The closest race in American League award season this year will likely be the Rookie of the Year Award. It is a fierce battle between New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and Detroit Tigers starter Michael Fulmer.
Fulmer, who was acquired last season by the Tigers at the trade deadline for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, was called up at the end of April and finished the year with a 4.9 bWAR and 3.0 fWAR. He finished the season third in the AL in ERA among players with 150 innings pitched at 3.06. He also had a 1.12 WHIP and 132/42 K/BB in 159 innings pitched. Also, he was the Tigers’ second- best starter behind Justin Verlander and established himself among the elite starters in the American League.
Sanchez burst on to the scene in August and proceeded to hit 20 homers and accumulate a 3.2 fWAR and 3.0 bWAR in that time through his power and above-average defense that includes a strong throwing arm. He finished the year with a slash line of .299/.376/.657.
So the question is, who should win the award? Either way, we know that there are two talented players who are going to be fun to watch for years to come, but we need to figure out which player deserves the Rookie of the Year more.
The first thing I want to do is compare this race to another it reminds me of, which is the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year. Yasiel Puig came up to the Los Angeles Dodgers in June and took the league by storm, while Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez excitingly put together one of the best rookie seasons ever for a starting pitcher. This year, Fulmer was not quite Fernandez level, but he managed to be one of the best starters in the AL by most measures as he was eighth in the league in bWAR and third in ERA. Sanchez accumulated a ton of stats in a little time like Puig did in 2013, but started to inevitably decline at the end of the season. That year, Fernandez won the Rookie of the Year with 26 of the 30 first-place votes. This year is closer, but Fulmer still seems to have the edge going by this comparison.
Another thing to consider the amount of time Sanchez played in the majors. His defense and power seemed to be very real as they were consistently there. He hit 20 homers over two months and was pretty consistent in his long ball output each week. The thing that starts to hurt him when you look deeper is that after September 10, Sanchez only hit .231 with a .311 OBP the rest of the season. You have to think that if Sanchez had played the whole season, his batting average and on-base percentage would probably sit in the .260-.280 range. MLB.com had his bat graded between a 45 and 50 the past few seasons, which fits in with that batting average and on-base prediction. The point here is that Sanchez had a really good two months, but he also played to the upper tier of his talent the time he was in the majors, which no player really consistently can do as everyone goes through tough weeks and months and slumps.
Sanchez played only two months, too. If you asked who the Rookie of the Year would be after May, the easy answer was Nomar Mazara. Mazara hit .302/.348/.479 with nine home runs and a .352 wOBA (average is about .320) through May. He was one of the main reasons the Texas Rangers got off to such a hot start and eventually made the playoffs. Mazara came back to Earth as pitchers figured him out, though. He still had a great season and has a very promising future, but he fell out of the race after two months. I’m not saying Sanchez is Mazara or worse, but it seems as if Sanchez was following a trend of regression. Nobody is expecting Sanchez to repeat his two months from this year during 2017, so to think that he would have kept up his same numbers for all of 2016 is a bit of stretch.
The last thing is that Sanchez stepped to the plate just 229 times. Fulmer faced 647 hitters. In those 647 plate appearances, Fulmer’s opponents hitters hit .231/.291/.361. Those numbers are matched only by the worst qualified hitters. Fulmer made opponents essentially among the worst hitters in the league over 647 batters faced this season. That makes his season quite impressive to me. Sanchez had a great season and I think he’s going to be one of the top catchers, but he just didn’t play enough to be able to prove that he was the best rookie.
To give Sanchez a good counterargument, he did slightly outperform Fulmer in WAR according to FanGraphs. FanGraphs tends to have pitchers with a lower WAR over hitters, though, so proportionally it’s close but Fulmer has a small edge in that I’d still say. The 20 homers in 53 games is impressive, even if it was obvious that he couldn’t keep up that pace over a whole season. Sanchez also ranked in the top 39 percent of hitters in WAR despite playing a little less than a third of the season, and WAR usually wouldn’t go down unless he went into a huge slump.
In the end, it’s extremely close and both players will likely be All-Stars many times in their careers. If Sanchez had played an extra 40-50 games, I think he would have a good chance of taking the award, but I’d vote Fulmer over Sanchez in this very close race.