We recently discussed the 2007 NL MVP vote and all the noticeable errors the voters made. In 2002, the National League Rookie of the Year race had three contenders that separated themselves from the rest of the field, yet the result of the vote left many fans confused. In fact, it is very hard to find a reason why the top three finished in the order they did.
Jennings was drafted with the 16th overall pick in the 1999 MLB Draft out of Baylor University. The righty burst onto the scene in 2001, throwing a complete-game shutout and hitting a home run in his MLB debut. He wasn’t nearly as great in his six starts after that, but there were reasons to be excited about Jennings’ future, especially for a Rockies team that had very little pitching depth.
Wilkerson was selected by the Expos with the 33rd overall pick in the 1998 MLB Draft from the University of Florida. He tore up the minors in 2000 and 2001, but he struggled in 147 MLB plate appearances in 2001, turning in just a .628 OPS. He did show some promise though by walking in 12.5 percent of his plate appearances. On an Expos team that had low expectations, Wilkerson was expected to be the everyday centerfielder.
Kearns was also a part of the 1998 MLB Draft, getting selected seventh overall out of Lafayette High School in Lexington, KY by the Reds. He had an injury-plagued year in the minors in 2001, but he hit 27 homers with 104 RBIs and a .973 OPS in 2000. Heading into the 2002 season though, Kearns was expected to spend more time in the minors, while Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Juan Encarnacion roamed the outfield.
Wilkerson and Jennings both cracked their respective Opening Day rosters, while Kearns began the year in Triple-A. Jennings lost his first start of the year, giving up three runs and seven hits in six innings against the Dodgers. He had an up-and-down first month, but he ended it by throwing seven shutout innings in a win over the Phillies. In Montreal, Wilkerson hit just two homers in 100 plate appearances in April, but he drew 17 walks, leading to an impressive .404 OBP. Meanwhile, an injury to Griffey opened the door for Kearns to come up to the bigs. He made his MLB debut on April 17 and became a regular in the Cincinnati lineup. Kearns came out of the gates scorching hot, going 15-for-33 to finish out the month with two homers, three doubles, six RBIs, and six walks against six strikeouts.
In May, the stats appeared to keep trending in the same direction for Wilkerson. He hit .290 for the month, but while he was still getting on base, he hit just one homer for the month in 86 plate appearances. In Cincinnati, Kearns slowed down a little bit, though he still put up an .855 OPS with five homers and 17 RBIs, winning NL Rookie of the Month.
Jennings had a bit of a strange month, as he didn’t lose a single start, but his numbers weren’t pretty. He had a 5.50 ERA and a 1.398 WHIP. Jennings was charged with four or more earned runs in three of his seven starts, including two starts where he failed to make it past the fifth inning. However, Jennings also had three starts where he was able to pitch seven innings and allow three or fewer runs. Thanks to his offense, Jennings was 6-2 on the year despite having a 4.70 ERA. Kearns meanwhile had a .978 OPS, while Wilkerson had a strong .379 OBP.
End of the First Half: Wilkerson Heats Up, Kearns Goes Cold
The month of June saw both Kearns and Jennings struggle. Kearns had just a .609 OPS and hit only one homer all month. On June 15, Kearns began a stretch where he wouldn’t hit a homer for the next 51 games. While Jennings had a lower ERA in June than he did in May, his 1.756 WHIP and .328 opponents’ batting average painted a much bleaker picture. Jennings pitched seven shutout innings against the Red Sox on June 11, but he was shelled for six runs and nine hits in just three innings against the Yankees in his next start. He was hit hard in his last start of the month too, surrendering five runs and seven hits in 5.2 innings against the Mariners. Meanwhile, Wilkerson hit three homers, four doubles, and three triples, while putting up a .290/.356/.495 batting line. He was rounding into a more complete hitter, giving the Expos a huge boost.
By the end of the first half, Kearns and Wilkerson appeared to have the most impressive resumés in the race. While none of these contenders made the All-Star Game, Wilkerson had bumped his batting line up to .284/.384/.468 with nine homers, 11 doubles, and five triples. While Kearns had cooled down, he still had an .848 OPS and was impressing with his glove too. Jennings meanwhile had a weak 4.85 ERA but sported a 9-4 record.
Dog Days of Summer: Race Heats Up
Coming out of the All-Star break, Wilkerson wasn’t able to maintain his hot start to July, though he was still drawing a large number of walks. He finished the month with a .213/.363/.488 with six homers and 11 RBIs while also walking in just under 20 percent of his plate appearances. Jennings wasn’t particularly sharp over his last three starts of the month, surrendering 11 runs and 19 hits over 17.1 innings, bringing his season ERA back up to 4.76. Kearns meanwhile found his form from earlier in the season, finishing the month on an eight-game hitting streak and recording 22 hits in the last 19 games of the month. While he wasn’t hitting for power, Kearns still ended July with a .333/.414/.478 batting line, 11 doubles, and 13 RBIs.
