We are officially one-quarter of the way through this baseball season. This is always a bittersweet statement to write/say, because as baseball progresses (yay), the NBA winds down (bigger yay), but baseball is also rapidly progressing and the best teams are emerging as just that; the best. We are learning more and more every day about who is a contender, who is a move or two away from competing and who still needs a year or two until competitiveness, and much like the teams themselves, we are learning who is beginning to lead the way for the player awards.
I want to focus specifically on the Rookie of the Year award. It feels to me, at least, that this year, we have a few early front-runners more than we had the past few years. Perhaps I am not the one to stake this claim; I predicted Jose Berrios to win Rookie of the Year last season and he got lit up for 52 runs in 58 innings. Rookie of the Year is always a tricky one; prospects earn a starting spot and are expected to deliver the world to their franchise and their fanbase, and anything less feels like a failure. Maybe not the case for 2016 winner Corey Seager, who also finished 3rd in MVP voting and is the cornerstone (with Clayton Kershaw, of course) for an LA dynasty should guys like Cody Bellinger (spoiler alert) and Julio Urias live up to expectations.
Rookie of the Year also brings an unspoken amount of pressure with it. It implies that the winner will have a wonderful and illustrious career; maybe not implies but definitely hopes. A Rookie of the Year win ignites hope and optimism to the fan base, if not for a World Series run, for the player’s professional glory (editorial: I hope the Tigers tear down the core but I hope Michael Fulmer becomes a Hall of Famer). It’s not easy to win Rookie of the Year, but it’s also not easy to play the rest of your career with the added pressure to live up to and repeat that initial performance. For most players, after years of training and honing in the minors, a Rookie of the Year campaign is almost expected, but for others, a win is just a bonus to making it to The Show. Here are my candidates (and May winners and predictions) to Rookie of the Year.
As of right now, this is a two horse race and the two horses aren’t even that close. M’s outfielder Mitch Haniger was off to a hot start in the bigs, but after an oblique strain, he’s been sidelined for nearly a month and will have to produce at a nearly impossible rate to make up ground on the other two.
Andrew Benintendi. After an impressive 2016 introductory campaign, slugging .476 with on OPS of .835 in 34 games last season, Red Sox fans are expecting big things from their left fielder. Joining Jackie Bradley, Jr., and MVP runner-up Mookie Betts in the outfield at Fenway Park, Benintendi got off to a hot start this season, batting .339/.400/.516/.916 through May 9, but has cooled down considerably since then to a .777 OPS and a .280 average. His 107 wRC+ indicates that he is still above league average, but compared to the following rookie, he is far below average.
Aaron Judge. The Yankees’ slugging prospect has put it all together. It felt like we were hearing about Judge for years; the Yankees have never operated based on a deep farm system, but they have held on to Judge through thick and thin, and for good reason. A first round draft pick in 2013, Judge has finally made it and is dropping jaws on a nightly basis, so much so that the Yankees have dedicated an entire section to cheering for him. So far this year, he is slugging .685 and an OPS of 1.104, which puts him at an absurd 195 wRC+; all 3 are the best figures among rookies in baseball. And 195 wRC+ is park adjusted! Essentially he’s being punished for playing at Yankee Stadium, but he is outslugging the metrics to be (statistically) the 3rd most efficient slugger in baseball behind Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman (who will miss time until mid-August with a broken wrist). Incredible. Not only is Aaron Judge the best rookie and the best hitter on the Yankees, but he is one of the best hitters in the American League. That said, it is still not even June – plenty of time for pitchers to scout him and find his weaknesses (even though he hits the ball so hard that most average flyouts are dingers), so I’m sure he’ll level out a little bit, but even so, he’s head and shoulders above other AL rookies so he is the easy choice.
May Winner: Aaron Judge
Actual Prediction: Aaron Judge
The NL is a different bear. There are a handful of leaders, but there isn’t a clear front-runner. Andrew Toles was off to a promising start before he, unfortunately, tore his ACL and will have to sit out the rest of the season. Rockies pitcher Antonio Senzatela has a good win/loss record so far, although that shouldn’t be the only criteria for award voting (yes, I’m still bitter about last year’s AL Cy Young), but his advanced metrics are only slightly better than other rookie starters in the league. In my mind, there are a few real candidates so far this season, one of whom has a better chance if playing time does not become an issue down the line.
Josh Bell. The Pirates have caught every terrible break possible so far this season, and what few players are eligible to play are not performing all that well, save for Bell (check in later for a Saved by the Bell pun). Seeing as he plays for a last-place team in the same division that has the Reds, Bell will likely be lost in the shuffle when it comes to year end voting but I don’t want his efforts to be forgotten. As the Pirates everyday first baseman, he sees pitches well and doesn’t strike out very much, nudging his OBP up to a respectable .346. His OPS of .853 is above league average as his is 125 wRC+. Those are not Aaron Judge numbers, but Bell’s been worth about a win above replacement. Not bad this far into the season.
Jesus Aguilar. The 27-year old rookie has had a hard time finding playing time behind Eric Thames. He has solid numbers thus far (.903 OPS, 130 wRC+) but he is not a starter for the Brewers. Playing in the NL behooves him because he gets lots of pinch-hit at-bats late in games, but if that’s the case, these numbers might not be sustainable. Additionally, he strikes out nearly 30% of his at-bats only has a 36% hard-hit ratio, which both indicate that his numbers will likely stagger. But for now, he’s at least in the conversation.
Cody Bellinger. Like the early 1990s, the Dodgers might have consecutive Rookies of the Year awards. Bellinger first got the call to The Show after the aforementioned Andrew Toles went down, and became even more valuable when Adrian Gonzalez went to the DL, too. He has played both first base and left field and is now considered the starting left fielder for the Dodgers, and even though he’s only played 23 games, he is on the way to having an impressive rookie season. So far, he has an OPS of nearly 1.000 (despite striking 30% of his at-bats), and is producing at a 151 wRC+ clip, quite impressive for a rookie. He has the highest WAR among NL rookies so far this season (in the smallest sample size), and if he manages to continue this pace, he will take it home.
May Winner: Cody Bellinger
Actual Prediction: Cody Bellinger
We shall see. Last year’s Rookies of the Year were pretty cut and dry, even though Michael Fulmer had only been around for a month at this point in the season. Veteran pitchers will undoubtedly find their way around these rookies so the numbers are likely to lag, but anything is possible. I just want to see Aaron Judge break Statcast.
Thank you for reading.
Header photo: Bill Kostroun