To be clear from the outset, this is not an argument for why Spencer Strider should win Rookie of the Year over Michael Harris II. We’re not there yet. No, this is an argument for why the idea that Michael Harris II should win Rookie of the Year over Spencer Strider because he’s an everyday player, and they’re more valuable than starting pitchers, is nonsense.
With both guys playing so well, and especially well down the stretch of a pennant race, a group of fans and broadcasters have turned to the age-old idea that Michael Harris should win ROY over Spencer Strider simply because he’s an everyday player. The thesis of the argument, I think, is they’re more valuable because they can impact every game, while starting pitchers can only impact one out of every five games. This is one of those aged baseball concepts that you, or at least I, would hope by 2022, would no longer be entertained, mainly because it doesn't make any sense. But here we are, in the middle of maybe the best Rookie of the Year race I've ever seen, having to answer this question again.
So let’s just state it bluntly: starting pitchers bring every bit as much value to a baseball team and a baseball season as everyday players do.
Jeff Sullivan tackled this misconception years ago for FanGraphs and was just as confused then as I am now as to why this is still a question, but alas, here we are. There are a few different ways to understand this concept but by far the easiest is just to go straight to how teams publicly state how much they value players: money. If, during the last 20 years of hardcore analytics taking over baseball, someone had discovered starting pitchers were in anyway less valuable over a season than position players, then we would see a steady decline in starting pitcher’s pay relative to their everyday peers. We haven’t. In fact, in some ways it’s gone the other way. Yes, pitchers don’t get the same long-term contracts position players do, but don’t confuse in-season value with long-term risk. Teams don’t give pitchers as many years because they represent a higher injury risk. But they absolutely give them as much money by average annual value over shorter deals as they do position players, and often times more. The only reason they would continue to do that, is they believe, with all the evidence in front of them, that their starting pitchers are every bit as valuable to their team as the position players. Because they are.
Early this year, MLBTradeRumors put together the largest contracts in baseball history by AAV, all of them signed in the last 8 years. Again, if teams thought starting pitchers were that much less valuable than position players, then there wouldn’t be pitchers on this list. Or if there were pitchers on the list, they would be among the deals singed farthest back, with the trendline moving toward just position players.
Here’s the list:
Three of the top five highest AAV’s in baseball history were signed by starting pitchers, including number one all-time, Max Scherzer’s record breaking $43M AAV, signed last year. And all three of those signed in the last 3 years. So much for that trendline. You’ll also notice six of the top eleven were starting pitchers, and eleven of the top twenty were starting pitchers. And you’ll be able to add another one this winter when Jacob deGrom signs his deal. Going off how teams spend their money and how the trend is going in modern baseball, if you we’re going to argue one of the two groups is viewed as more valuable than the other, you’d actually have an easier time arguing in favor of starting pitchers instead of against them. Especially when you add in the postseason.
And the reason is very simple and why this is a nonsensical notion to begin with, yes position players impact more games but they only impact a fraction of each game they play. Four plate appearances and a handful of defensive plays and that’s it. And yes, starting pitchers impact fewer games by only pitching once every five days, but they impact the games they do play in substantially more than any position player possibly could. They impact every single plate appearance for the other team for 60 or 70 or sometimes 80% of the game. Michael Harris has taken 382 plate appearances this year. Spencer Strider has had 528 plate appearances taken against him this year. Yes, everyday players get defense and baserunning to help make up the difference but starting pitcher also play defense, and they also help control the running game of the other team. Not to mention what their contributions can do to help an entire bullpen. Add it all up, and starting pitchers are every bit as valuable. Which is why the teams still pay them just as much money on a yearly bases as they do position players, if not more.
And by the way, this misconception that’s been around for decades and decades is also one of the reason WAR was created. So we can take players who play different positions and measure them equally. It’s also why the ‘should starting pitchers be eligible for MVP” question as arisen the last 10 years or so. With them contributing every bit as much value as their everyday brethren, why shouldn’t they be eligible for that award?
If you want to make a case for Michael Harris II, say he came up and single-handedly fix the Braves biggest problem in the first two months of the season, outfield defense, by being an elite defensive centerfielder. Say, since the day he was called up, he ranks third in all of the National League in fWAR (4.6) just barely behind Nolan Arenado (5.1) and Freddie Freeman (4.8). Say since he was called up, not only did he improve the defensive talent of the team, on offense only Austin Riley’s 153 wRC+ ranks higher than his 149 wRC+. Those are great arguments and probably ones I’m going to use here pretty soon.
But don’t tell me he’s the Rookie of the Year because he’s a position player, and they’re more valuable than starting pitchers. Because it’s not true and it’s never been true and it’s also not fair to either guy. We can do better than that.