There’s No Clear Favorite in the NL Rookie of the Year Race

MacKenzie Gore
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I took a look at the fascinating race for the American League Rookie of the Year award, where four of our top five preseason prospects who have made their major league debuts — three of them on Opening Day — are making for a packed and compelling competition. In the National League, the race is just as crowded, though there isn’t a clear-cut favorite. And while the race in the AL is filled with top prospects, there are far more surprises and underdogs in the NL.

Before we get into the details, here’s some important context from that previous article:

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.

Of those 11 top 50 prospects who started off the season in the major leagues, just five of them were in the National League. The highest-ranked player in that group was CJ Abrams (15), with the four others falling below 30th on our preseason list. That’s not to say that there’s a lack of highly regarded prospects making their debuts in the senior circuit; there have been a few more big call-ups since Opening Day, including our No. 8 prospect, Oneil Cruz, just a few days ago. Still, the differences between the two leagues are stark when you pull up the rookie leaderboards.

With that in mind, here are the best rookie performers in the NL through June 22:

NL Rookie of the Year Leaders
Player Team PA wRC+ OAA WAR Overall Prospect Rank
Brendan Donovan STL 180 148 -2 1.4 Unranked
Michael Harris II ATL 91 151 4 1.3 Unranked
Alek Thomas ARI 157 119 1 1.1 23
Luis Gonzalez SFG 180 129 -3 1.0 Unranked
Jack Suwinski PIT 173 116 1 0.9 Unranked
Nolan Gorman STL 107 136 -1 0.7 53
Christopher Morel CHC 151 117 -5 0.7 Unranked
Seiya Suzuki CHC 163 114 -1 0.6 Unranked
Geraldo Perdomo ARI 215 78 -1 0.5 83
Oneil Cruz PIT 14 37 0 0.0 8
CJ Abrams SDP 76 59 0 -0.1 15
Bryson Stott PHI 147 36 -1 -0.5 34
Player Team IP ERA FIP WAR Overall Prospect Rank
Spencer Strider ATL 47.2 3.40 2.38 1.2 Unranked
MacKenzie Gore SDP 54.1 3.64 3.28 1.2 Unranked
Aaron Ashby MIL 55 4.25 3.64 0.7 46
Graham Ashcraft CIN 33.1 3.51 3.88 0.5 Unranked
Roansy Contreras PIT 37.1 2.89 4.12 0.4 41
Hunter Greene CIN 65 5.26 5.30 0.1 31
Nick Lodolo CIN 14.2 5.52 4.63 0.1 51

Where the AL had a trio of top prospects leading the way, the NL has seven players firmly in front with plenty of others close behind. In that group, just Alek Thomas was ranked on our preseason top 100; the others were a mix of the unheralded, the very young, or those who had already lost their prospect sheen.

The biggest name in this group is MacKenzie Gore, unranked on our preseason list but once the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. His saga is well known by now. After a truly phenomenal minor league season in 2019, Gore looked like he was on the fast track to San Diego, but issues with his mechanics held him back during the shortened 2020 season despite the Padres’ desperate need for rotation help. That same refrain repeated last year, with San Diego turning to Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez, and a host of other equally poor options last summer in a hopeless search for answers during a late-season swoon. The fact that the Padres looked elsewhere when their need was greatest — twice! — speaks to just how much Gore was struggling.

After tinkering with all sorts of approaches last year, Gore showed up to spring training this season with some refined mechanics that helped alleviate the command issues he had dealt with over the last two seasons. He didn’t make the Opening Day roster but was called up a week after the season had started when Blake Snell suffered an adductor strain. He’s made 10 starts and a single relief appearance since then and has looked like the mid-rotation starter he was projected to be.

The key to his success — beyond fixing his command issues — has been a fantastic fastball that’s provided a strong foundation for his pitch arsenal. He throws it extremely hard for a lefty, and it possesses elite ride. Combined with his low release point, it’s a vertical approach angle monster, giving it an extra element of deception to go along with its great velocity. His secondary offerings always lagged behind his fastball as a prospect, but they’ve been good enough as a big leaguer to give him a solid four-pitch mix.

