Awards week begins with Trout, Harper favorites for top rookie
The Baseball Writers Association of America will hand out its major awards this week, starting with the American and National League Rookies of the Year on Monday, continuing with the Managers of the Year on Tuesday and Cy Young winnesr of Wednesday and concluding with the leagues' Most Valuable Players on Thursday.
In a change from previous years, when the awards were announced in the mid-afternoon over the course of six days, this year the awards will be announced live on MLB Network over the course of four evenings, with both leagues' Cy Young and MVP recipients being announced on the same night (they had previously been spread over four days). The awards shows on MLB Network will start at 6 p.m. ET and last one hour with one league's winner being announced at 6:17 and the other at 6:47. The American League winner will be announced first on Monday and Wednesday nights (Rookie of the Year and Cy Young) and the National League winner being announced first Tuesday and Thursday nights (Manager of the Year and MVP).
Another change this year is that the BBWAA announced a short list of finalists for each award last week, five for the MVPs, three for the other awards. That undermines the suspense of this week's announcements to some degree, but it also sharpens the debate by eliminating potentially distracting long-shot candidates from the discussion. From Monday through Thursday this week, I will look at the finalists in each league for the award being announced that night and offer my take on who should win and who will win. We start here with the Rookie of the Year awards.
American audiences got their first look at Cespedes in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where he played for the Cuban team and ranked among the top hitters in the entire tournament by hitting .458/.480/1.000 in six games and leading all hitters with 10 or more at-bats in slugging. After Cespedes defected to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2011, it took a while for him to clear all of the legal hurdles to become eligible to sign with a major league team. Once he did, he signed last February with, quite surprisingly, the Oakland A's for $36 million over four years.
At that point the big questions were, would the 26-year-old Cespedes open the season in the major leagues or would he need some time in the minors, and would he or incumbent centerfielder Coco Crisp move to left? As it turned out, Cespedes started in centerfield for the A's on Opening Day, which happened to take place in Tokyo, and homered in three of his first four games. He also struck out 13 times in his first 32 major league plate appearances.
Cespedes ultimately struggled with injuries and adjustments in the first half of the 2012 season. He hit a respectable but unspectacular .263/.326/.465 prior to the All-Star break, appearing in just 54 of Oakland's 86 games to that point due to soft-tissue injuries in his left hand, thigh and thumb and moved to leftfield after returning from the disabled list in June. The second half of the season was a different story. Cespedes missed just one game and hit .311/.376/.533 with 14 home runs and 10 stolen bases, playing a key role in the A's mad dash to the AL West title.
Like Cespedes, Darvish impressed in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, striking out 20 men in 13 innings across two starts and three relief appearances, but his regular season numbers for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan's Pacific League were even more impressive. His career ERA over five seasons in Japan was 1.72 and he struck out 276 men against just 36 walks in 232 innings in 2011 at the age of 24. In December, the Rangers spent $51.7 million just for the right to negotiate with Darvish, ultimately signing him to a six-year deal worth $56 million. That resulted in a a total investment of more than $100 million for a pitcher who had never thrown a major league pitch.
Darvish's major league career got off to a rocky start when seven of the first eight men he faced reached base, four of them coming around to score. He settled down from there and over the remainder of April, including 4 2/3 more innings in his debut, he went 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA and roughly a strikeout per inning. That dominance didn't last however. Across 16 starts from the beginning of May through August 6, he went 7-8 with a 5.35 ERA and a whopping 5.1 walks per nine innings with just seven of those 16 starts being quality. That despite an outstanding 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Darvish's Rookie of the Year candidacy seemed all but over by that point, but he finished strong. He went 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA in his final eight starts, all of them quality, cutting his walk rate by more than half, to just 2.4 per nine innings, while largely maintaining his dominant strikeout rate. He did all all of that while much of the rest of the Rangers' rotation was collapsing around him.
Darvish's final line was underwhelming relative to the expectations that greeted his arrival in the major leagues. However, his strikeout rate, the most impressive part of his season, was the highest ever by an American League rookie who qualified for the ERA title, and those final eight starts, combined with his strong April, made him a deserving finalist for this award.
Trout, the overwhelming AL favorite for this award, almost wasn't eligible for it. In 2011, he made 135 plate appearances across two stints in the major leagues and spent 38 days on the Angels' active 25-man roster prior to Sept. 1. He nearly lost his rookie eligibility for 2012 due to a technicality that assigns days spent in the minors to a player's major league service time if he spends less than 20 days on a minor league option in between major league stints. Fortunately, Major League Baseball recognized the absurdity of that rule last fall and kept Trout's rookie status intact. The result was nothing less than the greatest rookie season in the Liveball Era (1920-present).
