Rangers closer Neftali Feliz topped Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting, receiving 20 of 28 first-place votes cast by Baseball Writers Association of America members.
There will no doubt be considerably more debate about Buster Posey topping Jason Heyward in the NL, but the AL version is also worth arguing over because “Feliz or Jackson?” really boils down to a debate about the value of closers.
With a 2.73 ERA, more strikeouts than innings pitched, and a .176 opponents’ batting average Feliz was the most dominant rookie, but does that make him the best or most valuable rookie?
Feliz threw only 69 innings and faced a total of 269 batters. Jackson batted 675 times and also caught the equivalent of 130 innings worth of outs with his glove in center field. And while Feliz converting 40-of-43 save opportunities is impressive, the average big-league closer typically converts about 85 percent of ninth-inning save chances. And as we saw in the playoffs, Feliz was rarely used in high-leverage spots when there wasn’t a save to be had.
I tend to think closers are generally overrated, as too many people see a big save total and seemingly lose sight of what the job actually entails, which is getting three outs with a lead of 1-3 runs. Most decent relievers can do that 80 percent of the time, most good relievers can do that 85 percent of the time, and most great relievers (like Feliz) can do it 90 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, the Tigers got 675 plate appearances of above-average hitting and 1,256 innings of outstanding center field defense from Jackson, who easily beat Feliz in value-based stats like Wins Above Replacement. None of which is to suggest that Feliz was anything less than great, but rather that it’s tough for a pitcher to have more value facing 269 batters than a position player has batting 675 times and logging 1,256 innings at a key spot defensively.
After all, if Feliz dominating for 269 batters is enough to make him the Rookie of the Year, shouldn’t Indians stud catcher Carlos Santana get similar consideration for posting an AL rookie-high .868 OPS in 192 plate appearances while also catching 340 innings? Santana didn’t appear on a single ballot, but was nearly as effective as Feliz on a per-play basis and probably had a major hand in more plate appearances than the Rangers’ closer.
Feliz was dominant for 69 innings and racked up 40 saves to catch the voters’ collective eye, but in terms of actual runs prevented and produced for a team in all phases of the game Jackson would have been my pick. He hit .293 with a .345 on-base percentage in 675 plate appearances atop the Tigers’ lineup, stealing 27 bases and scoring 103 runs, and also played Gold Glove-caliber defense for 1,256 innings in center field.
Feliz was about as good as someone can be for 69 innings and is far from a poor Rookie of the Year choice, but Jackson was more valuable.