Yasiel Puig vs. Jose Fernandez: Who Deserves the 2013 NL ROY Award?

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor ISeptember 18, 2013

Welcome to Round 5 of our lead writer debate series! Following a spirited debate over baseball's best team in 2013, two members of our Bleacher Report MLB team are ready for another battle.

This week, Joe Giglio and Mike Rosenbaum will debate who is more deserving of the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year award: the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig or the Marlins' Jose Fernandez?

Both Puig and Fernandez have not just been the best rookies in the National League this season—they've been among the league's best players. But when both have been so impressive, taking a deeper dive is necessary to form an educated opinion in a real or imaginary vote.

Let's get rolling!

To clarify: Joe Giglio is arguing on behalf of star outfielder Yasiel Puig. Mike Rosenbaum is backing ace hurler Jose Fernandez. 
Be sure to weigh in with your vote and thoughts in the comment section below!

The Case for Yasiel Puig

Since arriving in the major leagues on June 3, Yasiel Puig and the Los Angeles Dodgers have been baseball’s best show, winning games at an outstanding clip and dazzling the sport with spectacular highlight-reel plays. 

Despite Chris Davis’ emergence, Miguel Cabrera’s continued dominance and Mike Trout cementing his status as one of the best young players in baseball history, no one took the sport by storm quite like Yasiel Puig in June. 

Although Puig's hype died down a bit as the summer progressed, the Cuban phenom continued to produce. In fact, despite the attention shifting from everything he can do on the field to everything he shouldn't be doing on and off the diamond, Puig has put together one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of the sport.

Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, it’s clear just how dominant Puig has been compared to other rookie position players over the years.

Setting the benchmark of at least 90 games played (Puig, for clarity, has played 93 through Monday evening), the 22-year-old Dodgers outfielder is tied for the fourth highest OPS-plus in rookie history (subscription required).

The only names above him: Shoeless Joe Jackson, Mike Trout and Benny Kauff.

When taking ballpark and league context into account, Puig outperformed the Rookie of the Year campaigns of Carlton Fisk, Dick Allen, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell.

Puig’s .331/.401/.539 slash line puts his campaign atop not only the current National League ROY, but two big names in ROY history: Ichiro Suzuki and Fred Lynn. If those names conjure memories of outstanding rookie campaigns, well, they should. Both Suzuki (2001) and Lynn (1975) took home American League MVP honors to go along with their ROY award.

Due to the great years by Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen and Yadier Molina, there isn’t a legitimate push for Puig to win the ROY and NL MVP, but, considering what Los Angeles accomplished after he arrived on the scene, the electric right fielder deserves votes on every ballot.

Considering Puig’s all-time great rookie year and that he is deserving of MVP votes, how can he not be the best rookie in the National League class?

I know, I know. Value, at least in the sense of winning an award, and profiling as the best rookie in a given season are two distinct things, but much like Lynn and Suzuki did in their respective debut campaigns, he at least belongs atop the NL ROY slate.

Puig should be celebrated, not punished, for his ability to make such an impact on his team, league and individual numbers after missing the first two months of the season. After his blistering spring training, the Dodgers sent their star to Double-A Chattanooga to begin the 2013 season.

When the season ends, assuming Puig suits up for at least seven of Los Angeles’ remaining games, he’ll barely crack the 100 games played mark in 2013. Yet, in that short time, he’s posted the highest FanGraphs' WAR (3.8) of any rookie position player in the sport.

In the 55 games before Puig received his call-up, Los Angeles went 23-32. Since his dazzling arrival, the soon-to-be NL West champions are 64-32. 

An all-time great rookie season worthy of MVP consideration and more value in a short period than most rookies could muster over six months is quite a case for a Rookie of the Year vote.

If not for another outrageously gifted candidate over in Miami, Puig’s campaign would be the easiest for NL voters in a long, long time.

The Case Against Yasiel Puig

Puig took baseball by storm following his promotion to the major leagues on June 3: batting .436/.467/.713 with 19 runs scored, seven home runs and 16 RBI in his first month with the Dodgers. While his impressive performance earned the 22-year-old NL Rookie and Player of the Month honors for June, Puig’s .500 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) suggested that his production would normalize over the remainder of the season.

