of a rough go since leaving the Yankee org; in March 2009, it was discovered he was married to a woman 23 years his senior who faked a pregnancy, then abducted a two-month-old baby girl and presented it as theirs, raising questions about young Tabata's understanding of basic biology if nothing else. The baby was returned safely, while the woman, Amalia Tabata Pereira, was discovered to be a convicted arsonist who'd done two years in the joint. She pled guilty to charges of kidnapping, interference with custody, and impersonating a public officer and was subsequently sentenced to 24 years in jail. Meanwhile, this past spring, the Pirates confirmed rumors that the Venezuela-born Tabata was older than initially believed, born earlier than 1988, though nobody has officially come forward with a new birth date.

Anyway, Tabata reached the majors last June and hit .299/.346/.400 with four homers while stealing 19 bases and playing above-average defense in left field, for a .278 TAv and 2.7 WARP. A decent start to a major league career, but not a world-beating performance. Or a Heyward-beating one at that, not when the latter bested him by 47 points of OBP and 56 points of slugging percentage while getting 182 more plate appearances AND playing the tougher defensive position for a team which nearly made the playoffs instead of being eliminated by Tax Day.

Kovacevic is regarded as a quality beat writer by his peers, and an open-minded guy who has read Baseball Prospectus and appears to have absorbed the lessons of Moneyball and a whole lot more. A few years back, I corresponded with him at one point on the topic of Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame candidacy and found him to be thoughtful and willing to admit where the bounds of his knowledge of the topic ended. But when his name came up as the one who turned in the off-the-reservation ballot, I had to wonder if his brainpan was dripping.

Via Twitter, Kovacevic defended his ballot on Monday, saying, "Local writers will see/appreciate things a player can do that others might not. That counts, for a player's good facets and bad" adding, "Obviously saw way more of Walker/Tabata than others, but that also gave perspective on them performing at high level in poor lineup/setting." Which may be true up to a point but fails to acknowledge just how broken down the Braves' lineup was by the end of the year, when they battled for a playoff spot without Chipper Jones and Martin Prado and with Melky Freakin' Cabrera playing every day and (shudder) sometimes batting in the middle of the lineup during games that mattered. The details of Kovacevic's logic aren't hard to pick apart, particularly when he does nothing to knock Heyward's season down, which is half the battle if you're trying to advance not one but two guys from the local nine above him on the ballot.

In the end, the right guys were atop the ballot, and history will record it as such, but that outlier is still a wee bit disturbing. Awards voting rests upon highly subjective interpretations of performances where a good portion of the evidence is simply objective data. We know Heyward had more playing time than Tabata, and we're pretty damn sure he created more runs while using his opportunities much more efficiently. Individual voters might make a wrong call here and there, which is what happened in this case. But sometimes there are bigger howlers worth railing against, because over time, these awards take on greater importance, becoming part of a player's case for the Hall of Fame and how we understand them within the context of baseball history.

Take the 1987 NL Most Valuable Player vote — please. Andre Dawson hit a league-leading 49 homers for the Cubs that year, but batted just .287/.328/.568 overall, gobbling up outs galore. He was greatly aided by playing half his games in Wrigley Field, but once you adjust for that, his season was worth just 3.3 WARP, which didn't even rank him as one of the 40 most valuable players in the league. Yet last winter, the vast majority of voters looked at the Hall of Fame ballot and said, "You know, Dawson won an MVP award and is more worthy of a vote than Tim Raines, who didn't." Before you know it, the wrong guy is getting a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

Hell, 1987 was a bad year for AL MVP voters as well, as they failed to acknowledge the outstanding season of Alan Trammell of the division-winning Tigers and instead gave the honors to 47-homer OBP sink George Bell, who was roughly half as valuable in terms of WARP (1.0 to 5.4) for a team that finished out of the running; today, Trammell can't get the time of day from the Hall of Fame voters despite being an above-average candidate according to my JAWS system. The 1999 AL race (Pudge Rodriguez over Pedro Martinez and Derek Jeter) and the 2006 AL race (RBI-heavy first baseman Justin Morneau over teammate Joe Mauer, catching and playing the much tougher position) come to mind as well, though at least Mauer got his hardware last year. Please note that I'm not saying voters have to be bound by WARP rankings or OPS or anything of the sort; ideally, they should take in information from a variety of sources, but you'd hope they're good sources, not simply the RBI leaderboard or the second-half hits leaderboard or whatever.

