2017 NL Rookie of the Year: Why One At Bat Matters
Luck is an unquantifiable aspect of baseball.
As much as we turn a longing eye to statistics in search of lost explanations, we’ll always be hard-pressed to find reasons why balls take unexpected hops or sneak foul in the most crucial situations.
In looking ahead to the 2017 season, it was inevitable a fan of baseball’s youth movement like myself ventured into rookie of the year candidates in the waining days of January.
What I found in the NL is one of the more curious cases of chance in recent memory.
Let’s jump to the trusty MLB rules and regulations guide for a refresher on the ‘rookie’ status qualifications…
A player shall be considered a rookie unless, during a previous season or seasons, he has (a) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues; or (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit (excluding time in the military service and time on the disabled list).
So how on earth could one at bat matter?
Dansby Swanson had only one more at bat to spare before he would have relinquished his rookie status heading into the 2017 season. That’s correct, Swanson had a total of 129 ABs last year to go with his .302/.361/.442 slash line. In the final game of the Braves’ season, he went 0-for-3 batting out of the eight hole against the workhorse Justin Verlander. In two of his last three games, Swanson drew a walk. While we’re certain something so menial wasn’t on Swanson, or likely anybody’s mind, how close he was to crossing this ambiguous line is difference between a shot at some hardware and the tag of a sophomore.
But, the fun doesn’t stop there.
How about fellow National Leaguer Josh Bell?
The Pirates’ OBP guru of only 24 years old had two at bats to spare before sheer luck would have overcome his rookie status. It’s rare these days that we see a player come up with elite discipline and contact skills, but that is exactly the kind of praise Bell received. We have to filter down to 150 plater appearences, but in doing so, Bell lands in the 75th percentile across baseball in swinging strike percentage (only 7.6%). He also did his best Joey Votto impression on his way to a -1.3% strikeout to walk percentage.
The National League Central also brings another narrow qualifier into picture on the pitching side of the spectrum.
This is a mere coincidence, as the value added between a rookie with and without a fancy title is meaningless, but it’s always fun to speculate on the random nature of our national pastime. Oddly enough, I could be convinced there is more value for a team in negotiation situations to stare into the eyes of a player without a ‘Rookie of the Year’ title emblazoned on their resume.
Even with this trio on the fringes of keeping their rookie status, we’re fortunate the threshold is a binary or black-and-white measurement, with no room for ambiguity. You either are a rookie, or you aren’t. There isn’t any system for scaling results based on the amount of experience one player has over another in their official rookie year, and that’s the way it should stay.
But how common is something so unusual?
Here are the top three finishers from the last four ballots in both the AL and NL Rookie of the Year voting…
Even though we aren’t expanding our sample to show the relative success of players who come into their official rookie season with more MLB experience, our sample is still provides some value.
For one, our top three finishers of the last four years in each league haven’t tested fate like our frontrunners this year. Corey Seager came the closest to eclipsing the 140 mark, and he was still 42 at bats off. On the pitching side, we have to go all the way back to Chris Archer to find a top-three finisher with more than 20 innings of work prior to a top three finish.
Let’s venture even further back.
Increasing our spread to another 24 finishers shines a bit of a different light on the average MLB experience prior to a top three finish. From 2013 to 2016 our average for ABs in our sample was 22, while pitchers averaged only 5.1 innings. From 2009 to 2012 batters averaged an identical amount, 22 at bats. Pitchers in this time frame nearly tripled to 14.2 innings.
What these simple averages, and a bit of common sense tell us, is that there isn’t a precedent for MLB service time drastically affecting rookie of the year finishes in recent history.
With prospects, we tend to highlight the crazy stretches and unsustainable success that many debut with. This can be an advantage to players who debut midseason and eclipse the rookie threshold early, as their run of success can have a greater weight in their total body of work. Gary Sanchez is a great example. The league wasn’t quick enough to react and force the rookie to adjust. His stretch, admittedly impressive, had a heavy bearing on his season as a whole. More than the best stretch Michael Fulmer did, but longevity prevailed.
Players with a bit more experience before their official rookie year, the Corey Seager and Mike Trout types, carry with them two arguments. Attribute sophomore year success to the previous experience, or attribute the sophomore slump to the league reacting and the player not hastily adjusting back. It really is contingent on the player’s ability to learn, something as personalized and unquantifiable as anything in baseball.
There’s a very simple concept in financial reporting and other fields of study that has to do with quantitate and qualitative analysis. Quantitate variance analysis has to do with a targeted value that an amount is off. “Revenue changed by more than $1,000,000, so let’s look into why.” Qualitative analysis would look at variances, that have resulting affects. “Even though revenue changed by less than $1,000,000, for every $100,000 increase in revenue, executives get another .5% added to a bonus pool.”
This is a great way to look at Swanson, Bell, and Reyes as they sit a very small amount of at bats or innings away from the qualifying threshold.
One at bat doesn’t usually matter in the broad scheme of things, but in this case, that one at bat does matter.
Statistics via Fangraphs.com.
Photograph courtesy of Arturo Pardavilla III, or AP3, on Flickr. His fantastic shot of Dansby Swanson at Spring Training can be seen here. Arturo possesses all the rights to the photograph, big thanks to him, for his permission to use it.