NOTE: Awards Watch will start listing weekly leaders with a lightning round looking at all three awards on May 1. The regular rotation kicks off with an examination of the MVP candidates in each league on May 8, followed by the Cy Young contenders on May 15 and finally, the first official look at the Rookie of the Year candidates on May 22.
Astros outfield prospect George Springer made his much anticipated major league debut Wednesday night. In doing so, he has now added his name to the impressive list of contenders for this year's American League Rookie of the Year award, and not a moment too soon. The debut of Springer, who went 1-for-5 with a walk in his first game but hit .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs, 108 RBIs and 45 stolen bases between Double and Triple A last year, came in Houston's 15th game of this season. Of the 134 previous Rookies of the Year in both leagues, 115, or 86 percent, debuted prior to their team's 15th game of the season. In the American League, 61 of 66 winners of the award, 92 percent, made their debut before their team's 15th game.
There are several reasons why an early debut is important for a Rookie of the Year candidate. The obvious one is that it gives the player more time to compile numbers that will impress the voters; given equal rates of production, the player who appeared in 150 games is going to win out over the player who appeared in 90. An earlier debut also gives a rookie more time to go through the process of adjustments typical to a player advancing to a new level. If those adjustments are successful, which they would have to be for the player to draw significant awards consideration, an early start would also give that player more time to produce in the wake of those adjustments. There's also a selection bias at work. The rookies who have shown their organizations enough to land a starting job in the major leagues in early April have effectively been pre-selected as those most likely to succeed.
At least, that was the case until teams started delaying their top prospects' debuts due to concerns about their future salary arbitration eligibility. Super Two arbitration eligibility, which was added to baseball's Basic Agreement in 1990 and became effective in 1991, makes a small group of players eligible for salary arbitration a year early. Thus, those players have four years of arbitration eligibility rather than the typical three. That group is determined by service time, with the top 22 percent of players who have between two and three years of major league service being granted Super Two status. That makes the timing of a player's debut very important to a team more concerned about the players' future earning potential than contending in his rookie season. It has also led to the practice of teams delaying the promotion of their top prospects until midseason so as to prevent them from becoming Super Twos.
However, because Super Two eligibility is determined by a percentage rather than a fixed date, teams don't find out which players qualified as Super Twos until the winter after their second full season. The Super Two cutoff typically falls in late May or early June, but teams have been burned before, as the Giants were when 2010 Rookie of the Year Buster Posey, who was called up on May 29, proved to be Super Two eligible. That element of the unknown, combined with the ever-increasing frequency of players signing extensions prior to reaching arbitration, as Posey did in January 2013, has prevented Super Two concerns from having a major impact on the Rookie of the Year races. In fact, last year's American League winner, Rays outfielder Wil Myers, who made his major league debut on June 19, was just the third Rookie of the Year in the award's 67-year history to play his first game after the end of May and the first since National League winner Bob Horner in 1978. What's more, a strong argument can be made that Myers, who hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs, only won the award because the American League field was especially weak last year, with not one AL rookie accumulating enough playing time to qualify for the batting or ERA titles.
The AL field is far stronger this year. Heading into Thursday's action, there are 19 American League rookies who have some claim to a starting job with their team. Still, it's not the quantity of players on that list that's most impressive, it's the quality. As great as Springer's potential might be, he has his work cut out for himself entering a rookie field headed up by the Yankees' Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, the White Sox' Cuban slugger Jose Abreu and top prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Red Sox, Nick Castellanos of the Tigers, Erik Johnson of the White Sox, Jake Odorizzi, of the Rays, Josmil Pinto of the Twins, Jonathan Schoop of the Orioles and Yordano Ventura of the Royals. There's also Mariners lefty James Paxton, who opened the season in the Seattle rotation and turned in two solid starts but is currently on the disabled list with a latissimus dorsi strain.
That's 12 of those 19 AL rookies right there, 10 of whom appeared on Baseball America's top 100 prospects list in February. The two exceptions, Schoop and Pinto, made Baseball Prospectus's top 101. Not included in that dozen are the AL rookie hitter who is off to the best start -- Yankees infielder Yangervis Solarte, who is fifth in the AL in batting average and sixth in on-base percentage as part of a .348/.434/.478 line -- and another Mariners rookie lefty, Roenis Elias, who has a 2.16 ERA and 1.02 WHIP after his first three major league starts.
The field is much thinner in the National League, where there are just eight rookies making regular starts, half of whom have only a tenuous hold on their current roles. Among those eight are Cubs third baseman Mike Olt and Nationals catcher Sandy Leon, who are currently sharing their positions with veterans. Leon will most likely go back to the minors when Wilson Ramos returns from hamate surgery in May. The two pitchers in that group are the Braves' David Hale and the Diamondbacks' Michael Bolsinger. Hale will likely be bumped from Atlanta's rotation by the end of May if Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd return on schedule. Bolsinger is a non-prospect who was just called up as part of a desperate rotation shuffle and won't make his first major league start until Saturday. Cubs prospect Javier Baez might become a contender but he recently sprained his ankle and has yet to reach the majors.
That leaves four serious NL contenders who are currently in the majors: Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud, Reds centerfielder Billy Hamilton, Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong and Diamondbacks shortstop Chris Owings. Of that lot, Owings is the only one putting up solid numbers in the early going, while Hamilton and d'Arnaud thus far seem as likely to play their way back to Triple A as they are to win the Rookie of the Year. Hamilton's batting line of .170/.220/.234 and d'Arnaud's of .154/.250/.256 are particularly alarming given their struggles at the plate last year.
Nonetheless, history shows that the eventual Rookies of the Year are likely already in the major leagues. That could be good news for Owings in the NL, while the talent already on hand in the AL will make this one of the top awards to keep an eye on this season.