Unfortunately, Gore’s last two starts have been particularly rough: 14 runs in back-to-back starts against the Rockies, more than doubling his season total up to that point. Those recent struggles have exposed what happens when his newfound ability to spot his pitches suddenly escapes him. His fastball location was less than ideal in those two starts, and the Rockies punished him for it, posting a .445 wOBA off his heater — a huge increase over the .219 wOBA he had allowed previously. His whiff rate with his fastball, meanwhile, fell from 20.6% to just 10.8% during his last two starts.

The preseason favorite for NL ROY honors was Seiya Suzuki, who made the jump from Japan over to America this offseason. Unfortunately, after a great start to his MLB career, he struggled in May and then injured his left ring finger on an awkward slide on May 26, landing him on the IL. He’s only just recently resumed hitting and could return in the coming weeks. Despite his slump and absence, he’s still projected to accumulate the most WAR over the rest of the season among NL rookies, though as you can see, that wouldn’t be enough for him to finish first in total WAR in that group:

NL Rookie Projections
Player ROS ZiPS WAR Total Projected WAR
Brendan Donovan 1.1 2.5
Michael Harris II 1.1 2.4
Alek Thomas 1.3 2.4
Seiya Suzuki 1.7 2.3
Nolan Gorman 1.4 2.1
Spencer Strider 0.7 1.9
Jack Suwinski 0.8 1.7
Aaron Ashby 1.0 1.7
Luis González 0.6 1.6
MacKenzie Gore 0.4 1.6
Oneil Cruz 1.3 1.3
Geraldo Perdomo 0.6 1.1
Roansy Contreras 0.6 1.0
Graham Ashcraft 0.4 0.9
Nick Lodolo 0.6 0.7
Christopher Morel -0.1 0.6
Hunter Greene 0.5 0.6
CJ Abrams 0.3 0.2
Bryson Stott 0.7 0.2
ZiPS Rest-of-Season Projections

The two players at the top of that table, Brendan Donovan and Michael Harris II, have continued to build on strong debuts. The former might get overlooked a bit since he’s essentially filling a super-utility role on a strong Cardinals roster. His batted ball peripherals are also concerning, with his .388 BABIP propping up a lot of his 148 wRC+, only two barreled balls on the year, and a mediocre 37.7% hard-hit rate. That said, Donovan’s all-fields approach with plenty of ground balls and line drives has helped him get positive results when putting the ball in play, and his plate discipline has been excellent.

Harris has been a revelation in Atlanta. Originally called up because of his defense, his bat has surprisingly carried a lot of his production so far. Despite just 196 plate appearances in Double-A this year (and none at Triple-A), he’s posted a 151 wRC+ after 24 games in the majors. What’s likely helped is that the Braves identified a hole in his swing upon his initial call-up and have already implemented a change. That’s helped him produce plenty of power when he makes contact, though his plate discipline hasn’t been all that great. The elite defense in center field is for real, too, giving him another avenue to continue to contribute.

Harris isn’t the only standout rookie in Atlanta. Spencer Strider started the season in the bullpen in a piggybacking role with some of the Braves’ other young pitching prospects. He excelled enough to see some time in short, high-leverage appearances in mid-May and then made the transition to the starting rotation in June. No matter how he’s been deployed, he’s been phenomenal, utilizing a fastball that hits triple digits to great effect, paired with a nasty slider that’s running a 51.1% whiff rate. The one thing that could hold him back is the lack of a third pitch, limiting his effectiveness when working through a lineup multiple times.

Then there are the top prospects who could make some noise this summer: Alek Thomas, Nolan Gorman, and Oneil Cruz. Thomas just had a 12-game hitting streak snapped on Tuesday but followed it up with his sixth home run of the season on Wednesday. He’s had the longest stint in the majors of this trio, which means he’s already padded his WAR total. Gorman has shown off his 70-grade raw power, already matching Thomas’ home run total in 11 fewer games. His batted ball peripherals all support that, with above-average marks in barrel rate, maximum exit velocity, and hard-hit rate. Cruz made his major league debut late last September and only made his 2022 debut a few days ago, but he is poised to make a huge impact during the second half of the season. His raw power is immediately evident whenever he makes contact, but there are enough concerns about his plate approach that he could fall short of some of the other rookies who are more established already.

