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What do Gary Sanchez and Willie McCovey have in common?

Gary Sanchez looks likely to join Willie McCovey as the “small sample size” Rookie of the Year winners.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Chicago Cubs have (finally) won the World Series, the baseball world’s attention is free to shift to award season. The American League has a great class of rookies, with Nomar Mazara, Michael Fulmer, and Gary Sanchez all having resumes that could earn them the Rookie of the Year award. However, this article is focused on Gary Sanchez and the small, but strong, sample of dominance he displayed in the second half of 2016.

There has been plenty of talk, and rightfully so, that Gary Sanchez just did not play enough to warrant Rookie of the Year consideration. A closer look at history shows that there is precedent when it comes to a rookie winning the award after playing only a small portion of the season.

In 1959, Willie McCovey made his Major League debut on July 30th and proceeded to go on absolute tear. The timeline and the statistics are eerily similar between McCovey and Gary Sanchez. Gary Sanchez made his debut at the end of the 2015 season and played one game on May 13th in the 2016 season before he started on August 3rd, 2016 against the New York Mets and began his run towards a potential ROY award.

Player Year PA AVG HR wRC+ fWAR
Willie McCovey 1959 219 0.354 13 185 3.1
Gary Sanchez 2016 229 0.299 20 171 3.1

The plate appearances are just about the same, with Sanchez having a few more than McCovey. The numbers the voters look for (AVG., HR, RBI, SLG.) breaks down like this:

McCovey - .354/13/38/.656

Sanchez - .299/20/42/.657

In terms of just the traditional voting categories that receive most of the focus, Gary Sanchez has actually had better numbers than McCovey did in 1959. Now to put these numbers in more of a context neutral lens, let’s look at wRC+ and fWAR. McCovey clearly had a better rookie season offensively when we compare both through wRC+, but overall they were even with fWAR.

Did team success contribute to McCovey winning the award in 1959? The San Francisco Giants finished in third place, four games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League pennant (this was before divisional play was instituted in 1969). Willie McCovey’s rookie of the year candidacy was so strong he was an unanimous selection, receiving all 24 of the first place votes, despite his team’s lack of postseason competition.

The 2016 Yankees finished nine games out of the American League East and five games back of the final Wild Card spot, eliminated in the final week of the season. While Sanchez’s main competition for the award played on better teams, including some division winners, Sanchez’s candidacy will probably not be hurt by the fact the Yankees missed the playoffs because of how they played once he came up.

On August 3rd, the Yankees were in fourth place 54-53, a .505 winning percentage, 7.5 games behind the Orioles for first in the East and 5.0 games behind the Tigers for the second wild card. From August 3rd until the end of the season, the Yankees went 30-25, second in the East and had a .545 winning percentage. From the start of Sanchez’s consistent playing time, the Yankees had the fifth best record in the American League, behind the Red Sox, Indians, Rangers, and Mariners. It is safe to say Gary Sanchez played a large role in the Yankees’ late-season success, and voters might give him substantial credit for that.

Gary Sanchez has stiff competition for the ROY award, but to say there is no precedent for a player to win the award with less than half a season of playing time is wrong. Willie McCovey had the same amount of playing time Gary Sanchez did, and both deserved and won the award. Michael Fulmer, Nomar Mazara, and Tyler Naquin all played close to a full season for their respective teams, but did they impact their teams the way Gary Sanchez did the Yankees?

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Carl Triano is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Minor League Ball.