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Awards Watch: Polanco, Hamilton heat up NL Rookie of the Year race

Gregory Polanco has posted a .306/.392/.435 line with three homers and 12 RBIs in 98 plate appearances since being called up to Pittsburgh on June 10. Photo:

Gregory Polanco has posted a .306/.392/.435 line with three homers and 12 RBIs in 98 plate appearances since being called up to Pittsburgh on June 10.

The frontrunner for National League Rookie of the Year is on the disabled list, while the leading contenders in the American League are chasing records. That would seem to make the disparity between these two races greater than ever, but the field in the NL looks to be growing more competitive and promises to be more interesting in the second half.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, July 3. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. 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. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

National League

1. Chris Owings, SS, Diamondbacks (1)

Season Stats: .277/.313/.458, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 7 SB

Last Three Weeks: .324/.343/.618, 1 HR, 3 RBI

Owings went on the disabled list a week ago with a sore left shoulder, but his MRI reportedly showed no visible structural damage, so the Diamondbacks hope he’ll be back close to the date that he’s eligible to return, which would be next Friday. If so, and if the shoulder doesn’t give him further trouble, Owings should get a fair chance to defend his position in this race from the sudden emergence of legitimate challengers.

2. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds

Season Stats: .279/.309/.400, 40 R, 35 SB

Last Three Weeks: .345/.360/.536, 13 R, 11 SB

Is Hamilton’s surge over the last three weeks evidence that he's adjusted to major league pitching or simply good luck on balls in play? His .415 BABIP and poor strikeout to walk ratio (15:2) suggest the latter, but the power in his performance (two home runs and 10 doubles) suggests the former. If he can be even modestly productive, his work on the bases and in centerfield will make him a serious challenger for this award, though Hamilton needs to pick his spots on the bases a bit better. He has been caught in four of his last eight steal attempts. Fun fact: Hamilton is currently the only NL rookie to qualify for either the batting or ERA titles.

3. Tommy Kahnle, RHP, Rockies (5)

Season Stats: 2-1, 2.44 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 1.62 K/BB, 1.4 IP/G 173 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 0-0, 4.09 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 2.00 K/BB, 1.8 IP/G

Like the Yankees' Dellin Betances in the AL, Kahnle impresses with his ability to get more than four outs per appearance. Unlike Betances, however, the 24-year-old Rule 5 pick doesn't exhibit the kind of dominance that would make his early-season success sustainable. Sub-par strikeout and walk rates and a .193 BABIP spell coming disaster for Kahnle, who has allowed runs in four of his last six appearances.

4. Gregory Polanco, RF, Pirates

Season Stats: .306/.392/.435, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 4 SB

Last Three Weeks: .320/.414/.467, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 4 SB

Polanco has appeared in just 21 games this season and made only 98 plate appearances (his “Last Three Weeks” line above includes all but his first 10 PA), but he has nonetheless been one of the five best rookies in the league. Given that he has another 78 games to work with and all his indicators are positive, he could very well top this list come the end of September. He has walked 11 times against 15 strikeouts, he has yet to be caught stealing and after getting a couple of days rest earlier this week, he came back on Wednesday and hit a double and a home run, quieting some concerns about his early power numbers. Look for him to be at least in the top-three the next time we examine this race.

5. Eric Campbell, 1B/3B/OF, Mets

Season Stats: .319/.347/.429, 1 HR, 8 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .340/.340/.426, 0 HR, 2 RBI

If Polanco can be included for his performance over 98 plate appearances, then so can Campbell, who has gotten the exact same number of trips to the plate. An organizational soldier who was drafted out of Boston College in the eighth round in 2008, the 27-year-old Campbell is a four-corner player (first base, third base, rightfield and leftfield) who can hit for solid averages with doubles power. He also had excellent command of the strike zone in the minors, drawing 86 walks, all unintentional, against 80 strikeouts in 588 Triple A plate appearances over the last two years.

Campbell hasn’t had the same command of the zone in the majors, but that .319 average (inflated by a .431 BABIP) has kept his on-base percentage afloat as he has filled in where needed, going 5-for-11 with two walks, a hit-by-pitch and three doubles in 15 pinch-hitting appearances. With David Wright nursing a sore shoulder, Campbell has been the Mets’ third baseman for the last six games, going 10-for-25 (an even .400). He’ll give that spot (and this one) back in short order; even if Wright does require a DL stay, Campbell is overextended at the hot corner.

Off the list: Jacob deGromDavid HaleChase Anderson

American League

1. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees (1)

Season Stats: 11-3, 2.10 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 7.06 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 190 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-2, 2.45 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 CG

In Tanaka’s most recent start last Saturday, he allowed just two runs while striking out eight against just one walk in a complete game against the Red Sox ... but lost, 2-1. Nevertheless, it was his 16th quality start in as many appearances this season, tying him with former Expos ace Steve Rogers for the longest streak of quality starts to start a major league career in the last 100 years (which is as far back as game-by-game data goes). Rogers' feat came in 1973, but he finished second to Giants leftfielder Gary Matthews in that season's NL Rookie of the Year voting , in large part because he didn’t make his debut until July 18. If Tanaka turns in another quality start Thursday night against the Twins, he’ll own the record outright. 

