Before I get to the question above, let me first answer the one you’re probably thinking: no, I have not been drinking tonight. I am, however, more than a bit intoxicated on that potent potable known as winning. And there were those two shots Kyle Schwarber delivered in the series finale against the Brewers that had me feeling day-drunk and giddy with thoughts of what might be come Fall.
But please don’t mistake my exuberance for foolishness. Actually, you know what, I’ve got foolishness enough as it is, so maybe just don’t mistake my exuberance for hot takery or various other forms of baseless bombast. I’ll forgive you for thinking that’s what I’m getting into for throwing my support behind a potential ROY run by the Cubs shiniest new toy, but I think the kid has already built up enough street cred to make it at least worthy of discussion.
The foundation for a big season was laid almost immediately, as Schwarber tripled in his second-ever at-bat, ending his first start 4-of-5 with 3 runs and 2 RBI. All he’s done since then is put up 9 more multi-hit games en route to a .330/.420/.621 line while playing both catcher and left field with a bit less awkwardness than even those of us wearing rose-colored glasses would have imagined.
And then there’s the power. The stats are all well and good, but it’s that monstrous power that has led to nicknames like Hulk or Khal and that has sent many a Cubs fan jumping up and shouting in mixed awe and joy. Schwarber’s 8 home runs tie him for 13th among rookies, though he’s played at least 25 fewer games than anyone above him on the list. And keep in mind, that’s including the likes of Carlos Correa, Houston’s own version of a superhero.
Pare the list down to the NL only and Schwarber really starts to stand out. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the current front-runners for the award to see just what Schwarber is up against.
Not since Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith have the Cubs had a pair of rookies finish 1-2 in the ROY voting, but it’s not beyond imagination to think they could do it this year. Bryant currently leads all rookies in WAR (4.0), not to mention marketability though there’s a kid in LA (see below) who might have something to say about that latter claim. His 16 home runs are second among his fellow newbies and his 66 RBI put him head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.
Yes, I just cited both WAR and RBI as arguments in favor of a player. Blew your mind, huh? Here’s the thing: while RBI may indeed be a bit of an antiquated stat when it comes to measuring a player’s actual value outside of the specific situations in which he’s found himself over the course of a season, it’s still a go-to for voters. It’s also unlikely that a really crappy player is going to drive in a bunch of runs.
Likewise, despite the fact that some schlub who nods along with Marty Brennaman in between slugs of Iron City might not give a rat’s rear end about any WAR that didn’t involve one of his granddads, the fact remains that it’s a good measure of relative value. At the risk of getting all soap-boxy here, I do believe it’s a sportswriter’s duty to inform his or her readers rather than to simply pander to the lowest common denominator.
As such, I will continue to used as much advanced statistical analysis as I can possibly get my hands on, but I will also do my level best to present it in a way that meets the standards of the refined palates of the baseball intelligentsia while not overwhelming the milder tastes of the casual fan. End rant.
By whatever measures you choose, Kris Bryant is near the top of his class. His candidacy does, however, suffer a bit of a blow when viewed in terms of weighted on-base average and weighted runs created plus, both of which seek to measure a player’s overall value in terms of how he contributes to run production. You don’t even need to fully grasp the full weight of these metrics to understand that Bryant ranking 7th and 8th in them, respectively, could be the proverbial skeletons in his closet.
Another good-looking kid with a thousand-watt smile and power to spare, Pederson plays in the cradle of rookies of the year. In fact, I’m reasonably sure there’s a rule stating that the award has to go to a Dodger by default unless another candidate emerges who is simply too good to pass up. But Pederson’s got a ways to go if he wants to be the 17th member of this storied franchise to take home the trophy.
The 2.7 WAR is nice, though it’s only good for 4th in the NL. And the 22 homers are really sexy when the lights are out, but when morning comes and you see that .221 batting average you might not feel as good about it. Pederson’s wRC+ of 128 is nearly identical to Bryant’s though, and his wOBA of .352 is dead even with his Midwestern counterpart. At the end of the day, I don’t think the steak is quite as good as the sizzle.
Perhaps flying under the radar a bit because he plays in Pittsburgh, Kang has put together a pretty impressive resume. He’s batting nearly .300 with 9 home runs and 40 RBI and has a WAR of 3.3 that is second on the team to only Andrew McCutchen’s 4.3. I don’t mean to give this guy short shrift here, but I really do think his lack of flash and exposure will leave him in the dark a bit when it comes to the voting.
The Fringe Contenders
The Giants are the defending World Series champs and, as such, still have a good deal of cachet. Duffy, however, isn’t really a name that stands out and is likely to be on the outside looking in, despite a .304 average, 51 RBI, and a 3.4 WAR that is second only to Bryant. Then again, he could end up being that guy who emerges victorious after several others end up splitting the votes at the top. He’s probably more deserving of a spot in the group above, but the Giants have won enough.
