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NL Rookie of the Year Heats Up

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

You have to go back to 2003 to find the last National League Rookie of the Year Award that was handed out to a pitcher. Jaime Garcia is doing everything in his power to end the six-year drought. His Sunday outing, a complete-game 9-0 victory against the Giants, brought his name back into the RoY discussion.

2010 was supposed to be the year of Steven Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman. Yet these two prodigies have combined for just twelve Major League starts and two trips to the Disabled List (all statistics accumulated by Strasburg alone).

In effect, the RoY predictions of baseball insiders were looking towards the wrong horizon for the next great National League pitcher. The incredible start of a 24 year-old Cardinal caught the entire Major Leagues off-guard--including the St. Louis organization.

Unfortunately for Garcia, there was one position player on everyone’s radar in Spring Training that has panned out. The Braves' Jason Heyward burst on the scene with a home run in his first Major League at-bat and has not looked back since.

Heyward and Garcia do have something in common. They both left Spring Training with a spot on the Opening Day roster for their Big League clubs. They joined Ian Desmond (Nationals), Alcides Escobar (Brewers), Mike Leake (Reds), David Freese (Cardinals), Jon Niese (Mets), Tyler Colvin (Cubs), and Gaby Sanchez (Marlins) as the only National League rookies to do so. The rookie spotlight was there’s alone; a nice head start over the rest of the field.

Unfortunately, Heyward was given a media boost to push his name out there even further. The Opening Day homer did nothing to hurt the hype. So even though Garcia has current statistics that are far superior to Heyward, scouts and analysts christened the Braves' outfielder as the Rookie of the Year before the season even started. He parlayed all of this publicity into an unworthy All-Star starting position. It would not surprise anyone if he rode the hype train straight to the Rookie of the Year Award.

This is not a knock on Heyward. He is a franchise-changing player, one that will probably have a better career than anyone else in this rookie class. The Braves should lock him into their right field spot for the next 20 years. But he has missed a few games with an injury, and is only hitting .265 for the season.

The award is not given out to the player that exudes the most potential for future greatness. Heyward would win that, no arguments. It is for the best statistical season by a rookie, one year sample size.

It probably will not happen, but Cubs' shortstop Starlin Castro and Florida's Gaby Sanchez should each receive more votes than Heyward. They are frankly having better seasons. And even they are not at the head of the rookie class.

Garcia's ERA is now seventh in the National League, not just among rookies. He is one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game right now, regardless of Major League tenure. That is the mark of a Rookie of the Year--someone who blends in so seamlessly to a lineup or rotation that their first-year status can quickly slip people's minds. A winner of the award sure does not look like a rookie by midseason.

Every year, however, there is one player that bursts on the scene late and never cools down. This year's player is San Francisco's Buster Posey. The catcher/first baseman exceeded the Giants' organization expectations so rapidly that he left manager, Bruce Bochy, scrambling to find an everyday spot for him. Eventually, Posey forced out the incumbent backstop, Bengie Molina.

If the writers want to reward pure hitting, they will vote for Posey. Whereas Heyward is currently sitting eighth in batting average among NL rookies (minimum 250 at-bats), Buster Posey leads that category with a .341 average. This is nearly 90 points higher than Heyward.

Posey also leads in slugging and on-base percentages, which means he is also tops in the most unnecessarily talked about statistic in baseball--OPS (on-base plus slugging).

It is just another fluff category that Posey can say he leads. Pitchers could throw two categories together and make up a new stat too. Jaime Garcia leads all rookies in WPSO (wins plus strikeouts). This amalgamation of indirectly-related figures makes about as much sense as OPS. There is no narrative to substantiate its value. It simply has John Madden logic that great players will have great numbers.

People need to be more conscientious about what they put under a microscope. Data has to speak to something you wish to prove, something that cannot be put into words. News flash: a great power hitter will have both a high on-base percentage and a high slugging percentage. It might be a better tool than batting average, but it is not a pure offensive value. Why summate two known numbers if it is not going to tell you anything different?

If the writers seek to reward a freakishly talented power hitter, Posey is not even close to the best candidate. Gaby Sanchez, of the Florida Marlins, has 48 extra base hits. His teammate, Mike Stanton, has 14 home runs in just 63 games.

Voters cannot sleep on Ike Davis' 15 homers, playing his home games in the caverns of Citi Field. The leader among all rookies in the stat is Tyler Colvin, with 18 home runs.

So there is a pair of C's in Chicago: Castro and Colvin. There is also an alliteration of candidates in Florida: Stanton and Sanchez. Sprinkle in a Posey in San Fran, a Davis in the Big Apple, and a Heyward in Hotlanta and that is the list. The Cardinal faithful can hope that the "same-team vote split," the one that infamously plagued Wainwright and Carpenter in last year's postseason awards, can take down the two Cubs and two Marlins.

This canceling out would only act like the 50/50 in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" The game show staple never took away anything contestants actually wanted; only those they already knew had no shot at being the answer. The two favorites, the leaders in the proverbial clubhouse, would still be in the race.

If each hitter statistically negates one another, there is only one pitcher in the National League that would emerge. This first-year player leads the entire Major League rookie class (not just the NL) in wins, ERA, innings pitched, strikeouts, and now tied in shutouts.

Garcia has also been with a pennant-contending team for the entirety of the season. Buster Posey did not see his first Major League action until Memorial Day. By that time, Jaime already had a 5-2 record and a 1.32 ERA.

What the RoY cannot turn into is a team-MVP contest. Heyward is already one of the best players on his club; same with Posey. You could make an argument that Garcia is the sixth or seventh best player on the Cardinals. This is hardly his fault, nor what the award is about.

Sadly, past votes would appear to carry that line of thinking. In 2003, Angel Berroa was the best thing going for a lousy Royals team. It definitely hindered Hideki Matsui that he had the protection of a Yankees lineup.
Garcia will make a maximum of eight more starts. A realistic 5-2 record would push him to 16-8 overall, and most likely sustain his sub-3.00 ERA. This would really put the pressure on the voters to take notice of someone not named Heyward or Posey.

Regrettably, the preseason brainwashing might be too much for the Cardinals' lefty to overcome.

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