Solid MLB rookie class means AL, NL Rookie of the Year races are still wide open
The crop of MLB rookies is solid this year. Not epic, but solid. Remember the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year race, when Ronald Acuña Jr., beat out Juan Soto and Walker Buehler? Anyone?
Yeah. Crazy. This year isn’t like that one, but we have seen the arrival of several players who will make an impact in the big leagues for a very long time.
Let’s look at the leaders in each league heading into the last few weeks of the season. Both races are up for grabs.
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American League Rookie of the Year contenders
Randy Arozarena, Rays
Numbers of note: 19 HR, 62 RBI, 13 SB, 133 OPS+, 3.4 bWAR
Why he’s here: Arozarena’s performance last October was the stuff of legend. He tripled in the Rays’ first playoff game, hit two doubles in the second and homered in the team’s third, fourth and fifth playoff contests last year. And the thing is, he never really slowed down. The Rays made it all the way to Game 6 of the World Series, and in those 20 games Arozarena hit 10 home runs to go with a .377 average and a 1.273 OPS.
So, yeah, it feels strange to think that a guy who performed like an undaunted October veteran is still eligible for the Rookie of the Year award. His 2021 season hasn’t been a replay of that incredible month last fall, and there have been ups and downs. But he had an excellent August that pushed him back near the top of the ROY conversation, batting .362 with a 1.081 OPS, and he does have the best bWAR on the team with the best record in the AL.
Adolis Garcia, Rangers
Numbers of note: 29 HR, 78 RBI, 109 OPS+, 3.4 bWAR
Why he’s here: It’s not going to be overly thrilling for Cardinals fans to see ex-Cardinals prospects finishing 1-2 in the AL rookie race. At least Arozarena was traded away, though. St. Louis designated Garcia for assignment and the Rangers picked him up for a bit of cash. Not sure exactly how much cash, but it’s safe to say that it was less than the going rate for most sluggers who have 29 homers with a couple of weeks left in the season.
Garcia caught fire in May, bopping 11 homers to go with 27 RBIs, a .333 average and a 1.098 OPS over a 22-game stretch. The average has dropped since then — he’s batting .224 since the first of June — but Garcia has still been a reliable source of power — 13 homers in that same time frame — in a lineup that very much needs reliable power, especially with Joey Gallo now playing in New York.
Luis Garcia, Astros
Numbers of note: 3.29 ERA, 134 IP, 10.4 K/9, 2.6 bWAR
Why he’s here: The Astros had a dilemma in late May. A good dilemma. They had too many good starting pitchers. The guy who got bumped from the rotation, Cristian Javier, had a 3.14 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings over nine starts. Add those nine 2021 starts to the 10 he made as a rookie in 2020, and Javier had a career 3.42 ERA with a 9.5 K/9 ratio. And yeah, he got bumped for Luis Garcia. That’s what the Astros think of his talent.
And he’s delivered. He’s made 21 starts since the beginning of May and has allowed zero, one or two earned runs 13 times. He’s allowed more than four runs just twice.
“He was masterful,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said after a late August start, during which he shut out the Royals for 6 2/3 innings.
That’s been a common theme. It’ll be interesting how much the Astros use him down the stretch. He’s thrown 134 innings, easily a professional high for the 24-year-old, and it’s very possible that Houston limits his innings — maybe hindering his chances of winning the award? — to keep him around for the postseason, which is a more important goal.
Others: Look, Wander Franco didn’t made his debut until late June, but he’s currently riding a 36-game on-base streak — tying Mickey Mantle for second all-time among players 20 or younger — and if he keeps this going, he might just catch his Rays teammate, Arozarena, and pass everyone else, too. Ryan Mountcastle followed up his stellar 2020 run with a frigid start to 2021 for Baltimore, but he’s rallied nicely and has 25 homers and an .810 OPS. The Tigers are going to be real good, very quickly, folks: Rule 5 pickup Akil Baddoo has 12 homers, 14 stolen bases and a .787 OPS, former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize has a 3.51 ERA in 26 starts and catcher Eric Haase — his rise might be even more unlikely than Baddoo’s — has 20 homers as a rookie. Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase is a smooth-throwing closer with a triple-digit fastball and a 1.51 ERA with 21 saves (in 25 opportunities) this year.
National League Rookie of the Year contenders
Jonathan India, Reds
Numbers of note: 18 HR, 9 SB, .377 OBP, 3.2 bWAR
Why he’s here: The No. 5 overall pick of the 2018 MLB draft, India won the starting job at second base in spring training, and looked like a future Hall of Famer coming out of the gate; in his first six games, he had 10 RBIs, hit .476 with a 1.099 OPS. Then, the bottom fell out for a spell, as he batted just .109 in his next 10 games, and he was still chugging along with a .230 average and .683 OPS through the end of May.
But he hit .303 with a .425 on-base percentage in June and followed that with a .319/.470 showing in July. So, yeah, it’s not surprising that those are the two months the Reds ditched their sub-.500 ways and jumped back into the thick of the NL wild-card race.
Trevor Rogers, Marlins
Numbers of note: 2.52 ERA, 21 GS, 10.4 K/9, 3.3 bWAR
Why he’s here: Rogers has made 21 starts this season, and he’s yet to allow more than three runs in any start. He’s allowed more than six hits in a start just once, but he’s struck out at least six in 15 of those 21 starts. His ERA didn’t jump above 2.00 to stay until mid-June. So why isn’t he the leader right now? He spent most of August on the IL, returning to make a start on Sept. 4 that was good but not great — 4 1/3 innings, six hits, two earned runs — and India’s been really good atop the Reds lineup in that same span.
Patrick Wisdom, Cubs
Numbers of note: 25 HR, .848 OPS, 1.9 bWAR
Why he’s here: Wisdom isn’t like other rookies on this list. For starters, he’s 30. And this is the fourth different season that Wisdom has appeared in the big leagues, but he only had 88 total plate appearances in those years: 58 with the Cardinals in 2018, 28 with the Rangers in 2019 and two with the Cubs in 2021. But he qualifies — he’s under the minimum in at-bats and roster days — and he’s been the biggest bright spot of the season for the Cubs.
Among players with at least 300 plate appearances this year, Wisdom ranks fourth in fewest at-bats per home run: Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Zunino check in at 10.4, Shohei Ohtani’s at 10.8 and Wisdom is 11.2. That’s pretty select company — the likely AL MVP, the likely NL MVP and an All-Star catcher.
Others: There’s an outside chancen that Ian Anderson could make a push with a stellar September for Atlanta, but he spent a lot of time on the IL and his ERA, while solid at 3.61 in 20 starts, is still behind Rogers with a similar number of outings. Dylan Carlson has been solid in the top half of the Cardinals’ lineup this year, with a .342 on-base percentage, 13 homers and a 2.1 bWAR. Marlins middle infielder Jazz Chisholm is electric when healthy; he has 14 homers, 18 stolen bases and a 1.9 bWAR.
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