Neil Walker and Jose Tabata Over Jason Heyward?

Should Walker be rated ahead of Jason Heyward in the 2010 Rookie of the Year voting?

Buster Posey was named the National League Rookie of the Year today, although a lot of the rookie talk focused on the ballot of Dejan Kovacevic.  Kovacevic had Posey ranked first on his ballot, but finished the ballot off with Neil Walker and Jose Tabata, leaving off Jason Heyward, who finished second in the overall voting.  The decision to leave Heyward off the ballot was significant in that Kovacevic had the only ballot without the Atlanta rookie’s name on it.  That, plus the fact that two Pittsburgh Pirates were chosen over Heyward, led to a big outcry.

Dejan explained his position and responded to a lot of the criticism on his Twitter account.  This sort of thing happens every year.  One ballot is different than the others, leading to the typical comments:

“What was he thinking?”

“What a horrible choice.”

“Why does he have a vote?”

I spent some time thinking about the whole voting process, and one thing got to me.  Every year a writer is criticized for having a ballot that was different, or that left off a favorite, or that voted on an underdog.  If everyone is expected to vote the same way, then why even have a vote?  Dejan was criticized for leaving off Heyward.  One writer left Posey off his ballot because Posey was promoted on May 29th.

Both of these writers were questioned for their choices, obviously because those choices left off the eventual first and second place winners.  Isn’t that sort of outcome inevitable when you give people a blank ballot and tell them to pick three people?  If it’s such a crime to leave a favorite off the ballot, then why even have a blank ballot?  Why not just provide the writers with a ballot consisting of an approved group of players, and tell them to pick three?  Oh wait, that’s how it’s already done.

In reading the reaction to DK’s choices, I noticed a few people saying he should have his vote removed, and some saying that this is a problem with letting home town writers have a vote.  I disagree with both stances.  If the qualifications for having a vote are simply that you have to agree with everyone else, then the whole process of voting is useless.  The decision goes from “who the individual thinks is deserving of the award”, to “who the individual thinks is going to get the most votes from every other individual who is casting a vote”.

As for DK’s decision of Walker/Tabata over Heyward, I can’t say that I’d agree, but it’s my right to disagree, just like it’s Kovacevic’s right to have an opinion different than everyone else.  That’s especially true with an award that has no set rules.  What qualifies as the Rookie of the Year (outside of the qualifying playing time, of course)?  Does a guy with lesser stats get preference over a guy with better stats, all because the first guy had more playing time?  How do you compare the value of a pitcher with the value of a hitter?  Do you consider the role the rookie played on his team?  Do you consider stats from all positions equal, or do you weight each position individually?  If one player has been up three months, and another has been up five months, do you just compare the first three months, or do you ignore the benefit the five month player has of having two more months to adjust to the league?

Looking at the stats, and ignoring a lot of those questions, it’s easy to see that Posey is a heavy favorite.  Of the players with 400+ plate appearances, Posey ranks first in batting average, third in on-base percentage, first in slugging, and first in OPS.  What about Walker, Tabata, and Heyward though?

Heyward finished with a .277/.393/.456 line.  Walker finished with a .296/.349/.462 line.  Tabata finished with a .299/.346/.400 line.  Personally I’d have Walker and Heyward rounding out my ballot, with the edge to Heyward.  Jaime Garcia’s stats looked great, but his xFIP was 3.73, which means that he got a lot of help from his defense to put up the numbers he did.

I could see an argument being made for Walker over Heyward, or Garcia over both players, or even Tabata over Heyward.  I may not agree with the analysis, but I can see, and respect, the arguments that are made.  Take this argument, for example: Gaby Sanchez finished fourth in the voting, while Neil Walker got one vote, which was Kovacevic’s.

Walker finished ahead of Sanchez in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.  He played a harder position than Sanchez did, and only had about 150 fewer at-bats, which wasn’t Walker’s fault.  I can see how someone could rank Sanchez over Walker.  What gets me is the criticism Kovacevic received for his choices, when his choices weren’t even the worst ones made, in my opinion.

