Handicapping MLB’s Rookie of the Year Award

Jackie Robinson Award - MLB Players

Betting on Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year Award is a popular thing, with lines available all over the Internet as early as the weeks before the start of the regular season.

Handicapping baseball’s Rookie of the Year prize has gotten a lot easier in recent seasons thanks to changes in the game and in the writers covering the sport and voting for its awards. This post is designed to help bettors interested in placing a RotY Award bet make a more confident choice.

Quick Guide to MLB’s RotY Award

MLB’s Rookie of the Year award has been known as the Jackie Robinson Award since 1987. The first true award honoring the best rookie player in both professional leagues was handed out in 1949, and each league has handed out the award annually for more than 70 years now.

What Determines a Player’s Rookie Status?

Any player who has accrued fewer than 130 at bats (or 50 innings pitched for pitchers) in a previous professional season qualifies as a rookie. Players who haven’t met these numbers but who have been on an active roster for 45 days or more lose their rookie status.

144 players have won the award, 16 of which have gone on to Hall of Fame careers.

Who Picks the MLB Rookie of the Year?

The Jackie Robinson Award is handed out based on voting among members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The BBWAA is the same group that meets annually to vote on entry into the sport’s Hall of Fame, as well as the overall Most Valuable Player, the pitching award known as the Cy Young Award, and the Manager of the Year Award.

These days, more than 700 people vote on the Jackie Robinson Award. They use a ranked-choice voting system which is seen as producing a less biased result. Voters rank their top-three picks in preference order, first, second, and third.

  • First-place votes are worth five points
  • Second-place votes are worth three points
  • Third-place votes are worth one point

There’s no award for second or third place – the player who earns the most points is named the Rookie of the Year.

Members of this committee now include minor league baseball beat writers alongside “Web-based writers,” (amateurs posting online based on their own independent beat) so long as they’re full-time employees of a website credentialed by Major League Baseball.

Please Note:

If you want to see more information about the current members of this committee, that information is publicly available. I spent a good fifteen minutes looking through the list and was impressed by some of the names – Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle is a great baseball journalist, and I like Geoff Baker from Seattle and Derrick Goold in St. Louis. You’ll find more than a few sport-celeb names on the list, too.

Trends in Recent Jackie Robinson Award Winners

Below is a discussion of two powerful trends in the MLB Rookie of the Year race that bettors can use to make smarter baseball season award futures bets.

Unanimity in the Modern MLB RotY Award

First, understand that by “unanimous selection,” I’m talking about a unanimous pick among the 30 MLB team representative voters, not the entire 700-member board.

The modern BBWWAA is a much more agreeable institution than at its founding. Only four out of the first seventy-two awards were unanimous. Oddly enough, the organization was smaller then. Since two votes from each MLB city count toward the unanimous vote statistic, and there were only 24 baseball cities at the time, only 48 people voted in total.

Nowadays:

We have 30 baseball cities with two writers from each, for a total of 60 voters. To me, it says a lot about the award itself that a larger group of writers is far more likely to make a unanimous pick. This represents a big part of my basic Jackie Robinson Award handicapping strategy.

Nine of the last 20 Rookie of the Year Awards were by unanimous selection, a rate of nearly 50%. It took the Jackie Robinson Award voters 44 years to produce 9 unanimous winners. We’ve had 6 of the last 12 awards decided by unanimous decision, a clear sign that voter thinking aligns more these days than in the early days of the award.

  • In 2019, Yordan Alvarez was the AL betting favorite as early as March of that year, at around +300 from the very first game of the season.
  • The 2020 AL winner, Mariner’s OF Kyle Lewis, had a similar line from his second week of play during that shortened season.
  • In 2017, both Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge were odds-on favorites before they took an at-bat.

Chalk picks are looking pretty good in the MLB Jackie Robinson Award race. To me, this means that we should give general consensus a lot more credence when placing an MLB season bet on the Rookie of the Year award.

