The 2016 MLB season is approaching the halfway mark, which provides enough of a sample size to assess the American and National League races for Rookie of the Year.
I’ve identified three top candidates from each league, based on overall performance and whether they’ve helped their clubs rise to the top of their respective leagues or divisions. Often ROY voters don’t necessarily focus on how big of an impact a rookie’s had on a team’s win-loss column, though last year they did with the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa each taking home honors and helping their teams reach the postseason.
As of now, this year’s potential candidates are on a mix of winning, struggling, or in-between squads, but they could turn their individual and team fortunes around over the next few months.
Royals’ Whit Merrifield: If not for Whit Merrifield’s unexpected arrival to the Royals last month, Kansas City might not be in contention for a playoff spot right now. It’s true, because for the first three months of this season, the 2016 Royals have been defined by injuries. Injuries, that’s taken a toll throughout its roster. First, by losing third basemen Mike Moustakas for the remainder of the year and also outfielder Alex Gordon for over a month and half. A grave setback like this has discombobulated KC’s roster which has been scattered with inexperienced minor leaguers, such as Merrifield, Brett Eibner and Cheslor Cuthbert.
To the dismay of many, the Royals have found success with their surplus of young talent with Merrifield at the heart of it all. In doing so, Merrifield is providing value in all phases of the game, with the bat, with the glove, and on the base paths. His versatility as a utility player has extended the life of Kansas City’s defensive alignment – as he’s started at three different positions – left field, third base and most prominently second, where he’s taken the place of the DFA’d Omar Infante, since his call-up in May.
Merrifield also has solidified himself as the Royals’ lead-off hitter, a spot that shortstop Alcides Escobar claimed for the past two seasons. The numbers that the 27-year old has produced is off-the-charts and ranks as one of the best for all qualified AL rookies. Merrifield ranks no. 2 in fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement) for all AL rookies, and he’s only behind Rangers’ Nomar Mazara with 1.4 WAR. Note that Mazara has played 66 games compared to Merrifield’s 32, and that WAR is a counting stat. To continue, Merrifield is hitting .324 to compliment a .348 on-base percentage and .456 slugging percentage.
Indians’ Tyler Naquin: Through 45 games and 123 plate appearances, corner outfielder Tyler Naquin has been a key component for Cleveland’s first place start in the AL Central. Currently, Naquin is slashing .324/.380/.577 with five home runs and 14 RBIs.
In such a lefty-dominant lineup that the Indians have, Naquin’s consistent bat and surge of power has become a mainstay at the back-end of its batting order. For the season, the Indians have tallied the sixth most home runs (90), fourth most runs (351) in the AL. In addition to his extension of power, Naquin’s versatility in the outfield has shown up greatly in dispense for Rajai Davis.
Rangers’ Nomar Mazara: Mazara’s numbers on paper – .287 AVG, .336 OBP and 101 wRC+ – may be the lowest out of all the other American League candidates. However, the extremely large sample size can’t be ignored. Mazara has the most at-bats (255) and plate appearances (283) than any rookie in the AL, and in doing so, Mazara also holds an outstanding K%. For those of you who are immune to the meaning of strikeout rate, it’s essentially a measured percentage over the amount of swing and miss strikeouts a hitter comes across in an at-bat.
Anyway, it’s a counting stat, so earning a low strikeout-rate is better than a high one. In Mazara’s case it’s 17%, which is very good considering his PA’s and AB’s are high. Also, Mazara’s 11 home runs and 30 RBI’s, at least for now, slots Mazara as the front-runner for the award. Overall, he may not have a distinct advantage over any other candidate, however there isn’t a true flaw in his game, which should count for something.
Dodgers’ Corey Seager: As a team, the Dodgers are at the bottom of the barrel in baseball’s three most common hitting categories: AVG, OBP and OPS. However, starting shortstop Cory Seager has proved to be the exception, leading the team with 88 hits, as well as carrying a .297 AVG, .354 OBP and .881 OPS. Seager’s instituted a jolt of power into the otherwise weak contact hitting Dodgers’ lineup. In 325 PA’s, which is the most out of any rookie in baseball, Seager has also accounted for 16 homers, 18 doubles and 38 RBIs.
No other rookie in the MLB has a better WAR (3.4), wOBA (.372) and wRC+ (138) in at least 200 plate appearances than Seager. Seager may have slightly lower hitting numbers than compared to other rookies, but one advantage he has over the rest of the competition is his high sample size. That goes a long way in determining who is the best candidate.
Cardinals’ Aledmys Diaz: Continuing with shortstops, St. Louis has groomed one of their own into a top 10 hitter as far as average is concerned across the NL, hitting .305. Diaz is somewhat of an older rookie at 25, however he’s performed at incredible levels so far this season, being third on the team in on-base percentage at .365. Diaz’ patience at the plate has also factored in how manager Mike Matheny constructs his lineup. His extremely low K% of 12.1 is more inclined to a lead-off hitter, instead Matheny values hit power too with 10 home runs and 39 RBIs. In a case like this, Diaz has supplied the best of both worlds as the eighth hitter in St. Louis’ batting order.
Rockies’ Trevor Story: If you can recollect back to the first month of the season, Trevor Story was a HR machine churning out 10 big flies in Colorado’s first 22 games. Of course, you’d expect the law of averages to even those numbers out to a certain degree and from May and June it has. Story’s seen a steep drop-off in average hitting .266 and getting on-base only 32 percent of the time. Actually, the biggest decline for Story hasn’t been power, it’s been his discipline at the plate. Through 71 games, Story has a 33% strikeout-rate, way too high for being in the middle the lineup. Even with his recent struggles, Story still carries a .577 slugging percentage and .280 ISO average, both best for all rookies in National League.