- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Adam LaRoche, the understated first baseman, has won his much-deserved Gold Glove. And now we turn our attention to other prizes, beginning with the Rookie of the Year awards. The Washington Nationals have a horse in that race, too, you may have heard. Or maybe he’s an ivory-billed woodpecker. 

I’ll get to that in a moment, though. First, let’s talk about Bryce Harper’s competition and how he measures up. There’s an unusually deep pool of candidates in the National League this year, no fewer than six rookies who, in another season, might have walked off with the honor. You have Arizona lefty Wade Miley, who won 16 games. You have Cincinnati third baseman Todd Frazier, who had nearly half of his hits go for extra bases. You have Milwaukee right fielder Norichika Aoki, who had 30 steals. You have Colorado catcher Wilin Rosario, who blasted 28 homers. And way down Yonder in San Diego, you have that Alonso guy, the first baseman who tied for eighth in the league with 39 doubles.

(I’m oversimplifying each of them, of course, but only in the interests of space. After all, this is a sports column, not a testimonial dinner.)

Anyway, this is the field Harper faces. And what exactly does Bryce bring to the table? Well, he just had the one of the best seasons by a teenage position player in major-league history, perhaps even the greatest season by a teenage position player in MLB history. His 22 home runs? Second all-time by a teenager. His nine triples? Third. His 57 extra-base hits? First. His 98 runs scored? Second. His 18 stolen bases? First.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Harper’s numbers were better than Ken Griffey Jr.’s at that age, better than Mickey Mantle’s, better in many respects than Mel Ott’s. Throw in his outfield range and eight gunned-down base runners, and he was nothing short of phenomenal.

Some will say — heck, most will probably say — that age doesn’t enter into it. And I respect that. On paper, all rookies are created equal. It doesn’t matter that Miley is 25 and Frazier is 26 and Aoki is 30. It doesn’t matter that Miley (40 innings) and Frazier (112 plate appearances) spent time in the big leagues last year but not enough to make them ineligible for the award this year. It doesn’t matter that Aoki played eight seasons of Japanese ball before bringing his talents to America. A rookie is a rookie is a rookie.

Even if we just limit ourselves to the statistics, though, Harper’s case is awfully strong. His WAR — Wins Above Replacement — was 5.0 (according to baseball-reference.com’s calculations). Next highest among his competitors was Aoki at 3.3. Bryce also produced 135 runs. Aoki, at 121, was the only other candidate within 20 of that total. And the Nats’ rookie accomplished this in the brightest of media glares, in the heat of a division race, while playing on the team with the best record in baseball. Surely, that counts for something.

Comparing an outfielder like Harper to a pitcher like Miley will always be, to a certain degree, an apples-and-oranges deal. And the Diamondbacks’ southpaw, with his record of 16-11 and ERA+ of 125, definitely gets the Sunkist seal of approval. But stats like his aren’t unheard of, aren’t historic. Why, just last season, the New York Yankees’ Ivan Nova went 16-4 as a rookie. Indeed, five other pitchers in the 2000s have won 16 or more games as rookies (and it would be six if Mark Buehrle hadn’t thrown 1 2/3 innings too many in his 2000 call-up).

Miley had a really nice year, no question. But didn’t Harper, taken in context, have a little more than a really nice year? And when the opportunity arises, don’t you want to give the Rookie of the Year Award to somebody who had a little more than a really nice year?

Which brings us back to the ivory-billed woodpecker. It used to inhabit the southeastern United States, but there’s some question whether it still exists. Harper’s rookie season was kind of like that. Nineteen-year-olds who could do what he did were thought to be extinct — or at the very least endangered — and then Bryce came flying across the major-league landscape. Quick, snap his picture. You might not see another.

So there you have it, my argument for Bryce Harper getting the Rookie of the Year Award. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go practice my bird calls.