What does it mean to win the Rookie of the Year?

Heading into Monday afternoon’s announcement of the 2009 American and National League Rookies of the Year, there have been 124 past winners of the award. For the first two years – beginning in 1947 with Jackie Robinson – the award was given to the outstanding rookie in the major leagues, but it was quickly changed to award the top rookies in each league. Twice, the award has been shared due to a tie in the voting process: the 1976 NL Rookie of the Year award was shared by Butch Metzger and Pat Zachry while the 1979 AL Rookie of the Year award was shared by Alfredo Griffin and John Castino.

It’s fair to say that the Rookie of the Year award is no guaranteer of success. In recent years, for example, we’ve seen the likes of Angel Berroa, Ben Grieve, Eric Hinske, and Scott Williamson win the award to go along with past winners like Walt Weiss, Ron Kittle, or Joe Charboneau. Those aren’t exactly the names we’ll be writing our grandchildren about years from now. At the same time, though, there have been plenty of all-time greats who were honored as the Rookie of the Year. Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Tom Seaver, Albert Pujols, Cal Ripken, and Derek Jeter are just a few of the (future) Hall of Famers with a Rookie of the Year trophy in their closet.

What, then, does winning Rookie of the Year mean? Exactly how well have the writers done in choosing future superstars through the Rookie of the Year award? When the winners are announced Monday afternoon, how certain are we to be looking at future All-Stars, MVPs, or Hall of Famers? Using the Rally WAR Database and a few other metrics – like Hall of Fame status and MVP/Cy Young awards won – I tried to quantify that success. Here are a few key observations:

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In the first 50 years of its existence (from 1947 through 1996), there were exactly 100 awards handed out. Thirteen of those players are currently in the Hall of Fame (Cal Ripken was the last winner to be inducted). In addition to those thirteen, Pete Rose is ineligible for the Hall, Andre Dawson is inching his way towards induction, Mark McGwire is sitting in limbo, Jeff Bagwell & Mike Piazza are not yet eligible, and Derek Jeter is still playing. Counting all six of those players, that puts the HOF-success rate of the Rookie of the Year award at 19%. It increases to 20% if you consider Lou Whitaker and his 69.7 career WAR as a HOF-worthy player (Dick Allen’s 61.2 career WAR also has a case). Since 1997, Rookie of the Year award winners have included Carlos Beltran, Albert Pujols, and Ichiro!, all of whom are likely Hall of Famers.

Speaking of WAR: of the 116 winners honored prior to the 2005 season, the average career WAR is 30.1. That’s about the career of a Mike Hargrove or a Rick Sutcliffe – not too shabby. Of course, that average is clearly affected by the extreme highs of Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, and Frank Robinson, among others. The median career WAR value of the pre-2005 winners is 21.8. That means that a Rookie of the Year-winner has a 50/50 chance of having a career better or worse than Al Bumbry or Dave Righetti. (I use pre-2005 winners for this comparison because winners from the last five years haven’t had enough time to carve out their career. There are a number of pre-2005 winners still playing, but they’re career arcs are well enough established to not affect the median values – the average can certainly still change, though.)

Twenty different Rookie of the Year winners have won a total of 25 MVPs (26 if Pujols wins another this year). Repeat MVP winners include Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Johnny Bench, Cal Ripken, and Albert Pujols. Five winners have also won a total of seven Cy Young Awards. Tom Seaver is the only repeat Cy Young winner among Rookie of the Year winners.

The scoring system to determine the Rookie of the Year was changed to its current form in 1980. Since then, there have been 27 winners who received 95% of the vote or better (12 have received 100% of the vote). High scores do not dictate long-term success, though. Among the winners with 95% or more are Bob Hamelin (95.7%, 2.4 career WAR), Jerome Walton (96.7%, 3.6 WAR), and Gregg Olson (97.1%, 13.7 WAR). Unanimous decisions have tended to fare better. The twelve unanimous winners, and their career WAR, are below. Other than the injury-ravaged careers of Coleman or Alomar, most players would be happy to have one of those careers.

    Name Year WAR
    Albert Pujols* 2001 67.4
    Mark McGwire 1987 63.1
    Derek Jeter* 1996 62.3
    Mike Piazza 1993 59.1
    Scott Rolen* 1997 57.4
    Nomar Garciaparra* 1997 42.6
    Tim Salmon 1993 37.6
    Raul Mondesi 1994 27.2
    Benito Santiago 1987 23.8
    Sandy Alomar 1990 13.2
    Vince Coleman 1985 9.4
    Evan Longoria* 2008 3.8

While high scores may not dictate long-term success, a low-scoring winner is not likely to have a great career. Of the seventeen recent winners who received less than 80% of the vote, all but one earned less than 20 WAR in their career (Jose Canseco – 78.6%, 41.8 career WAR), with some serious caveats: Dontrelle Willis (14 WAR), Ryan Howard (14 WAR), and Hanley Ramirez (18.3 WAR) are all recent award winners who received less than 80% of the vote, and who are likely to add significantly to their career totals. The full list of recent low-scoring winners follows. It’s kind of funny to see that, other than the few mentioned above, the best career on this list belongs to Steve Sax, who also had the lowest percentage of votes of any recent winner.

    Name Year PCT WAR
    Jose Canseco 1986 78.6 41.8
    Hanley Ramirez* 2006 65.6 18.3
    Steve Sax 1982 52.5 17.5
    Ozzie Guillen 1985 72.1 15.9
    Walt Weiss 1988 73.6 15.1
    Dontrelle Willis* 2003 73.8 14
    Ryan Howard* 2005 68.1 14
    Chris Sabo 1988 65.8 13.3
    Steve Howe 1980 66.7 10
    Scott Williamson 1999 73.8 8.2
    Huston Street* 2005 69.3 7.3
    Todd Hollandsworth 1996 75 6.5
    Marty Cordova 1995 75 6.4
    Ron Kittle 1983 74.3 5.4
    Kazuhiro Sasaki 2000 74.3 4
    Angel Berroa* 2003 62.9 3.8
    Joe Charboneau 1980 72.9 1.1

You can find a full list of the Rookie of the Year award winners here. It includes each winner’s career WAR, as well as their vote totals, their Hall of Fame selections, and MVP/Cy Young awards.

The Rookie of the Year Award is a finicky beast. Due to the nature of the vote, and how players qualify for “rookie status”, voters can have a pretty unappealing slate of players to choose from. This is how we end up with the Bob Hamelin’s and Pat Listach’s of the world. But, after looking at data, the award is a pretty good signifier of success. Twenty-percent of the first 100 award winners wound up in the Hall of Fame (or will when they become eligible) and nearly a third ended their careers with 40 WAR or more. It is true that half of the winners couldn’t even accumulate 20 WAR in their career, but that may not be as damning as it sounds. If you rephrase it and instead say “Of the two Rookie of the Year winners every year, one will assuredly go on to have a productive career”, it sounds much better. Or, to put it yet another way, “Every two years, one of the four Rookie of the Year winners will battle for a spot in the Hall of Fame”. Pretty impressive. It’s rare to see a prediction system with that level of success.

I have no idea if Monday’s winners will go on to be Hall of Famers or not – and with the uncertainty in this field, it seems unlikely – but it is nice to know that they have a better chance at it than I originally thought. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.