Sure enough, Puig has come down to earth over the second half. Since the All-Star break in mid-July, he’s batting .286/.385/.480 with eight home runs and 19 RBI in 51 games. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that his decreased production is a direct result of a .348 BABIP. While he’s been one of the top hitters in the game this season, Puig hasn’t made Fernandez-like improvements along the way.  

As a player who does everything at full speed on the baseball field, Puig has already been dinged up several times this season since arriving on the scene. So far, he’s missed time due to a sore right shoulder, bruised left hip, left thumb contusion, dehydration and mild right knee strain. While he’s avoided a trip to the disabled list, it seems as though the 22-year-old has dealt with a minor ailment for a majority of the season.

The fact that he’s a polarizing player likely won’t help his case in the ROY voting either. Since arriving on the scene, Puig has made as many enemies as allies both on and off the field. In early July, he caught flak from all angles after he attempted to barrel over Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero on a play at the plate. Jonathan Papelbon even went out of his way to state his belief that Puig should not be considered for the NL All-Star team given his late arrival in the major leagues.

In terms of his conduct, Puig was a played a major role in the June 12 brawl between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks and one of several players ejected from the game. He was fined by the Dodgers after arriving late to Marlins Park on August 20 in the wake of reports that he was out partying with LeBron James. Puig was also pulled from a game against the Cubs on August 27 because manager Don Mattingly believed he “wasn’t ready on defense” and engaged in every pitch.

Then there’s his volatile relationship with the media. According to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, Puig has been almost impossible to interview and rarely makes himself available before and after games. However, he still found time to engage in a heated argument with his teammates in front of reporters. And let’s not forget the feathers he ruffled after reportedly snubbing former All-Star and World Series champion Luis Gonzalez earlier this year.

For as good as Puig has been this season on the field, Jose Fernandez has him beat in regards to character and likability. And when it comes to the voters in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, that tends to be just as important. 

The Case for Jose Fernandez

Jose Fernandez turned in one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history this year and arguably the greatest ever by an age-20 hurler. Not bad for a kid who was supposed to spend most of the season at the Double-A level.

Last week, the 21-year-old completed his historic campaign in dramatic fashion by tossing seven innings of one-run ball against the Atlanta Braves, and also added the first home run of his major league career, nearly sparking a bench-clearing brawl in the process.

Overall, Fernandez finished his rookie campaign with a 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, .182 opponent batting average and stellar 187/58 K/BB ratio in 172.2 innings covering 28 starts.

Fernandez was a quality-start machine this year, posting 20 of them. More significantly, 12 of the right-hander’s quality starts were against teams still vying for a playoff berth, including the Dodgers (2), Cardinals (2), Braves (2), Nationals (2), Reds, Pirates, Indians and Royals. And according to Baseball-Reference.com, he made only five starts that didn’t earn a game score of at least 50.

Despite the rigors of his first full season in the major leagues without the benefit of a game above the High-A level, Fernandez was a model of consistency taking the ball every fifth day. The right-hander’s health was a major reason that he ultimately posted such gaudy numbers; it allowed him to build off each successful outing and make ongoing improvements over the course of the season. Fernandez was named as a National League All-Star as a result of his dependability, and opened eyes (as usual) with a two-strikeout performance in his inning of work.

At the time of this writing, Fernandez ranks among the major-league leaders in numerous statistical categories including first in opponent batting average and hits allowed per nine innings (5.8 H/9), second in ERA and adjusted ERA (179 ERA+), fourth in WHIP and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (9.75 K/9). And according to Baseball-Reference.com, Fernandez’s 6.5 WAR is the third highest total of all qualified pitchers.

In terms of his performance among other rookie pitchers, Fernandez, as you can imagine, ranks as the best in the game. In fact, his 2.19 ERA was the lowest by a rookie starter in either league since 1970—yes, even better than Fernando Valenzuela’s 2.48 ERA in 1981.

As I noted last week, Fernandez’s overwhelming success can be derived from his ability to make significant adjustments and consistently execute his game plan. More specifically, the right-hander thrived as the season unfolded, improving his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), wOBA (opponent weighted on-base average), K/9 rate (strikeouts per nine innings) and strand rate (left on-base percentage). He also did an excellent job of using his secondary arsenal to neutralize left-handed hitters.

