With only a few games left to play, the National League Rookie of the Year award is far from settled. In recent years, stud prospects like Ryan Braun, Hanley Ramirez and Ryan Howard have posted strong rookie seasons to earn the award, but there is no clear front-runner this year.
The closest we have to anointed future stars are Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson. Some fans expected Colby Rasmus of the Cardinals to fit that bill, but his second half at the plate has relegated him to second-tier status.
It’s easy to come up with 10 or 12 names that will each garner some votes. It’s tougher to settle on a handful of favorites. I’ll try to present the cases for five candidates in some detail, then throw in some honorable mentions. Feel free to place your votes in the comments.
Even though it’s been years since the era of Glavine, Smoltz and Avery, there’s a certain mystique whenever a highly touted Braves pitching prospect arrives. Hanson had that imprimatur, and he delivered.
He debuted in early June and didn’t get hit with a loss until his ninth start, on July 25. His stat line couldn’t look much better: 11-4, 2.98 ERA, 107 strikeouts against 44 walks in 120 innings. Had he performed at that pace for six months instead of four, he would get some Cy Young Award votes, as well.
Happ will see Hanson’s 11-4, 2.98 ERA, and raise him a 12-4, 2.85 ERA. If you had to pick a pitcher to build your team around, you’d definitely take Hanson, but it’s arguable who has done more for his team this season.
Happ started the year in the bullpen, making a dozen appearances, striking out 17 in 19.2 innings. He made his first start on May 23 and, again bettering Hanson, didn’t lose a decision until two months later. He’s only had a couple of hiccups in the rotation, throwing two shutouts amid 14 quality starts.
Happ may get a few cheap votes as the best candidate from a playoff team. He might also benefit if voters see him as a full-season contributor in comparison to the players who spent April and May in the minors.
If we go strictly by Wins Above Replacement, McCutchen is your man, at 3.0, compared to 2.6 for Randy Wells and 2.4 for Garrett Jones. That’s all the more impressive because the Pirates didn’t recall their young center fielder until the beginning of June.
Since then, McCutchen has done two difficult things: hit major league pitching, and play a credible center field. There was no awkward transition period, as he hit .400 in his first 25 at-bats. He’s suffered through a bit of a September swoon, but that has to be weighed against his sparkling .304/.387/.618 August.
McCutchen and Hanson are very similar candidates: mega-prospects made good from June to September. A weak Pirates club isn’t going to help McCutchen’s candidacy, but without a clear alternative, it’s easy to see him winning the award anyway.
McGehee is a surprisingly strong candidate. The 26-year-old reclamation project has hit .300, slugged .500 and saved the Brewers from giving Bill Hall even more playing time. (The downside: He’s kept the Brewers from giving Mat Gamel playing time, as well.)
His offense is more impressive than you might think. Despite coming into the season with an unclear role—perhaps a platoon mate, maybe a utilityman—he performed credibly (.344 OBP) in 32 pinch-hit plate appearances, and he has almost identical lefty-righty splits.
The big question mark is his defense. He played some second base, but that was born of desperation. UZR doesn’t like him at third, and I don’t think you’ll find many fans who will defend his glovework. McGehee may not be the best candidate, but between his shiny .300 average and the Brewers’ campaign to get him votes, we’ll be hearing a lot more about him until the results are announced.
Measured by WAR, Wells (2.6) has had a better season than either Hanson (2.3) or Happ (1.8). Six months ago, that was unthinkable. He has a more pedestrian win-loss record (11-10), which will hurt him among more traditional voters, but he has made more starts than Hanson or Happ, and he hasn’t had a single outing in which he gave up more than five earned runs. (The flip side is that he’s had four of those five-run outings, all since Aug. 9.)
It’s tough to imagine Wells getting enough votes, especially since the Cubs have fallen out of the race. A case can be made for him, though, as the player who best saved his team from disaster. Little was expected of him this year, but as the Cubs lost man after man to injury, Wells served as the innings eater the team didn’t know it needed. He’s the pitching version of Casey McGehee.
Also in the running
Five more names for your consideration:
- Everth Cabrera (SD): The Rule 5 pick made good. You can make a case for him if you like his glove, but the advanced stats sure don’t.
- Chris Coghlan (FLA): Great bat (.319/.389/.457), but weak glove in LF, and who outside of the division has heard of him?
- Dexter Fowler (COL): His 27 stolen bases will get attention, but he’s got ugly home-away splits, which isn’t a good thing for a Rockies hitter whose season OPS is under .800.
- Garrett Jones (PIT): 21 home runs and a .301 average since the beginning of July, but it’s tough to give a full-season award to somebody for a great half-season on a bad team.
- Colby Rasmus (STL): Three months ago he had the award wrapped up. Then he not only fell apart, but McCutchen also came along and did everything better. Rasmus is the superior defender, but his second-half OPS is a dreadful .596.
My vote is for McCutchen, Hanson and McGehee, in that order. But in a race this close, if you ask me again tomorrow, I may well change my mind.