MLB ROTY Award Positional Trends

Going back twenty years (and forty ROTY awards) thirteen rookie pitchers have claimed the Jackie Robinson Award. That’s 13/40 total awards, for a win rate of 32.5%. Pitchers have won just shy of 1/3 of all RotY awards, and considering two such awards are given each year, they represent the most likely position to win in any given season. Outfielders represent the second biggest chunk, with 10/40 awards given, for a 25%-win rate.

Designated hitters have only won the award 4 times in the 70+ years since its inception – that would seem to be a reason to fade rookies playing DH. But there’s an interesting microtrend to consider here. Of the American League’s last three awards, 2 were given to players at the DH position. Admittedly, one of those players is the generational freak-talent Shohei Ohtani, who also pitched during a manic hitting explosion of a debut that we may not see again for decades.

Still, it seems American League voters are looking at the DH as a more valuable position and are honoring the development of young DH talent with awards and recognition in the form of postseason award votes.

Only two players – the Mets’ Pete Alonso and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger (both 1B) – have won the Robinson Award from a position other than pitcher, OF, or DH over the past eight awards.

I’m not great at math, but it seems like players in those three positions are winning 75% of the time.

How would I use these positional trends to influence my handicapping of a Rookie of the Year awards season? I’d give more serious consideration to rookies playing in the outfield, batting DH, or having a dynamite pitching year.

I’d also be far less likely to back a candidate for MLB Rookie of the Year out of the 2B position, since only one rookie second baseman has claimed the award in the last 11 years, and in fact only 9 rookie second basemen have ever claimed it. That’s a win rate of 6%, making it a difficult position to find value.

Tips for Betting on the MLB Jackie Robinson Award

  • My first bit of advice is simple – if you don’t understand baseball, rookies, or season awards, you shouldn’t be placing a season award bet. This is technically a prop bet, carrying a lot longer odds than a typical run line or straight-up MLB bet.

  • My next tip – combine the two trends I talked about earlier into a simple but effective 60-second handicapping strategy. Throw in a little line-shopping and patience, and I think you’ll have a leg-up on other guys picking based on what they hear on ESPN.

First, look for a guy who plays in a position that aligns him with what modern baseball writers are looking for – that means an outfielder, a DH, or a pitcher. Look at the RotY award futures bets your real money MLB sportsbook is offering you and consider that (thanks to parity of thinking among modern baseball writers) the lines available are probably accurate depictions of the player’s odds of winning.

In short, look for an outfielder that costs less than +500. For an example from the 2021 season, you might focus on guys like Randy Arozarena, an outfielder who started the season at +350, or Adolis Garcia, also an outfielder, but one who burst onto the scene in late July at +150 after an insane May and June streak. On the NL side, a focus on Trevor Rogers (a pitcher who opened at -130) would make sense, though there was no other NL rookie player who opened at less than +900 or so.

Does this strategy fail? As recently as the 2021 season, players sometimes open as a longshot that wouldn’t attract my attention and play out of their heads and prove me wrong.

With two awards given each year, there’s a lot more to consider and the handicapping process is more intricate. However, I think my strategy is quick and easy to understand and implement, and generally predicts winners more accurately thanks to the forces mentioned earlier in the post.

Conclusion

Season awards are usually longshots, rewarding luck more than handicapping skills. In Major League Baseball, the voting system has shifted so much that bettors can take advantage of value situations provided the right players appear in the right contexts.

Look for value in what are essentially chalk picks but avoid players from positions where rookies avoid the spotlight.

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Rex Hoffman / Author

Rex Hoffman is a passionate sports writer, with over five years of experience covering sports journalism in line with the Vegas betting landscape. His favorite subjects include football, basketball, and baseball. As a Las Vegas resident, he enjoys finding an edge against the local sportsbooks and aims to share his extensive knowledge with both beginners and experienced bettors. Rex also dabbles in horse racing wagering and enjoys typical casino fare like blackjack and poker in his spare time.

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