When left fielder Chris Coghlan won National League Rookie of the Year, he became the third Florida Marlins player of the 2000s to take home those honors. Dontrelle Willis, who perplexed big league lineups on the mound for the title-winning 2003 team, Hanley Ramirez, on his way to becoming among the best players in the National League, with an impressive power-speed (17 HR-51 SB) in 2006, and the aforementioned Coghlan to close out the decade in 2009.
When looking at Willis’ and Ramirez’s respective seasons through an advanced statistical lens, it’s easy to see why voters sided with them. Willis won 14 games to the tune of a 3.30 ERA over 160-plus innings after debuting in May, while Ramirez led all NL rookies in WAR, 4.9, with the two runner-ups being teammates Josh Johnson (3.6) and Aníbal Sánchez (3.5). The voters unequivocally got it right in both instances.
As for Coghlan...well, he is on the other side of the spectrum here: he shouldn’t have been bestowed the NL ROY honor after all.
Debuting as a second baseman on May 8 of that year against Colorado, things started with a bang for Coghlan. He went 2-for-4 with a double and a walk. Coghlan’s first hit would come in his third plate appearance when he singled off of Jason Hammel.
The brevity of Coghlan’s first game success would be followed by a stretch of finding one’s self. The 24-year-old hit just .189 with a .593 OPS over his next 24 games.
Following a two-hit night against the Giants on June 6, raising his average to .220, Coghlan wouldn’t look back. He thrived to the tune of a .341/.400/.493 slash line over his next 102 games, establishing himself as the team’s everyday left fielder in the process.
When all was said and done, Coghlan would finish the year hitting .321 with a .390 on-base percentage. He took home NL ROY honors by receiving 17 of 32 first-place votes.
Where did the 17 Coghlan voters go wrong, though? An elite batting average like that over such a large sample is pretty special. It is important to note, too, that many awards voters weren’t too privy to metrics like WAR, WPA, or aLI, as these had not yet steeped into the everyday baseball lexicon.
But even in an era when sabermetrics were less accessible, choosing Coghlan was ignorant of what truly impacts wins and losses.
In terms of wins above replacement, a metric that accounts for all of a player’s on-field contributions, Coghlan finished the 2009 season with 1.1 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. That was only 9th-highest among the 10 NL rookies to receive votes. His overall value was a mere fraction of Chicago’s Randy Wells (4.3 rWAR). Wells, who posted a 3.05 ERA over 165 1⁄3 innings, finished 6th in the voting.
Why is WAR so critical of Coghlan’s performance? Defense is a good place to start.
Primarily a third baseman/second baseman in the minor leagues, Coghlan’s ascension to the big leagues came with a positional switch. Leftfield was unfamiliar to him.
In 123 games at the position, to say Coghlan didn’t quite take to it would be putting it too generously. By defensive runs saved, Coghlan cost the Fish 19 runs in left, a mark, according to Fielding Bible, which ranked last among 29 players with at least 500 innings at the position. That translated to -2.5 dWAR.
Had Coghlan even been serviceable as an outfielder in 2009—and he would continue to prove ineffective as a defender throughout the course of his nine-year career—his selection as the award winner would seem more justified. In hindsight, voters should’ve held him somewhat accountable for the Marlins finishing tied for fourth-worst in the NL in defensive efficiency.
Moreover, not all hits are created equal. Only 28.4% of Coghlan’s went for extra bases that season, and he lacked the base-stealing ability to move into scoring position following singles and walks.
Coghlan appears to have been among the last in a line of players who benefited from a traditionally-minded BBWAA voting body. And while he may not have been the most deserving choice for Rookie of the Year in 2009, his short stretch of hot-hitting was a welcome sight for a franchise in the midst of a lengthy postseason drought. With his help, the Marlins posted their third-best winning percentage ever.