A Look at the Rookie of the Year Races Down the Stretch Run

At the end of every season, MLB writers rehash the same awards debates. Should a pitcher be the MVP if they only play every fifth day? What exactly does MVP mean, anyway? Does it have to be a player on a contending team, or is it enough to be the best player on a team that has no chance of playing in October? Can a reliever win the Cy Young award if they are just so much better than the starting pitchers that their lower volume of work is exceeded by their sheer dominance?

There is one award that is a bit simpler in its execution: Rookie of the Year honors can go to any player as long as they were the most outstanding rookie in the American or National League. Aside from some debates about what qualifies as a rookie — fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched or fewer than 45 days on the active roster (excluding time on the Injured List and/or roster expansion in September) — that is about as straightforward as it gets for MLB, which brings us to 2021 and an early look at the rookie leaderboards. Those qualifications can result in some familiar names appearing atop these lists, and that’s particularly true this year, since some who played in the shortened 2020 season (or even 2019) have yet to clear those at-bat or innings thresholds. Some names, too, that floated to the top of these conversations shortly after the All Star break have already faded away, and only a handful remain from our preseason staff predictions.

Historical Trends

Before getting into this year’s contenders, I wanted to take a look at every former Rookie of the Year winner since it became a league-specific award in 1949 to see if some positions are more likely to win than others. While there are some slight differences, the reality is that any rookie can bring home the award in a given season:

Shortstops are slightly more likely to win the award than other infield positions; relief pitchers are less likely to win than starting pitchers. But all of the above seems less predictive than it is reflective of the positional value players have at different spots on the diamond. In fact, with the exception of catchers, this matches up quite well with WAR positional adjustments. (Among position players, catchers are the least likely to bring home a Rookie of the Year award.)

Unsurprisingly, designated hitters rank dead last in ROY wins, with only two regular DHs taking home the trophy: the Royals’ Bob Hamelin in 1994 (.282/.388/.599, 24 home runs, 2.4 WAR), and Shohei Ohtani in 2018. The latter only partially counts, too, as he was helped by the 51.2 innings, 3.31 ERA and 1.1 WAR he compiled as a pitcher as much as his .281/.361/.564 triple slash and 22 dingers. (Spoiler alert: there are no two-way players lurking on this year’s ballot under the DH category.)

American League

As recently as August 2, the name atop most ROY lists in the AL was Rangers center fielder Adolis García, but he has cooled off considerably since, slashing .177/.225/.363 with a wRC+ of 58 in 120 second-half plate appearances. While there is still a chance García could get hot and regain his position atop the rookie leaderboard, his slump has opened the door. Below are the top 10 rookies by FanGraphs WAR in the AL; I also included our rest-of-season projections according to Depth Charts, as well as Baseball Reference WAR for comparison purposes, since many voters will likely use that metric when casting their ballot. (All stats are through Thursday’s games.)

AL Rookie of the Year Leaders by fWAR
Randy Arozarena TBR 107 2.6 0.7 3.3 3.2
Luis Garcia HOU 23 2.4 0.4 2.8 2.1
Adolis García TEX 110 2.0 0.3 2.3 2.9
Shane McClanahan TBR 19 1.9 0.4 2.3 0.9
Dane Dunning TEX 21 1.9 0.4 2.3 1.4
Akil Baddoo DET 93 1.8 0.2 2.0 1.5
Logan Gilbert SEA 16 1.6 0.4 2.0 0.7
Emmanuel Clase CLE 52 1.5 0.3 1.8 2.1
Andrew Vaughn CHW 105 1.5 0.4 1.9 1.7
Tanner Houck BOS 9 1.4 0.3 1.7 1.0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
All WAR data and ROS projections FanGraphs, except bWAR from Baseball-Reference

This looks right now like a three-person race — convenient, given that BBWAA voters rank their top three candidates. Arozarena — still a rookie in his third season, as he compiled just 20 and 64 at-bats, respectively, in 2019 and ’20 — has been surging in recent weeks with a .375/.434/.677 triple slash and an AL-leading wRC+ of 207 across his last 106 plate appearances, and our projections believe he’ll be alone atop the WAR leaderboards among rookies at the end of the season.

