Neftali Feliz beats Austin Jackson for AL Rookie of the Year

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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.

MLB to crack down on sign stealing

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We’ve had a couple of notable incidents of sign stealing in Major League Baseball over the past couple of years. Most famously, the Red Sox were found to be using Apple Watches of all things to relay signs spied via video feed. Sports Illustrated reported yesterday that there have been other less-publicized and unpublicized incidents as well, mostly with in-house TV cameras — as opposed to network TV cameras — stationed in the outfield and trained on catchers, for the specific purpose of stealing signs.

As such, SI reports, Major League Baseball is cracking down beginning this year. Within the next couple weeks an already-drafted and circulated rule will take effect which will (a) ban in-house outfield cameras from foul pole to foul pole; (b) will limit live broadcasts available to teams to the team’s replay official only, and the replay official will be watched by a league official to keep them from relaying signs to the team; and (c) other TV monitors that are available to the clubs will be on an eight-second delay to prevent real-time sign stealing. There will likewise be limits on TV monitors showing the game feed in certain places like tunnels and clubhouses.

Penalties for violation of the rules will include the forfeiting of draft picks and/or international spending money. General managers will have to sign a document in which they swear they know of know sign-stealing schemes.

As was the case when the Apple Watch incident came up, there will not be any new rules regarding old fashioned sign stealing by runners on second base or what have you, as that is viewed as part of the game. Only the technology-aided sign stealing that has become more prominent in recent years — but which has, of course, existed in other forms for a very, very long time — is subject to the crackdown.

While gamesmanship of one form or another has always been part of baseball, the current wave of sign-stealing is seen as a pace-of-play issue just as much as a fairness issue. Because of the actual sign-stealing — and because of paranoia that any opponent could be stealing signs — clubs have gone to far more elaborate and constantly changing sign protocols. This requires mound meetings and pitchers coming off the rubber in order to re-start the increasingly complex series of signs from dugout to catcher and from catcher to pitcher.

Now, presumably, with these new rules coming online, teams will figure out a new way to cheat. It’s baseball, after all. It’s in their DNA.