Going Back to the NL Rookie of the Year Race in 1995

Could he really have been better than Chipper?

1995 was a landmark year in my baseball development. I just began playing coach-pitch. I just began playing third base. I just began really paying attention. I just began to be a fan of the Atlanta Braves. Let’s put this together, and it’s not difficult to imagine that Chipper was my favorite player. Oddly enough, he played his first full season in the majors that season. Looking back, David Justice was close to being my favorite player, but there was something about Chipper. It didn’t hurt that Justice left to go play for the Indians the following season, but Chipper has been my favorite player since 1995. Regardless, when it came down to who should win the Rookie of the Year Award, I had a clear bias.

I was furious about it. That’s the first time I remember really getting upset about something in sports, and I considered it a serious injustice that Hideo Nomo should beat Chipper Jones. At that point, I shouldn’t have been too upset considering the Braves just won the World Series, but I was focused on the travesty that had just occurred. From then on, Hideo Nomo and I had a bitter quarrel. There are few guys I actively cheered against, but he was numero uno for a long time. When he failed, I cheered. When he succeeded, I wailed. To me, his victory was completely farcical. Chipper, the guy who helped his team win the World Series, should have won. Or should he have?

I don’t know why I started thinking about this earlier. There’s literally no reason possible for it. Usually, my mind wonders, but usually, I can understand how I made the connections to arrive at my current thought. Not this time, though. I started thinking about the things Chipper doesn’t have in his career, and the first thing that came to mind was his Rookie of the Year Award. You only get one chance at that. MVP’s and Gold Gloves can be won any season, but Rookie of the Year Awards are once-in-a-lifetime. “God, he should have won,” I thought.

Now, in recent years, my thinking has made a transformation. Context has become important. Looking at things objectively has become important. Being rational, not emotional, has taken first place. Therefore, I decided to bite the bullet and look at the stats and figure out just who deserved it. So, begrudingly, let’s take a look.

Hideo Nomo was drafted by the Kintetsu Buffaloes after a stellar 1988 Olympic campaign. Nomo quickly paid dividends by winning 18 games and striking out 287 hitters in 235 IP in 1990. Over the next three seasons, he won 17 or 18 games each time, but his fifth season saw an injury limit his wins to eight. In the 1994 off-season, he and the Buffaloes had a contract dispute. Nomo wanted a long-term contract and to use an agent, but the Buffaloes were having no part of it. Ticked, Nomo used a loophole in which a retired player could go anywhere, and he retired. In February 1995, he signed with the Dodgers. After a month in the minors, Nomo made his debut on May 2nd.

Chipper Jones was the number one draft pick in the 1990 Rule 4 Draft. Three years later, Chipper was ready. He debuted as the youngest player in the majors when he came up late in 1993. Coming into the 1994 season, he was slated to be the starting left fielder as Ron Gant injured his knee in a motorcycle accident in the off-season. Before he could take that spot, he tore his ACL, missing the entire 1994 season. Going into 1995, he was now the expected third baseman as Terry Pendleton left for free-agency. From Day 1, Chipper was the third baseman.

Over the next six months, this is how each performed:

Chipper Jones
.265/.353/.450, 22 2B, 23 HR, 86 RBI, 87 R, 108 OPS+, 2.30 WPA

Hideo Nomo
13-6, 2.54 ERA, 191.1 IP, 236 K, 1.056 WHIP, 150 ERA+, 3.58 WPA

I never compared the stats before. I guess I never wanted to. It’s hard to think that your favorite player didn’t deserve what he barely missed out on. I think OPS+ and WPA show just how much more valuable Nomo was than Chipper. Chipper had the likes of Fred McGriff, David Justice, and Ryan Klesko to take the pressure off of him. Nomo had Ramon Martinez and Ishmael Valdez, but he was unquestionably the best of the group. Then, you have to consider the circumstances. Chipper relaxed while his team brought a 14.5 game lead into September. Nomo went 3-1 in the midst of a pennant race in which the lead was never more than one game.

With Japanese players (such as Ichiro), the biggest question becomes is do they really deserve the award. They played professional baseball in Japan and are usually older than the others trying for the award who spent their seasons in the minors. Should they get it? Yes. Going from the NPB to the MLB is a huge transition. The balls are different. The playing styles are different. The language and culture are different (if you don’t think it makes a difference, I would beg to differ). Nomo went through a big change to come here and pitch, even if he was 26. If you’d be willing to give a 30-year old American the award, I don’t see the problem in giving the award to a Japanese player who just came over. Coming over and succeeding is quite an accomplishment.

So as much as I hate to say it, I owe Nomo an apology. He deserved the 1995 Rookie of the Year Award. But Chipper’s still the better overall player!!!

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One Response to “Going Back to the NL Rookie of the Year Race in 1995”

  1. lar Says:

    It was definitely a solid debut for Chipper, and I can see how the hometown bias of a young impressionable kid could cause outrage when he lost the ROY. But, as you point out with the stats, Nomo really was *that* good in ’95. Those were some great numbers he put up in a tight year. He was plenty deserving of the award.

    What I find most interesting about Nomo is just how similar Nomo-mania was to Fernando-mania in ’81. Now, I’m too young to have experienced Fernando-mania at its height, but the residuals of it were all over my childhood. Nomo-mania was almost the same thing, from the foreign-born pitcher coming to a town filled with fellow-nationals to a remarkable and unorthodox delivery that just baffled hitters to a promising career that just couldn’t get past the hump and which dragged on for years after his prime to, finally, a late career no-hitter that seemed to come out of the blue, they were essentially the same guy. And both were absolutely deserving of their ROY awards.

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