Can anyone further down catch him? Luis Garcia has been impressive, tossing 116.2 innings with a 3.39 ERA that is in line with his 3.50 FIP, and a strong finish could have him pushing or cracking the 3-WAR barrier. Then there’s the aforementioned Adolis García and his teammate, Dunning, who is projected at 2.3 fWAR; he’s thrown 99.2 innings with a 4.06 ERA, but his FIP is a more compelling 3.56. It is worth mentioning that bWAR likes Adolis García’s season a lot more than fWAR does. He has a good shot at cracking the top three on some ballots and could really make things interesting if he breaks out of his current slump down the stretch.

Two other pitchers are on pace to finish the season with more than 2 fWAR: Gilbert and McClanahan. The former has thrown 77.1 innings for the Mariners with a 4.42 ERA and a 3.53 FIP, striking out 26.9% of the batters he’s faced against a walk rate of 5.6%. McClanahan has been even better, with 94.1 innings, a 3.63 ERA, 3.32 FIP and a 28.5% K-rate for the Rays, and he’s been stellar in August, with a 2.70 ERA and 29 strikeouts across 23.1 innings. He could make a late push for a top-three spot if he keeps that up.

The only other player projected for at least 2 fWAR is Baddoo, who got off to a red-hot start and then showed some resiliency when his numbers came back down to earth. Currently on the concussion IL and scheduled to start a rehab stint in Triple-A soon, he’s put up a respectable .267/.333/.467 line with a 116 wRC+; a well-timed hot streak to close the season could win over voters who remember his excellent debut.

Vaughn projects just shy of 2 fWAR, but voters may find his case more compelling than some of the players above due to his key role with the AL Central-leading White Sox. He should benefit both from having more eyes on him playing down the stretch and the role his bat played — .263/.335/.462 with a .342 wOBA across 382 plate appearances — in Chicago running away with the division while without Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert for more than half the season.

Two other notable names who didn’t make the top ten in fWAR: Red Sox reliever Garrett Whitlock, who’s currently in the top four in bWAR but tied for 15th in fWAR among AL rookies. He has thrown 57.2 innings for Boston this season with a 1.72 ERA and a 2.77 FIP and could wind up on a handful of ballots. He’s also likely to get a lot of eyes on him with the Red Sox in a tight AL East race with the Yankees.

Speaking of the AL East, Wander Franco doesn’t quite make the top ten in fWAR or bWAR, but that is more a function of the time he has been in the league than anything else. The game’s No. 1 prospect is projected for 0.8 fWAR through the rest of the year; that performance just slightly edges out his teammate Arozarena’s 0.7, though his overall volume of work and finish will likely carry more weight with voters than Franco’s .292/.392/.496 second half. That said, Franco may find himself on more than a few voters’ ballots since his rookie eligibility will run out this season, which also takes him off the 2022 preseason list that he almost certainly would have topped.

National League

Moving to the Senior Circuit, the top two seem clear regardless of which system of WAR you prefer: Cincinnati’s Jonathan India and Miami’s Trevor Rogers. There is an outside chance Ian Anderson could make things interesting if he returns from the injured list as planned, though; he’s currently rehabbing his way back from shoulder inflammation and could be back in the Braves’ rotation by month’s end.

NL Rookie of the Year Leaders by fWAR
Trevor Rogers MIA 20 3.3 0.5 3.8 3.1
Jonathan India CIN 112 3.3 0.6 3.9 2.6
Ian Anderson* ATL 18 1.9 0.4 2.3 2.3
Dylan Carlson STL 112 1.6 0.3 1.9 1.5
Tyler Stephenson CIN 98 1.6 0.3 1.9 1.8
Patrick Wisdom CHC 74 1.5 0.3 1.8 1.7
Jazz Chisholm Jr. MIA 85 1.2 0.2 1.4 1.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
All WAR data and ROS projections FanGraphs, except bWAR from Baseball-Reference

India has put together an impressive season atop the Reds’ lineup, leading all MLB rookies in wRC+ (132, two points ahead of Arozarena). He’s also been a solid defender at second base, with plays like this one in which he robbed Matt Duffy of a hit:

Rogers was an All-Star for the Marlins and features a plus fastball and a solid changeup that he’s used to put up a 2.45 ERA and 2.62 FIP across 110 innings, and his 28.7% strikeout rate leads all NL starters this season. Complicating his ROY hopes, though, is the fact that he hasn’t pitched since July 31, as he’s currently away from the team dealing with a family emergency.

