Ranking the Dodgers' Rookies of the Year, Part 1

Ranking the Dodgers' Rookies of the Year, Part 1
Author:
Updated:
Original:

When it comes to the three major player awards handed out by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, no franchise has been more decorated than the Dodgers. Dodgers players have combined to win 44 Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards, ten more than the runner-up Yankees. Thanks in large part to Sandy Koufax and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers pace the field with 12 Cy Youngs, five more than any other team, but no franchise has dominated a single award to the degree that the Dodgers have dominated the Rookie of the Year award.

A Dodger has been named Rookie of the Year by the BBWAA a whopping 18 times, twice as many as the runner-up Yankees, representing one-eighth (12.5 percent) of all of the Rookie of the Year awards the writers have handed out since the award’s creation in 1947. The Yankees have won 11 percent of the BBWAA’s MVP awards, but just three of them have come in the last 43 seasons. Over that same stretch, the Dodgers have had 11 Rookies of the Year.

The Dodgers acquired nine of their last 12 Rookies of the Year via the Rule 4 draft. With this year’s draft scheduled for the middle of next week, this seemed like a good time to look back at those Rookie of the Year winners, a group that could be expanded once play resumes as 2016 draftees Gavin Lux, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin were all among the preseason contenders for the 2020 award.

What follows is my attempt to rank all 18 Dodgers Rookie of the Year performances from worst to first, the bottom nine today, the top nine early next week. I based my rankings solely on on-field production, setting aside, for the moment, the historic significance of some of the team’s most notable winners. Included in the statistics listed for each player, below their age, position, and the year of their award, is an average of the three major wins above replacement statistics (Baseball-Reference’s, FanGraphs’, and Baseball Prospectus’s), labeled “WAR.” My rankings don’t follow that WAR average exactly. WAR is an imprecise measure, even more so when given as an average of multiple formulas, but I wanted it there to provide context for my rankings.

Along the way, I also make note of which players might not have deserved their award. While many of the winners are subject to debate, I counted six that the writers clearly got wrong, and they are not all in the bottom six on my list. Take away those six, and the Dodgers would still have had the most Rookies of the Year by three over the Yankees and the most BBWAA player awards by four over New York.

18. Eric Karros (24), 1B, 1992

.257/.304/.426 (106 OPS+), 589 PA, 20 HR, 37 BB, 103 K, 1.0 WAR

A sixth-round pick out of UCLA, Karros led 1992’s major-league rookie class in games (149), plate appearances (589), hits (140), doubles (30), home runs (20), and RBI (88), and National League rookies in runs (63). However, Karros’s OPS+ was 12 points below that of the average major-league first baseman, who hit .267/.344/.419 (118 OPS+) that year. Karros was also sub-par in the field and on the bases, making him not much better than replacement-level overall at his position. Karros’s candidacy benefited from the lack of an obvious alternative. He won the 1992 NL Rookie of the Year award easily with 22 of 24 first-place votes (Pirates knuckleballer Tim Wakefield got the other two). However, outfielders Reggie Sanders of the Reds and Moises Alou of the Expos and Cardinals reliever Mike Pérez were among the many who were more deserving of the award that year. According to average WAR, Karros wasn’t even the Dodgers’ best rookie in 1992. That was righty Pedro Astacio, who posted a 177 ERA+ in 82 innings over 11 starts, a performance we can now see was worth at least twice as much as Karros’s.

17. Todd Hollandsworth (23), LF, 1996

.291/.348/.437 (113 OPS+), 526 PA, 13 HR, 41 BB, 93 K, 21 (78%), 0.9 WAR

Hollandsworth, a third-round pick out of a Bellevue, Washington high school, was a similar case to Karros. He led NL rookies in hits (139), doubles (26), and homers (12, tied with Atlanta’s Jermaine Dye), but even after correcting for Dodger Stadium, his OPS+ was still no better than that of the average left fielder, who hit .280/.358/.466 (114 OPS+) in 1996. Worse yet, like Karros, Hollandsworth played to the far left of the defensive spectrum and did so poorly. Hollandsworth bested Karros by getting on base more often and, thanks to his speed, being an asset once he got there. Still, he was no more deserving of his award, which should have gone to the 19-year-old runner-up, Marlins shortstop Edgar Rentería, who received 10 first-place votes to Hollandsworth’s 15.

