The Rookie of the Year Award is not intended to go to the rookie who will eventually have the best career. It is for the rookie who had the best season. Plenty of Rookies of the Year have gone on to have magnificent careers — Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Cal Ripken, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, and Rod Carew all come to mind. For many others, though, the award was the highlight of an otherwise lackluster career: Walt Dropo, Bob Hamelin, Angel Berroa, Joe Charboneau, and Ron Kittle, among others on a lengthy list.
The most interesting thing about the Rookie of the Year Award is that a lot of players effectively never have a chance to win it. The award usually goes to the best rookie who spent most of the season in the big leagues, while many top players come up to the big leagues in July or August — too late to win any awards, but too early to still be eligible for the next season.
It would never happen, but it makes me happy to know that it is technically possible for someone to win back-to-back Rookie of the Year Awards.
One of my favorite hypothetical thought exercises centers around a rookie who gets called up in September. His team is seven games out of first place, and he bats .472 with 19 homers in September and leads the team roaring back to win the division. When all is said and done, he is voted Rookie of the Year. But because he played so little, he still maintains his rookie eligibility for the next season and wins it again. It would never happen, but it makes me happy to know that it is technically possible for someone to win back-to-back Rookie of the Year Awards.
Incidentally, that scenario has only come reasonably close to happening twice. In 1959, Willie McCovey won the National League Rookie of the Year — unanimously, even — despite playing in only 52 games. But McCovey’s 192 at-bats left him ineligible for rookie status in 1960 (the limit is 130). (McCovey also wasn’t very good in 1960, so he probably wouldn’t have won it anyway. He actually didn’t play his first full season until 1963, four years after he won the Rookie of the Year.)
In 1988, Gregg Jefferies took the National League by storm after making his season debut on August 28. He played well enough to get a few votes and finish sixth in the voting that year. In 1989 he didn’t play nearly as well, but his full season earned him third place in the voting, making him one of the rare players to get Rookie of the Year votes in multiple seasons.
And then there is Edinson Volquez, who had rookie status in 2005, 2006, and 2007 but did not receive any Rookie of the Year votes in those seasons. He was then traded from the Texas Rangers to the Cincinnati Reds for Josh Hamilton, and in his first season in Cincinnati, he finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting — despite not being eligible for the award for the first time in his career. (Volquez isn’t alone; Tom Henke, Nate Robertson, Bobby Jones, and Greg Mathews never got votes when they were eligible, but each received votes in his first season without rookie status. Mathews wasn’t even close — he threw 145.1 innings in 1986 before receiving Rookie of the Year votes in 1987.)
Not everyone who ends up great wins the Rookie of the Year Award, not everyone who wins the Rookie of the Year Award end up great, and not everyone who receives Rookie of the Year votes is a rookie.
So not everyone who ends up great wins the Rookie of the Year Award, not everyone who wins the Rookie of the Year Award end up great, and not everyone who receives Rookie of the Year votes is a rookie. But every once in a while, one player beats out a more deserving player for the award, and when we use our 20/20 hindsight to look back at the voting, it looks even worse. We’re not talking about Mike Hargrove beating out George Brett in 1974 — Hargrove legitimately had a better season than Brett, even though Brett was clearly the better player in the long run. We’re talking about when a guy deserves the award, loses to a lesser player, and then spends the rest of his career proving that he was better.
Here are seven such cases, in reverse chronological order (which coincidentally happens to be pretty close to reverse egregiousness order, which is a good way to tell these types of stories):
2007 National League: Ryan Braun beat Troy Tulowitzki
This one almost doesn’t qualify, but it’s close enough that we’ll go with it. Braun is a very good player. Tulowitzki is a better player, but because of injuries he has 657 fewer career plate appearances than Braun. Despite playing the equivalent of one season less, Tulo still has a slight edge on Braun in the WAR wars: 35.5 to 35.4 according to FanGraphs (fWAR), and 40.5 to 40.0 according to Baseball-Reference (rWAR).
But that’s overall. To tell this whole story, we have to look at 2007. Tulowitzki has been essentially the same player his whole career: great hitter, great defender, somewhat injury prone.
Braun, on the other hand, was a significantly different player in 2007 than he has been since. You see, in 2007, the Milwaukee Brewers were pretending that Braun was a third baseman. The problem was, Braun was not going along with the hoax, and instead did his best impression of a statue with an out-of-control garden hose for an arm.
Tulowitzki had a very good offensive season in 2007, hitting .291/.359/.479 (109 OPS+) with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs. Braun had a better offensive season, hitting .324/.370/.634 (154 OPS+) with 34 homers and 97 RBIs. But Braun’s outstanding offensive performance was largely negated by his horrendous defense at third base, according to both fWAR and rWAR. Baseball-Reference has Braun’s overall WAR at 2.0 (including -3.0 defensive WAR) compared to Tulowitzki’s 6.8. FanGraphs has them closer, but Tulo’s 5.2 still more than doubles Braun’s 2.5.
