If you’re a baseball fan or analyst, there are certain time-honored traditions you’re expected to hold. One of the most cherished is making predictions about who will win the yearly awards like MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. This is our chance to recklessly select favorites based on hype and (very little) performance.
The ROY award is unique. Our predictions are based largely on scouting reports and the performance of minor-league players. It is rich in tradition and embedded in MLB culture. Who hasn’t marveled at Pete Rose’s 1963 season, or been told of Willie Mays bursting onto the scene in ‘51? Nevertheless, we still are trying to translate numbers without regard to the challenges of transition to the major leagues.
I firmly believe that every player who has been honored with the distinction of either the National or American League’s top rookie deserves to be celebrated with the same level of respect. All winners of the award have faced some hurdle whether it is racial, socioeconomic, language-related, a trip from one country to another or something else. However, as we ambitiously move towards an international Major League Baseball, our need to alter our Rookie of the Year Award and the way we quantify it is becoming more necessary simply to level the playing field.
If a player not named Tanaka or Abreu secures the hardware in the AL in 2014, it will be because they both got hurt. No, I don’t have a crystal ball but I have decent deductive reasoning.
Through Saturday, the 27-year-old Jose Abreu leads all rookies in homers, RBI, hits and runs.
His 11 homers are more than double of the next rookie, Minnesota’s Josmil Pinto with five, while Abreu’s 33 RBI are nearly double of the runner-up, Detroit’s Nick Castellanos with 17. If the voting was today, this would be unanimous.
Masahiro Tanaka, 25, on the pitching side is 4-0 with 51 strikeouts. No other rookie pitcher has more than two wins or comes within 19 strikeouts. There are other pitchers in this conversation worthy of consideration. Kansas City right-hander Yordano Ventura, who pitched in the Pacific Coast League last season, is second in the majors — and leads the AL — with a 1.50 ERA.
There are arguments to be made related to the competition levels of the NPB (Japan), KBO (Korea), the Cuban leagues, etc. … The statistics are difficult because the sample sizes are small as it relates to the number of players that have transitioned back and forth. Moreover, the profile of player that has crossed over varies wildly. That is rapidly changing. For now, anecdotes will have to do.
In 2005, I traveled to Japan to begin spring training and knew immediately that the caliber of play far exceeded what I had witnessed in the Triple-A International League in my early 20s. As I surveyed the roster, there were several MLB caliber players on the team.
Current Red Sox closer Koji Uehara was on the staff of my Yomiuri Giants. Without any further development, however, I can attest that many of the guys would have found a roster spot on the championship-caliber teams that I played on the two years prior in Boston.
This is not to say that they were necessarily as athletically gifted as some of their MLB counterparts, but their level of experience coupled with sound mechanics and fundamentals was certainly superior to what I had witnessed at the upper levels of our minor-league systems.
This presents us with a difficulty in determining a ROY award. By definition, a member of an athletic team in his or her first full season in their respective sport is a rookie and, I’m certainly not suggesting that Tanaka or Abreu is anything but in our Major Leagues.
Castellanos, just 22, definitely isn’t on even ground with Abreu in the same way that Ventura, also 22, isn’t with Tanaka. We can all agree on that. How uneven is more open to interpretation.
Our major media outlets have difficulty separating NPB and MLB stats when speaking of Tanaka. From MLB.com:
“Tanaka is now undefeated in six big-league starts, and he hasn’t lost since Aug. 19 of his 2012 campaign. The right-hander won his final 28 decisions in Japan before signing with the Yankees this winter, and he’s yet to allow more than three earned runs against a major-league club.”
It’s clear that NPB and Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top baseball league in which Abreu competed are not fair comparisons to our Triple-A system. Additionally, in their home countries, Tanaka and Abreu are uber famous, and are familiar with the star treatment and experience. In the case of Castellanos for example, I can assure you from personal experience that playing in Toledo, Ohio for the Mudhens does not prepare you for the media market that is Detroit.
In judging this, we find ourselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, Tanaka and Abreu have experienced more difficult competition and the pressures of being a star that players in Triple-A have never faced. These experiences give them a leg up on your average American prospect in their transition.
However, Abreu and Tanaka have cultural adjustments to make that may be far more difficult than anything that the Cubs’ highly touted prospect Javier Baez will deal with when he jumps from Triple-A Iowa to Chicago. The leap across the Pacific is far more intimidating.
This is yet another clear difference that needs attention as we begin to see a larger and larger influx of international players.
We often speak of an asterisk when we discuss the Steroid Era. I don’t advocate that 2000 AL ROY Kazuhiro Sasaki, 2001 AL ROY Ichiro Suzuki and whichever of the two aforementioned international stars wins the AL ROY this season deserves any special scrutiny. These are well-deserved awards.
I simply suggest that we begin to develop some new criteria to account for our quickly changing ecosystem before it begins to speed up on us. If we are not out front, this issue is liable to happen too quickly for an on-the-fly adjustment, smacking us upside the head in the middle of a season.