These days, some people are hard at work trying to understand one another. As votes rolled in and results were released, segments of the population were taken aback. In certain corners, the mood has been celebratory, triumphant. Elsewhere there has been fear, disappointment, and, more than anything else, confusion. “How could anyone make that choice?” many have wailed. “How could so many people overlook all the evidence?” I won’t pretend to be more than I am. I know that I am but a single man in a rising, roiling ocean of souls. But I can try to defend at least my own decision. For 2016 American League Rookie of the Year, I voted for Michael Fulmer ahead of Gary Sanchez.
Unsurprisingly, I was far from alone. Here are the results, straight from the BBWAA. Fulmer won! He’s the newest AL RoY, picking up 26 of 30 first-place votes. Sanchez got the other four first-place votes, so he finished in second. Tyler Naquin wound up a distant third. The results mirror my own ballot, which went Fulmer — Sanchez — Naquin. This was my first-ever year in the BBWAA and so it was my first-ever ballot, which meant I thought about this award more than I usually do. Even though I voted for the landslide winner, I feel almost obligated to explain myself.
Fulmer pitched a full major-league season, and he ended with a low ERA. It would’ve been very easy to just stop thinking there. And that sentence is why Fulmer was the obvious favorite, before the voting results were made public. It was hard to imagine Sanchez generating enough momentum, given that him winning would’ve been essentially unprecedented. I did try to give Sanchez a shot. The idea of him making history was appealing to me. I just talked and thought myself out of it.
Any sensible conversation about Fulmer had to focus on his ERA. More specifically, one needed to address the fact that Fulmer had a 3.06 ERA, but a 3.76 FIP. Put differently, by one WAR, Fulmer beat Sanchez, 4.6 to 3.2. By another WAR, Fulmer lost to Sanchez, 3.2 to 3.0. That, despite the advantage of playing a full year. That’s basically what opened the door to Sanchez in the first place. By one measure, he was as valuable in two months as Fulmer was in five.
In the middle of September, I took a look at Fulmer’s case for the award. I couldn’t find much evidence that Fulmer could sustain the same level of run prevention. He doesn’t seem like someone who’s going to run a huge ERA – FIP difference. Now, there are two things about that. One, awards look back. What’s done is done, and one could argue that Fulmer earned his results, by the process of generating his results. Two, let’s say you want to mentally regress Fulmer’s numbers. You want to believe far more strongly in his FIP. Why limit that to Fulmer? Why not apply the same thinking to Sanchez?
Fulmer, you could say, outdid how you’d expect him to perform. We make it easy to think in these terms, because we have the numbers listed on every pitcher’s player page. We don’t do the same for hitters, but that doesn’t mean similar principles don’t apply. To just get right to it, I’ve prepared a plot, using data pulled from Baseball Savant. The simple analysis here mirrors something I did when investigating Bryce Harper some months ago. On the x-axis, you see 2016 average exit velocity for balls hit into the air. On the y-axis, you see each player’s air-ball slugging percentage. I set a minimum of 50 batted air-balls.
Despite the sample sizes here, and despite the simplicity of the model, the shown relationship is strong. And I’ve clearly highlighted the point corresponding to Gary Sanchez. One takeaway, for sure, is that Sanchez generated upper-level exit velocities. But his performance on air balls was extreme, and disproportionately so. His air-ball slugging percentage was 1.569. Based on the best-fit line, one would’ve expected it to be 1.051. That would’ve dropped Sanchez’s overall slugging percentage from .657 to .471. That’s doing things very simply, and unfairly simply, but Sanchez topped his “expected” slugging by 518 points. No one else was even close to him.
The argument for Sanchez rests on how incredible he was within a two-month window. You can get behind the idea of supporting a two-month catcher who slugged .657. It’s not nearly so easy to get behind a two-month catcher who slugged .471. That’s still a very good player and a very good rookie performance, but that no longer seems like enough to outweigh a mostly full year of starting pitching. Just as FIP takes some of the shine off Fulmer’s ERA, the above analysis takes some of the shine off Sanchez’s slugging, or OPS, or wRC+, or whatever. It’s not as easy to get there, but it’s valid. If you’re going to give Sanchez credit for his results, you should mostly give Fulmer credit for his results. If, instead, you want to regress what Fulmer did, you have to do it to Sanchez, too. Otherwise you’d be tipping the scales.
There is one thing that still gives me a little trouble. On a rate basis, I believe Sanchez was better than Fulmer was. And, moving forward, I believe Sanchez is going to be the more valuable player. He’s a pretty good defensive catcher with a hell of an arm and a hell of a powerful bat. Fulmer seems like a No. 3 starter, maybe a No. 2. Sanchez feels like he could be a perennial All-Star. It’s caused me to question what, exactly, the Rookie of the Year is, and I still don’t have a satisfying answer. I gave my first-place vote to a player who I think is inferior to the player I gave my second-place vote. It’s weird. I wish that the rules were somehow more explanatory.
But, again, awards, by their nature, look back. When you look back, you try to minimize your speculation. When I think about Sanchez being the better player, some of that is just my own scouting. But I suppose the award should recognize the player who had the best major-league season. As such, playing time has to matter for something. It can’t all be about rate stats. Fulmer was good enough, for a long-enough time. Sanchez was close, and I wanted to vote for him, I really did. I thought it would be a thrill. I just couldn’t get myself all the way there, and I hope that my explanation is satisfactory.