Late April might seem like far too early of a time to discuss the awards races across MLB, but the battle for the AL’s Rookie of the Year award is already shaping up to be a noteworthy contest. (Plus, it’s not that early—Mike Trout has nearly accumulated 2.0 WAR after all.)
With two major international free agents signing this winter, the AL’s best rookies have more talent than we normally see in a given year’s crop of newcomers. Through four starts, Masahiro Tanaka has made his big contract with the Yankees look justifiable and then some. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu has been equally as impressive, possessing offensive skills that place him among the AL’s best power hitters. In addition, Boston’s Xander Bogaerts has shown the type of plate approach and budding power rarely seen in someone so young.
So how do the candidates stack up thus far, and what are their chances of garnering the most praise from awards voters come season’s end?
The Japanese import’s first four starts in pinstripes have gone better than anyone could have expected. In 29 innings, Tanaka has posted a 2.62 FIP, struck out 35 batters and walked just two. His 31.5% strikeout rate is fifth-best in baseball and ranks better than that of Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale and David Price.
Although Tanaka’s miniscule 1.8% walk rate is likely unsustainable, it certainly jibes with the reports that came out of Japan praising the right-hander’s strong command. Tanaka’s slider and splitter, both of which produce above-average whiff rates, have led to his impressive 14.9% swinging strike rate, which is more than 5% better than league-average.
So far, Tanaka’s formula of getting ahead in the count and putting hitters away with offspeed stuff that generates whiffs and ground balls has worked quite well. He has shown a slight problem with the home run ball, but even so, Tanaka is the early favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year crown, especially if he can rack up a bunch of wins (these are awards, after all) behind a rejuvenated Yankees offense. He is probably in for some regression, however, which could open the door for another candidate.
Abreu was nearly as touted as Tanaka coming into 2014, and like his counterpart in New York, Abreu hasn’t disappointed in the early going. The Cuban native is batting .256/.337/.593 through his first 23 games, belting seven home runs and posting a 148 wRC+. Abreu’s .337 ISO is the second-best mark in baseball.
So the 27-year-old’s power has come as advertised, but even more importantly, Abreu has demonstrated enough ability to take walks and limit strikeouts to allow his OBP to stay up and his tremendous power to play. That alone should allow him to keep mashing as the season goes on. A subpar BABIP and optimistic ZIPS projections for the rest of season also indicate Abreu could see some positive regression in the months ahead.
If he can rack up the home runs and RBI in the middle of a surprisingly strong White Sox lineup (and friendly home ballpark), Abreu could make this a close race for the AL rookie crown. In another year, he would be a slam-dunk choice.
Non-Red Sox fans are probably tired of hearing all the praise being thrown Bogaerts’ way, but that shouldn’t diminish his precocious ability. At the age of 21 (four years younger than Tanaka and six less than Abreu), Bogaerts is batting .270/.393/.351 for Boston at shortstop. Although his power has yet to show consistently, the Aruba native has still compiled a 115 wRC+.
His on-base ability and plate approach, moreover, look near elite. The shortstop is averaging 4.33 pitches per plate appearance, a mark that ranks among the top 15 in the AL. The power, if his only home run of the season is any indication, should come as well. Considering Bogaerts always hit better as the weather warmed up during his minor league career, there is a decent chance his hitting will only improve as the season continues.
Bogaerts’ biggest drawback is his defense, which as expected, has been a bit below league-average in 2014. He likely won’t quite measure up to Tanaka or Abreu come September, though I wouldn’t bet against Bogaerts making things interesting.
Beyond Tanaka, Abreu and Bogaerts, the AL has plenty of other talented rookies as well. Yordano Ventura, George Springer, Josmil Pinto and Nick Castellanos all could garner votes by year’s end, with Ventura being the most likely to actually make a run at that top spot.
What this year’s crop of newcomers truly speaks to is how diverse the MLB talent pool has become. Tanaka and Abreu have arrived from a burgeoning international free agent pipeline, while Ventura and Bogaerts demonstrate the power that prospect development has in today’s game. For baseball fans, seeing more players arrive on the scene who can contribute immediately at a young age is an exciting and encouraging trend.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball unless otherwise noted.
Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He works as an Editorial Producer for MLB.com and also writes for SB Nation's MLB hub. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.