16. Frank Howard (23), RF, 1960

.268/.320/.464 (107 OPS+), 487 PA, 23 HR, 32 BB, 108 K, 1.8 WAR

The massive, 6-foot-7 Howard wasn’t yet a liability in the field as a 23-year-old rookie, battling the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s massive right-field to a draw, at least according to most modern metrics. Unfortunately for Howard, the Coliseum’s bizarre Fenway-like dimensions both help and hurt our understanding of his rookie-year performance. Howard didn’t walk much more than Karros as a rookie, and while his unadjusted numbers suggest he hit for a higher average and more power, 1992 was a leaner offensive season overall than 1960, and the Coliseum, with its Green Monster-like right-field configuration - a 42-foot net 251 feet from home at the foul pole and 320 feet in the gap - was very friendly to a right-handed thumper like Howard. Thus, while Hondo posted an OPS 20 points above that of the average major-league right fielder, who hit .268/.334/.430 in 1960, his park-adjusted OPS+ was seven points lower. Among the four other players to receive votes in 1960 (the writers voted for just one player per ballot until 1980) were Phillies righty Art Mahaffey and the man who played to Howard’s right, Dodgers centerfielder Tommy Davis, both of whom were roughly tied with Howard in average WAR (Davis exactly). Neither was obviously more valuable than Howard, who got more playing time than either that year.

15. Raúl Mondesi (23), RF, 1994

.306/.333/.516 (123 OPS+), 454 PA, 16 HR, 16 BB, 78 K, 11 SB (58%), 1.7 WAR

Mondesi was an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner as a sophomore in 1995 and had several excellent seasons for the Dodgers thereafter. As a rookie, however, he was sub-par in the field despite his remarkable arm, a liability on the bases, and, thanks to his refusal to take walks, his bat wasn’t much more productive than that of the average right fielder, who hit .286/.352/.473 (115 OPS+) in 1994. Like Karros, Mondesi benefited in the Rookie of the Year voting from the lack of an obvious alternative. Pitchers Steve Trachsel of the Cubs, Joey Hamilton of the Padres, and Bobby Muñoz of the Phillies were all more deserving per average WAR, but none of them qualified for the ERA title, compiled wins or saves in double-digits, or had an eye-catchingly low ERA. Mondesi thus won the award unanimously, while Muñoz (164 ERA+ in 104 1/3 innings) didn’t receive even a single down-ballot vote.

[Follow Sports Illustrated’s Inside the Dodgers on Twitter.]

14. Steve Howe (22), LHP, 1980

2.66 ERA (134 ERA+), 84 2/3 IP, 4.1 K/9, 1.77 K/BB, 1.24 WHIP, 59 G, 36 GF, 17 SV, 1.0 WAR

Howe was another Dodger to benefit from a season in which there was no clear choice for NL Rookie of the Year. Five players got first-place votes for NL Rookie of the Year in 1980, the first in which the writers could list more than one player on their ballot, with Howe topping only half of the 24 ballots. Howe wasn’t even the league’s best rookie reliever. The Mets’ Jeff Reardon (136 ERA+ in 110 1/3 relief innings), the Astros’ Dave Smith (171 ERA+ in 102 2/3 relief innings), and the Giants’ Al Holland (203 ERA+ in 82 1/3 relief innings) were all obviously superior. However, all three trailed Howe in saves, which was still a relatively new stat (first made official in 1969, the save rule was amended to the version in 1975) and one the writers weighed far too heavily in the awards voting at the time. In the 16 seasons from 1977 to 1992, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America awarded seven Cy Youngs and three MVPs to closers. In the 27 seasons since, the only such award to go to a reliever was the 2003 Cy Young to the Dodgers’ Eric Gagné. Expos starter Bill Gullickson and Phillies left fielder Lonnie Smith were also more deserving than Howe in 1980. Still, even after adjusting for Dodger Stadium, Howe, who was drafted 16th overall out of the University of Michigan the previous June, was 34 percent better than league average in run prevention over 84 2/3 innings. WAR may disagree, but I’ll take Howe’s rookie season over the deceptively pedestrian performances of the four corner men at the bottom of this list.

13. Rick Sutcliffe (23), RHP, 1979

3.46 ERA (105 ERA+), 242 IP, 4.4 K/9, 1.21 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP, 39 G, 30 GS, 5 CG, 1 SHO, 3.1 WAR

There was something strange going on with the Cardinals and the Rookie of the Year voting in 1979. Per bWAR, Sutcliffe’s two fiercest rivals for the award should have been Cardinals second baseman Ken Oberkfell and righty John Fulgham. Oberkfell was solid in the field and hit .301 in 435 plate appearances (with, more importantly, a .396 OBP and a 114 OPS+). Fulgham was a former first-round pick who debuted in mid-June and posted a 2.53 ERA (151 ERA+) in 146 innings with 10 complete games (including two shutouts) across 19 starts and one relief appearance. The latter matches Sutcliffe in average WAR exactly. However, neither Redbird received even one vote in what would prove to be the final year of the single-player ballot. As for Sutcliffe, the 6-foot-7 redhead who had been the 21st overall pick in the 1974 draft was only slightly better than league average in terms of run prevention, but he was eighth in the NL in innings pitched with nearly three times Howe’s total. That counts for a lot in my book. In the 40 seasons since Sutcliffe’s Rookie of the Year season, only two rookies have thrown more innings: the Reds’ Tom Browning with 261 1/3 in 1985 and the Orioles’ Bob Milacki with 243 in 1989.