In August, all three candidates caught fire, producing their best month of the year. Jennings began the month by winning five straight starts, the first four of which he allowed two runs or fewer in. He threw seven shutout innings while only allowing one hit against the Pirates in his first start, then allowed just two runs and five hits with seven strikeouts in eight innings against the Reds. After he battled through 5.2 scoreless innings with walks against the Padres, Jennings held the Braves to just two runs and five hits over six innings on August 18. In his next start, Jennings allowed four runs and seven hits to the Mets, but he was able to get through seven innings, earning his 15th win of the season. Through that point, Jennings was 5-0 with a 2.14 ERA and 1.091 WHIP while holding opponents to just a .190 batting average. However, Jennings’ last start of the month was a disaster, giving up eight runs (seven earned) and eight hits in just 4.1 innings against the Giants.
Wilkerson rounded into a much more complete hitter, combining his strong plate discipline with an ability to hit for average and power. He had the best game of his young career on August 21, going 3-for-4 with a walk, a double, two homers, and three RBIs in a 13-5 win over the Rockies. That night was also the first multi-homer game in Wilkerson’s career. Wilkerson had another three-hit game against the Phillies a week later, hitting two doubles and a homer with three RBIs in a 6-3 win. Overall, Wilkerson hit a scorching .323/.406/.677 with six homers, nine double, three triples, and 17 RBIs.
Kearns on the other hand carried his hot bat over from the end of July. He recorded nine multi-hit games, and on August 15, he finally snapped his long homer-less stretch with a two-run shot off Dave Mlicki in a 9-3 win over the Astros. This started a stretch where Kearns went 16-for-36 with five homers in his next nine games, raising his OPS to .910 on the year. Kearns finished August on a 13-game hitting streak, hitting .378/.448/.604 overall for the month. On August 27 though, Kearns suffered a hamstring injury during the first game of a doubleheader against the Cardinals. He was placed on the DL the next day, and he would be sidelined for the remainder of the season.
Despite the impressive play of Wilkerson and Kearns, Jennings took home NL Rookie of the Month honors in August. He still had an outside chance at winning 20 games, while Wilkerson had a chance to pass Kearns in the race if he had a strong month of September. Another potential contender in the race, Mark Prior, was also shut down at the end of the month after suffering a hamstring injury.
Jennings began September by rebounding from his rough start against the Giants with seven innings of two-run ball while allowing seven hits and no walks in a win over the Padres. His next start though was a clunker, as he walked 10 batters and allowed five runs in 5.1 innings against the Padres, taking the loss. Jennings followed that up with another subpar outing against the Dodgers, allowing seven hits and four runs, though the Rockies rallied to take him off the hook. That was also the fourth straight start in which Jennings allowed multiple homers. Jennings then was touched up for 10 hits and six runs (four earned) in five innings in a loss to the Cardinals. In his final start of the year though, Jennings pitched six innings of one-run ball, holding the Dodgers to just five singles. For the month of September though, Jennings had an ugly 4.80 ERA and a 1.667 WHIP with 18 strikeouts against 16 walks in 30 innings.
Wilkerson carried a modest hitting streak into the first week of the month, but his bat went cold shortly thereafter. Wilkerson wouldn’t record a multi-hit game for three weeks. While he was still drawing a solid amount of walks, Wilkerson went on a 14-game stretch where he went just 7-for-42 with no homers and 17 strikeouts. Wilkerson broke the homer-less spell on September 27, his 20th dinger of the year. He finished the season out on a 7-for-20 run, somewhat erasing the dreadful three weeks he had just endured. With the season wrapped up, Wilkerson, Jennings, and Kearns were considered the favorites, though Prior wasn’t too far behind. Unfortunately, none of these contenders made the playoffs.
Overall Stats: The Case For Each Player
Jennings fell short in the quest to win 20 games, but he still finished with a 16-8 record, though he also sported a 4.52 ERA/4.68 FIP (106 ERA+), a 1.462 WHIP, and 127 strikeouts in 185.1 innings (6.2 K/9). Jennings’ numbers were definitely inflated by pitching his home games at Coors Field, as he had a 5.65 ERA and a 1.692 WHIP while allowing 18 homers in 94 innings at home. On the road, Jennings allowed just eight homers with a 3.35 ERA and a 1.226 WHIP in 91 innings. Jennings was also a beneficiary of strong run support though, as the Rockies gave him at least six runs of support in 11 of his wins.
