If someone would have sat you down eight or nine months ago and said to you that the Orioles would have a top 3 finisher in the Rookie of the Year voting, that would have been an exciting thing to know. If they told you that player was John Means, that would have been harder to believe. The former 11th round pick was never really a top O’s prospect, wasn’t one of the guys you were probably counting on to be key to eventually turn this rebuilding project into a good baseball team.
Here we are in the middle of November and Means is in the top 3 for ROY, with a chance to be the first Orioles player to win that award since Gregg Olson in 1989. If he finishes in second place, he’ll be the first Oriole to finish that high since Rodrigo Lopez in 2002.
This is cool even though Means probably won’t win. Fellow finalist Yordan Alvarez is tough competition. Tampa’s Brandon Lowe also had a nice season. Yet for all the preseason hype paid to Toronto’s duo of sons of Hall of Famers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio, the way the season played out, it’s Means in the top three and not either of those guys. Win or not tonight when the results are revealed starting at 6pm on MLB Network, he should be proud.
BBWAA Rookie of the Year balloting, like all of the BBWAA awards, has two ballots from each city in that league for a total of 30. Voters choose three players, with five points for a first place vote, three points for a second place vote, and one point for a third place vote.
The case for Yordan Alvarez
Dingers, dingers, dingers. The 22-year-old Cuban-born Alvarez can hang his hat on having hit 27 home runs in 87 games. Even when you consider that the juiced baseballs resulted in a lot more home runs being hit everywhere in MLB, it’s an impressive accomplishment to have so many in so few games, especially for a rookie. Consider that the Orioles had six players play in 120 or more games and only two hit more than 27 homers.
Alvarez’s hitting prowess did not stop with home runs. His overall batting line was .313/.412/.655. What that tells us is that he was hitting for average and demonstrating strong on-base skills even as he was crushing so many baseballs. If a player hit that well over a full season, we’d be talking about him in the top 3 for Most Valuable Player.
On top of this, Alvarez accomplished these things for a team that won 107 games, the Astros. Fair or not, players who played on great teams tend to get a little bump in postseason awards. Every writer in every baseball city knows what was going on with the Astros. Writers in Seattle or Los Angeles or Cleveland were probably paying less attention to Means toiling away with the O’s.
Ballots were handed in before the beginning of the postseason. That’s a plus in Alvarez’s case since he had just a .668 OPS in 18 postseason games, and added only one home run to his season total. Hitting 28 home runs in 115 games would still have been impressive, but not as punch-you-in-the-face impressive. He gets the boost of having been in the headlines on a postseason-bound team without the drag of how he played there.
By Baseball Reference WAR, Alvarez clocked in at 3.7. Fangraphs put him similar at 3.8. In 87 games for a guy who played only 66 innings of defense, again, it’s impressive and it’s probably why he’s going to win. It’s not Alvarez’s fault that the team didn’t call him up sooner.
With 369 total plate appearances, Alvarez would go down in history as having the fourth-fewest PA by any Rookie of the Year award winner who was solely a hitter. Last year’s winner, Shohei Ohtani, had 367 PA but also threw 51.2 innings.
The case for Brandon Lowe
In an ordinary season, one where another AL rookie wasn’t crushing dingers left and right, Lowe’s season would be the kind that would win a Rookie of the Year award. This is a similar story to how Trey Mancini’s solid 2017 lost out to Aaron Judge hitting 52 bombs.
The 25-year-old Lowe, a University of Maryland product, was unfortunate to have his rookie season interrupted by injury. Lowe fouled a ball off of his leg in a July 2 game against the Orioles and suffered setbacks during rehab, so he didn’t return until the final week of the regular season. So unlike Alvarez, who spent two months in the minors, Lowe only played 82 games due to that injury. His first-half performance earned him an All-Star nod, though the injury meant he didn’t get to play.
Over the whole season, Lowe batted .270/.336/.514, with 17 home runs. His second base defense was a nice asset based on publicly available metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, and with appearances also in left field, right field, and at first base, he showed some versatility for anyone who might be impressed by that.
Lowe’s Rays picked up a wild card berth with 96 wins, so he could get a little postseason bump as well, though he was out of people’s minds for the second half of the season as a result of his injury. By bWAR, he clocks in at a 2.7, and in fWAR, 2.6. That’s a respectable rookie year. With what Alvarez did, it’s also one that has no chance of winning.
The case for John Means
This is an Orioles blog and I would like for Means to be announced as the winner. I don’t think it’s entirely because of my wearing orange-colored glasses that I believe Means has a respectable case to make for why he deserves to win.
The biggest thing in Means’s favor is that his bWAR was the highest of this trio, at 4.5. For any voter out there who wants to look at the context of who performed the best over the full season at the MLB level, there’s only one answer, and that answer is John Means. Whether a meaningful number of voters choose to look at it that way is no sure thing.
Unfortunately for Means, his fWAR of 3.0 comes in below Alvarez. Means is penalized somewhat by fWAR because it’s oriented more around rate-based performance assessments, rather than bWAR, which is more grounded in the results-based ERA.
So Means, whose 3.60 ERA looks impressive, only has a 4.41 FIP and a 5.48 xFIP. His 7.03 K/9 is low for a pitcher to have consistent outstanding performance in today’s game. Means may have gotten lucky with a .256 BABIP, since batters only put the ball on the ground against him 30.9% of the time. The xFIP number assumes a normalized home run rate; Means, who allowed homers on only 9.9% of fly balls, could have been lucky in this regard as well.
Even when Orioles players aren’t involved, I don’t think that it’s fair for pitchers to be penalized for stuff like this in voting. What happened is what happened. The question of what might have happened or what “should” have happened is more for a GM to figure out.
Mike Elias might not be ready to etch Means’s name into stone for the next good Orioles rotation until he sees more MLB success. Whether that was an unsustainably low BABIP or HR/FB rate are questions still to be answered by Means in 2020. But as far as an award for 2019 performance, he pitched a full season in the AL East, posted a 3.60 ERA, and even ended up with a winning 12-11 record despite playing for a 54-108 team.
Because Alvarez was so impressive over a half-season for a great team, I think he’ll end up winning. It won’t be the greatest BBWAA voting snub of all time if that happens. If Means comes in second or third, that doesn’t take away from how fun it was to watch him do what he did for the Orioles this year. Still, hopefully the voters recognize that he was the only AL rookie with this level of full-season success in 2019.