[More from Cliff Corcoron: Dodgers History: 'Best Pitcher in Baseball']

12. Ted Sizemore (24), 2B, 1969

.271/.328/.342 (94 OPS+), 650 PA, 4 HR, 45 BB, 40 K, 3.4 WAR

When the Dodgers selected Sizemore out of the University of Michigan in the 15th round of the 1966 draft, you could have won a mint betting that he’d win the Rookie of the Year three years later at second base. For one thing, Sizemore was a catcher and played just one game at second base prior to reaching the majors in 1969. For another, the Dodgers’ incumbent second baseman, Jim Lefebvre, was a 24-year-old who had just won the Rookie of the Year the previous season and had taken a big leap forward at the plate as a sophomore.

The Dodgers moved Lefebvre to third in 1967, and injuries undermined him thereafter. Sizemore, meanwhile, hit .308/.370/.406 in his first three minor league seasons, prompting L.A. to find a place for him in the major-league lineup. In spring training 1969, he won the starting job at shortstop, another position he’d played on just one occasion in the minors, replacing the departed Zoilo Versalles. Sizemore got some early exposure at second when Lefebvre got hurt, and when the Dodgers reacquired Wills in June, the Dodgers put Lefebvre back at third and moved Sizemore to the keystone to stay.

On the season as a whole, Sizemore’s bat was dead average for second base (league average 2B: .256/.321/.345 – 94 OPS+), but he got on base more often than the league-average rate (.328 to .320) and, despite his lack of familiarity with the middle infield, was above average with the glove and additionally valuable given his newfound versatility. His wasn’t an overwhelming award win. Sizemore received just 14 of 24 votes for Rookie of the Year in 1969. Curiously, neither of the two other NL rookies who were arguably as deserving, Pirates third baseman Richie Hebner and Mets righty Gary Gentry, received a single vote.

11. Steve Sax (22), 2B, 1982

.282/.335/.359 (97 OPS+), 699 PA, 4 HR, 49 BB, 53 K, 49 SB (72%), 3.0 WAR

Context is why I have no problem asserting that a middle infielder who was slightly below league average at the plate was more valuable than a corner outfielder or first baseman whose bat was slightly above league average. When Sax put up the above line for the ’82 Dodgers, the average major-league second baseman hit a mere .266/.323/.358 (92 OPS+). Sax bested that across the board and was both a good fielder (the yips didn’t arrive until his sophomore season) and one of the league’s fastest players. The Dodgers’ leadoff hitter throughout the ’82 season, Sax bested the league-average on-base percentage of .324 by 11 points despite playing in a pitcher’s park and was fifth in the NL (and seventh in the majors) in steals.

Sax received just nine of the 24 first-place votes for Rookie of the Year. Like Howard, Sutcliffe, and Sizemore, he had some close rivals for the award—fellow second baseman Johnny Ray of the Pirates, whom he just barely edged out for the award, Braves reliever Steve Bedrosian, and Giants starter Bill Laskey, who didn’t appear on any ballots—but was not clearly inferior to any of them. A ninth-round pick out of a West Sacramento high school, the high-intensity Sax was the rare player to win the Rookie of the Year after winning a World Series, having debuted in mid-August 1981 and made all three postseason rosters without exhausting his rookie eligibility.

10. Jackie Robinson (28), 1B, 1947

.297/.383/.427 (112 OPS+), 701 PA, 12 HR, 74 BB, 36 K, 29 SB (73%), 3.6 WAR

This ranking is not intended to be as blasphemous as it might seem. Given its circumstances, Robinson’s 1947 campaign was arguably the greatest rookie season in major-league history and inarguably the most important. My goal here, however, is to rank on-field performance, and, while there were plenty of reasons why, down to a last-minute move to an unfamiliar, less valuable position, 1947 was actually one of Jackie Robinson’s least productive seasons.

Truth be told, the move to first base hurt a lot. The average major-league first baseman hit .266/.353/.424 in 1947, which looks inferior to Robinson’s line above, but it works out to a 118 OPS+, six points better than Robinson’s after adjusting for hitter-friendly Ebbets Field (though it’s worth noting that Jackie hit even better on the road than at home that season, which is remarkable for multiple reasons). Just as importantly, the position switch made Robinson, an outstanding middle infielder, as he would prove in subsequent seasons, a sub-par defender.

Ironically, second base was the least productive position in the majors that year, producing an average OPS+ of 88. The Dodgers’ incumbent whose presence pushed Robinson to first base, Eddie Stanky, failed to even reach that mark, posting a 86 OPS+, a drop of nearly 40 points from the year before. Robinson would have been far more valuable at his customary position, and his improved comfort may even have helped boost his performance at the plate.

As it was, his on-field value that season resided largely in getting on base and wreaking havoc on the bases, both of which he did in abundance, including three steals of home. Despite all of Robinson’s obstacles, only Giants righty Larry Jansen, a close runner-up in the voting, was more valuable in raw numbers among NL rookies in 1947, and there was never a more deserving recipient than Robinson of the award that now bears his name.

Next week: The Top Nine.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.