If Tulowitzki had stayed healthy and Braun had stayed at third base, we would be talking about this as one of the most egregious snubs in Rookie of the Year history; as it is, it is just bad instead of historically bad.
2004 American League: Bobby Crosby beat Zack Greinke
It wasn’t just Crosby who beat Greinke. Crosby won the award, but Greinke finished fourth. In third place was Daniel Cabrera, who had nasty “stuff” but finished his rookie season with a 5.00 ERA, 5.10 FIP, 1.585 WHIP, and more walks than strikeouts. In second place was Shingo Takatsu, a 35-year-old Japanese pitcher whose 2.31 ERA significantly outperformed his 3.80 FIP.
And then you have Crosby, a 24-year-old shortstop who played good defense and hit 22 home runs but also put up an offensive line of .239/.319/.426, good for a 93 OPS+. Overall, his 3.2 rWAR was pretty good, but only second best among American League rookies.
Greinke finished his rookie season with a 3.7 rWAR, but his case with the voters was hurt by a losing record of 8-11. His 3.97 ERA looks pedestrian by today’s standards, but his ERA+ was 120, meaning he was 20 percent better than average when you factor in the offensive environment.
Crosby and Greinke were close enough, especially when you consider the difficulty of comparing pitchers to non-pitchers, that this one wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows if their later careers had gone differently. But Crosby’s 3.2 WAR his rookie year makes up more than half of his career total of 5.4. He played well in a half-season in 2005, but that was the only time in his career he was an above-average hitter. Injuries sapped him of his defensive prowess, and when his eight-year career was over, he had a hitting line of .236/.304/.372 (80 OPS+).
Greinke, on the other hand, battled through personal issues that almost ended his career in 2006, winning the 2009 American League Cy Young Award and finishing second in the National League Cy Young voting in 2015. His rookie WAR makes up only 7.6 percent of his career total of 48.6, and going into his age-32 season after the best season of his career, he appears to have a lot of life left and may one day find himself standing on a stage in Cooperstown giving a speech he doesn’t want to be giving.
2000 American League: Kazuhiro Sasaki beat Barry Zito
Zito, like Greinke, didn’t just lose to one other player. Zito finished behind or tied with eight players who had lower WARs than his 3.4: Sasaki (1.3), Terrence Long (2.4), Mark Quinn (1.8), Bengie Molina (1.6), Kelly Wunsch (2.1), Steve Cox (1.1), Adam Kennedy (0.6), and Mark Redman (3.3). Those eight players averaged 7.4 WAR for their careers; Zito had 33.5 in his lengthy career that just ended.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Sasaki won the award, and it’s easy to see why Zito got lumped with a bunch of other guys in the also-ran category. There is only one statistical number that stands out as being abnormal for a rookie, and it is Sasaki’s 37 saves, a rookie record since broken by Neftali Feliz in 2010 and Craig Kimbrel in 2011. Long’s 104 runs scored were unique enough to get him second place, and Quinn’s 20 homers landed him in third.
Zito made only 14 starts, but his 2.72 ERA (173 ERA+) was enough to foreshadow the outstanding success he would later enjoy. He led all AL rookies in WAR and probably should have won the Rookie of the Year Award, but the snub is much more glaring in the context of the rest of his career compared to his competitors.
1992 American League: Pat Listach beat Kenny Lofton
On the surface, Listach and Lofton had pretty similar rookie years in 1992. Both batted leadoff and stole a lot of bases for American League East teams that would not be in the American League East for much longer.
Take a look at these stats:
Either the Rookie of the Year voters placed a ton of emphasis on doubles and batting average (the only categories in which Listach had a slight lead over Lofton), or there was something else at play. For a leadoff hitter, you would think Lofton’s edge in on-base percentage would have swayed the voters. If not OBP, maybe his 56 percent fewer strikeouts would matter. Or his huge edge in stolen bases and stolen base efficiency (84.6 percent for Lofton, 75.0 percent for Listach). WAR did not yet exist in 1992, but all those stats factor into Lofton’s 6.6 and Listach’s 4.4.
But no. None of those statistical edges swayed the voters. Instead, it appears that narrative won the day, with Listach the catalyst for an upstart Brewers team that won 92 games, and Lofton just another cog on a disappointing Cleveland Indians team that won 76 games and finished in fourth place.
Listach played five more season, accumulating -0.1 WAR to finish his career at 4.3. Lofton played 15 more seasons and put up 61.5 more WAR, finishing with 68.2. Lofton was quite a bit better in 1992, and he was infinitely better over the course of his career.
1986 National League: Todd Worrell beat Barry Bonds
Worrell was very good in 1986, especially by rookie standards. When you look at his stats in the context of traditional Rookie of the Year voting, it is not at all surprising that he got 23 of the 24 first-place votes. He posted a 2.08 ERA (176 ERA+) in 103.2 innings pitched with 36 saves, a rookie record that would stand until Sasaki in 2000.
In fact, if Bonds had finished second to Worrell, I probably wouldn’t be writing about him here. Sure, Bonds was better than Worrell in 1986 (more on that in a minute), but between the rookie saves record, the shiny ERA, and the innings pitched, it’s understandable that the voters were enamored with Worrell.
