Not too long ago, the internet nearly exploded from pre-teen angst over the upset victory by Esperanza Spalding over Tiger Beat dynamo Justin Bieber for “Best New Artist” at the Grammys. My first reaction was “I’ve heard the Esperanza Spalding and it’s awful.” My next was “So what?”
The funny thing about how the world works is an event right now isn’t often a guarantee of future failure or success. Bieber’s going to sell scads more posters, magazines, books, DVDs, tickets, and oh yeah, music, than Spalding. His ultimate legacy could go the route of Michael Jackson who went from child star to icon. He could be another flash in the pan like oh so many.
His winning or not winning the award doesn’t have any bearing on his success. I know this because baseball tells me so.
Baseball’s version of the Best New Artist is the Rookie of the Year Award. It’s been given to Hall of Famers. It’s been won by journeymen. Nearly everyone who’s won it has been an All-Star at least once, but many were so honored just once.
It’s a mixed bag entirely.
I’m a Royals fan. Have been since I knew what baseball was. I don’t really have to tell you that the last – oh – 20 years haven’t been a bit of masochism. But there’s hope. Baseball America put a record nine Royals prospects in its top 100 rankings on Wednesday and there’s depth behind even those future stars.
With that in mind, I thought about the stretch from 1992 to 1996 when the Los Angeles Dodgers had the Rookie of the Year in each season in the NL. Looking back, I got a bit depressed because they didn’t win a single championship despite five players being bestowed with the title of Best New Artist.
This got me to thinking that the award is a bunch of poppycock.
I hopped on Baseball-Reference and tracked down every rookie who won the award since its inception. Fittingly, it’s official name is the Jackie Robinson Award, named for the first recipient.
Then I thought the best, and most simple, way to judge players is by looking at their individual WAR in their career. Willie Mays, for instance, won the Rookie of the Year in 1951 with a WAR of 3.5. For his career, he accumulated a WAR of 154 (!). Clearly, he was the right choice out of that batch of rookies.
From there, I started to compare a player’s WAR in their Rookie of the Year season with their highest WAR in their career and against their average.
The first thing I wanted to know was which players won the award with what turned out to be their best individual WAR. If I omit those players who’ve won the ROY since 2005, there were 33 such players who peaked in their rookie season. For the most part, those players were able to stick around the league for a while, averaging 9.12 seasons in the big leagues. Over the course of their career, that group averaged 12.32 WAR.
That really isn’t too bad for a crew that may have peaked before they even got started. Two notable cases jump out to me: Carlton Fisk and Don Newcombe. Fisk’s rookie season produced 7.1 WAR, which is the fourth highest ROY WAR in history, so that’s tough to surpass anyway, but he played 21 more seasons and never passed that mark, even in seasons when he’d won a Silver Slugger award and was in the mix for MVP. Newcombe was a Cy Young winner and the MVP in 1956 but still didn’t beat his 5.5 WAR.
One player won the Rookie of the Year award but finished with a negative WAR. Alfredo Griffin put up a 2.3 WAR in 1979 – and finished -2.0 WAR for his career. Another ROY, Ken Hubbs of the Cubs, won a Gold Glove at second base in 1962 and beat Donn Clendenon for the award despite a .646 to .853 disadvantage. Hubbs finished the season with -1.2 WAR that season. Hubbs was killed in a plane crash prior to the 1964 season, so perhaps he would have played well enough to finish his career with a WAR above 0.
Chris Chambliss was ROY in 1971 with a -0.1 WAR, but finished with a career 24.4 WAR (and broke many a Royals fans heart in 1976).
Perhaps it’s a testament to the calculation of WAR (or B-R’s methods) but there isn’t necessarily a correlation between being named Rookie of the Year and having a strong WAR in that season. Billy Williams put up a 0.8 WAR in 1961 with a .278/.338/.484/.822 line and 25 homers. Only 0.8 for that? “Fine”, Williams may have thought, “I’ll just make the Hall of Fame.”
So he did.
Of the 128 ROY winners, 14 have made the Hall of Fame:
- Willie Mays
- Tom Seaver
- Frank Robinson
- Cal Ripken Jr.
- Rod Carew
- Johnny Bench
- Eddie Murray
- Carlton Fisk
- Willie McCovey
- Jackie Robinson
- Andre Dawson
- Billy Williams
- Luis Aparicio
- Orlando Cepeda
There are a strong number of players who have won the award in the last 20 years who are still playing or have recently retired who may still make the Hall:
- Pete Rose
- Mark McGwire
- Lou Whitaker
- Albert Pujols
- Ichiro Suzuki
- Derek Jeter
- Jeff Bagwell
- Mike Piazza
- Scott Rolen
That also omits players who just haven’t played enough yet. Perhaps we can look into a crystal ball (in spreadsheet form) and guess at who might be on the right road. To me, this meant looking at a player’s Rookie of the Year season in relation to their peak season. In some cases, like Johnny Bench, their rookie season was impressive (4.7 WAR) but just the start of great things (peak WAR of 9.1). With the exception of Fisk, most of the players who ended up in the Hall of Fame had a significant jump from their ROY season and their peak season.
The average difference between peak and ROY years among those Hall of Famers turns out to be 4.84, so perhaps that bodes well for guys like Ryan Braun (4.7 WAR gap) or Evan Longoria (3.9) who have plenty of strong years ahead of them and have already shown ability to exceed their ROY seasons.
That seems to be the difference – you have have three groups out of this collective. There are those who have strong seasons as rookies and are good enough to stick around the league. There are those who are talented enough to be rookie of the year but can’t sustain it. Then there are those – the HOFers and potentials – who are so talented that they break into the league at a high level and keep building on that early success. Hanley Ramirez could be someone like that, as he started off with a 5.1 WAR as a rookie and has potential to go past that mark in the future.
It’s no guarantee though. Chuck Knoblauch has all the parts to fit into this Hall of Fame potential group – he had strong rookie year (2.3 WAR), a solid peak (8.8 WAR) and a good average WAR – but he fell off the earth after a point and somewhere that talent dries up and blows away.
So don’t fret Justin Bieber fans (if there are any out there reading sports blogs). He may not have won the Grammy. That’s fine. It’s not a prerequisite for success, nor is it a guarantee that Spalding will do anything else in her career. Remember, Milli Vanilli won the same award (just like Angel Berroa won the ROY in 2003 but did nothing else from then on).
You can stay current on all the Call to the Pen content and news by following us onTwitter,Facebook, or by way of our RSS feed. Michael Engel is the lead writer for KingsOfKauffman.com, a Kansas City Royalsblog on the Fansided network.