This morning, Rob Biertempfel tweeted that a scout told him that Gregory Polanco is good enough to win the Rookie of the Year award this season. That might be true, but as you all know, Polanco won't win the Rookie of the Year award, or at least will be at a pretty significant disadvantage, since the Pirates likely won't call him up until June. By waiting until after the start of the season to promote a player for the first time, a team can control that player's rights for seven years instead of six. And by waiting until June to promote a player, a team can limit him to three trips through the arbitration process, rather than four, thus saving themselves a bunch of money.
That made me wonder how often Rookie of the Year candidates fail to win the award because of service time considerations. The answer is, actually, surprisingly few, at least in the past five years. I looked for rookies since 2009 who spent the early parts of their first seasons in the minors and then played well enough after being promoted that they would have been viable ROY candidates if they'd been around the whole year.
That left only a handful of players. We can only guess about whether service-time issues played a significant role in the timing of their promotions. Teams don't, of course, typically announce that they're holding a player back for service time reasons, and you can often make good baseball cases for lots of players to get the extra couple months of minor-league experience before coming up in June. That's true for Polanco this season, for example, or George Springer with the Astros. Gordon Beckham in 2009 and Yasiel Puig in 2013 are other clear examples of talented players who started their rookie years in the minors for good reasons -- they both began those seasons with almost no minor-league experience. So I'm not implying that there's anything untoward going on here in the timing of these promotions (or suggesting that teams should just ignore the CBA and promote top players whenever they want). Instead, I'm wondering whether June promotions are preventing the ROY award from going to the best players.
The most obvious cases I could find of that happening were with Andrew McCutchen and Tommy Hanson in 2009 and Stephen Strasburg in 2010. There were also a few players like Matt Harvey and Manny Machado in 2013 who had fantastic first full seasons but had already played about a third of the season in the majors the year before, and thus were ineligible for Rookie of the Year awards.
I'm using fWAR here, which is an after-the-fact way of looking at these things -- I don't think fWAR was available in 2009, for example. Still, most of the really bad ROY picks voters made had to do with factors they should have seen at the time. It's hard for a reliever to produce a ton of value over a full season, for example. And in the 2009 NL race, in particular, voters should have weighted defense and positional scarcity more heavily.
Anyway, if Polanco misses out on the Rookie of the Year award because of service time, it isn't any grand injustice. He's played sparingly at Triple-A to this point, and it's hard to fault the Pirates for being cautious with him. And, of course, it's smart for the Pirates to play the game with the rules that currently exist -- if waiting until June to promote him can save them, say, $10 million in the long run, then that's clearly what they should do.
2009 NL: Chris Coghlan (2.5 WAR)
fWAR leader: Andrew McCutchen (3.3 WAR)
The Coghlan pick was bad at the time, and it looks even sillier now. Voters probably stayed away from McCutchen in part because they didn't appreciate Coghlan's lack of defensive value, but also because McCutchen didn't come up until June. I picked Tommy Hanson (2.5 WAR). D'oh on my part, but like McCutchen, Hanson probably didn't get enough traction because the Braves didn't promote him until the summer.
2009 AL: Andrew Bailey (2.5 WAR)
fWAR leader: Brett Anderson (3.6 WAR)
One theme we'll encounter here is that it's rarely a good idea to vote for a reliever for Rookie of the Year. Elvis Andrus (3.1 WAR) also would have been a reasonable choice. Beckham (2.5 WAR) might have made an impact if he had been promoted earlier, but he had virtually no minor-league experience at the start of the season, having been drafted in 2008.
2010 NL: Buster Posey (3.9 WAR)
fWAR leader: Jason Heyward (4.6 WAR)
Posey and Heyward obviously were excellent choices, both at the time and in retrospect, but Stephen Strasburg was the story of 2010. The Nationals, however, didn't call him up until June, perhaps in part out of caution since he'd just been drafted, but probably also surely due to service-time concerns. Strasburg was probably ready for the majors even during his last year at San Diego State -- he's the extremely rare example of a player who didn't have much to learn in the minor leagues. In addition to the late promotion, Strasburg's season also ended early due to elbow trouble, and between the late callup and the injury, he "only" posted 2.5 WAR, despite being pretty much the most exciting thing in baseball that year.
It's also possible Giancarlo Stanton (2.3 WAR) could have made an impact on the 2010 NL race if the Marlins hadn't waited until June to promote him. If you stretch, you might be able to make the same case for Madison Bumgarner (1.7 WAR). This was a really strong rookie class.
2010 AL: Neftali Feliz (2.0 WAR)
fWAR leader: Austin Jackson (3.9 WAR)
Again, don't vote for a reliever. Jackson played the whole season, too, so service time wasn't a factor here.
2011 NL: Craig Kimbrel (3.1 WAR)
fWAR leader: Danny Espinosa (3.2 WAR)
Okay, voting for this reliever was alright. Espinosa and Wilson Ramos had more WAR than Kimbrel, but only barely, and Kimbrel's ludicrous dominance (14.8 K/9!) elevates him above the Feliz/Bailey category. Allen Craig (2.4 WAR in just 219 plate appearances) probably would have made an impact on the race if he'd played more, but that wasn't a service-time issue, it was a knee injury.
2011 AL: Jeremy Hellickson (1.6 WAR)
fWAR leader: Alexi Ogando (3.7 WAR)
In 2011, Hellickson was a middling starting pitcher with a sexy ERA that was almost two runs below his xFIP. Ogando would have been a better choice. Desmond Jennings came up in July and posted a 2.3 WAR in just 63 games; he might have won the award if he had played the whole season, although service-time issues clearly played no role in the timing of his promotion.
2012 NL: Bryce Harper (4.5 WAR)
fWAR leader: Harper
An incredibly exciting player and former top overall draft choice. This was an easy one.
2012 AL: Mike Trout (10.0 WAR)
fWAR leader: Trout
Your 4.9 WAR is not good enough, Yu Darvish! Trout was another easy pick.
2013 NL: Jose Fernandez (4.2 WAR)
fWAR leader: Fernandez
Fernandez is, clearly, a worthwhile ROY winner, although Puig (4.0 WAR) would almost certainly have won the award if he'd been up before June. He had very little minor-league experience before 2013, however. Gerrit Cole finished fourth in WAR among rookie pitchers despite not coming up until June, but it would have taken a miracle for him to beat Fernandez. And anyway, the timing of Cole's promotion was justifiable in pure baseball terms -- his first several starts showed he wasn't a finished product. Believe it or not, Andrelton Simmons had a better WAR (4.6) than Fernandez, but he had 182 plate appearances in 2012. Matt Harvey was better than any of them, at 6.1 WAR, but he pitched 59.1 innings in 2012.
2013 AL: Wil Myers (2.4 WAR)
fWAR leader: Myers
Wait, 2.4 WAR was good enough to top AL rookies? Apparently so -- seven NL rookies had higher WARs than that. Manny Machado (6.2 WAR) was far better than anyone in the AL competition, but he had gotten 202 plate appearances in 2012.
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It appears, then, that service-time considerations have had an effect on the Rookie of the Year award over the past five years, but not a big one. That could easily change in the coming years, of course -- the current rules highly incentivize waiting until June to promote top players, and five years of promotions isn't a huge sample.