How much better was Bonds? In Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, it’s a close call: 3.5 for Bonds, 2.6 for Worrell. In FanGraphs, though, it is not even close; Bonds comes in at 3.3, while Worrell sits at 0.3. Why the difference? FanGraphs uses FIP instead of ERA to calculate a pitcher’s WAR, and Worrell’s FIP was nearly double his ERA (3.71 to 2.08). Whichever WAR measure you use, Bonds was better. The only question is whether he was 35 percent better or 11 times better. The answer, as usual, is probably somewhere in between.
The bigger issue, though, is that the full voting results reveal a voting body that seemed generally unaware of Bonds at all. He finished in sixth place, behind five players who had worse seasons (and careers, of course) than he did. After Worrell came Robby Thompson, Kevin Mitchell, Charlie Kerfeld, Will Clark, and (finally) Bonds. Thompson, Mitchell, and Clark all ended up having pretty good careers to varying degrees, and perhaps the main takeaway from the 1986 NL RoY voting is that it was a good year for players who would later play major roles on World Series-losing San Francisco Giants teams.
But when you look at the numbers, it is clear that voters just whiffed on Bonds. His .223 batting average probably scared them off, and they missed his power, speed, and ability to get on base. They eventually figured it out — he won three MVP Awards in four seasons beginning in 1990 — but they swung and missed in 1986.
1978 National League: Bob Horner beat Ozzie Smith
It is almost 2016, and we still don’t really know what to do with defensive value. We understand that defense has value, and we are trying our darnedest to quantify it, but even the smartest people among us often start sentences with phrases like, “Obviously, we have to take these defensive numbers with a grain of salt.” So we shouldn’t be surprised that voters 37 years ago had even less idea how to recognize the value of a guy like Ozzie.
Horner had big-time power. In fact, if he had ever been able to stay healthy and/or play defense, he could have been a huge star. In 1978, though, he played only 89 games, hitting 23 home runs in just 359 plate appearances. His .266/.313/.539 batting line was good for a 124 OPS+, and all the signs indicated that he was going to be a big hitting star.
But Smith played 159 games with spectacular defense and 40 stolen bases. He had no power and was not nearly the offensive player he would become in the mid-1980s, but his value was clearly there. Baseball-Reference has Ozzie leading Horner in WAR, 3.2 to 2.1. FanGraphs has a narrower gap, 2.7 to 2.3.
Still, considering that the Wizard of Oz eventually sailed into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility based almost solely on his defense, you’d think that defense would have won him a Rookie of the Year Award over a guy who only played half a season.
(Interestingly enough, both rWAR and fWAR agree that the guy who came in third place, Don Robinson, actually had the best season of any NL rookie in 1978. Robinson’s 3.7 rWAR and 3.4 fWAR outpaced both Smith and Horner.)
1965 National League: Jim Lefebvre beat Joe Morgan
Perhaps the biggest 20/20-hindsight snub came in the form of a player who had a better season than all the other winners we have discussed. Jim Lefebvre posted a 4.6 WAR for the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, putting up a solid performance at the plate and playing outstanding defense at second base.
Lefebvre beat out another NL second baseman, one who was not quite as good defensively but was significantly better offensively: future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who is in the discussion for best second baseman of all time.
Something weird happened here. Either the voters thought Lefebvre’s defensive edge outweighed Morgan’s clear offensive edge, or they gave bonus points to the guy on the 97-win team over the guy on the 97-loss team. Or maybe they thought Lefebvre’s edge in RBIs was more important than Morgan’s lead in runs scored. Most likely it was some mix of the three.
Despite Morgan’s later career as an announcer who did not understand (or care to understand) the sabermetric side of baseball, as a player he was actually a sabermetrician’s dream: a player who got on base a ton (24th all-time in number of times on base, fifth all-time in walks) and ran the bases efficiently (his 80.964 percent stolen-base success rate is fifth-best among players with at least 500 stolen bases). As a rookie, he showed pretty much all the skills that would turn him into a Hall of Famer, leading the league in walks for the first of four times and putting up an OPS+ (131) almost exactly in line with his career mark (132).
Lefebvre, on the other hand, was a flash in the pan. He was good in 1965 as a rookie and a little better in ’66, but after posting a combined 9.8 WAR in those two seasons, he totaled 7.3 the rest of his career and was done at age 30. Most of the things he is known for have little to do with his playing ability. A few tidbits from his Wikipedia page:
- He was the first player to win both a World Series (1965 Dodgers) and a Japan Series (1974 Lotte Orions).
- He was part of the 1965 Dodgers’ all-switch-hitters infield along with Jim Gilliam, Wes Parker, and Maury Wills.
- He had roles on several television shows, including Gilligan’s Island and Batman.
- He is the father of current Kansas City Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre.
Needless to say, Morgan’s Wikipedia page is much more extensive and has much more praise for the actual playing ability of its subject. He was better in 1965, and he was better by leaps and bounds over the course of their respective careers.