The most interesting thing about the NL Rookie of the Year race is that there are very few teams poised to take advantage of the new service time rules. Of the players listed above, just seven of them made their team’s Opening Day roster, though a handful of others, including Gore, will probably gain a full year’s worth of service time because they were called up early enough. Without a runaway favorite in the race, and with a number of top prospects recently recalled, there’s no telling which teams might be poised to gain an extra draft pick via the award voting.

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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1 year ago

If you predicted Brendan Donovan, Luis Gonzalez, or Jack Suwinski as the NL Rookie of the Year…no, you didn’t. Don’t pull my leg.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Fangraphs wrote Suwinski up as a pure DH with a 20/20 fielding tool. But he’s posted a +1 OAA with a lot of innings in CF … what gives there? Scouting miss? Or just a remarkable improvement?

1 year ago
Reply to  proiste

Massive scouting miss. They also tagged him with a 30 run tool, which is laughable as his statcast has him in the 87th percentile for sprint speed.

1 year ago
Reply to  jmichaelpenn19

Wow that’s a rough one lmao

1 year ago
Reply to  jmichaelpenn19

I don’t know what it is but I have now seen many, many cases where the speed tool is underrated based on the fact that they’re big. Bobby Witt Jr is the fastest by Statcast this year but both and Fangraphs put him down as a 60. Julio Rodriguez is 13th and both and Fangraphs gave him a 50 (FG bumped him up later, but still). Tyler O’Neill is in the Top 10; gave him a 45; FG was better at 55, but still that’s pretty low.

I don’t understand this at all. Granted, people are more wrong about other tools than speed, but that’s because speed should be the easiest tool to evaluate. How is it that everyone is so wrong about speed when guys are big like that? Isn’t it just sourcing home-to-first times? ( did do a better job with Suwinski, giving him a 50 speed, but it’s hard to say they did a better job considering the huge whiff on O’Neill).

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Can you send us the link for speed measurements by Statcast?

1 year ago
Reply to  frank

If I put in a link it’ll get held up in moderation but if you google:
statcast sprint speed leaderboard
You’ll get it.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Is speed just supposed to be speed or is it shorthand for base running? If it’s just speed you’d think it shouldn’t be measured on the 20-80 scale but just some estimated ft/s like how velocity is measured for pitching prospects.

1 year ago
Reply to  TKDC

My understanding is speed is supposed to be the burst of acceleration used for baserunning more so than what you might do roaming the outfield. Although one obviously is correlated with the other, so often it’s moot.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

IIRC the scouts were never big on Harrison Bader in CF. I think it was a consensus that he could play it but never that he was anything special there. And then he came into the bigs and has been elite in CF from the beginning, and not just in the advanced stats, but the eye test makes you believe it as well. How can that happen?

1 year ago
Reply to  burts_beads

That is my recollection as well–a lot of 50s and 55s on his fielding in CF. But I also recall that Clay Davenport’s minor league defensive stats figured out that Bader was going to be really good. And while I don’t have any clue what goes into Davenport’s minor league defensive stats, that’s when I started paying a lot of attention to them.

formerly matt w
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

There have been stories about how Julio Rodriguez improved his speed by training with Yo Murphy, so maybe that is down to legitimate improvement in his tools rather than a scouting miss. Not to defend the others!

1 year ago

I’m sure he improved, but jumping from a 50 to an 80? I’m not so sure

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

You might be surprised what proper sprint training can do. To go from a 50 to an 80 means shaving about 0.3 seconds off a home to first time, or 0.7 seconds off a 60 yard sprint. Learning to accelerate to full speed just a bit quicker, lengthening each stride just a hair, and tightening up running mechanics in an elite level athlete who may never have focused on such details could definitely be responsible for those kinds of increases.

1 year ago
Reply to  proiste

Of all the deals the Pirates have made in the last few years, the one where they traded Adam Frazier for Marcano, Suwinski, and a lottery ticket guy is the one that looked the worst. I think pretty much everyone panned it.

But Suwinski and Marcano have combined for 1.3 fWAR in about 250 PAs. If these guys are going to be 2+ win players then the Pirates will be super, super happy.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I watched a lot of Marcano in AA. His bat to ball skills are special.

1 year ago
Reply to  proiste

“A lot of innings” is not the 50 innings Suwinski has played in CF. If we’re going to draw conclusions based on insanely small sample sizes, then you should also note that defensive metrics currently peg him as “awful” in 150 innings in left field.