Yes, Ohtani's more than a worthy Rookie of the Year

Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s selection as the National League’s Rookie of the Year wasn’t going to be controversial. Even with a couple of almost-as-strong candidates, such as the Nationals’ Juan Soto, Acuna had the award pretty well locked down by the time the Baby Braves hit the stretch drive.

Shohei Ohtani should have been so lucky. The American League Rookie of the Year has infuriated Yankee fans who think Miguel Andujar should have been the no-questions-asked, are-you-freaking-blind ROY. And Andujar had a powerful enough case.

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Except that a) Andujar didn’t make history while proving productive; and, b) Andujar’s defense probably cost him the award, with FanGraphs measuring him as -25 defensive runs saved at third base.

Let’s get the second out of the way first. For those who think statistics are the blood poisoning and not the life blood of baseball, -25 defensive runs saved means Andujar in the field cost his teams almost a third of the number of runs he drove in. And as Yahoo! Sports’s Jeff Passan points out, a decade ago that wouldn’t have mattered because of his .297 batting average, 27 bombs, and 92 steaks.

“Traditional stats are great,” Passan writes, “so long as they’re supplemented by all-around excellence. In Andujar’s case, they were not.” Some Yankee fans fumed that Oakland’s Matt Chapman, who won a Platinum Glove as the American League’s single best defender, made more errors than Andujar. But Chapman also made plays on 75 percent of the balls he reached compared to shy of 64 percent for Andujar, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Those pesky numbers behind the numbers.

Perhaps the outrage over Ohtani beating out Andujar is summarized best by the fan who tweeted that the Baseball Writers Association of America should be “embarrassed” over having been seduced by the “shiny new toy” Ohtani’s “novelty.” Fans like that should be embarrassed for not seeing beyond what they only think is the surface.

Because Ohtani proved a legitimate two-way player who could pitch and hit well. Well enough that the only major leaguer in history before him to hit 20 or more home runs and pitch 50 or more innings in the same season was Babe Ruth.

Don’t hold Ohtani’s .285 batting average against him; Ruth in 1919 hit in a time when hitting .300 wasn’t exactly impossible but he hit .322 playing 26 more games at the plate and didn’t lead the league. Of course, even as the dead ball era was transitioning to the live ball world nobody threw Ruth the kind of extrerrestrial fastballs Ohtani had to face. Walter Johnson, maybe.

That takes care of the history part, sort of.

Ohtani appeared in 104 games as the Angels’ designated hitter in 2018 and produced 120 runs. He started ten games—an elbow requiring Tommy John surgery put paid to his 2018 pitching, though he’ll return as the full-time DH in 2019—and struck out eleven batters per nine innings while pitching 51.2 innings and striking out 63. And enemy hitters hit a measly .202 against him with a .289 on-base percentage and a .332 slugging percentage against him.

Some of the fuming Yankee fans decided Ohtani hadn’t faced Andujar’s kind of pressure. So did a lot of non-Yankee fans who think Andujar got jobbed out of the Rookie of the Year honour. After all, doesn’t Andujar play in New York for a team whose management and fan base alike considers the lack of a World Series ring any year as downright failure, if not that the Yankees are “entitled” to win World Series year-in and year-out and if they don’t they wuz robbed?

Well, now. I don’t remember Andujar as a 23-year-old kid surrendering mucho millions more if he’d waited two more years to step into the Show picture.

I don’t remember the Dominican Republic hanging onto Andujar’s every word, move, swing, pitch, base running lead, gesture, trip to the Gatorade cooler, or chosen dinner restaurants.

I don’t remember Andujar coming to the American majors looking to do even once what Babe Ruth did a couple of times, excel on the mound and at the plate in the same season.

I don’t remember Andujar coming in with nobody to talk to immediately due to a language barrier. Or coming in not knowing anyone on his team until its biggest star publicly embraced and supported him, the way Mike Trout did with Ohtani.

And I don’t remember Andujar coming in to face the tandem pressure of the 50-50 chance that opposing pitchers would make him into a clown at the plate while opposing hitters concurrently made him into a clown on the mound.

Dinging Ohtani for the Angels’ finish out of the American League West running is no more fair than it is to ding Trout for it. It’s their fault the rest of the team can’t keep up with their two best players? No more than it was Andujar’s fault the Yankees had to settle for playing into the postseason via the wild card game.

By the way, if you’re going to go there about who’s the best player on the team, Andujar wasn’t close on the Yankees this year. He was a great player this year. No argument. But his fellow Yankee rookie Gleyber Torres hit better in high-leverage. Giancarlo Stanton had better counting statistics, and Aaron Judge mopped the floor with his teammates when it came to the rate statistics. And both Torres and Aaron Hicks hit better with men in scoring position.

Which reminds me: Shohei Ohtani with men in scoring position this year: a slash line of .350/.436/.700. Miguel Andujar with men in scoring position this year: .294/.345/.571. Andujar had 37 more games in which he hit in that situation. Wouldn’t you think he might have delivered a little better production given that many more chances?

Oh, and by the way: Think twice before you carp on who did performed against the contenders this season. It wasn’t Andujar.

On the mound against the contenders, Ohtani had his moments of brilliance — especially getting close enough to perfect against the upstart A’s — and his moments where the other guys figured him out just enough when they had to. At the plate was a different story: he played 43 times against postseason teams and hit .271 with an .855 OPS. Andujar? He played 39 times against postseason teams and hit .243 with a .647 OPS.

Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, who’ll miss 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm, wasn’t impressed with Ohtani winning the Rookie of the Year, either. “Really L” he tweeted. You’d think a guy about to miss a season because of an injury would cut a little slack for a guy who missed time this year because of injuries.

The numbers Ohtani did produce only make you wonder what he’d have gotten uninjured, on the mound and at the plate. He had 176 fewer plate appearances than Ruth did in 1919. He hit one out every 16.1 trips to the plate. Give him Ruth’s 543 plate appearances and, at that rate, he might have finished the year with 32 home runs. He got a base hit every four trips to the plate; give him those 543 plate appearances and he might have nailed 135 hits—just four shy of Ruth in 1919.

But to borrow phrasing from Bill James, Ohtani didn’t win the Rookie of the Year because of what he could have done, or what he might have done, or what he should have done, but what he did done. And what he did done, combining his mound performance and his plate performance, did get done what it should have done — make him the American League’s Rookie of the Year in a walk.