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For Want of a Time Machine: How Many 2015 National League Rookies Could Have Won the 1999 RoY Award?

The National League is loaded with Rookie of the Year candidates. To truly appreciate how deep this crop is, let’s compare it to the historically weak 1999 class.

When Maikel Franco took a pitch off his hand on Tuesday night, the Philadelphia Daily News’s Ryan Lawrence evaluated what an extended absence might mean for Franco’s National League Rookie of the Year campaign, and a look at the numbers might leave one wondering why Franco isn’t being talked about as the first Phillie in a decade to potentially win the award.

It’s not because Franco isn’t good enough — it’s because the NL field is loaded this year. So loaded, in fact, that it’s fun to consider how deep this field actually goes. At this point, I think the award is Kris Bryant’s to lose, though there are probably three or four candidates who could overtake him over the season’s final 50 games. But even that total does a disservice to the unusually strong crop of secondary candidates, including Franco, who’d get more than token down-ballot support in a less crowded year.

To truly appreciate how robust this season’s NL rookie crop is, let’s compare it to the field from 1999, which was one of the weaker rookie classes in recent memory. The 1999 Rookie of the Year was Reds pitcher Scott Williamson, and if you knew that without looking it up, you should probably reevaluate how much time you spend on baseball over the course of an average week. Williamson was actually pretty good for a relief pitcher: He was more than a one-inning reliever, throwing 93.1 innings in only 62 appearances, and as a result racked up 12 wins to go with his 19 saves, though the voters seemed to care more about his gaudy win total than his truly terrible 19-of-26 save conversion rate. Beyond the superficial stats, he posted a 2.41 ERA and 10.3 K/9 against 4.15 BB/9.

This is where adjusting for era is so important: That K/9 ratio isn’t anything special for a reliever anymore, nor is a 2.41 ERA, while walking four batters per nine innings would be near-suicidal. But back then, that strikeout rate was ninth in baseball among relief pitchers, that walk rate was 30th (out of 72), and that 2.41 ERA was good for a 194 ERA+. That’s a decent season, but in a normal year, there’d be at least one rookie starter or position player who could beat it.

Williamson’s main competition that year was Preston Wilson, who hit 26 home runs and posted a 119 OPS+, but was a near-replacement-level player for two reasons: (1) The insane 1999 hitting environment, and (2) Baseball Reference debiting him almost two wins for bad center-field defense. Third place went to Warren Morris, still glowing from the walk-off home run that won the 1996 College World Series for LSU. Morris hit .288/.360/.427, which would get a second baseman MVP votes today, but was a more or less league-average line in 1999.

So the question is: How many 2015 NL rookies would have at least a credible case for beating Williamson, Wilson, and/or Morris? They’d need at least one of two things: statistical performance or fame, and, ideally, a Rookie of the Year has both. Williamson finished with 2.7 WAR in 1999, with Morris at 1.6 and Kris Benson — a distant fourth in the voting — at 2.5. Since WAR, being something of a black box, isn’t the kind of thing that’s accurate to the tenths place, let’s say that the threshold for statistical relevance is somewhere in the neighborhood of two wins.

So in this extremely subjective and back-of-the-napkin exercise, I narrowed the field to players who fit one of three criteria:

  • Players who are in that two-win neighborhood already.
  • Players with a non-trivial chance of getting there in the 50 or so games that remain in the season.
  • Players with a compelling qualitative case for being better in 2015 than Williamson, Wilson, and Morris were in 1999.

That yielded 13 position players and eight pitchers worth talking about, as well as the momentary depression that came with realizing that at least one person out there is going to be really mad that I don’t think Ben Paulsen could’ve traveled back in time and been Rookie of the Year 16 years ago.

Of those 21 players, Bryant, Matt Duffy, Randal Grichuk, Joc Pederson, Jung Ho Kang, Noah Syndergaard, and Franco — in some order — probably already have the Class of ’99 beat, and if they don’t, they will soon. Beyond that, Odubel Herrera, Shane Peterson, and Anthony DeSclafani could wind up closing that gap, but only if they absolutely knock the final two months out of the proverbial park. Likewise, Michael Blazek, Hunter Strickland, and Andrew Chafin have both been better than Williamson on a per-inning basis, but in fewer innings, and none has done so as the team’s primary closer. I know it’s not fair to look at saves, but to a certain extent it’s the world we still live in.

That leaves eight players worth having any substantial discussion about.

chris-heston-no-hitter-giants-mets-triAl Bello/Getty Images

Cubs 2B Addison Russell

I don’t think the inclusion of Russell is particularly controversial: He’s been a top-10-type prospect pretty much forever, and with an 86 OPS+ in 358 plate appearances at an up-the-middle position, he’s been fine.

The only reason he’s not on the shoo-in list is that he suffers in comparison to Morris, who hit better in more games at the same position. In order to get Russell over the top, you have to hand-wave a little by saying that being four years younger as a rookie is more impressive. Then, you have to point to the defense: Morris was fine as a second baseman, but Russell’s a good shortstop playing a step down the defensive ladder. That’s not a great argument, but it’s something. Russell can, however, make up that gap and then some if he hits down the stretch, particularly if the next guy on this list forces a shakeup in Chicago’s lineup that moves Russell to shortstop and Starlin Castro to the bench.