Wilkerson finished the year with a solid .266/.370/.469 (117 OPS+) batting line, 20 homers, 27 doubles, eight triples, and 59 RBIs across 603 plate appearances. His most impressive stat was his 13.6-percent walk rate, and he also had a strong 28.7-percent line-drive rate. Wilkerson’s weakness was his defense though, as he registered -14 fielding runs in the outfield, which even led to him getting some time at first base and lowered his rWAR down to 1.6. Just like Jennings, Wilkerson was durable, playing in 153 games.
Even with his season-ending injury, Kearns’ numbers stuck out as the most impressive. He hit .315/.407/.500 (134 OPS+) with 13 homers, 24 doubles, three triples, and 56 RBIs in 407 plate appearances. Kearns had a 12.4-percent walk rate against a solid 18.6-percent strikeout rate, and he registered 12 fielding runs in the outfield. Despite playing in just 107 games, Kearns was worth 4.1 rWAR, dwarfing Wilkerson’s total, and comfortably leading all rookies.
The Result: Kearns Gets Robbed
Despite having the most impressive resumé, Kearns somehow didn’t win the Rookie of the Year. In fact, he finished third, with Wilkerson coming in second and Jennings taking home the hardware. While Jennings had a decent year, some would argue he wasn’t even the best pitcher on the ballot, as Prior and Damian Moss both had impressive showings. The result of the vote clearly speaks to the old mindset of valuing win/loss record over stats such as WAR, WHIP, and ERA.
What Happened Next: Lots Left to be Desired
Unfortunately, none of the top three finishers were able to live up to the expectations that were set for them in the 2002 season.
Following the 2002 season, Jennings had three straight seasons with an ERA north of 5.00 and a WHIP over 1.500. In 2006, Jennings had the best season of his career, pitching to a 3.78 ERA/4.10 FIP (130 ERA+) in 212 innings. Injuries and underperformance limited Jennings starting in 2007, and he never pitched in MLB after the 2009 season. He finished his career with a 4.95 ERA/4.75 FIP (98 ERA+) and a 1.558 WHIP with 749 strikeouts in 1,128.1 innings (6.0 K/9).
Wilkerson continued to be productive for Montreal in the coming years, improving both offensively and defensively. In 2003, he hit for the cycle, a year in which his OPS jumped to .844. In 2004, Wilkerson had the best season of his career, hitting .255/.374/.498 (120 OPS+) with 32 homers, 39 doubles, 13 steals, and 5.0 rWAR, while also racking up 12 DRS in the outfield. He also hit the last home run in Expos history on October 2 of that season.
In 2005, Wilkerson hit for the cycle for the second time in his career and also hit the first grand slam in Nationals history. His numbers declined though, with his OPS dropping to .756, and he was traded along with Armando Galarraga and Terrmel Sledge for Alfonso Soriano. Wilkerson had some highlights in Texas, such as when he hit three homers in a game in 2007, but he was never able to live up to the expectations set for him in Montreal. After disappointing stints with the Mariners and Blue Jays, Wilkerson retired in 2009 at the age of 32. Overall, he hit .247/.350/.440 (105 OPS+) with 122 homers, 193 doubles, and 11.0 rWAR.
Kearns meanwhile continued to show flashes of greatness, but he battled injuries almost every season. In July of 2006, Kearns was traded to the Nationals as part of a six-player trade. He finished his Reds tenure with a .267/.358/.468 (113 OPS+) batting line with 71 homers, 92 doubles, and 9.8 rWAR.
Kearns was able to play in 150 games and hit a career-high 24 homers in 2006, but he suffered an injury in an ugly collision with teammate Nick Johnson at Shea Stadium while trying to field a pop fly. In 2007, Kearns played in a career-high 161 games, but his OPS dipped to .765, the lowest it had been in a full season. Kearns struggled mightily in 2008 and suffered two injuries that limited him to just 86 games. In 2009, Kearns’ performance continued to decline and he again missed significant time, playing in just 80 games, and the Nationals declined his option for the 2010 season.
Kearns signed a contract with Cleveland for the 2010 season, and he had his first above-average season by OPS+ since 2007. He was traded to the Yankees at the trade deadline, where he was a part of New York’s postseason roster. In 2011 though, after Kearns re-signed with Cleveland, he struggled badly, and he was released in August. After an underwhelming stint with the Marlins in 2012 and 2013, Kearns retired at the age of 33. He finished his career with a .253/.351/.413 (102 OPS+) batting line with 121 homers, 187 doubles, 13 DRS, and 13.0 rWAR.
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