MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

McCovey makes Sanchez's Rookie of Year case real

1959 NL winner was unanimous choice despite playing in only 52 games

McCovey makes Sanchez's Rookie of Year case real

Gary Sanchez may not know much about Willie McCovey. But between now and November, he's sure to learn a lot.

Having emerged as the most productive newcomer during his 48-day stay with the Yankees, Sanchez should have a new favorite player when American League Rookie of the Year Award ballots are cast at the end of the regular season.

That would be Stretch McCovey, the power-hitting first baseman who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959 to begin a career in which he'd be a six-time All-Star, win the 1969 NL Most Valuable Player Award and be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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McCovey was stuck in Triple-A behind Orlando Cepeda until July 30, 1959. He played in only 52 Major League games, but he was still a unanimous choice among the 24 Baseball Writers' Association of America voters.

So don't say what a lot of us have been saying the past few weeks -- that Sanchez can't be a serious candidate because the Yanks left him at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre until August, after they had traded away Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Ivan Nova.

Sanchez had played a few Major League games the past two seasons, but he never had a chance to unseat Brian McCann as the regular catcher until this run, which began on Aug. 3. The Dominican-born 23-year-old has been a sensation, hitting .327 with 16 home runs and 30 RBIs in 41 games, with 13 left to play.

While the Tigers' Michael Fulmer remains favored to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award, he's gone 0-4 with a 6.28 ERA in his past five starts. That opens the door to consider Mariners closer Edwin Diaz or the top rookie hitters, and the McCovey precedent says Sanchez should not be excluded from consideration.

McCovey joined a Giants team that already had Cepeda and Willie Mays, and he lit up Seals Stadium, which was in its last year of use with Candlestick Park under construction. McCovey, who already had 29 homers in Triple-A, hit .354 with 13 homers, 38 RBIs and a 1.085 OPS for the Giants.

Sanchez joined a Yankees team that had subtracted Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter in the past two years. He's been every bit as productive as McCovey, and he's done it while answering questions about his work as a catcher.

"That's a dangerous hitter," Red Sox manager John Farrell said over the weekend. "I think defensively he has been much more than maybe we had anticipated -- the accuracy to his throws, the arm strength that he has, his blocking ability. He's a frontline player."

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Had Sanchez come up on June 1 and been a Major League average player for two months before erupting with the production he's had since Aug. 3, nobody would be knocking his bona fides as an AL Rookie of the Year Award candidate. But should his standing be discounted because the Yanks waited so long before giving him a shot?

That's the dilemma facing voters in weighing Fulmer's full season (10-7 with a 3.03 ERA in 148 2/3 innings over 24 starts) against Sanchez's big splash.

A lot of things lined up right for McCovey to win his NL Rookie of the Year Award. For starters, the BBWAA was still tinkering with the definition of a rookie. The writers established the award in 1947, but they didn't set the current standard of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched until '71.

There was no guideline initially, with writers able to vote for whomever they considered a rookie. A standard was set in 1957, with limits of 75 at-bats or 45 innings pitched, which was almost immediately amended to 90 at-bats or 45 innings pitched.

There's no way McCovey would have won in 1959 with the current guidelines. Reds center fielder Vada Pinson was an All-Star who hit .316 while leading the league in doubles (47) and runs scored (131) and starting all 154 games.

Pinson, who was 19 when that season began, wasn't considered a rookie because he had played in 27 games the previous year, with 96 at-bats -- six more than the cutoff.

McCovey filled a void, as 1959 was a weak year for NL rookies. Bob Gibson and Maury Wills made their debuts, but they barely hinted at how great they would become. The ineligibility of Pinson left Cubs center fielder George Altman and Dodgers center fielder Don Demeter as the candidates who were alternatives to McCovey.

As for rookie pitchers in the NL, there was really only one of any significance. The Dodgers' Larry Sherry would bedevil the White Sox in the World Series, but he worked only 94 1/3 innings in the regular season. The Phillies' Jim Owens (12-12, 3.21 ERA) probably would have received consideration, but he'd previously pitched 45 1/3 innings -- one-third of an inning above the limit.

McCovey benefited from these quirks. Because he did, the argument for Sanchez grows a little stronger.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.