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Ryan Howard: NL Rookie of the Year

Update [2005-11-7 14:40:59 by dajafi]:It's offical:: Ryan Howard is the National League Rookie of the Year. Ryan got 19 of 32 first-place votes and outpointed runner-up Willy Tavares by a 109-78 margin.

Back in mid-September, the Good Phight went out on a limb predicting that Ryan Howard should win this year's NL Rookie of the Year award. Today, the award will be announced, and we were right back then: Howard should undoubtedly take home the hardware.

Two months ago, the analytical comparison between Ryan Howard and Jeff Francoeur was decidedly in Francoeur's favor. Nonetheless, the Good Phight picked Howard as the likely Rookie of the Year because he was showing continued improvement as the season went on, whereas Francoeur struggled as big league pitchers figured out his free-swinging ways. What looked like a possibly irrational homer pick in mid-September looks much more intelligent today because of how each played after September 1:

Howard .292/.359/.708 11 27
Francoeur .235/.273/.422 4 14

Here's how the same comparisons we did back in mid-September look now that the season is over.

In mid-September, Francoeur had a much higher average, and Howard?s media-friendly power numbers were not so overwhelmingly better than Francoeur?s. Howard continued to mash in late September while Francoeur?s average dropped off. Here?s how they finished up:

Howard 0.288 22 63
Francoeur 0.300 14 45

Francoeur?s 12 point advantage in batting average is not enough to outshine Howard?s very impressive half-season power numbers.

Moving into the more advanced measures, in mid-September, Francoeur had a 70 point advantage in OPS, fueled mostly by his better slugging percentage. The last two weeks of September killed Francoeur in this department, as he struggled and Howard pummeled the ball, raising his OPS by 35 points while Francoeur?s dropped by about 70:

Howard 0.356 0.567 0.923 100/33
Francoeur 0.336 0.549 0.885 58/11

Furthermore, despite Howard?s notoriously free-swinging ways, his much better batter?s eye gave him a 3.0 K/BB ratio compared to Francoeur?s which was over 5.0.

The advanced analytical tools from Baseball Prospectus really show the drastic change that occurred in late September. Howard trailed Francoeur in each measure, but again his great end of the season propelled him to eclipse Francoeur across the board:

Howard 0.264 0.216 28.7 0.358
Francoeur 0.229 0.216 21.2 0.329

Again, translating these numbers into English, the first column, MLVr, indicates the additional number of runs per game each player contributes to a lineup that otherwise consists of average offensive performers (league average MLVr, by definition, is zero). Thus, Howard contributed about 15% more per game above the league average than Francoeur did. The second column, PMLVr, is the same stat, but adjusted for the position each player plays. Because Howard plays at the power-rich first-base position, he and Francoeur are equal here, but that just shows how much better absolutely Howard was. The third column, VORP, is the number of runs each player has produced above what a replacement player at the same position would contribute, and the fourth column, VORPr, is the same stat averaged per game played. Again, in both of these metrics, Howard finished the season with a decided edge.

There is no question that Ryan Howard should be the NL Rookie of the Year for 2005. It may not be so easy though. There are two possible confounders, one easy to dismiss and the other more difficult.

The first issue is that if we go by the advanced metric of VORP to measure NL rookies, there is one who actually outpaced Howard for the year: Pirates starting pitcher Zack Duke. Duke pitched to the tune of an outstanding 32.7 VORP. However, because he was called up midway through the season and had injury problems, he did that in only 10 games, and it?s hard to argue that someone who played in only 10 games in the season is the rookie of the year.

The second issue is more difficult to dismiss. The media, who votes on the award, loves speed. And, they love players who play for championship teams. Willy Taveras, the Astros? centerfielder, fits both of the media?s weakspots. He played for a team that made it into the post-season (albeit as the Wild Card), and he has speed to spare. He stole 34 bases and scored 82 runs. However, by every other measure he is a vastly inferior player to Howard. Here are Taveras? numbers:

Taveras 0.291 0.325 0.341 0.666 3 29 103/25

Taveras' shockingly terrible .666 OPS is 144th out of 148 hitters in the major leagues who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Only Jason Kendall, Jack Wilson, Mike Lowell, and Adam Everett were worse than Taveras.

Digging deeper into his advanced metrics:

Taveras -0.087 -0.058 11.9 0.078

His negative MLV numbers mean that a lineup of completely average players would score more runs per game than a lineup of average players plus Taveras. Simply, that?s not good. Furthermore, his VORP (value over replacement player) is 16th for NL rookie hitters and 42nd for all NL rookies (including pitchers). Willy Taveras is not worthy of being discussed in the same breath as Ryan Howard, but unfortunately, he poses a risk to the award that is rightfully Howard?s.

Later today, we?ll know whether Howard has won the award he deserves. Despite the Willy Taveras factor, I predict Howard will win, but I admit that on this prediction (on who will win as opposed to who should win) I?m being a hopeless homer.