The AL Rookie of the Year Race Is as Interesting as Ever

© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association signed a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this offseason, it included some interesting provisions designed to combat service time manipulation. Top prospects who finish first or second in Rookie of the Year voting will automatically gain a full year of service time regardless of when they’re called up, and teams that promote top prospects early enough for them to gain a full year of service will be eligible to earn extra draft picks if those players go on to finish in the top three in Rookie of the Year voting or the top five in MVP or Cy Young voting. The goal was to incentivize teams to call up their best young players when they’re ready, rather than keeping them in the minor leagues to gain an extra year of team control.

So far, the rule changes seem to have had their intended effect: three of our top five preseason prospects, and 11 of our top 50, earned an Opening Day roster spot out of spring training. The three prospects in the top five all play for American League teams, and with many others putting together impressive performances in the majors, the competition in the junior circuit for the Rookie of the Year award is quite compelling. Below is a table of the best rookie performers in the AL through June 15:

AL Rookie of the Year Leaders
Player Team PA wRC+ OAA WAR
Jeremy Peña HOU 211 133 6 2.5
Julio Rodríguez SEA 255 122 5 1.8
Bobby Witt Jr. KCR 246 106 2 1.6
Steven Kwan CLE 185 113 0 0.8
Jake Burger CWS 144 135 -3 0.7
MJ Melendez KCR 146 123 1 0.5
Adley Rutschman BAL 86 69 0.2
Spencer Torkelson DET 199 67 -1 -0.8
Player Team IP ERA FIP WAR
Joe Ryan MIN 48 2.81 3.75 0.9
Jhoan Duran MIN 28.2 2.51 3.00 0.4
George Kirby SEA 43 3.56 4.07 0.4
Reid Detmers LAA 53 4.25 5.16 0.1

Jeremy Peña (ranked 30th on our preseason Top 100) has raced out ahead of the three top prospects referenced above to accumulate 2.5 WAR in just 54 games. That mark is the second highest among AL shortstops, and is the result of his phenomenal up-the-middle defense and his prowess at the plate. He’s slashed .277/.333/.471 (133 wRC+) so far this year with a solid if aggressive approach and some good power. The thump is a recent development after Peña filled out last year. He’s already blasted nine home runs and his peripherals support a profile that could reach 20 homers by the end of the season; his max exit velocity and barrel rate both sit above league average, with only his hard hit rate falling below.

In the field, Peña is the presumptive favorite to win a Gold Glove at his position. He leads all AL shortstops in OAA and is second in DRS. He does lead the league in errors committed with 10, which has dragged his UZR down to well below the level of the other two metrics; most of the errors have been throwing errors or the result of fairly routine mistakes in the field.

Peña’s fantastic play has helped the Astros weather the departure of Carlos Correa without missing a beat. Unfortunately, he was placed on the injured list on Wednesday with left thumb discomfort. An initial MRI didn’t reveal any long-term concerns, but Peña won’t swing a bat for at least a week, meaning he’ll likely be sidelined longer than the minimum stay on the IL. If his thumb heals quickly, he’ll be poised to continue his breakout campaign in July.

Peña’s absence does give the rest of the field an opportunity to make up some ground, and the man who could give him a run for his money plays for a division rival and was one of the preseason favorites to claim the award: Julio Rodríguez. Rodríguez really struggled at the start of his major league career, posting a .205/.284/.260 (63 wRC+) slash line through the first month of the season. On May 1, he collected three hits, including the first home run of his big league career, and he has really come on strong since then. He collected four more three-hit games and a four-hit game in May, and has slashed .290/.353/.497 (150 wRC+) over the last month and a half with eight home runs. That offensive outburst earned him Rookie of the Month honors for May.

The strike out issues that gave Rodríguez so much trouble at the beginning of the season have subsided, though they haven’t disappeared completely. Since May 1, his strikeout rate has been 27.1%, still high but much better than it was in April (37.0%). The called strikes that gave him fits during the first month of play have been much less of a problem recently, too. More than 60% of Rodríguez’s strikeouts in April were looking; that rate has fallen to just under 30% since. A few more favorable calls and a more aggressive approach with two strikes has helped him curtail those backwards Ks.