The real question mark for NL ballots revolves around Anderson (who has thrown 96 innings with a 3.56 ERA and 3.60 FIP and, like Arozarena, failed to garner enough playing time last year to escape rookie status). He began a rehab stint in Triple-A on Tuesday, striking out six over 4.1 scoreless innings, and will find himself in the thick of a playoff race in the NL East if his recovery continues as planned. While fWAR sees him solidly in third behind India and Rogers, bWAR has him much closer to India. Add in the playoff race, and that could move Anderson up on some ballots. Either way, he’s unlikely to fall out of the top three. Of the players trailing him in fWAR, Carlson just hit the injured list (though his stay may be a short one), and Stephenson doesn’t have the volume or stats that India does.

There is one name not on this list worth mentioning: Ke’Bryan Hayes, a top five player by bWAR and a preseason favorite for this award among a lot of analysts, including the FanGraphs staff. But a wrist injury and a long IL stint, coupled with up-and-down performance at the plate — he currently sports a .309 wOBA and 93 wRC+ — have likely killed those chances.

Other players who could find themselves in that final Rookie of the Year spot on ballots are Chisholm and Wisdom. Each could garner a few third-place votes, mainly because they’ve put up impressive bodies of work over substantially less playing time than the rest of the top 10. Chisholm was an early favorite for the Rookie of the Year award before a hamstring injury cooled off his hot start, though voters may choose him over some of the question marks on this list. Wisdom has shown impressive power with 18 home runs in 242 plate appearances, good for a .276 ISO, but he also strikes out 39.8% of the time.

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2 years ago

Rogers and India have both been fantastic. I think I’d give it to Rogers but that depends on him continuing to mow down hitters when he gets back.

In the AL, I think I’m in favor of Luis Garcia. I think they’re going to give it to Arozarena, and there’s a case for him, but I think the reason why they’re going to give it to him is because he came in as a preseason favorite. I say boo to that! Garcia is #15 by fWAR, #11 by WARP, and #18 by RA9-WAR in the American League. Arozarena’s been good too but if I have to make a tiebreaker I’d rather give it to the pitcher.

OddBall Herrera
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The Marlins have shown no urgency in getting Rogers back, nor should they really. I think he’s at least a couple of weeks out.

The other thing with Rogers is that most of his value was front loaded. It’s not just that he’s out now, he hasn’t done much worth writing home about since June.

I think this is India’s to lose. He’s done the opposite of Rogers, with a season 132 wRC+ despite being underwater in that stat through May.

2 years ago

Rogers being away from the team and not pitching, pretty much screwed over my postseason chances. so frustrating.

2 years ago
Reply to  bluerum29

They were gonna limit his innings anyway. Shoulda bought some depth or traded him high if you’re not in a keeper league.

2 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

It is a keeper league and I like his potential to keep getting better.

David Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  bluerum29

Your fantasy team >>> his personal issues amIrite? Seriously what an awful comment by you.

2 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

well, this site is about providing help to win those leagues. Everyone has personal issues. You can feel for someone regarding those and still have other things on the mind.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Arozarena’s 2020 post season gives him more name recognition than most of these guys and will probably, inappropriately, earn him some votes.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Garcia isn’t even the best pitcher though, McClanahan has far better underlying metrics than Garcia. Honestly, you can pick any 3 of the Rays rookie trio and it won’t be a bad choice (Aroz, McClanny, or Franco).

2 years ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

The big differences between McClanahan and Garcia are that McClanahan has pitched less, he plays in a more pitcher friendly stadium, and his xERA suggests he’s been getting lucky. Long-term, McClanahan seems like a better bet to me too because his stuff is better. But so far I’d take Garcia for RoY.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I’m in favor of not rewarding a team with awards that’s been caught cheating multiple times in multiple years. It wasn’t Pittsburgh that taught Garret Cole and Charlie Morton to use spidertack. I’m very skeptical of any player who comes out of nowhere to dominate when he joins the Astros.