Monday November 15th, 2010

It ultimately proved not to be that close. Buster Posey beat out Jason Heyward for the National League Rookie of the Year award by 11 first-place votes out of 32 total, 29 of which were received by one of those two pre-election favorites. Though some voters preferred Heyward in part because he spent the entire season in the majors, ultimately Posey's ability to be nearly as productive as Heyward in 180 fewer plate appearances (both had 18 homers while Posey fell just four RBIs shy of Heyward's total) combined with Posey's more difficult defensive position to make Posey the first San Francisco Rookie of the Year since John Montefusco in 1975.

The 23-year-old Posey was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft after starring behind the plate for Florida State. After just 10 games in the low minors, Posey began his first full professional season at high Single-A in 2009 and, after crushing the California League to a .326/.428/.540 tune, skipped Double-A and just kept raking in Triple-A, earning a seven-game cup of coffee with the Giants last September. With incumbent catcher Bengie Molina a free agent last winter, it was widely assumed that Posey would be handed the Giants' catching job, but instead, San Francisco re-signed Molina and sent Posey back to Triple-A to start 2010, theoretically to put some polish on his defense, though the more likely motivation was delaying his arbitration eligibility. Posey hit .349/.442/.552 for Fresno in April and May, forcing his promotion on May 29, but with Molina still in the fold, Posey spent his first full month in the majors at first base, hitting a fairly empty .289 through June 30.

Molina was traded to the Texas Rangers, on July 1, allowing Posey to finally take his proper place behind the dish, and the rookie took off, hitting .417/.466/.699 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs in July. It was that performance that was largely responsible for winning him this award. Despite hitting eight home runs in the season's final month, Posey's bat steadily cooled over the remainder of the season as he hit .257/.320/.466 the rest of the way, but his work behind the plate remained stellar (he threw out 37 percent of attempting basestealers against a league average of 29 percent and allowed just one passed ball). Any concerns about having a rookie calling games were quelled when the Giants allowed just 2.06 runs per game over the season's final 31 games, a performance which helped them slip past the upstart Padres to win the NL West, the franchise's first playoff berth since 2003. Posey managed just one hit in the season-concluding series against San Diego, though that was a solo home run in the Giants' 3-0 division-clinching win in the finale.

As for Heyward, there was a point early in the season when he seemed to have the award wrapped up, but a thumb injury suffered when sliding into third base on May 14 plagued him for the remainder of the season. Heyward was hitting .299/.425/.608 with eight home runs on the morning of May 15, but hit just .272/.386/.421 with only 10 more dingers over the remainder of the season. A 19-day disabled list stay in early July helped him rest the thumb and pull out of a wicked late-June slump, but the thumb was unable to heal fully during the season and Heyward was further plagued by a tender right knee in August. Heyward remains a monster talent, but his predilection for nagging injuries thus far in his career (he suffered hip flexor and glute strains in the minors last season and upper back pain and shin splints in spring training) has to be of some concern for the Braves, who hope the 21-year-old will be the center piece of their offense for the coming decade and beyond.

I wrote yesterday about how incredibly deep the National League rookie class was this year, but the voting fell just as I predicted it would in my final Awards Watch back on October 4. Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia, who finished fourth in the National League and sixth in the majors with a 2.70 ERA, finished third taking exactly half of the third-place votes as well as one first and one second place mention.

Curiously, Posey and Heyward were each left off one ballot entirely. Yasushi Kikuchi, who covers the majors for Kyodo News and is part of the Los Angeles/Anaheim chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of American, the organization that hands out these awards, left off Posey, listing Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez first followed by Heyward and Garcia, while Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette listed Posey first followed by a pair of Pirates, second baseman Neil Walker and leftfielder Jose Tabata. Kikuchi's vote makes sense in that he only voted for candidates that spent the entire year in the majors, which left out Posey. Kovacevic's, however, seems problematic given the inclusion of two players from the team he covers. Walker had a fine season, hitting .296/.349/.462 in 110 games while playing second base, a position at which such hitting performances are scarce, but Tabata's .299/.346/.400 in left field pales next to Heyward's performance in right. Fortunately, neither omission affected the results.

As for the American League award, Neftali Feliz's selection was a given, particularly after he broke the rookie saves record, set at 37 by Japanese veteran Kazuhiro Sasaki in 2000. Feliz saved 40 games for the AL West champion Rangers (remember the voting is done before the start of the playoffs) and became the second AL West closer in as many years to take home the award and the third in the last six years. Feliz finished first on 20 of the 28 AL ballots. Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson, the only other legitimate candidate for the award in the junior circuit, finished second, taking the other eight first-place votes and 19 second-place votes. Both received a single third-place vote and appeared on all 28 AL ballots. Feliz is just the second Ranger to win the award, the first being first baseman Mike Hargrove back in 1974, the franchise's third season in Texas.

The big question surrounding Feliz now will be what his future role will be. The fireballing Dominican, whose fastball averaged more than 96 miles per hour this season, excelled as a 20-year-old starter in Double-A in late 2008, but struggled in the role in Triple-A in early 2009. Converted to relief, he was called up on August 3 last year and dominated down the stretch, posting a 1.74 ERA and striking out 11.3 men per nine innings with a 4.88 K/BB ratio. Feliz opened this season as Frank Francisco's set-up man, but it took just two blown saves by Francisco in the season's first week for Rangers manager Ron Washington to turn to Feliz, and he took ownership of the role for the remainder of the season. So now the Rangers have a stud closer with triple-digits heat and a wicked curve who and won't be 23 until May, but imagine that arm (with a solid changeup as his third pitch) back in the rotation.

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