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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mike Trout may be MVP, but shouldn't be Rookie of the Year

Trout scoring at Fenway -- get used to it.

After last night's debacle in Oakland, I thought I'd stay away from the Red Sox for a change and focus on someone actually having an upbeat year -- although I don't agree with how it is being viewed.

Watching him help the Angels sweep the Sox at Fenway earlier this week, and based on his entire body of work this season, it's clear that Mike Trout is one of the most exciting young players in the majors. He may even be the American League MVP when all is said and done, but there is one thing I don't think the 21-year-old phenom should be:

Rookie of the Year.

Technically, Trout is a rookie. As the MLB rules state, A player shall be considered a rookie unless, during a previous season or seasons, he has (a) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues; or (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit (excluding time in the military service and time on the disabled list).

Trout makes the cut – barely. He played in 40 games (32 starts) during 2011, in which he had 123 at-bats. This may qualify someone for rookie status the next year, but it seems like an awful big sample set for me.

Trout is a phenom -- but should he be a rookie?

Forty games is nearly a quarter of the MLB schedule, and in Trout's case these were not just meaningless down-the-stretch contests. His first appearance came on July 8 against Seattle, and he wound up playing 14 games in July, eight in August, and 19 in September as the Angels battled for both an AL West title and a Wild Card spot. They got neither, but Trout – who hit .220 with five home runs and 16 RBI – got plenty of experience.

This year, of course, has been a different story. Trout has been with the Angels since late April and has torn up the league with an AL-best .336 average, 41 stolen bases, and 103 runs scored (along with 25 home runs) entering last night. Much hoopla was made when he became the first rookie to have both 25 homers and 40 steals during the Red Sox series, but he just doesn't feel like a first-year guy to me.

He was an everyday player for Los Angeles during a good stretch of LAST season, and while he may seem like an entirely different performer this year, Trout is in fact the same guy who had already seen plenty of big-league pitching entering 2012. To me, a true Rookie of the Year (ROY) winner is a guy who debuts the year he captures the award, or at most plays in 10 or 15 September games the previous season.

Baseball is the only one of the four major professional sports that has this type of shady rookie status. Football players, of course, go straight from college onto NFL rosters and have zero pro experience entering their first year. Ditto for hockey players, who enter the NHL from college or the minor league ranks. And while basketball players may have overseas professional experience, the first NBA games for every Rookie of the Year are played during his initial season in the league.

Blake Griffin -- a "true" rookie.

My 11-year-old son Jason had a very perceptive comment when I mentioned this discrepancy to him. “If Mike Trout is able to do this, what will keep managers from making sure young players don't break the 130 at-bat limit so they can get better and older?” I found no proof of this with Trout, who Angels manager Mike Scioscia played all game, every game down the stretch of 2011. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened had Trout gotten six more at-bats, of course.

Jason also had another funny premise: if a guy came up from the minors for 10 games a year for three years, would he still be considered a rookie going into his fourth season? According to the MLB rules above, he would. This seemed too funny to be plausible, but it happened – the 2008 NL ROY, Cubs catcher Geovany Soto, had played with Chicago for one game in 2005, 11 games in 2006, and 18 games in 2007. A fourth-year rookie!

Geovany Soto -- Jason was right.

I first started thinking about Trout's freshman/sophomore status when Will Middlebrooks was shining for the Red Sox earlier this summer. A broken wrist derailed Middlebrooks in mid-August, and even if he had played out the string the chances are slim he would have put together stats like Trout. But since Middlebrooks was a TRUE rookie whose 75 major games, 15 homers, and 54 RBI all came this season, one could argue (outside Los Angeles) that he is a more worthy Rookie of the Year winner than the guy who will get the award.

For some more perspective, I looked back at AL and NL ROY winners from the past 10 seasons to see how they compare with Trout in pre-ROY experience. Soto was the only one I found with three MLB seasons under his belt, but one other player (Angel Berroa in 2003) had played shortstop for the Royals for a combined 35 games and 128 at-bats in 2001-2002. Talk about cutting it close to the 130 at-bat limit!

Most of the others fell into the more reasonable range of 15-20 games and 50-75 at-bats for position players and 5-15 games for pitchers. Six of the 20 awardees were “true” Rookies of the Year who saw their first MLB experience in their winning year – Chris Coughlin, Andrew Bailey, Evan Longoria, Ryan Braun, Dontrelle Willis, and Eric Hinske. Honorable mentions go to 2006 winners Hanley Ramirez and Justin Verlander, who both played in just two games the previous season.

Andrew Bailey -- as true as rookies can get.

I think the system needs some revamping. Lower the pre-ROY maximum numbers to 20 games and/or 50 at-bats for position players, and 10 games and/or 30 innings for pitchers. This will ensure that September call-ups can still be considered rookies, but guys who played three months like Trout last year will be out of luck.

And what if Trout pulls off the double-win and captures both the Rookie of the Year and the MVP awards? He would be just the third man to achieve this feat, after Fred Lynn (in 1975) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001) – two men who offer another contrast in rookies. Lynn played in a reasonable 15 games in September of '74, and while Suzuki was a “true” rookie in '01 with regards to his MLB status, he did have nine seasons and more than 1,000 games in the Japanese professional leagues under his belt.

Now that's another discussion altogether.  

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