Trout lost the chance to win a major league job out of spring training when he was felled by the flu, which caused him to lose more than 10 pounds. Nonetheless, on Opening Day in Triple-A, he went 3-for-3, kicking off a 19-game hitting streak. Meanwhile, the Angels and their new superstar first-baseman Albert Pujols struggled. Los Angeles was just 6-14 when the 20-year-old Trout was called up on April 28, but went 37-21 (.638) from his first game through the end of June, with Trout hitting .336/.391/.526, playing spectacular defense and stealing 22 bases in 25 attempts.
Then, in July, Trout found his power stroke, more than doubling his season total with 10 home runs and producing a .392/.455/.804 line on the month. From July 1 through the end of the season, he hit 22 home runs in 381 plate appearances, a 40-homer pace over 700 PA, while slugging .590. Though his batting average dipped a bit in August and September, he still hit .287/.383/.500 in those months, and his major league-leading basestealing and
Trout is not only a slam-dunk to win this award, he's a slam-dunk to win it unanimously.
Drafted out of Rutgers as a shortstop in the first round in 2007, Frazier bounced around the diamond in the minors, playing all four infield positions and leftfield. That flexibility served the 26-year-old well in 2012. After getting some major league exposure at third base in place of an injured Scott Rolen in 2011, Frazier's big opportunity in 2012 came as a result of another Rolen injury. As the Reds' starting third baseman from May 12 to June 16, Frazier hit .260/.322/.529 with six home runs in 31 games, and when Joey Votto went down with a knee injury right after the All-Star break, Frazier took over at first base, hitting .300/.347/.500 with eight home runs in 48 games from July 16 to Sept. 4.
However, whenever Votto and Rolen were healthy simultaneously, Frazier had to settle for being the first man off the bench, even down the stretch in September. As a result, he had just 465 plate appearances on the season, well short of a total that would qualify him for the batting title.
Frazier had a fine rookie campaign and was very valuable to Cincinnati in the absence of its veteran cornermen, but, in my opinion, he was not one of the top three rookies in the National League this year. In fact, I would rank both Brewers rightfielder Norichika Aoki (.288/.355/.433, 30 SB, 3.3 bWAR) and Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario (.270/.312/.530, 28 HR, 71 RBI, 1.9 bWAR) ahead of him.
The top pick in the 2010 draft and the top prospect in the game each of the following two springs, according to
Harper was called up on April 28, the same day as Trout, and doubled in his major league debut. A week later, the Phillies' Cole Hamels intentionally hit him with a pitch in a nationally-televised Sunday night game. Harper retaliated later in the inning by stealing home on a lazy pickoff throw to first base. That was his first major league steal and a play that announced Harper as a far more complex, heady and athletic player than the brash slugger he had been portrayed as prior to his debut.
A week after that, Harper finally hit his first major league home run and found a groove, hitting .340/.419/.650 with seven homers over the next month to raise his season rates to .303/.384/.548. That was followed by a two-month slump in which he hit a mere .204/.275/.287 with three home runs in 241 plate appearances, dropping his season line to .245/.321/.396 and briefly dropping him out of the conversation for this award and nearly out of Washington's lineup.
However, Harper finished strong, hitting .327/.384/.600 with 12 home runs over his final 179 PA, including a 14-for-30 performance with three home runs in his final eight starts. That final push added 10 points to his season batting average and on-base percentage and 17 points to his slugging percentage and, in combination with his excellent play in centerfield and solid work on the bases, did much to boost his candidacy for this award.
Miley was solid but unspectacular in seven starts down the stretch in 2011 and wasn't expected to be a part of Arizona's rotation in 2012. An early elbow injury to Daniel Hudson, ultimately leading to Tommy John surgery, forced Miley into the rotation in late April after two scoreless long-relief appearances and a rockier third one.
Miley ran with the opportunity, allowing just one unearned run across 12 1/3 innings in his first two starts and reeling off four straight starts of at least seven innings pitched and exactly one run allowed in June that dropped his season ERA to 2.19. His worst start of the season followed that streak, but he continued unfazed, posting a 2.81 ERA over 10 starts in July and August to carry a sub-3.00 ERA and 14 wins into September.
At that point, Miley seemed to have this award in the bag, but his final five starts, only two of which were quality, inflated his ERA and opened the door for Harper, who seized the opportunity with his strong finish.
There is still an argument for Miley as the deserving winner given his consistency over the first five months of the season and the fact that Harper was quite terrible at the plate for half of his season. That argument probably undervalues Harper's play in the field, however, which could prove to be the difference in this race.
Ignoring the ups and downs of Harper's season and looking only at his final line it's still not clear that he was more valuable at the plate than Miley was on the mound (indeed, Baseball-Reference rates Harper as 3.4 wins above replacement at the plate and on the bases, a near match of Miley's 3.2 bWAR), but when you add in Harper's contributions defensively it gives him the edge.
The vote may not be that close, however, as the 19-year-old budding superstar Harper is clearly the better story than the 25-year-old Miley, who doesn't project as a front-of-the-rotation starter going forward. In fact, Harper's youth and potential may influence the electorate more than they otherwise would have.