As a result of being assimilated into the Cardinals Borg-like symbiote of an organization, Grichuk just does everything the right way. He’s gritty and grindy and has put up 2.6 WAR for a team that has inexplicably compiled baseball’s best record. His .879 OPS is second among NL rookies, as is his .270 ISO (a measure of raw power; .250 is considered excellent). If there’s a glaring weakness in his game, though, it’s patience; Grichuk’s .18 BB/K ratio is pretty gross.
Okay, so that’s all well and good, but what about the fact that Schwarber has spotted all the above players at least 51 games and 180+ at-bats? Is it really possible for him to gain enough ground on players who have had a lot more time to accumulate stats, not to mention exposure to voters? I’m glad you asked.
Historical Precedents for Short-Season Winners
Willie McCovey, 1959 – 52 games
He was Big Mac before McGwire, a 6-4, 198 lb. 1B/LF who was pretty big for his day. The crazy thing is that, even as great as he was, McCovey was only the second-best Willie on his own team. When he came up with the Giants in ’59, he busted out with a .354/.429/.656 slash line, 13 HRs, 38 RBI, and a 1.085 OPS (second only to the 1.108 he put up in ’69; nice) in only a third of a season. He had a WAR total of 3.1 and an insane 185 wRC+ in that time as well. No data exists for other players receiving votes.
Ryan Howard, 2005 – 88 games
Howard basically Wally Pipp-ed the once-beloved Jim Thome when he took over at first base after the veteran slugger was hampered by injuries. Howard went on to slash .288/.356/.567 with 22 HR’s and 63 RBI in just over half a season. He also put up 2.2 WAR and had a wRC+ of 132. Houston’s Willy Taveras, who played 152 games that season, finished 2nd in the ROY voting and Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur came in 3rd after playing only 70 games.
Bob Horner, 1978 – 89 games
A very solid player over his decade in the majors, Horner’s rookie season saw him post a .266/.313/.539 line with 23 HR’s, 63 RBI, and a 2.3 WAR. His 124 wRC+ is somewhat pedestrian compared to the first two on this list, but it’s right in there with some of the current players. Horner beat out some guy named Ozzie Smith, a slap hitter who had logged 159 games for the Padres that season.
So now we’ve established that it is possible, albeit rare, to win the award while playing much less than a full season. Of course, even if Schwarber manages to play in each of the Cubs’ remaining 49 contests, he’ll have only 80 games under his belt by season’s end. There’s also the fact that several of those are likely to result from pinch-hit appearances, while still more may be abbreviated by his removal for defensive purposes.
That would be more of a problem if this award was handed out based primarily on counting stats, as Schwarber has already spotted the others an advantage that’s going to be nigh on impossible to overcome. If, however, he’s able to maintain even a semblance of his torrid pace, his superior advanced metrics and proportionally excellent standard numbers will provide a very strong case.
Consider that his 1.6 WAR is already 8th among NL rookies and that everyone ahead of him on that list has nearly three times as many plate appearances. The case gets stronger as we shift attention to wOBA, where Schwarber’s .442 is a full 70 points ahead of the second-place Grichuk. It also puts him behind only Bryce Harper on the MLB leaderboard, though I must make the obligatory small sample size warning here.
Again, even without the full depth of this stat’s context, knowing that the MLB average is only .311 (not to mention .314 for left fielders and .297 for catchers), you can see that Schwarber’s number is a solid one.
Now let’s look at wRC+, where Schwarber’s 187 again has him way out in front (Grichuk 140). Again, this is a measurement of how good a player is at actually creating runs, with 100 being the baseline and each number above or below representing a player’s performance relative to the average. That means Kyle Schwarber is 87% better than the average baseballer when it comes to producing runs.
As if that’s not enough, all three components of Schwarber’s slash line top NL rookies, as does his 1.042 OPS. And, big surprise here, his ISO of .291 is second to none. I feel pretty good about the evidence I’ve set forth, and I applaud you for having made it this far, but I’ve got one more thought to present.
We can talk about stats and home runs and exposure all we want, but winning matters too. How a player actually impacts a team is something that is, and should be, included in the assessment of this award. I recently took a look at the impact Schwarber has had on the Cubs in terms of their run-scoring and hitting in general, and their continued strong play behind him is making the kid look pretty darn good.
To that end, Schwarber’s win probability added (WPA) — a metric that seeks to measure just how much an individual player actually increases his team’s chances at winning — is 1.45, a total that puts him 5th among his NL peers. First on that list? Why, that would be Kris Bryant, whose 3.95 leads all rookies and is 9th in baseball.
In summation, Kyle Schwarber does have a legitimate possibility to capture the NL Rookie of the Year award, but he’s probably going to need a little help to get there. I believe Kris Bryant is the odds-on favorite, particularly if he can rebound a bit through the last couple months and the Cubs make the playoffs. But if Schwarber’s able to keep his name at the top of all those statistical categories, he could make it a really tight race.
A few more monster home runs wouldn’t hurt either.