So here’s the hypothetical situation for this post: An NL Rookie of the Year voter approaches me and one other person with a simple proposal, make the best argument for your guy to win the award and that player gets my vote. I’m assigned Mike Soroka. The other guy gets Pete Alonso.
(I understand other players are in this race, but for this exercise, I’m going to assume it’s down to Soroka and Alonso.)
I want to make it clear, that as of right now, I would vote for Pete Alonso for Rookie of the Year. That can certainly change, as there are still games to play, but right now, that’s where I lean. But like a good attorney, even if I’m not sure my client should win, it’s not going to stop me from making the best case.
So given the opportunity to lay out the best possible argument for Mike Soroka to win the Rookie of the Year, what would it be?
I’m actually going to start with a popular argument I wouldn’t make.
THE STAND-ALONE STAT
Most of the cases I’ve seen made for Soroka are built on one thing: He has the second-lowest ERA (2.53) in the NL behind only Hyun-Jin Ryu. And, well, that is true. The problem with using that as the foundation for your argument, however, is that it still doesn’t explain why Mike Soroka should win over anyone else. Yeah, it’s an impressive number that helps paint the picture of why Soroka is in the discussion to begin with, but it does nothing to separate him from Alonso, who also has great numbers that can be cited.
It’s like saying Christian Yelich should win the MVP because he has 43 HRs. Yes, it’s true, and it’s impressive, but the other candidates also have impressive numbers. Our case has to be made around points that separate the candidates. Not ones both can claim.
This is one of the more frustrating aspects I see with these debates. Using stat-based arguments that in no way distinguish one candidate from another just isn’t that useful. They both have good stats. We need something more convincing.
An interesting thing has happened during this analytical revolution baseball has seen the last 20 years. Because of the inherent danger in using context to assign individual value, we now flock to context-neutral stats (like WAR) for everything. And for good reason. Context-neutral stats isolate a player’s skill and help predict the future by removing the noise of the situation. When looking forward, which is usually how we talk about players, it’s absolutely what you should use.
But award voting isn’t about looking forward. It’s looking back to judge who had the best year. And when doing that, context can be an important tool for understanding what happened over the season.
In low leverage situations this year, Pete Alonso has a 144 wRC+. In medium leverage situations this year, Pete Alonso has a 166 wRC+. In high leverage situations, Pete Alonso has an 86 wRC+.
There is no skill in performing in clutch situations and there’s absolutely nothing predictive about it. WAR has no use for these numbers. But the Mets are worse this year, in part, because in the times of the game that mattered most, Alonso has hit poorly. This is part of the story of his season. And, because awards are about rewarding the best season, this is context that matters. We would never penalize him for having worse teammates, but we can penalize him for performing poorly when it matters most because it’s part of the reason he and the Mets are where they are.
Mike Soroka, on the other hand, is just the opposite. In low leverage situations, Soroka has a 3.84 FIP and given up a .264 OBA. In medium leverage situations, Soroka has a 3.10 FIP and given up a .270 OBA. In high leverage situations, Mike Soroka has a 2.84 FIP and a .233 OBA.
The Braves are better this year because Soroka has performed at his best when the game was most in doubt. When they were given opportunities to help or hurt their teams most during the season, Mike Soroka has excelled while Pete Alonso has been at his worst.
“Rookie” is not an age-specific classification but actually a service time designation made by MLB to identify players who are just starting their major league career. In theory, you could have a 30-year-old win the Rookie of the Year against a bunch of 21-year-olds. While I understand why they do it that way, that doesn’t really make much sense when determining the most impressive season. Any baseball ops personnel or any scout will tell, the younger a player is when he performs at a certain level, the more impressive it is. They’ve had less time on this earth to physically grow and mature. Fewer number of years playing baseball to improve their craft.
Soroka just turned 22. Pete Alonso is about to turn 25. When Alonso was Soroka’s age, he was in A-ball. They’re both “rookies” by rule but by age, they’re three classes apart. They shouldn’t be judged the same. What Soroka is doing at 21/22 is more impressive that Alonso doing at 24/25.
The baseball is juiced. Everyone knows the baseball is juiced because the numbers, both in MLB and AAA, prove the ball is behaving drastically different. When you hit it, the thing goes forever. Alonso has hit 46 HRs this year. That’s very good. Mike Soroka has given up 10 HRs this year. That’s incredible. In a juiced ball environment, preventing home runs is considerably harder than hitting them. Soroka staying close to Alonso in value while pitching in this hitting environment shows Soroka is having the better season. Alonso just picked a really good year to be a “rookie” slugger. Under more neutral conditions, I’m not sure this race is close.
If Mike Soroka is my client, I think this is his best case. Does it win? Probably not, but it scores him points in certain areas while simultaneously hurting Alonso’s case. Of course, with three weeks still left in the season, a lot can still happen. We’ll see where it goes.