Like most sports fans, I take a lot of pride in my predictions that come true. I said the Red Sox would win the 2004 ALCS even when they went down 3-0. I predicted Kurt Warner would be a great NFL QB before he ever took a snap in the league (and I was only nine at the time). I've made a number of other far-fetched predictions that came true in different sports.
However, baseball is a game that is largely random. The year-to-year player variations are staggering, and nobody, no matter their expertise, gets them all right.
To me, that's a big part of what makes the game great. No matter how much you know, or what approach you take, several players a year will always surprise you. Who thought Michael Bourn would be an excellent player in 2009? Who thought Chien-Ming Wang would be terrible?
And hey, I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong. And Andrew Bailey has certainly proved me wrong.
Even I, a follower of the minors, had no real enthusiasm about Bailey coming into 2009. I knew who the guy was—don't get me wrong—but he was coming off a season where he put up a 4.42 FIP in Double-A. Wow , I thought.
In 2007, he had a mildly interesting year, putting up solid numbers in the Cal League and shutting down the opposing team in one end-of-year Triple-A start, but he was 23, so I projected him as a possible fifth starter or middle reliever. The poor year in Double-A the next year pretty much sealed his fate, I thought. He'd be lucky to ever throw a big league pitch.
Then, all of a sudden, it was mid-March, and Athletics Nation was penciling the guy into a major league bullpen spot.
I found this ridiculous. Why on earth would we give a bullpen spot to Andrew freakin' Bailey? Okay, it's nice that he had a nice run to close 2008 in the bullpen, and he's looked nice in the spring, but he's never even seen Triple-A (save the one start in '07) and he's only a few months removed from being one of the worst starting pitchers in the Texas League!
It made sense at the time—the don't-trust-a-guy-with-small-sample-spring-success argument is right more often than not—but what I didn't realize is that Bailey the reliever was a much different pitcher than Bailey the starter.
Upon converting to relief in mid-08, Bailey was taught a cutter by Gil Patterson, the A's minor league pitching coordinator. It's Patterson's favorite pitch, and he teaches it to many of the A's farmhands. The pitch gave Bailey a reliable offering to set up his plus curveball and keep lefties at bay, and his career took off.
It was the effectiveness of this pitch that made it an easy decision to put Bailey in the majors, rather than any small-sample stats stuff.
Now that I've explained Bailey's journey and my own journey of analyzing him, I can finally get to the (ostensible) point of this post, which is his, you know, Rookie of the Year season.
It was great.
Bailey struck out 9.83 batters per nine innings while walking only 2.59. That epitomizes getting the job done. His cutter-curveball combination was simply unhittable all year. Batters made contact on only 69.8% of their swings against the righty, far below the 80.5% league average.
When they did get lucky enough to hit the ball, they couldn't square it up—Bailey had a ridiculously low 12.9% line drive rate for the year. Statheads who yell about his .234 BABIP need to realize that the low liner rate explains it. Bailey allowed just 49 hits in 83 1/3 innings and had just a 0.88 WHIP for the year.
Statistically, it's tough to do much better in relief, and Bailey's two plus pitches prove he's got substance, not smoke and mirrors.
Did he deserve the award, though?
I think Rookie of the Year awards are a matter of taste in some respects. It all depends how you weigh the value of certain positions. For example, in MVP voting, hitters are traditionally valued higher than starters, who are valued higher than relievers.
I can say with confidence that Bailey should win Rookie Reliever of the Year, but after that, it all depends on what someone likes.
Personally, I would find it tough to give it to second-place guy Elvis Andrus, though. It's not that I don't think Andrus has a chance to be a good player; it's that I just don't see a .702 OPS year as a true impact year, even when combined with the good speed and defense. There are holes in Andrus' game he must improve, whereas Bailey is an All-Star caliber, elite reliever already.
Rick Porcello's 4.77 FIP didn't impress me. Well, I shouldn't say that. Actually, it's quite impressive, given that he was straight out of High-A. But there's no difficulty curve in these awards, and if there was, then Bailey's would be pretty high too.
Porcello's low strikeout rate is worrisome, and he allows far too many homers for a groundball guy in a pitcher's park. I have a sneaking suspicion the guy might just turn out to be Aaron Cook 2.0, not an ace. Again, plenty of room for improvement.
Jeff Niemann presents an interesting case. He was solid across the board rather than exceptional, but he pitched for a better team in a more important role. I'd still probably pick Bailey, but I like Niemann's '09 more than Andrus' or Porcello's.
It gets tricky with Gordon Beckham as well. He was a more complete player than Andrus, and again, it depends if you value position players over pitchers. He only played in 103 games, though, so I think Bailey beats him too.
That brings me to the final (and ultimately sixth-place) candidate, the other Athletic in the running, Brett Anderson. I'm a huge Anderson fan, and I'm an A's fan, so perhaps I'm biased, but I honestly think he and Bailey were the top two rookies in the AL this year.
Anderson's season was way better than Porcello's and a little better than Niemann's. Like Bailey, he had a K/BB ratio over three, and he also did a nice job keeping the ball on the ground. Honestly, I think he has more star potential than any of the other five candidates, and the Bailey-Anderson decision comes down a simple question.
What's better, a very good starter or shutdown reliever?
I'm going to say Bailey is the rightful winner by just a small amount, with Anderson second, Niemann third, Beckham fourth, and then Andrus, and Porcello. I think that Anderson is ultimately going to be the best player out of the bunch, though.
Congratulations, Andrew Bailey, on the award, and proving that spring training success does sometimes carry over to the regular season.