The hottest teams in baseball right now are the Rays and the Dodgers, who will meet head-to-head in mid-August, and are both being powered in part by rookie stars. Los Angeles' Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu are well-established as top National League rookies, but as Awards Watch returns to the Rookie of the Year races, we find a pair of Tampa Bay first-year standouts who are not only new to the American League list but topping it. At long last we have a compelling race between legitimate candidates in the junior circuit, which has been starved for compelling rookie performances for most of the season.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, July 31. Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on Sept. 1.
1. Chris Archer, RHP, Rays
Season Stats: 6-3, 2.39 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 1.88 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 161 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 0.36 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 3.75 K/BB, 8.3 IP/GS, 2 SHO
I wrote about Archer on Saturday after he shut out the Yankees on two hits, no walks and just 97 pitches, his second shutout in his last three starts. The top prospect received from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade prior to the 2011 season, Archer, now 24, has great stuff (mid-to-upper 90s fastball, devastating mid-80s slider with depth, and an ever-improving changeup) but always struggled with control and efficiency, right up until his first four major league starts this season in early June.
He has since been taken under the wing of staff ace and defending Cy Young award winner David Price, whom he has looked up to ever since working out with him at Vanderbilt in 2008. Archer has found the confidence to trust his stuff and the Rays' elite defense and in turn earned the trust of his coaching staff. Over his last seven starts, Archer has gone 5-0 with a 1.31 ERA and 0.81 WHIP while throwing just 14.1 pitches per inning, less than the league average. There is a lot fielding and luck on balls in play at work there (his BABIP over that stretch is an unsustainable .193), but Archer, whom Baseball America rated the 36th best prospect in baseball prior to the season, has the stuff to survive the coming correction and persist as a valuable part of an outstanding Tampa Bay rotation for years to come.
2. Wil Myers, RF, Rays
Season Stats: .331/.372/.528, 7 HR, 27 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .462/.508/.769, 4 HR, 14 RBI
Archer's primary rival in this race is not only his teammate, but the player who was the overwhelming favorite to win this award before the season began. The 22-year-old was rated the fourth-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the season and it was just a matter of time before he took over in rightfield for the Rays. That finally happened on June 18, in a doubleheader against the Red Sox no less.
It took Myers, a career .300/.389/.522 hitter in the minors, a little while to adjust to major league pitching, but he has been on fire over the last three weeks per the numbers above. It's a testament to the Rays' front office that both Myers and Archer are on this list, as Archer is the man who was ultimately supposed to replace James Shields, the key piece Tampa Bay sent to the Royals in December to acquire Myers.
Season Stats: .267/.327/.476, 10 HR, 32 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .246/.323/.509, 4 HR, 13 RBI
Franklin leads AL rookies in home runs and RBIs, though one imagines Myers will ultimately pass him in both categories, and is second to Myers in slugging among AL rookies with more than 50 plate appearances. He's also putting up those numbers at second base -- where the average major leaguer has hit just .261/.320/.389 -- and he's receiving solid marks for his defense. The 22-year-old is a legitimate candidate along with the two Rays. Things get shaky beyond this point, however.
Season Stats: .330/.376/.409, 1 HR, 19 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .154/.154/.154, 0 HR, 5 RBI
Iglesias was the clear leader on this list three weeks ago thanks to a hot stretch of 34 games that saw nearly half of his balls in play drop for a hit (49 percent to be exact). At that point I echoed what everyone was thinking by writing that his minor league hitting line (.257/.307/.314 in 1,209 plate appearances) "strongly suggests that he's going to come back to the pack." Over the last three weeks, he's fallen well behind the pack, going 5-for-43 over his last 13 games (.116) and extending his streak of plate appearances without a walk or extra-base hit to 71.
Selling high on a player who may yet prove to be a glove-only shortstop, the Red Sox flipped him to the Tigers in the three-team deal that netted them Jake Peavy. Iglesias, who has yet to make his Tigers debut, could soon be Detroit's starting shortstop if Jhonny Peralta is indeed suspended for the rest of the season in the Biogenesis scandal, as the trade suggest the Tigers expect him to be. Iglesias will be tremendously valuable in the field, but he could hit his way off this list entirely by the time we revisit this award in three weeks.
