Every team has at least 62 games under their belts this season, and we’ve seen quite a few impressive performances out of rookies from nearly every position on the diamond thus far. One quick note, in last month’s rankings we had Lance Lynn of the St. Louis Cardinals included, but this month he has been taken out because he does not qualify as a rookie. He was on the Cardinal roster for a few too many days last season to qualify for this season’s award, so his removal has nothing to do with performance. In fact Lynn has been one of the National League’s elite pitchers this season, and would rank 1st or 2nd if he qualified as a rookie. Now on to the list, which has some fresh faces and a more offensive outlook this month:
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
April 28th, the day the Angels decided to cut Bobby Abreu to bring up the 20-year-old outfielder was THE day that turned their season around. In his first 40 games, Trout has torn the league apart, hitting .341/.401/.541 with 6 homers, 26 RBI and 16 steals, which is the current high mark in the AL. Just to put a little perspective on that, Trout LEADS the league in steals despite playing 20 fewer games than every other AL speedster ranked in the top-5, granted mainstay Brett Gardner has been injured most of the year. Trout is already one of my favorite outfielders to watch, because he nearly always takes good routes to the baseball, has great athleticism, and is willing to risk his body to make a catch, a trait that pitchers love. If he can keep his play up at this level for another couple of months, Trout will run away with the Rookie of the Year award and will play his way into the MVP discussion.
2. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Harper has been on an absolute tear over his last 10 games, hitting .381/.458/.667 with 3 homers and 8 RBI, while going 2/3 on steals. He’s shown monster power this season, hitting a couple of enormous homeruns to straightaway center, including this bomb during Washington’s sweep of Toronto. Harper currently has an OPS+ of 150, which would be the highest for a 19-year-old player in the history of baseball. Want another example of how good Harper has been at age-19? The last 2 big 19-year-old prospects to receive this amount of hype were Ken Griffey Jr. (OPS+: 108) and Alex Rodriguez (72 before tearing the league up at age-20 with a 162 OPS+), neither of whom were as good as Harper has been so far. With the return of Michael Morse, who should provide good pop in the middle of the lineup, and the streaking Bryce Harper, the Nats now have some offense to match with their elite pitching staff.
3. Wade Miley, Arizona Diamondbacks
Miley has been a godsend for the Diamondbacks this season, with so many different pitchers struggling after strong 2011 campaigns. He’s a classic sinkerball pitcher, with an excellent changeup, and the ability to get a ground ball when he needs it. Miley has the 2nd best ERA+ in the NL at 176, with a 7th most wins, and 9th best WHIP. His biggest strength is his ability to generate grounders on a little more than 10% of all the pitches he throws, which is elite for a starting pitcher. Miley also does an excellent job limiting base running opportunities, with all 3 potential base thieves being gunned down in over 75 innings of work. This attentiveness towards runners usually isn’t shown by rookies, who are normally focused on getting batters out, but Miley looks to be the exception to the rule.
4. Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
Last month I discussed some of the positives that Darvish has going for him: his high K/9 rate, the baffling array of pitches at his disposal, and his Nippon League experience. This month I want to take a look at some of his issues, particularly his walk problem. He’s 2nd in the AL with 44 walks allowed, and he’s 7th with 4 total batters hit by pitches. This has really begun to affect him on the mound, and has reduced his K/BB rate to 1.75, which is poor for an elite strikeout pitcher (9 or more K/9 inn) like Darvish. Batters are taking advantage of his wildness now as well, making him throw more pitches, taking more early in the count. Batters hit .293 if they get ahead in the count, but only .191 when the Texas ace gets ahead. Brooks-Baseball.net counts 7 different pitches in Darvish’s arsenal, a 4-seam, cutter, sinker, slider, curve, change, and splitter, but he struggles to locate nearly all of his pitches, throwing 4 of the 7 for balls more than 40% of the time. Yu may need to focus on mastering just a couple of pitches, so he can get ahead in the count more, which will lead to piles of strikeouts and Ranger wins.
5. Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore Orioles
Chen rates just behind his fellow Nippon Pro League import in ERA+ at 112, which is excellent for a new pitcher in the AL East, where some of the elite offenses in baseball reside. Chen is 6-2 on the season, with a 1.323 WHIP and 55/24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s only failed to go 5 innings in 1 of his 12 starts, and Chen is consistent, with at least 4-5 K’s every start but his debut. Chen has made half of his starts against top-10 offenses in the MLB, and has been solid in those as well. In his last start at Fenway Park against the Red Sox’ 2nd-ranked offense, he shut them down, allowing only 1 run in 7 innings, picking up the win. Baltimore has quietly found a pitcher nearly as valuable as Darvish, for a quarter of the cost, which is a great pickup by the front office.
6. Kirk Nieuwenhuis, New York Mets
The 6’3″, 215 pound outfielder has quietly been one of New York’s most valuable hitters this season. Nieuwenhuis has hit .298/.360/.429 with 5 homers, 23 RBI, and 4 steals for Mets, helping them to 2nd place through 64 games this season. Nieuwenhuis has proved to be a strong versatile defensive player, appearing at all 3 outfield positions in at least 12 games so far this season. His play has been strong no matter whether he’s in center, where he’s appeared in 36 games, or left, or right. Nieuwenhuis needs to improve his poor 3-1 K/BB ratio if he wants to make the next leap as a hitter, because his .400 BABIP isn’t sustainable (league avg. is .295 and good hitters sit around .330), but he’s been excellent in his age-24 season for the Mets.
7. Jarrod Parker, Oakland A’s
Parker hasn’t thrown as many innings as the rest of the pitchers on this list, but he’s been excellent in the 60.2 he has thrown this year. He has taken advantage of the cavernous Coliseum, and posted a 2.82 ERA with 45 K’s to 30 BB’s. He’s only given up an elite 6.8 hits/9 innings throwing mostly fastballs, while mixing in a solid changeup, slider, and sinker. Parker needs to work on locating his pitches, because he allows far too many free base runners due to his high walk rate. If he can cut down walks and continue to generate weak contact on balls that are put in play, Parker has a chance to be an above average major league pitcher with a long career.
8. Zach Cozart, Cincinnati Reds
There is somewhat of a drop-off in performance from this point of the list on down, but that doesn’t mean these players haven’t had solid rookie seasons. Cozart has proven to be a dependable defense first shortstop with a little pop in his bat during his first full season in Cincinnati. He has a .255/.303/.426 triple slash with 7 homers and 36 runs scored, due mostly to hitting ahead of Joey Votto. Cozart also has 15 doubles and a pair of triples, showing the potential to develop more power as he gets more comfortable against major league pitching.
9. Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox
Middlebrooks has done just about exactly what was expect out of him in his first 33 games this season. He’s hit with excellent power, providing the Red Sox with 6 homers and 22 RBI with an .825 OPS. His issue has been a complete lack of walks, where Middlebrooks has shown very little patience, only working into only 29 3-ball counts. He’s been excellent in those situations, like most hitters are, batting .409. If the Boston 3rd baseman can work more on his subpar defense, where he’s already made 4 errors, and start drawing more walks, he could become an All-Star caliber player, because his power is legitimate.
10. Best of the Rest
Drew Smyly, Detroit Tigers. Christian Friedrich, Colorado Rockies. Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland A’s. Scott Diamond, Minnesota Twins. Todd Frazier, Cincinnati Reds. Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners.