The 2007 baseball season marked the arrival of several exciting new players in the National League. It has been easy to heap praise upon these guys, but I would like to caution fans of these players that these players' apparent success has masked some significant shortcomings, at least early on.
Here are the 2007 National League Rookie of the Year candidates as I see them.
Milwaukee, Houston, San Diego, Colorado, San Francisco, and Arizona marked the arrival this season of Ryan Braun, Hunter Pence, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Troy Tulowitzki, Tim Lincecum, and Chris Young, respectively. These players gave their teams much to be excited about, but they also give their teams reason to worry.
Despite playing only 113 games, Braun finished fifth in the NL with 34 homeruns, scored 91 runs, and almost got to 100 RBI (97). He also managed an enormously impressive .324 average and an OPS over 1.000, which was good for an OPS+ over 150. However, Braun struck out 112 times in 113 games, which puts him on pace to finish with about 160 over a full year, and for one of 2007's best power hitters, his 29 walks were pretty atrocious. Additionally, Braun appears to have been the worst defensive third baseman in baseball last season.
Hunter Pence only got into 108 games this season because of a late call-up and then a mid-season injury, but he finished with 30 doubles, 9 triples, 17 homeruns, 11 stolen bases, and a .322/.360/.539. He also played a good centerfield defense when healthy. But Pence walked only 26 times compared to 95 strikeouts in 456 at-bats, his .360 OBP was deceptively meager compared to his .322 average, and he got caught stealing about a third of the time he attempted a swipe.
Kevin Kouzmanoff got off to a horrible, "does this guy belong here" start for the Padres. He was hitting .216 on July 2 before ultimately ending up with a .275 average after lighting it up in the second half. The rookie third baseman hit 30 doubles, 18 homeruns, and 74 RBI despite being double cursed by his terrible start and extreme pitchers' park home park. Kouzmanoff was excellent at the plate in the second half of the season, and served as one of the few Padres who could hit the ball well as San Diego made a run at the playoffs. But the rookie, who lit up the minor leagues in 2006, ended up with more errors (22) than homeruns (18), and didn't appear to be able to field his position or hit the ball hard. What's more, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was barely under 3:1 (94/32), and his OPS was under .800. It will be interesting to see what he can do if he doesn't slump for half a season (in the second half he hit .317/.366/524), but he has to prove he can put together an entire season.
Troy Tulowitzki may have been the best defensive shortstop in baseball this year, and the difference was obvious for Colorado, which had reliable pitching for the first time seemingly ever, and made the playoffs for only the second time in their history. Tulow also had 24 homeruns, 33 doubles, 5 triples, and 99 RBI while scoring 104 runs. It is no insult to Troy Tulowitzki to say that his main contribution came on defense, because very few teams have shortstops they wouldn't put on the bench if they had this rookie, but Tulowitzki's offense may have been the most deceptivly bad of all the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year candidates. He struck out 130 times, compared to just 57 walks, while 15 of his 24 homeruns, and 22 of his 33 doubles, came at home. Additionally, his OPS was over 240 points better at home than on the road. In fact, Tulow was a worse hitter on the road than Kouzmanoff was in 2007, which just goes to show you how different Coors Field and Petco Park are, not to mention the fact that on offense, these two players are actually quite similar.
Chris Young was the starting centerfielder and leadoff man for the NL West winning Arizona Diamondbacks. In 148 games, he hit 32 homeruns, stole 27 bases, and played a capable centerfield defense. But for a guy who hit 32 homeruns, Young produced very few runs. He finished with only 85 runs and 68 RBI, while striking out 141 times in 148 games and finishing with an on-base percentage of only .295. Young may be fast, but he has been seriously miscast as a leadoff hitter – his .237 average and paltry on-base percentage do not create opportunities for the hitters behind him, especially when you consider how much of his production was derived from his homeruns.
Tim Lincecum made his major league debut with the San Francisco Giants on May 6th of his season. In his first game, he walked 5, struck out 5, and gave up five runs on five hits in less than five innings. He survived his rough first start, and on his third start, he went seven innings, gave up one unearned run, walked one, and struck out 10. He would go on to strike out 12 batters in seven innings in his 11th start. He ended the season with more than a strikeout per inning, and he gave up only 12 homeruns in 24 games on his way to a 7-5 record and a 4.00 ERA for a bad San Francisco team. However, Lincecum had a very inconsistent season, looking dominant in some starts but lost in others. And in addition to his 150 strikeouts in 146.1 innings, he also walked 65 batters, which indicates that he could push 90 walks if he pitched 200 innings.
All of these exciting young rookies played important roles on their respective teams in 2007, and look to be seriously building blocks for their teams in years to come. Indeed, there don't appear to be any Jerome Waltons or Todd Hollandsworths in this group. But the excitement about the future of these players should be hedged a bit – there doesn't appear to be any Ichiro Suzukis, Frank Thomases, or Albert Pujolses in this group either.
In the end, I think I favor Troy Tulowitzki in this bunch, for now. Tim Lincecum has dynamic starting pitcher written all over him, if he can avoid injury. A healthy Hunter Pence should anchor the Houston Astros for a decade. Ryan Braun put up the amazing offensive stats this year, but his team really could have used some defense from him. Chris Young was obviously a sparkplug on the division winning Arizona team, but his success was more anecdotal than substantial. But Tulowitzki was difference maker for the Rockies this year – a solid bat and a transcendant glove, Tulow gave the Rockies pitchers confident support and proved to be a solid contributor as a hitter. Troy Tulowitzki was a major contributing force to the 2007 National League wild card winner, and his overall game makes him my 2007 National League Rookie of the Year.
Asher happily takes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
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