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Monday, October 11, 2010

BBA Ballot: NL Willie Mays Award

A 20-year-old Willie Mays won the Rookie of the Year Award way back in 1951 with a line that looks eerily like those of this year's major candidates, Jason Heyward and Buster Posey:

Mays: 464 AB, 59 R, 127 H, 22 2B, 5 3B, 20 HR, 68 RBI, 7 SB, .274/.356/.472
Heyward: 520 AB, 83 R, 144 H, 29 2B, 5 3B, 18 HR, 72 RBI, 11 SB, .277/.393/.456
Posey: 406 AB, 58 R, 124 H, 23 2B, 2 3B, 18 HR, 67 RBI, 0 SB, .305/.357/.505

Clearly, based on the standard-bearer for the BBA's award for rookie excellence, Heyward and Posey are both excellent candidates.  Heyward's appearance of similarity is even boosted by the fact that he's an African-American outfielder who was also 20 years of age for the majority of his rookie season.  As he's substantially larger than Mays and plays right field for the Braves, the even more tempting comparison is Hammerin' Hank Aaron, who also broke in at age 20, in 1954, and although he lost the Rookie of the Year to Wally Moon, his stats for that season will look pretty familiar:

Aaron: 468 AB, 58 R, 131 H, 27 2B, 7 3B, 13 HR, 69 RBI, 2 SB, .280/.322/.447

Am I proposing that Heyward and Posey are destined to be the rivals of two of the best players in the history of the game?  Certainly not.  Plenty of rookies have equaled, or even surpassed these stats only to have their development fizzle after a couple seasons in the majors.  But to produce in such a fashion, at such a young age, while hitting at the center of playoff-bound lineups, is a pretty exceptional feat, and both have sparked the imaginations of their fan bases to an extent which warrants this lofty comparison.  The drama is further heightened by the face they their teams are currently squaring off in the NLDS.  So, who do I give precedence in my second-annual BBA Awards ballot?

First off, the best of the rest:

Honorable Mention: Jhoulys Chacin (Rockies), Starlin Castro (Cubs), Madison Bumgarner (Giants), Jonny Venters (Braves), Daniel Hudson (D-Backs), Tyler Colvin (Cubs), Neil Walker (Pirates), Mike Stanton (Marlins), Travis Wood (Reds), Pedro Alvarez (Pirates), Hisanori Takahashi (Mets), Gaby Sanchez (Marlins), Ike Davis (Mets), John Axford (Brewers), Logan Morrison (Marlins), Chris Johnson (Astros)

Third Place: Jaime Garcia (Cardinals)

Because Garcia faltered a little in September and was prematurely shut down, I was tempted to make a case for Jhoulys Chacin, who actually got better as the year went on, finishing off the regular season with a 1.44 ERA in his last eight starts, and was superior to Garcia in both strikeouts and WHIP.  But although Chacin is probably much closer than many people think (according to FanGraphs he trails Garcia by only 0.2 in WAR), Garcia still has the edge, thanks mainly to his truly extraordinary ERA (2.70) and the fact that he made seven more starts than Chacin (who spent part of the season in Colorado's bullpen) and threw 26 more total innings.  It has been a long, long time since an NL rookie posted an ERA like Garcia's.  No pitcher with 120+ innings has done it in the 21st century (Roy Oswalt came fairly close, 2.73, way back in 2001).

And now, the main event:

Second Place: Jason Heyward (Braves)
First Place: Buster Posey (Giants)

In the end, what it came down to for me was the Posey should not be penalized for Brian Sabean's mistakes.  The Braves were very adamant this spring that they were going to put their top prospect in the Opening Day lineup because they considered themselves legitimate contenders and they didn't want to jeopardize wins in Bobby Cox's final year just so they could get one more year of arbitration at the backend of Heyward's tenure in Atlanta.  The Giants, unfortunately, went the opposite route, leaving Posey in the minors until June and renting Bengie Molina for a couple unhappy months.  It's probably safe to say that Posey would've been worth one or two wins had he joined the team in April, but the Giants nonetheless edged into the postseason, so I guess they got the best of both worlds.  My point is, had Posey gotten the approximately 20% more ABs that Heyward has, he definitely would've beaten him in the majority of the counting categories.  Heyward only has a healthy lead in runs, steals, and triples.  In addition to having superior rates stats, for the most part, Posey plays a far more valuable position.

Imagine if the Giants had been forced to put Posey, probably their best hitter, at first base or in right field.  It would've limited their ability to use the outfield platoons which were so successful for them in the second half, instead leaning on light-hitting catchers like Molina or Eli Whiteside.  Posey was no Mike Piazza either.  His 37.1 CS% trails only Yadier Molina, Miguel Olivo, and Russell Martin among NL catchers who played at least 62 games, and his 3.18 Catcher's ERA was second to Yorvit Torrealba.  I don't mean to suggest that Heyward was a slouch (3rd in UZR among NL right-fielders), but no outfielder can possibly equal the defensive contribution of an outstanding catcher.

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