Last night, Jose Fernandez won the official BBWAA version of the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year award, and the results were not even close. Just like earlier, when Fernandez won the Sporting News, MLBPA, and even our own awards, his victory was a landslide. Fernandez took 26 of the available 30 first-place votes, with closest competitor Yasiel Puig taking the remaining four.
At the start of this race, this result did not look likely. If you look back to the end of July, Puig had just suffered through a cold month but was still hitting .367/.410/.579 (.426 wOBA) and the Dodgers had begun streaking like a red-hot flame. Fernandez's numbers by that time were good (2.71 ERA, 3.00 FIP in 119 2/3 innings), but they had not separated themselves from the pack of other names like Hyun-Jin Ryu or Shelby Miller. Fernandez was the best among a sea of rookie pitchers, but Puig stood alone as the exciting new prospect to take over Los Angeles.
But at the tail end of July, Fernandez struck out 13 Pittsburgh Pirates batters without a single walk and outdueled fellow top prospect Gerrit Cole. On his next outing, he one-upped himself, striking out 14 Cleveland Indians hitters with one walk and three hits allowed, the Marlins picked up the win, and the tales of Fernandez's exploits began to enter the national discussion. The buzz surrounding his play and imminent September shutdown warmed up. He got his picture in those awkward MLB ace-off hype photos. And while Puig was having another monster month at the plate (.320/.405/.515, .389 wOBA), there was just as much talk about his lack of fundamentals or unruly play as there was about his great play. Meanwhile, it was all smiles for Fernandez, who won two consecutive Rookie of the Month awards in July and August.
Oh, and there was that time that Fernandez showed up Puig with a nasty three-pitch strikeout in mid-August as well.
The stage was set for Fernandez to make two final starts in September, and they were memorable starts. He held the Washington Nationals hitless through five-plus innings and finished the start with nine strikeouts and one hit allowed in seven innings. Then, he hit the motherload of media frenzy by holding the division-leading Atlanta Braves to a homer and five hits total in seven innings, then showing them up with a two-out home run that incited the Fun Police's anger.
The concern before the month of August was that Fernandez's steady rise from "just" a 20-year-old rookie performing well at the Major League level to a guy who ended up a finalist for the Cy Young award was underwhelming compared to Yasiel Puig's story. But the national media bought into the hype of a 20-year-old dynamic ace pitcher, and the off-field attitude problems that the same media, rightly or wrongly, accused Puig of doing evened the gap.
When Fernandez started busting out elite start after elite start, the media took notice. And the fact that each start became an event played a role. It is much easier for a starting pitcher to have a memorable outing than an everyday player to do it. When a starter pitches, it is his game to win or lose, and his performance has a more profound impact than a position player's individual game. If a guy goes 2-for-4 every couple of days, people do not notice it as much unless it comes attached with tons of home runs or highlight-reel defense. Puig was excellent in August, but he did so on daily, harder-to-notice basis. Not every Puig game can be a national event like Fernandez's starts.
Of course, Puig's slow finish (.214/.333/.422, .345 wOBA in September) helped to stabilize Fernandez's foothold on the award. Had Puig performed better, he may have made the climb in terms of Wins Above Replacement (4.0 for Puig, 4.2 for Fernandez by FanGraphs) and showed off more of his positive game in that final month. In essentially a free rehearsal for the award, Puig failed to shine and ended up handing the award to Fernandez by default.
In the end, however, Fernandez was the deserving winner. He led in all WAR-like categories, he had games and moments that were just as memorable as Puig's (who can forget this catch, for example?), and he was probably the better player this year The gap between them was not as large as the award voting indicates, but he probably outplayed Puig and received a high honor as a result. Congratulations to Jose Fernandez, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year and the Marlins' fourth Rookie of the Year award winner in team history!