Tanaka allowed nine runs in June, seven of them via the six home runs he surrendered. The other two runs scored via a groundball and a sacrifice fly. The last time he gave up a run-scoring hit on something other than a home run came on May 31, when the Twins' Josh Willingham had a two-out RBI single in the first inning.

On the season, Tanaka’s opponents are hitting .178/.222/.247 with men on base and .137/.175/.192 with runners in scoring position, while he has struck out 40.7 percent of the 81 batters he has faced with RISP. In other words, even dangerous situations aren't that dangerous for him.

2. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox (2)

Season Stats: .280/.331/.624, 26 HR, 67 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .308/.353/.615, 7 HR, 17 RBI

Abreu is on pace for 54 home runs, five more than Mark McGwire’s rookie record, and he now has a shot at Ted Williams' rookie RBI mark, as well; Abreu is currently on pace for 139, six fewer than Williams had in 1939. That's especially impressive given that Abreu missed two weeks earlier this season with an ankle injury, though Williams only played 149 games in 1939, so it may be more of a fair fight with Abreu now able to play a maximum of 148 games this season.

Abreu’s only issue at the plate thus far has been impatience, which has dragged down his on-base percentage. That OBP is now rising, but not because he’s taking more walks (three of his last six were intentional). What he’s doing is hitting for a better average, something that corresponds to a falling strikeout rate. Abreu struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances through June 14 while hitting .260 with a .274 batting average on balls in play, but has struck out in just 14 percent of his PAs since, hitting .344 with a .313 BABIP. Remember, this is a player who hit .382 in his final season in Cuba and .453 in the 2010-11 season. This may turn out to be a tight race, after all.

Pity the rest of the American League’s extremely deep rookie class for having to compete with Tanaka and Abreu, but don’t begrudge those two their rookie status. Yes, Tanaka and Abreu are veterans of foreign leagues. However, at 25 and 27, respectively, they are in the same age range as their nearest competitors, and they are facing major league hitters and pitchers for the first time this season (something true of only George Springer among the next three men on this list). On top of that, they are dealing with the kind of culture shock, language barriers and radical life changes that the three American-born players here are not.

3. George Springer, RF, Astros (3)

Season Stats: .240/.346/.469, 16 HR, 43 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .191/.337/.382, 4 HR, 7 RBI

Despite not making his major league debut until April 16, the 24-year-old Springer is leading the American League in strikeouts with 98 and is just five behind Ryan Howard’s major league lead despite making 54 fewer plate appearances than the Phillies' first baseman. This is a problem, but not an unexpected one. Springer struck out 317 times in 263 games over the last two minor league seasons, and his ability to make contact, particularly with two strikes, was the primary concern about his ability to succeed in the major leagues. When Springer hit 10 home runs in 19 games from May 8 to May 29, he struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances, already a high rate. In his 29 games since, however, he has struck out in 35 percent of his PAs and hit a mere .208.

4. Brock Holt, UT, Red Sox

Season Stats: .322/.367/.441, 30 R, 5 SB

Last Three Weeks: .310/.363/.417 11 R, 2 SB

Everyone knew the Red Sox would have a player in this race this year, but few thought it would be Holt, a throw-in to the December 2012 Mark Melancon-Joel Hanrahan trade with Pittsburgh. The 26-year-old Holt is barely a rookie, falling just six at-bats and 11 days of service shy of the respective cutoffs. A jack of all trades, he was drafted out of Rice as a shortstop by the Pirates in the ninth round in 2009, came up with Pittsburgh in 2012 as a second baseman and was promoted to the majors for the first time this season as a third baseman. Instead, Holt started six games at first base when Mike Napoli was hurt in early June and has since spent most of his time in the outfield corners, even making a start in centerfield on June 17.

Holt has now started every game for Boston since his second call-up on May 17 and led off every game since May 23. His production is highlighted by that strong batting average, which isn't necessarily a fluke. He hit .307 in the minors, including .304 in Triple A, and his BABIP over the last three weeks has been a high but not absurd .368. His average will come down, but not very far.

5. Dellin Betances, RHP, Yankees

Season Stats: 4-0, 1.50 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 14.3 K/9, 4.75 K/BB, 1.4 IP/G, 268 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 0-0, 0.84 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 2.17 K/BB, 1.3 IP/G

Betances' recent bout of wildness bears watching. He has walked five men in his last four appearances, which is more than he walked in his previous 22. Over his last nine outings, he has walked six men, hit another and uncorked his only wild pitch of the season. Some of that wildness contributed directly to two of the eight runs he has allowed on the season. Still, Betances has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball this year. Here are the leaders in strikeout percentage among pitchers with 10 or more innings pitched this season:

Rank Pitcher k% ip
1 Aroldis Chapman 51.1 23 2/3
2 David Robertson 43.2 27 2/3
3 Dellin Betances 42.2 48
4 Craig Kimbrel 41.8 34 1/3

The 26-year-old Betances has been so dominant that Fielding Independent Pitching thinks his actual ERA of 1.50 is too high (his FIP is 1.26). He is also third in the majors in innings pitched among those who have worked purely in relief, and his 1.37 innings per relief appearance are greater than that of either of the two men ahead of him in raw innings (Oakland’s Dan Otero and the MetsCarlos Torres). Of course, that’s yet another reason why his recent wildness is worth keeping an eye on.

Off the list: Yangervis Solarte, Xander Bogaerts

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