Two people rated Gaby Sanchez first on their ballot for rookie of the year.  You could easily make a case that Walker had a better season than Sanchez, although Sanchez received eight votes, and if Walker wouldn’t have received the vote from DK, he wouldn’t have received any votes.  When Kovacevic left Heyward off the ballot, it changed nothing.  However, 31 writers left Neil Walker off their ballots, despite Walker having similar, if not better, numbers than Gaby Sanchez, who actually received votes ahead of Posey and Heyward.

The problem with this “group think” approach, where writers like DK get questioned for straying from the group, is that it discourages objectivity.  That may sound ironic, considering that DK is being accused of a lack of objectivity in voting for two hometown players, but the fact that DK voted for two guys who play for the team he covers does not automatically mean he lacked objectivity.  A lack of objectivity is saying that someone is wrong for their vote, and pointing to the results as proof.  Jason Heyward received votes from 31 people, all except Dejan.  The “group think” approach says that Dejan is wrong because 31 people voted for Heyward, and therefore they must be right.  Heyward isn’t worthy of the number two ranking in the voting because 31 people voted for him.  He’s worthy because of his performance which caused 31 people to vote for him (assuming people voted for those reasons, and not because he was considered a favorite from the start of the season).

Back to the factors that can sway this vote, you can see plenty of ways where ranking can differ.  Take this comparison, as an example:

Player A: 69.1 IP, 2.73 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9

Player B: 68.0 IP, 2.91 ERA, 12.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9

Player A is Neftali Feliz, who was named the American League Rookie of the Year winner.  Player B is Stephen Strasburg, who made 12 starts for the Washington Nationals before suffering an injury, and didn’t receive a single vote in the NL race.  Strasburg had similar numbers, and pitched one fewer inning than Feliz.  Feliz did pitch the entire season, and served as the closer for the Texas Rangers, while Strasburg only made a dozen starts for the Washington Nationals.  The question is, what is more valuable?  A closer like Feliz all season, or a starter like Strasburg for 12 starts?  Strasburg had a 2.6 WAR for his efforts, while Feliz had a 1.7 WAR.  Despite playing all season, Feliz was worth one win fewer than Strasburg.

The time spent criticizing the ballots of writers like Kovacevic, who stray from the group, is time wasted.  The more valuable use of that time would be to practice in some objectivity.  Rather than pointing to the group as proof that Kovacevic was wrong, why not take a look at Jason Heyward, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, or any other player who received votes?  Analyze why Heyward received so many votes.  See if there’s a reason why Walker only received the vote from DK.  See what made three people think that Gaby Sanchez and Jaime Garcia were better than Buster Posey or Jason Heyward.

The end result may prove that DK was wrong in picking Tabata and Walker over Heyward.  It may prove that the eight voters who voted Gaby Sanchez over Neil Walker were wrong for that choice.  If you look for examples of where one person strayed from the group, you’re going to find several examples, including DK.  If you analyze those outlier votes to see if they have any merit, you end up forming a better conclusion, even if the conclusion was what the group originally came up with.

I’ve got no problem at all with individual voting, even if it means that someone is free to make a decision that the majority, including myself, disagrees with, such as Walker and Tabata over Heyward, or Sanchez and Garcia over Posey.  You get enough people, and you’re bound to have a few people who stray from the group.  That’s not a bad thing either.  Group think leads to complacency.  It’s how Derek Jeter wins Gold Gloves, despite the evidence that shows he’s not a top defensive shortstop.  A popular opinion is formed, and people accept that as fact, just because so many people believe it.  Once the opinion is accepted as fact, people don’t challenge it.  Once that happens, it becomes impossible to tell whether the popular opinion is right or wrong.

In my opinion, Dejan’s vote of Walker and Tabata over Heyward was the wrong choice.  I can see how an argument can be made for either player, but it’s not the argument that I would make.  That’s the point of the vote though.  It’s meant to award the results based on the combined individual opinions.  There would be no point in voting if everyone had to vote the same way to be legitimate.  Ultimately, having people voting for Neil Walker, or giving Gaby Sanchez a first place vote, or even giving votes to Jonny Venters, is a good thing.  It gives us the opportunity to question the voting with an objective mind.  We can question why Heyward is better than Walker, or whether Sanchez should be picked over Posey, or whether a reliever like Venters should even get a vote.  The questions only leads to a more informed result, which is an outcome that you can’t gain by dismissing someone’s vote just because it was different than the majority opinion.




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