Jose Abreu, a fully-formed Lord of Dingers who first set foot on our shores in 2013, began cutting a terrifying path of carnage and ruination across the American countryside some few months afterward. He greeted the people of this nation in a shiny suit, but now tours major cities offering only the blinding flash of unearthly home run power. He has recently undertaken a campaign of rifling singles to all fields, but it is a lark. He shall return to the kill, soon.
As it happens, in addition to being a brutal death lord who ranks second in the AL in wRC+ and just winning AL Player of the Month of July, Abreu is in his first season in MLB, making him eligible for the AL Rookie of the Year award. He should probably win it, one might judge off-hand. Despite it's lazy and half-assed composition, this is a good judgment. He should win.
Yet a wave of unhappiness and discontent rises across the land (By that I mean that I'm rising to the taunts of comment sections here). It's a small one, but it questions whether Abreu, 27, and already the conqueror of a foreign professional league is really a rookie in spirit. It would be a worthy inquiry, if "rookie" is something anyone had ever put the slightest intellectual heft into determining what the spirit of a rookie is.
All professional sports have players entering the leagues at different ages and different stages of their career, but perhaps no more than baseball and their elaborate minor league system. As a result, rookies can run the gamut from raw, hyper-talented youngsters who have forced their way into the league, to polished, ready-to-contribute role players. And then the Rookie of the Year Award asks us to judge them all on equal footing. As a result, the history of the award has future stars Mike Trout, Evan Longoria and Buster Posey taking home hardware, and also five relievers winning the AL award since 2000.
Better yet, service time games allows for fun instances like Chris Coghlan beating out Andrew McCutchen in 2009, because McCutchen didn't debut until June, and Rookie of the Year is a full-season award. There have been a lot of elements of competition that have been skewed or bastardized in the name of prospect hoarding and managing resources, rookie in spirit as a concept sure as hell hasn't been spared.
It's one great "defense" was when enough writers circled the wagons in 2003--three years after giving it to 32-year-old Kasahiro Sasaki, a reliever who also came from Japan mid-career--to prevent 29-year-old Hideki Matsui from winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award. You could tell it was about preserving some notion of the spirit of the award, because nothing says "we're doing this for the principle" like giving a postseason award to Angel Berroa. Also because they said it. Writers told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times that Matsui wasn't a rookie "in the spirit of the award" or that it wasn't "a fair fight" to have a top-level player go up against someone "who is learning how to play at the major league level."
Beyond the initial insult of how dismissive such a claim is to the adjustments Matsui, Abreu and others have to make to their new setting, perhaps this is a compliment. Where previously only Japanese professional ball was acknowledged as a peer group, enough Cubans have now come over and gone HAM upon arrival that people are realizing these guys must already be battle-tested.
But in trying to preserve the sanctity of an award that's never been strongly preserved or defined, we'd be screwing this thing up two ways: by engaging in hypocrisy and being anti-fun. At least most of the time when baseball is needlessly obtuse and anal, it's for the sake of tradition. Instead, the 'international pros aren't rookies' crusade is taking an award named for the ultimate stud player who obviously wasn't just learning how to play--Jackie Robinson--and making it a test in prospect observance than a simple way of acknowledging the hot new sensation of the season. Kevin Kiermaier is second in the AL in bWAR among rookies. George Springer might lead the league in strikeouts, but at least might not look embarrassing in five years.
Or maybe just focus on not looking embarrassing right now, and concocting a reason to ignore and fail to memorialize a marvel of the sport. It's not like the Rookie of the Year award has any other consistent purpose.