Fernandez was also, without question, the best pitcher in the game after the All-Star break, posting a 7-1 record, 1.32 ERA and 84/18 K/BB ratio in 68 innings (10 starts).

In terms of Fernandez’s contribution to his team, the Marlins owned a 54-90 record after his final start of the year on September 11 against the Braves. In 151 games overall this season, the team scored an average of 3.21 runs per game, which, when considering the right-hander’s aforementioned WAR total, means that he accounted for 12.04 percent of the Marlins wins this season prior to reaching his innings cap.

However, the Marlins offense as a whole was more productive when Fernandez took the mound this season, scoring three or more runs in 19 of his 28 starts. In those starts, the 21-year-old posted an outstanding 11-2 record with a 2.15 ERA and 135/37 K/BB ratio in 117.1 innings. Fernandez was arguably just as impressive when he received minimal run support (two runs or less), registering a 2.28 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 55.1 innings. Basically, he was everything one dreams of in an ace.

Fernandez’s rookie season puts him in elite company with some of baseball’s all-time greats. If that’s not worthy of at least Rookie of the Year honors, then I don’t know what is.

The Case Against Jose Fernandez

Disclaimer: Jose Fernandez is really, really good. In any other year, making an argument against his claim to the NL ROY would be foolish. Yasiel Puig’s greatness plus a few details of Fernandez’s season does provide an outlet to try, though.

Unlike the rightful NL ROY in Los Angeles, Jose Fernandez didn’t burst on the scene in 2013. Sure, his inclusion on Miami’s 25-man roster in April was a surprise due to his age (20) and lack of experience above the lower levels of the minor league system. While his talent was evident from his first big league start, superior results took months to arrive.

Over Fernandez’s first 10 starts this season, he posted a good, not great, ERA of 3.78. During the early season Rookie of the Year watch, his name was rarely brought up. While it would be hypocritical to knock Fernandez’s campaign due to his recent innings limit shutdown, it’s not unfair to note that the Marlins rookie was afforded the opportunity to learn and grow through in April and May.

Due to circumstances out of his control, Yasiel Puig was not given that same chance.

While the total numbers look better for the rookie in Miami, he was able to take the mound 28 times, grow, dominate and stockpile gaudy numbers over almost a full season.

The fact that he didn’t take off from the moment he arrived, unlike Puig, didn’t come back to bite him when discussing the fullness of their respective seasons.

As Joel Sherman of the New York Post pointed out during Fernandez’s final start of the 2013 season, his rookie campaign, much like Puig’s in reference to great young hitters, was one of the best ever compared to other 20-year-old arms.

Of course, his outstanding numbers should come with context.

Due to an imbalanced schedule, Miami’s residence in the National League East with downtrodden offenses in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, Fernandez was able to turn an excellent season into a historic debut.

Heading into play on Wednesday, the Mets, Phillies and Nationals ranked 22, 24 and 15, respectively in runs scored. When it comes to Washington, that ranking can be misleading due to a tremendous hot streak since early August. For the majority of the season, New York, Philadelphia and Washington were ranked among the bottom third of offenses in baseball.

While Fernandez was very, very good (19 GS 120.2 IP, 36 ER, 2.69 ERA) in 19 starts against the rest of baseball, his final numbers (28 GS, 172.2 IP, 42 ER, 2.19 ERA) was buoyed by nine dominant starts against meek National League East opponents.

In nine outings against New York, Philadelphia and Washington, Fernandez posted a microscopic 1.02 ERA, allowing only six earned runs in 53 innings pitched.

Miami’s current and future ace is a star, worthy of praise, and, in any other year, the rightful winner of the National League Rookie of the Year crown.

In 2013, however, it’s hard to place him above a player like Puig who is deserving of an NL MVP vote, especially when a major chunk of Fernandez’s historical dominance came against bad offensive clubs.


Hope you enjoyed our fifth MLB Lead Writer debate between Joe and Mike. Was any particular argument more convincing than the others? Did any of the points sway your opinion at all? Be sure to give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

Keep an eye out for Round 6 of our series next week!

Follow Mike on Twitter: @GoldenSombrero

Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeGiglioSports

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