An Interesting Debate Concerning the Selection of Hellickson for RoY

Major League Baseball announced Monday the recipients of the Rookie of the Year Awards, which are voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America.  Craig Kimbrel took home honors in the National League, while Tampa  Bay starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was given the nod in the American League.

Hellickson being deemed the winner in the AL didn’t sit well with some sabermetrics guys, most notably Dave Cameron the managing editor at fangraphs.com.  Sounding almost like a republican that just watched Obama get nominated, Cameron expressed his lack of admiration for the selection during a podcast found on fangraphs Monday:

“Hellickson won cause he had a low ERA…it doesn’t say a whole lot about the education of the BBWAA since they only looked at ERA…”

I want to note real quick, that while this quote sounds fairly insulting, and to some extent it is, I’m not trying to point out  that Dave Cameron is being a mean spirited person here.  I for one don’t think he is, I just think he’s passionate about baseball, sort of like how political people are passionate about Presidents.  However, you will see I ultimately disagree with his beliefs here.

Cameron goes on to reveal his own personal selection for the award who, as ironic as it may be, is Dustin Ackley.  It’s ironic cause Dave is a Mariners fan.  Though, truth be told, I believe that has nothing to do with it.  Here is his justification:

“Quality performance is more valuable over a short period of time as opposed to mediocrity over a full season.  Ackley was for half a season essentially one of the better second baseman in all of baseball, which for me is more valuable than a pitcher who has been adequate for a full season.”

He also goes on to say you could make strong cases for Desmond Jennings and Brett Lawrie, who were also outstanding in their short stints in the second half of last year.

Essentially, I hold Cameron’s main argument to be, despite the fact guys like Ackley, Jennings and Lawrie played less of the season then guys like Mark Trumbo or Jeremy Hellickson, they were able to accumulate more wins for their clubs, or WAR if you will.

If you go by this model,  Brett Lawrie would have been a real strong candidate to win despite the fact he only played in 43 games and had 171 plate appearances.  In this short amount of time, according to fangraphs, he amassed 2.7 WAR, which would be good enough for second among AL rookies.  Michael Pineda actually led all rookies with 3.4, while Ackley and Nova were tied with Lawrie with 2.7.

I could be obnoxious and mention that the criteria for voting on this award is what rookie has the most outstanding season.  Well, even I would concede that’s a jaded move.  After all, is it Desmond Jennings’ fault he was allowed to waste away in the minors for so long last year?  No, of course not.  However, my distaste for thinking guys like Ackley, Jennings or Lawrie were deserving of the award does center around the concept of a full season.

Remember Brennan Boesch’s 2010?  Everybody in Detroit does.  In 2010, the then rookie Brennan Boesch burst on to the seen with an electric May and June.  During that time he accumulated 2.0 WAR in 205 plate appearances, essentially going stride for stride with Miguel Cabrera.  Starting in July, Boesch did a complete nose-dive and was one of the lousiest hitters in baseball.  He actually ended up going backwards in the wins column finishing with .6 WAR.

Well what is the significance of Brennan Boesch?  He was able to experience what a rookie who essentially plays a full season goes through.  Boesch was fortunate enough to have a hot bat after his life’s greatest promotion, but then the pitchers adjusted to him.  Whatever scouting report big league clubs were getting from their minor league staffs regarding Boesch weren’t up to snuff, but as time wore on Major League teams began to notice the lefty had very limited Plate discipline.

Hypothetically, if Boesch were a second half call-up in 2010, would he be getting suggested for accolades considering he theoretically would of missed out on the time where pitchers had a chance to make adjustments?

Just for fun, lets take a look at how hitters such as Ackley, Jennings and Lawrie finished off their rookie campaigns.  Dustin Ackley’s batting average June through August hovered around .300 the whole time.  Needless to say he was hitting very well.  But when September rolled around, it was a different story.  In his final 108 PAs, Ackley hit only .219.  At that juncture he was also striking out almost 30% of the time.

Moving on to Desmond Jennings.  In July and August Jennings was on fire hitting for a .333 batting average in 167 PAs.  But in September, when his team was trying to grind out victories to stay in the playoff hunt, Jennings went ice cold hitting .160 in his final 120 Plate appearances.

During his 97 PAs in August, Brett Lawrie hit .326.  In his final 74 PAs during Sept./Oct. he hit .246.

All of these rookies have phenomenal talent.  But to borrow one awesome football coaches’ quote, “they are who we thought they were.”  They’re rookies.  There was inevitably going to be some growing pains – they just need to see enough plate appearances for it to happen.

Now in reference to Jeremy Hellickson.  There is not really any other way to say it.  His advanced statistical numbers sucked.  He only accumulated 1.4 WAR for the season, roughly half of what the other guys mentioned earlier posted.  His K/BB rate was a miserable 1.63 and he gave up a homer once every nine innings of work.  Lastly, he obviously benefited greatly form a miniscule BABIP of .223.

However, when Dave insinuated that Hellickson was an adequate pitcher in 2011, I don’t feel like that does the kid justice.  Jeremy Hellickson was a great pitcher in 2011, and he was an integral part of that Rays team.  He was remarkably consistent all year, and when his team needed him the most in September, he answered the bell.

In his 29 starts in 2011, he surrendered over four earned runs in a game once when he gave up five to the Orioles.  Only four times did he give up four runs.  The other 24 games he gave up three runs or less.  While Cameron seemed uninterested in the fact Hellickson threw more innings than any other rookie with 189, that number actually shows his durability and how much Joe Maddon trusted the kid to be on the mound.

In September when the other rookie candidates began to tank, Hellickson got stronger, in the midst of a pennant chase nonetheless.  At the point most rookie arms would be getting shut down for the year, Hellickson pitched four solid games – two against the Yankees and two against the Red Sox.  He was 1-0 in those games, and gave his team a chance to win all of them.  In three of the games he earned a quality start, and in the fourth he pitched 5.2 innings yielding only one run.

While the BBWAA obviously looked at Hellickson’s 2.95 ERA on the year quite a bit, which I‘m sure doesn’t thrill the saber community, it was also his performance down the stretch that sealed the deal.  It was also the fact the kid was pitching in the offensively revved up AL East.

Finally with regards to ERA.  Just because there are stronger statistics to determine a pitcher’s skill-set doesn’t mean we have to treat ERA like it’s the AIDS virus.  Bottom line – when Hellickson was on the mound, teams found a hard time getting three runs per game.  The saber-community should recognize once in a while that baseball is still a team sport, and it is not a crime to make use of the seven guys standing in the field with gloves behind the pitcher.

Ultimately if guys like Dave Cameron convince the BBWAA that we should be selecting players based on WAR, I wouldn’t put up much of a fuss.  I just think it should be considered that rookies need to feel the ebb and flow of a full season.  You need look no further then how the month of September treated Ackley, Jennings and Lawrie to see my point.

Topics: Brett Lawrie, Dave Cameron, Desmond Jennings, Dustin Ackley, Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson, Michael Pineda

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