5. David Lough, RF, Royals (5)
Season Stats: .300/.317/.443, 4 HR, 23 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .339/.350/.446, 1 HR, 7 RBI
Lough takes the final spot over A's starter Dan Straily, who has solid peripherals but an adjusted ERA+ of 88, 12 percent below league average. Lough is merely average at the plate, and below that for a rightfielder, but he adds value defensively. His presence on this list is threatened by the fact that the Royals acquired the righthanded Justin Maxwell from the Astros on Wednesday as a potential platoon partner for the leftthanded Lough, a curious move given that Lough has hit lefties better than righties thus far this year. Of course, for Iglesias and Lough to fall of this list, someone would have to replace them. Did I mention that a pitcher with an 88 ERA+ was the next best candidate?
Season Stats: 7-5, 2.71 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 2.95 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS, 144 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 2-0, 2.14 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS
Over his last 10 starts, Fernandez has posted a 1.87 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and struck out 9.6 men per nine innings while averaging more than 6 2/3 innings per start. The only one of those starts that wasn't quality saw him allow just one run in five innings. He hasn't just been the best rookie in the NL over that span, he has been one of the best pitchers in the league, period. There has been some luck on balls in play involved, as there always is when a pitcher is that stingy, but remember that Fernandez just turned 21 on Wednesday and never threw a single pitch in Double- or Triple-A, winning a major league rotation spot this spring after dominating High-A last year.
This is the arrival of a major talent, and the Marlins are going to be careful with him, limiting him to 150-170 innings, which likely means seven more starts at the most (Fernandez has thrown 119 2/3 innings thus far). In a very competitive race, that limit could cost him this award, but for a team mired deep in last place, it's hard to argue with their desire to be careful with the arm of their young stud.
Season Stats: 10-7, 2.79 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 3.88 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 133 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 1-1, 1.54 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 5.9 IP/GS
The Cardinals, who have a ton of young pitching depth, have expressed a desire to limit Miller to 180 innings this season, though it remains to be seen if the postseason will be included in those innings. That won't impact this race, necessarily, as Miller is only on pace for about 180 innings as it is. St. Louis has tried to impose that limit gradually throughout the season, giving Miller extra rest when possible, and rejiggered its rotation so that he had 12 days off around the All-Star break.
Whether due to the rest or not, Miller seems to have recovered from the rough patch he had in late June (1-3, 6.38 ERA in his last four starts that month). His "last three weeks" line above are his numbers from his two starts since the break.
3. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .364/.410/.579, 10 HR, 23 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .283/.367/.434, 2 HR, 4 RBI
Puig had a little slump, but if you blinked you missed it. He went 2-for-19 without a walk or an extra-base hit over six games, four starts, during which he was nursing a sore left hip. Since then, he has gone 11-for-30 with two doubles, two home runs, and five walks, hitting .367/.472/.633 over his last eight games.
For all of the early concerns about his lack of walks, he has drawn an unintentional walk once every 14.2 plate appearances over his last 143 PA. That's the rate of a hitter who doesn't walk very often, but it's not one that foretells disaster. For example, over his first seven seasons, Robinson Cano drew an unintentional walk once every 23.6 plate appearances.
Season Stats: 7-5, 3.07 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 4.08 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS, 125 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 0-1, 2.95 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 6.1 IP/GS
If the Braves had any intention of limiting the 22-year-old Teheran's innings, and there has been no indication that they did, Tim Hudson's season-ending ankle injury and the lack of a trade-deadline addition to the rotation have made it more complicated for them to do so. More likely, Teheran is in for the long haul as well as the postseason given that he has out-pitched every other man in the Atlanta rotation except for 25-year-old lefty Mike Minor.
5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Dodgers (5)
Season Stats: 9-3, 3.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.50 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 114 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 2-0, 3.65 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 6.1 IP/GS
Innings limits are not a concern for Ryu, the 26-year-old veteran of the Korean Baseball Organization, though he did get an 11-day break around the All-Star Game. Ryu's last start was his second-best of the season, behind only his two-hit, no-walk shutout of the Angels on May 28. On Saturday, Ryu held the Reds to two hits and a walk while striking out nine, the lone Cincinnati run coming on a Jay Bruce solo homer. That home run was emblematic of the fact that the lefthanded Ryu has had more success against righties than lefties thus far this season.