The first of MLB’s major awards to be announced for 2023, the Rookie of the Year awards, were given out Monday evening, with Arizona’s Corbin Carroll and Baltimore’s Gunnar Henderson taking the laurels in the NL and AL races, respectively.
Getting inappropriately annoyed with year-end awards — more specifically in 1995, the year Mo Vaughn beat Albert Belle in the AL and Dante Bichette confusingly finished second in the NL — was one of the things that got me reading Usenet. A high schooler at the time, I had little idea that it was the start of a surprising career path. And even back then, I was frustrated that the writers who voted for these awards didn’t always make convincing arguments about their picks and, occasionally, offered no justifications at all.
I still believe that this kind of transparency is crucial for the legitimacy of any type of award. This is ostensibly an expert panel; if it’s not, there’s no purpose for the award to exist. As such, a secret ballot is not appropriate the way I believe it is for, say, a presidential or parliamentary election. So, as usual, this is my explanation (or apologia depending on your point of view) of why I voted the way I did. I don’t expect 100% of people to agree with my reasoning, which I doubt has happened for any opinion I’ve expressed ever, but that doesn’t mean I don’t owe you, the reader, the details of my vote.
This is my fifth Rookie of the Year vote. Previously, I gave my first-place votes to Spencer Strider, Trevor Rogers, Pete Alonso, and Corey Seager. This year, my ballot, starting at the top, was Carroll, the Mets’ Kodai Senga, and the Reds’ Matt McLain. Let’s start at the top. I’m also including 2024 ZiPS projections because, hey, why not? (They didn’t have any bearing on my vote, nor did the preseason projections.)
The Easy Part: Corbin Carroll
My last two first-place votes were close for me, and it took a while to decide on them. But this one was the easiest since Seager in 2016 (and I’m not forgetting Alonso versus Michael Soroka). Everyone expected Carroll to steamroll the league, and that’s just what he did. And while he didn’t have a Mike Trout-esque rookie season, who does?
For much of the season, Carroll logically was part of the MVP discussion, though by the time September rolled around, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts had an obvious advantage, with Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson being clearly superior, too. But if I had voted for the NL MVP, Carroll would have still landed somewhere in the back of my ballot. He hit .285/.362/.506, clubbed 25 homers and stole 50 bases, and played all three outfield positions at least respectably. He is the type of player for whom the phrase “speed kills” makes sense, because his skill set is broad enough that he can actually weaponize that speed. For the season, he was seventh in sprint speed, had dominating baserunning numbers beyond stolen bases, and in 90-foot splits, he was bested only by Elly De La Cruz.
ZiPS Projection – Corbin Carroll
The Still Pretty Easy Part: Kodai Senga
I’m inclined to like Senga considerably more than his WAR simply because he has a significant history of outperforming his peripherals in Japan as well, so there’s more basis for believing in his ERA than for the typical pitcher in this position. Because of that, I’m closer to bWAR on Senga (4.4) than I am to fWAR. If forced at gunpoint to name the Dan’s Brain WAR for Senga, I’d probably put him at 3.8–4.0 or so. Also, that’s a very weird use of a firearm.
There’s always a writer or two who complains about Japanese players being eligible for the RoY award, but I think the idea that they shouldn’t be is preposterous. Nippon Professional Baseball appears a bit closer to the majors than Triple-A ball in the U.S. is — something like Triple-A 1/2 — but it’s a very different kind of league. While Triple-A hitters may be easier than NPB hitters, you’re also facing a rather different style of play and plate approaches, and now that some of the recent rule changes have hit in the majors, Triple-A ball is roughly a not-as-good MLB.
Despite facing different types of hitters, a spate of different rules, and against the backdrop of New York pressure and a collapsing team behind him, Senga was one of the few players who could really be counted on there. He had some issues with walks early on, and to his credit, he adjusted. But it wasn’t actually his control that was the issue; he actually threw more strikes earlier in the season! Instead, the issue was that after putting up an out-of-zone swing rate above 30% in each of his last two seasons in Japan, he was down in the low-20s early on with the Mets. As time went on, he got a better feel on how to lure MLB batters to their doom; in the second half, his 31.1% out-of-zone swing rate was right where it was in Japan.
ZiPS Projection – Kodai Senga
The Excruciating Part and the Fifth Wheel: Matt McLain versus Nolan Jones versus James Outman
I don’t see Rookie of the Year as necessarily meaning Most Valuable Rookie, but as Best Rookie. As such, in a kind of small-scale examination of Hall of Fame candidates’ peak versus career numbers, I don’t necessarily think measures against replacement are as important as in the MVP voting, which has directions that more strongly imply an emphasis on quantity.
Outman was probably the most valuable of the three hitters I listed above, but he also got a lot more playing time, winning the job from the start. Both McLain and Jones out-hit him from a quality standpoint, with a 128 wRC+ from McLain, a 135 from Jones, and a 118 from Outman. I might discount this if there were evidence from their minor league time that the major league time was flukier, but both played in Triple-A just about how you’d expect from their actual major league performances. Outman was an excellent player and a big part of why the Dodgers survived the loss of a lot of players, but I would have him fifth in a larger ballot because he wasn’t quite as good as McLain or Jones. Per WAA on Baseball-Reference, both McLain and Jones were well ahead of him.
McLain versus Jones was very difficult for me, and I went back and forth on it the entire Sunday I made my vote (the last day of the season). And it still wasn’t an obvious result, more a 51%–49% judgment; if asked on a different day, I might have said Jones instead of McLain. But at the end of the day, I had to pick one. McLain hit almost as well as Jones did and played the hardest non-catcher defensive position. I don’t like deciding based on small things, but it’s inevitable if the big things can’t settle the score. The slight nudge to McLain comes on the balance of having the more valuable defensive versatility (2B/SS for him versus 3B/OF for Jones) and the fact that he played for a team that was playing higher-leverage games all season, with a deep roster of prospects that could push him off a job at any time. The Rockies, meanwhile, were a basement dweller without a lot in the cupboard.
Jones may have just missed my ballot, but it’s no negative reflection on what was an excellent season. I was quite perturbed that he didn’t start the season in Colorado, with the Rockies apparently deciding that Mike Moustakas was nine years better in age than Jones, but they at least weren’t stubborn after he crushed pitchers in the Pacific Coast League. That wRC+ of 135 was an OPS+ of 138 if you like the simpler approach, and both numbers are park-adjusted, so he was Actual Good, not merely Coors Field Good.
ZiPS Projection – Matt McLain