Anyway, over to the AL, where the field wasn't nearly as deep. Feliz, who came into the year ranked as Baseball Prospectus' third-best prospect behind Strasburg and Heyward (Posey was ninth, five slots behind Jesus Montero) made 70 appearances, saved 40 games, whiffed 9.2 per nine and ranked third in the league in BP's reliever stat, WXRL. Coming in second was Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who went to Detroit as part of the three-team deal which brought back Curtis Granderson. Jackson put up numbers almost identical to Tabata (.293/.345/.400 with four homers), spread out over the course of a full season; he stole 27 bases in 33 attempts and ripped 10 triples, demonstrating his outstanding speed. He played above-average defense in center, and finished with 3.9 WARP, slightly less than Feliz's 4.5. Out of the AL BBWAA voters' 28 ballots, the latter got 20 first place votes to the former's eight, with Twins third baseman Danny Valencia (.311/.351/.448 in half a season) finishing third. No beef, your honor.

The question is the long-term viability of Jackson. The 23-year-old struck out a league-leading 170 times, and only maintained his tidy batting average by virtue of a .396 batting average on balls in play, the 33rd-highest mark of all time, and the fourth-highest mark since 1995:

Rk   Player           BABIP  Year   Tm      AVG/OBP/SLG
1 Jose Hernandez .404 2002 MIL .288/.356/.478
2 Manny Ramirez .403 2000 CLE .351/.457/.697
3 Ichiro Suzuki .399 2004 SEA .372/.414/.455
4 Austin Jackson .396 2010 DET .293/.345/.400
5 Derek Jeter .396 1999 NYY .349/.438/.552
6 Luis Castillo .395 2000 FLA .334/.418/.388
7 David Wright .394 2009 NYM .307/.390/.447
8 B.J. Upton .393 2007 TBD .300/.386/.508
9 Roger Cedeno .393 1999 NYM .313/.396/.408
10 Bobby Abreu .393 1998 PHI .312/.409/.497
11 Chone Figgins .391 2007 LAA .330/.393/.432
12 Derek Jeter .391 2006 NYY .343/.417/.483
13 Bobby Abreu .391 1999 PHI .335/.446/.549
14 Josh Hamilton .390 2010 TEX .359/.411/.633
15 Kenny Lofton .390 1997 ATL .333/.409/.428
16 Ichiro Suzuki .389 2007 SEA .351/.396/.431
17 Milton Bradley .388 2008 TEX .321/.436/.563
18 Jorge Posada .386 2007 NYY .338/.426/.543
19 Derek Jeter .386 2000 NYY .339/.416/.481
20 Mo Vaughn .386 1998 BOS .337/.402/.591

It's an interesting list which mostly mixes sluggers and speedsters. Some of our man Jeter's best years are represented above, and in fact he occupies five spots in the top 40.

While hitters have more influence over their batting average on balls in play than pitchers do, the problem is that it's tough for a hitter to maintain high BABIPs without having at least some power, and Jackson has little. Over the past 16 seasons, there have been 195 player-seasons in which a batter's BABIP exceeded .350. Just 34 players did it more than once, and just 12 did it more than twice: Bernie Williams, Bobby Abreu, Jeter, Ichiro, Jim Thome, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Matt Holliday, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Piazza, Michael Young and Todd Helton. Serious hitters, most of them either batting title winners or Hall of Fame-caliber sluggers. Only three players managed a .350 over that timespan with as few as 2000 at-bats: Ichiro (.357), Jeter (.356) and ageless Julio Franco (.354). If Jackson's BABIP were to drop even to .350, it would be catastrophic for his value; assuming it's just singles disappearing, his 2010 line would have been .258/.319/.372, which isn't nearly so charming as the season he put up. Drop that BABIP even further, and he'll be out of a full-time job, at least once he starts getting expensive.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, yes, two players the Yankees traded got votes in this year's Rookie of the Year balloting, but neither of them are anywhere near as good as the two guys the Yankee have instead of them, namely Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson. Both offer broader skill sets which add something — power in Granderson's case, patience in Gardner's case — to lift them head and shoulder above these kids now toiling west of the Hudson River. So don't sweat the loss of either Jackson or Tabata any more today than you did yesterday. The Yankees made the right call.

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