Still, Rodríguez is swinging and missing a little too much and chases pitches out of the zone at a below average rate. The strikeouts seem like they’ll be part of his profile for now, which means he’ll need to continue to maximize his results when he does make contact. Of course, that’s where he’s really shined so far. Nearly half of Rodríguez’s balls in play have been hard hit, and his max exit velocity sits in the 94th percentile. He’s barreled up just 10.5% of his batted balls, a low rate considering his prodigious raw power, but that’s likely related to the number of groundballs he’s hitting; his groundball rate currently sits above 50%. If he can figure out how to elevate his batted balls consistently, the sky’s the limit for his power production.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Rodríguez’s rookie campaign has been his speed. He leads all of baseball in stolen bases, with 17 steals in 20 attempts, and his sprint speed sits in the 98th percentile. It’s an aspect of his game that he’s focused on over the past several seasons, and his performance so far has been a revelation for a player who didn’t rack up big stolen base totals during his minor league career. It has also helped him stick in center field, where Rodríguez’s raw speed helps make up for some inexperience at the position. His 5 OAA ranks second in the AL among all center fielders, though his arm has hurt his overall defensive value.

The other top prospect who could surpass Peña is Bobby Witt Jr. Like Rodríguez, Witt struggled in his first exposure to major league pitching; he put up a .216/.247/.311 (57 wRC+) slash line in April. On May 2, he hit his first home run in the majors, a sign that he had started to adjust to big league pitching. Over the last month and a half, he’s improved to a .253/.303/.513 (126 wRC+) line and has matched Rodríguez’s home run total. His batted ball peripherals support the massive power, too. Witt’s 44% hard hit rate is excellent and his max exit velocity sits in the 92nd percentile, though his barrel rate is rather low, and without the groundball issues holding Rodríguez’s back.

Witt’s aggressive approach has resulted in some inconsistent production. He’s swinging at more than half the pitches he’s seeing right now, with an average in-zone swing rate. That means he’s chasing a ton of pitches off the plate, though his whiff rate isn’t as bad as you’d expect for someone with such a swing happy approach. The result is an extremely low walk rate paired with a strikeout rate slightly above average, a combination that makes his success very dependent on the quality of his batted balls.

Witt hasn’t been nearly as good in the field as Peña or Rodríguez, though he’s now playing his natural position at shortstop with Adalberto Mondesi on the 60-day IL. He’s also the fastest man in the AL, with a 30.4 ft/s. sprint speed. He’s only attempted 12 steals and has been successful 10 times, though you might expect him to run more frequently on the normally run-happy Royals.

Spencer Torkelson and Adley Rutschman, the two other top five prospects to make their debuts this year, have had considerably less success than Peña, Rodríguez, or Witt. The former debuted on Opening Day with the Tigers but hasn’t found any sort of success against big league pitching. Despite a disciplined approach at the plate, he just hasn’t been able to tap into his 70-grade power with any consistency. As for Rutschman, the top preseason prospect in baseball, a spring arm injury held him out for the first few weeks of the season and he wasn’t called up until late May. In what’s become a recurring theme for these youngsters, Rutschman struggled to make an immediate impact. He collected hits in four of his first five games but then collected just three over his next 10. He’s looked a bit more comfortable recently, with eight hits across his last seven games, including the first home run of his big league career.

In previous seasons, Rutschman’s call-up likely would have coincided with those of other top prospects reaching the majors. As it is, he’s lost 30–40 games to the rookies who made their debuts on Opening Day. The most fascinating thing is that we’re just over a third of the way through the season. Peña, Rodríguez, and Witt have raced out to early leads but there are still so many more games to play. That gives Torkelson and Rutschman an opportunity to turn their seasons around and make a push for the award. It also means that any of the other rookies listed above could catch fire over the next few months and challenge these top prospects. Here’s the table from above with their ZiPS Rest-of-Season projection added to their current WAR total:

AL Rookie Projections
Player ROS ZiPS WAR Total Projected WAR
Julio Rodríguez 2.8 4.6
Jeremy Peña 1.9 4.4
Bobby Witt Jr. 2.5 4.1
Adley Rutschman 2.0 2.2
Jake Burger 1.5 2.2
MJ Melendez 1.6 2.1
Steven Kwan 1.3 2.1
Joe Ryan 0.9 1.8
Jhoan Duran 0.3 0.7
George Kirby 0.3 0.7
Spencer Torkelson 1.4 0.6
Reid Detmers 0.4 0.5
ZiPS Rest-of-Season Projections

The projections see Rodríguez barely squeaking by Peña in total WAR by the end of the year, but the same three who lead the pack now are projected to fall within fractions of a win of each other. It certainly seems like whichever player from that trio is able to separate themselves over the summer will take home the award, while the rest of the field is much more of a long-shot.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Left of Centerfield
1 year ago

Seems like Oscar Gonzalez ought to be in that first table (0.8 WAR in 79 PAs). Granted he’s very, very, very unlikely to continue his present pace, but based on what he’s done so far, he deserves to be in there.

1 year ago

Gonzalez is up to 1.0 now.