It's a simple question, but with an almost impossible answer to predict. Can Austin Jackson win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, which will be announced later today? I just don't know. I do know he was honored as the league's top rookie by the players, but that's not the award we record for posterity.
If you knew nothing but the statistics for the key players, you would say Jackson should be the front runner. He played in 151 games. His defense was not just exciting to watch, but it also ranked well in fielding measurements. He led off for the Tigers the entire season. His batting average was fourth in baseball for center fielders.* His runs scored was second. We're not talking rookie center fielders. We're talking all center fielders in major league baseball, AL and NL combined.
* Yes I know all about the dangers of batting average and runs scored. But we're talking about the voters here. Do you think they're looking at OBP?
By any measure, Jackson had a rookie of the year season. But can he win the award when his chief competitor was the closer for a playoff team?
The problem is Neftali Feliz. Well, it's not really Feliz so much as it is the question of whether the voters will value closing games for a playoff-bound Rangers team more than playing a key spot in the outfield and lineup all season for a team that was merely .500.
The argument for Feliz is good, too. You look at him and you see a player who saved 40 games -- ranking third in the AL -- and had an ERA of 2.73 in doing so. His ESPN stats -- the ones the Worldwide Leader chooses to emphasize on the player page -- also shows 71 strikeouts in 69 innings, and a WHIP of 0.88.
An award today would make Feliz the fifth reliever to win the AL ROY since 1989, but the fourth to do it since 2000. (Here's a look at the award winners.) The last one came last season, when Andrew Bailey was honored for his 27 saves, 1.84 ERA and 91 strikeouts. Say what you will about the voters, but they didn't let the fact Oakland finished in last place that year get in the way of voting for Bailey.
In the past, relievers have beat position players some times, but fallen to them in others. Joakim Soria, anyone?. Awards have been given to players on playoff teams and last-place clubs alike. Sometimes the WAR (wins above replacement) leader wins, sometimes not. (Jackson has a minuscule 2.5-2.4 WAR lead per Baseball-Reference's statistics, and a much higher 3.8-1.7 by Fangraphs' numbers.)
Personally, I think the impact of a player who plays the game at an above-average level offensively and defensively for 93 percent of the season deserves the edge here. Jackson stepped into the shoes for a very popular Tigers center fielder and played as if he hadn't even heard of Curtis Granderson before. He kept his mouth closed and let his game do the talking -- and it spoke very well.
It's hard to argue either player had a pressure-packed pennant race to worry about. The same time the Tigers were falling apart in late July, the victim of injury after injury, the Rangers took a commanding 8.5 game lead int the AL West. Their final two months were leisurely and Feliz made just 11 saves during that time. Meanwhile Jackson was batting .300 when his team was just 1/2 a game out of first place at the All-Star break.
Both players had good seasons. One went to the playoffs and pitched in the ninth inning. The other watched the playoffs and played in all nine innings. Which argument will make a difference to the voters?
I'd like to tell you I have the answer. But this time, I just don't know. We will find out today, at 2pm EST.