Cubs C/OF Kyle Schwarber

You have to be an absolute monster to win a Rookie of the Year award based on 114 plate appearances. Schwarber leads all rookies (minimum 100 PA) in all three triple-slash categories, and thanks to the manner in which he burst onto the scene, he’s probably gotten more good press than any other rookie on this list, despite teammate Bryant coming into the season as the game’s top prospect, and the prodigious power numbers Grichuk and Pederson have produced.

It’s probably not literally true that you can’t win Rookie of the Year on the 250 plate appearances Schwarber will end up with, but it’s close. You have to do something like lap the field offensively while playing an up-the-middle defensive position, even if you play it badly. And remember: In this hypothetical, Schwarber isn’t competing against Bryant and Grichuk — he only has to clear the much lower bar that Williamson set, and an OPS above 1.000 in this offensive environment will eat up that gap very quickly.

Brewers SP Taylor Jungmann and Diamondbacks SP Robbie Ray

Neither guy has pitched as many innings as Williamson, and if we’re making the quantity/quality argument that usually puts starters over relievers in our minds, that’s a big hurdle to clear, particularly because when innings totals are similar, we sort of nudge the needle toward relievers because their innings are higher-leverage.

The good news for both is that they’ll clear Williamson with about a month to go in the season, then have time to run up the score. Neither had a ton of narrative momentum going into the season, and it takes a lot to win Rookie of the Year making fewer than 20 starts. Jungmann, for what it’s worth, has been almost as good as Williamson, even on a per-inning basis. In fact, in terms of preventing runs (which is the point), he’s been better than Syndergaard, but in fewer innings and without the impressive stuff. I think Jungmann’s on pace to better Williamson, while Ray’s in the “possible, but he needs to step it up” category.

Giants SP Chris Heston

I’ll be honest: I’m not a huge Heston fan. I think he’s been fine, but he’s also being buoyed to league average-ish by a great ballpark, a great framing catcher, and a very good defense.

But he’s been league average, and he’s thrown more innings than any other NL rookie. Would I choose 140 league-average starter innings over 90 innings of a good reliever or 580 PA of an average second baseman? No. Would I choose 180 innings from an average starter? Absolutely. Heston doesn’t have to pitch better to match the Class of 1999 — he just has to pitch more, which has been the source of his value so far.

Plus, his June no-hitter is a huge narrative boost, and in a nationwide vote, having that one high-profile moment to point to makes a difference.

Marlins C J.T. Realmuto

He’s probably not getting the press he deserves, not only because of the crowded rookie field, but because in order to notice him you have to watch the rest of the Marlins, too. My view is that competent defensive catchers are worth celebrating if they can hit even a little. The argument for besting the 1999 crop is that Realmuto was almost as good a hitter as Morris (91 OPS+ for Realmuto, 99 OPS+ for Morris) while playing a much more difficult defensive position. But I’ll admit to having to stretch a little for that point. I’m not sure I really believe that Realmuto’s season would’ve been the best of any 1999 rookie.

Diamondbacks SS Nick Ahmed and 3B/OF Yasmany Tomas

How much do you trust defensive metrics? Ahmed has been a dreadful hitter so far, even for a shortstop in 2015, slashing .222/.277/.328 — but Baseball Reference thinks his glove has been worth two wins on its own. And because of the imperfection of zone-based defensive ratings, that might be true, or it might not, and we don’t really have a better way of finding out. I’m usually willing to buy those numbers, but Ahmed’s defensive rating is so extreme, and the bat’s been so bad, that putting him over Williamson or Morris on the glove alone constitutes going out on a limb in a big way.

On the other hand, Tomas has hit really well: .303/.337/.438, even from a corner guy, and even in a hitter’s park, is pretty good. But defensively, he’s been about as bad as Wilson. Some of that must be the result of his 31 starts at third base, an experiment pretty much everyone thought was crazy at the time, and one that isn’t his fault but is still on his record. You can’t toss the defense out entirely, but if you could, Tomas would be in a position where another seven weeks’ worth of games, plus the name recognition of being the offseason’s big international acquisition, would get him within striking distance. But the bat hasn’t been quite that good. So, as with Ahmed, I think Tomas falls short of being on pace for Williamson value.

noah-syndergaard-mets-2-triMike Stobe/Getty Images

So let’s go back to the original question: How many 2015 NL rookies would’ve had a legitimate shot at winning the 1999 NL Rookie of the Year? Here’s your list, in no particular order: Bryant, Duffy, Kang, Franco, Russell, Grichuk, Syndergaard, Schwarber, Jungmann, Heston, and Pederson. That’s 11 guys, and there are at least that many more entering the stretch run with a chance to overtake the best NL rookies of 1999.

That won’t come as a huge comfort to whoever finishes 12th in Rookie of the Year voting this year, but it’s further evidence of the unbelievable depth of this rookie class.

Stats are current through Wednesday.