Coming into the season, much of the buzz surrounding the National League Rookie of the Year candidates centered on Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes along with some love for Atlanta Braves starter Ian Anderson and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson. Heck. Early on it looked like budding Miami Marlins star Jazz Chisholm’s to lose, but he has since faded. Regardless of where your rooting (or betting) interests are, there wasn’t a lot of that same attention being directed Jonathan India’s way.
But as we approach the middle of August, the award may very well be the Cincinnati Reds man at the keystone’s to lose. And not only does it look like he could be the one to take home such an accolade at the completion of 2021, it may be by a fairly wide margin.
During the 2020 season, India ranked as the no. 5 prospect in the Reds organization per MLB Pipeline. This is what they said about India:
The Reds still very much believe in India’s offensive upside. The right-handed hitter, despite otherwise pedestrian numbers, continued to show an advanced approach at the plate and excellent on-base skills in 2019, drawing a ton of walks at both levels. He has good swing mechanics and showed glimpses of the power that was on display his final year at Florida, especially to his pull side. India has average speed, but he’s an excellent baserunner who is aggressive on the basepaths.
For the most part, that’s exactly what India had demonstrated at the lower levels of the minor leagues. A constant on-base presence, India flashed occasional power and was always good for a few swipes. Interestingly, though, he wasn’t really on anyone’s radar as a candidate to break camp with the team.
While the shortstop situation in Cincinnati has been relatively murky for the last few years, there still didn’t appear to be a spot for him, with Mike Moustakas set to hold down second and Eugenio Suárez manning the hot corner. That eliminated the two prospective positions for India. However, after an absolutely torrid spring in which he hit .313 and reached base at a .441 clip, the Reds were far more inclined to slide Suárez over to short, move Moustakas back to third, and, subsequently, open up a spot for India on the roster.
Fast forward a few months, and the are Reds surging, sitting just five back of the division lead and 2.5 games out of a wild card spot. Their rookie second baseman has been a key cog in what has been one of the best offensive teams in the NL.
India’s slash on the year goes .283/.402/.460/.862, feeding into a wRC+ of 133. India’s 3.0 fWAR leads all rookies, as do his on-base and wRC+. While the power isn’t quite there on the consistent basis that it might be for some of his rookie counterparts, his 13 homers are still the fifth-most among that group, while his seven swipes are the fourth-most.
When you change the list to qualifying second basemen, India continues to lead the field in many statistical categories. That fWAR trumps the rest (with injured Nick Madrigal coming in second with 1.4), while he completely paces the field in OBP, homers, BB%, and wRC+. Like, it’s not close.
What’s interesting about India is how he’s evolved into an offensive threat. Because it didn’t necessarily start that way. He got off to a great start, with multiple hits in three of his first five games, but then kind of fell off...for a while. He hit just .239 in April (77 wRC+) before following it up with a .220 May (94 wRC+). He wasn’t making hard contact (20.0 percent in April, 23.9 in May), with a strikeout rate near 26 percent in the season’s opening month.
In June, something clicked. The walk rate climbed for the third consecutive month (over 15 percent in June), he hit the ball hard almost 43 percent of the time and posted a wRC+ of 141. That latter figure grew again in July, up to 171, while the first nearly two weeks of August has seen it balloon even further, to 192. Attributing to that rise in wRC+ is the power, where he’s grown from an ISO of .119 in each of April and May to climbing to over .200 for the first time in a month this year in July.
Perhaps most importantly for the Reds is that India has absolutely thrived in his role as a leadoff hitter. David Bell moved him to the top spot in the lineup at the beginning of June, with upwards of 260 plate appearances there to date. In that spot, he’s walking at a rate of nearly 14 percent, and reaching base at a rate over .400, with the occasional power continually illustrated in his .198 ISO.
What’s cool about Jonathan India, though, is that his evolution and development have been completely on display while realizing all of his tools that he’d long-possessed since being drafted out of the University of Florida. The walk rate climbed each of the first four months, while the strikeout rate never returned to its April peak. Somewhere in there, he also learned to hit offspeed pitches. In April, India hacked at 68 percent of offspeed, which resulted in an xwOBA of just .178. So far in August, he’s swinging at offspeed at a 60 percent rate—his highest since April—but coming in with an xwOBA of .570 and slugging 1.000. It’s really neat to see that kind of adjustment occur right in front of your eyeballs.
Another interesting development is in the batted ball distribution. Early in the year, India’s contact was to all fields; this is not unique given the scouting. He’s a high contact guy with an ability to do so to all parts of the field. In the first month of the year, he went to the opposite field about 28 percent of the time. That was cut to about 20 percent in each of the following months, while it’s fallen to 12.5 and 15.0 thus far in August. Has relying more on the pull side been an element of India’s upswing throughout the year? Possibly.
One final item of note here: August. Small sample, yes. But through 33 plate appearances in the month, India has made hard contact 45 percent of the time—his highest of the year—and has already hit three homers for the month. His highest monthly total this year was four. He’s also striking out 30 percent of the time while walking at a 6.1 percent rate; those are both his highest and lowest rates of the year so far. It’s a small sample, but you have to wonder if India starts selling out for a bit more power, what becomes of the other tools? It’s probably not a legitimate concern given that we’re only a third of a way through the month, but something worth monitoring nonetheless.
Jonathan India has become a wildly fun and interesting player to monitor, to the point where I might do this again exactly a year from now. His hit tool and his approach at the plate are fairly evident strengths. His patience at the plate (Swing% of 38.4) helps to compensate for some of his early struggles on the contact side (75.6 rate overall). He’s good for the occasional power and could be adding more based on what we’ve seen so far in August. Usually, you don’t get to see this kind of development at the top level, but we’re witnessing it with India to a degree where he’s not only about to walk away with the NL Rookie of the Year award, we might as well label him as the best second baseman in baseball.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.