Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Monday, November 16, 2009
Coghlan vs. McCutchen misses point


In today's news, Chris Coghlan and Andrew Bailey were named Rookies of the Year in tight contests. And in the case of Coghlan, I did some work and came up with a different answer than I had yesterday.

Leaving aside the pitchers for a moment -- and of course J.A. Happ and Tommy Hanson both were fine, fine Rookie of the Year candidates -- there were two obviously outstanding candidates among the hitters: Coghlan and Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen.

Both players scored and drove in roughly the same number of runs. Coghlan hit for a better average, but McCutchen drew more walks. Both finished with adjusted OPS's roughly 20 percent better than league average.

McCutchen stole more bases, but Coghlan played more games. If you showed me those numbers and those numbers alone, I would quickly place Coghlan ahead of McCutchen.

If you told me that Coghlan played left field and McCutchen played center field, though? I might pause.

And here's the thing, though ... The best available evidence suggests that Coghlan was a lousy left fielder. Playing left field is bad enough -- because a lot of guys can play left field -- but playing left field poorly really take a fellow down a few pegs. It's not surprising that Coghlan wasn't much good in the outfield, because before this year he'd spent his entire career as an infielder: third base in college, second base in the minors.

Knowing that, this would have been an awful choice if McCutchen had played well in center field ... but it's not clear that he did. Last winter, Baseball America wrote about McCutchen, "He has outstanding speed that makes him a basestealing threat and a potential Gold Glover. He has outstanding instincts and an average arm in center field."

You give me a Gold Glover with McCutchen's hitting stats and I'll give you a Rookie of Year, even if he plays on 108 games. But McCutchen doesn't seem to have played Gold Glove defense in 2009. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, he was average at best. According to the Fielding Bible data, he was one of the worst center fielders in the majors.

Unfortunately, that's essentially the difference between Coghlan and McCutchen. If you think McCutchen was decent with the glove, he's better than Coghlan. If you think McCutchen was terrible, you can make an argument for either of them. Given the uncertainty that comes with evaluating the defense of rookies -- a season's worth of defensive statistics are like two months' worth of hitting statistics -- I'm happy to defer to the wisdom of the voters in this case. I don't believe I would have ranked McCutchen fourth -- behind not only Coghlan, but also J.A. Happ and Tommy Hanson -- but it's not easy to separate those four and you can defend ordering them just about any way.

The funny thing, though? There were 96 openings on the Rookie of the Year ballots: 32 ballots, three spaces per ballot. The best, most valuable rookie in the National League this year was probably Cubs righthander Randy Wells. He took exactly one of those 96 spots, placing second on one ballot.

Go figure.