On Monday afternoon, Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was named the winner of the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year. Hellickson was not a unanimous selection, like his NL counterpart Craig Kimbrel, but he was nevertheless an easy winner, picking up 17 of 28 first-place votes. The runner-up - Mark Trumbo - got five.
Hellickson has had Rookie of the Year potential for a long time, so in that regard, news of his win is hardly a shock. A fourth-round pick in 2005, Hellickson had success at every level of the minors and vaulted up prospect lists. Before the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked him the #18 prospect in the league. Before the 2011 season, BA bumped him up to #6. People have seen Hellickson coming for a while, and it was expected that he would have little trouble adjusting to life in the majors.
And the 2.95 ERA he just posted suggests that, indeed, he had little trouble adjusting to life in the majors. Hellickson posted a lower ERA than CC Sabathia. He posted a lower ERA than Dan Haren. He posted a lower ERA than Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester and David Price. Jeremy Hellickson posted an impressively low ERA as a rookie, in case you weren't getting that.
Of course, there's an issue. The thing that kept Hellickson from being the obvious front-runner among many analysts and some writers is that, while his ERA was shiny, it masked some more troubling numbers behind it. Hellickson's walk rate was one of the highest out of AL starting pitchers. His strikeout rate was one of the lowest. If you're a fan of FIP, Hellickson's FIP was worse than Bruce Chen, Joel Pineiro and Alfredo Simon. Hellickson took liberal advantage of a fantastic Tampa Bay defense that made his ERA look better than it should have been.
So that's a strike against Hellickson. But then, there are strikes against every candidate. Runner-up Mark Trumbo posted a .291 OBP. A .291 OBP! He posted an OBP one point higher than Alcides Escobar! Eric Hosmer missed the first month, and wasn't particularly outstanding at anything. Ivan Nova had similarly unimpressive peripherals over fewer innings than Hellickson, with a much higher ERA. Michael Pineda posted a much higher ERA in a more famously pitcher-friendly park. Dustin Ackley didn't arrive until June. And so on.
The more I look at the field, the less I think there's any one guy who absolutely should have won, and if you're going to give an award for the best rookie performance, and if you're going to consider playing time, then I'm not going to rip the writers for choosing the full-time starter with the 2.95 ERA. That kind of undersells it, too, since Hellickson additionally allowed just two unearned runs. Hellickson's 2011 numbers look a little mediocre when you're trying to use them to project future performance, but when you're strictly looking back, you could argue that Hellickson did a great job of preventing runs, and is therefore a deserving winner. There's a team defense element to take into account, but it's difficult to say to what extent the gloves helped.
I don't think I would have chosen Hellickson, myself. Given a vote, I think I would've gone with Brett Lawrie or Michael Pineda, depending on where I came down on the matter of playing time after giving it more thought. But just because I wouldn't have voted for Hellickson doesn't mean he's a bad winner, and many congratulations to him for a hard-earned award. Now he and his superiors can turn their attention to figuring out where his strikeouts went.