Monday June 27th, 2011

The list of compelling rookies in the major leagues has grown considerably in the last month. With their clubs having waited long enough to prevent them from being eligible for Super-Two arbitration after the 2013 season, Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon, A's second baseman Jemile Weeks, Padres first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, and Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley all made their major league debuts by assuming starting jobs with their parent clubs in the three weeks since I last visited the Rookie of the Year race. However, only Weeks is hitting well (.309/.356/.471), and his 68 at-bats aren't nearly enough for him to dent the American League top five.

As a result, the AL list returns five familiar names in a slightly different order, the National League list continues to struggle to find worthy candidates for its final two spots and the top spot in both leagues remains unchanged yet again. All of which goes to show why rookies get their own award. The difficulty of adjusting to the major leagues has destroyed more than a few promising baseball careers, and even the 10 men listed below aren't quite out of the woods just yet.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, June 26; Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, have had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or have spent fewer than 45 days on an active major league roster prior to rosters expanding on September 1.

1. Michael Pineda, RHP, Mariners (1)

Season Stats: 7-4, 2.45 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.48 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-2, 2.84 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.00

Pitching performances are so volatile, particularly those of young pitchers pushing past their previous high in innings pitched (the 22-year-old Pineda has less than 44 innings to go there), and pitchers, especially young ones, are so fragile, that it's foolish to say that Pineda has this award wrapped up. Still it's clearly his to lose at this point. The Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela was the only rookie ever to win a Cy Young award, doing so in 1981 and causing a sensation in the process. Pineda seems unlikely to become the second, but he did finally break into my AL Cy Young top five last week, and his one start since then (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 Ks at the Nationals) was his best since the last time he got to pitch in a National League park in late May. Pineda has delivered 13 quality starts in 15 turns thus far this year, leads the AL in strikeouts per nine innings, is fifth in ERA and quality start percentage, sixth in WHIP, and eighth in K/BB. He's not just the best rookie in the league, he's one of the best pitchers in the league, period.

2. Jordan Walden, RHP, Angels (5)

Season Stats: 2.94 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 2.24 K/BB, 17 SV

Last Three Weeks: 2.47 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 2.50 K/BB, 4 SV

The only other American League rookie who could be considered among the elite at his position this season is Walden, who is tied for fourth in the league in saves. However, he is also tied for the league lead in blown saves, having coughed up his fifth on Sunday afternoon against the Dodgers. That was his second-straight blown save, though in the other he was brought in with a one-run lead, a runner on third, and one out, and he retired four of the five batters he faced (one on a double play) and vultured the win. Prior to Sunday, Walden hadn't been charged with a run in June, and had allowed just that one inherited runner to score on the month. In fact, going back to May 21, Walden has been charged with a run just twice (including Sunday) in 14 appearances, again with just that one inherited runner scoring over that span. Over those 14 appearances, he has struck out 17 men in 14 1/3 innings. He has also walked eight in those 14 1/3 frames (that's five BB/9), but again, half of those came in the two appearances in which he was scored upon. In reality, Walden is more of a middle-of-the pack closer. Of the 13 American Leaguers with 10 or more saves, only two have a lower conversion rate than his 77 percent. However, the next-highest save total by an AL rookie this season is two, by Chris Sale of the White Sox, who is not his team's closer.

3. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays (2)

Season Stats: 7-6, 3.09 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 1.54 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-3, 3.81 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 3.8 K/9, 1.10 K/BB

4. Zach Britton, LHP, Orioles (N/A)

Season Stats: 6-5, 3.19 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 1.75 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-2, 4.03 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.25 K/BB

Despite trailing in ERA and WHIP, Britton has out-pitched Hellickson over the last three weeks. What obscures that fact is that Britton's opponents have hit .318 on balls in play over that stretch, while Hellickson's have hit .171. That's a big red flag for Hellickson, who has given up four home runs and walked more men than he has struck out over his last three starts, all losses (though the Rays scoring just one run in those three games didn't help). Pitchers have very little control over whether or not balls in play are outs or hits, so Hellickson, whose .210 BABIP on the season is the second-lowest mark in the league among qualified pitchers, is sure to see his luck change sooner or later. As for Britton, his walk and strikeout rates have been improved over his last three starts (15 Ks to 5 BBs in 17 1/3 innings, producing the best three-start walk-to-strikeout ratio of his season), but he's still not getting ground balls at the advertised rate. There's no doubt that Hellickson and Britton deserve to be in the major leagues, and their season lines remain strong enough to keep them on this list, regardless of the role luck has played, but neither is pitching up to his potential to the degree that Pineda is.

5. Mark Trumbo, 1B, Angels (N/A)

Season Stats: .257/.299/.466, 13 HRs, 32 RBIs, 7 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .241/.254/.414, 2 HRs, 3 RBIs, 1 SB

Despite his impressive counting stats, which include the AL rookie lead in home runs, Trumbo's alarmingly low on-base percentage is just one reason he can't get any higher on this list. His combination of power and a low OBP is in line with his minor league track record. That's not the case for those seven steals, which have come in 10 attempts. Trumbo never stole more than 10 bases in a season in the minors. He did that four years ago, and it took him 18 attempts to do it.

Off the list: J.P. Arencibia (3), Eric Hosmer (4)

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (1)

Season Stats: 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 13.7 K/9, 3.22 K/BB, 20 SV

Last Three Weeks: 3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 15.0 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 3 SV

Like Pineda, Kimbrel has held the number-one spot all season long, and though the Nationals' Danny Espinosa has made a hard charge at him over the last month, he's here again on the strength of a rookie-record saves pace (he currently projects to finish with 42, two more than the mark Neftali Feliz set last year), and a remarkable strikeout rate. Kimbrel hasn't allowed a hit or a run in his last six outings (six innings, 10 Ks) and the two-run homer Ramon Hernandez hit off him back on May 27 remains the only longball he has allowed in the major leagues in 63 innings, including the postseason. His rate of converting saves is an underwhelming 80 percent, but when he's on, he is brilliant; he hasn't allowed a run the process of converting any of his 20 saves and has a .062 WHIP in those appearances.

2. Danny Espinosa, 2B, Nationals (3)

Season Stats: .242/.323/.466, 14 HRs, 47 RBIs, 9 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .296/.318/.506, 5 HRs, 14 RBIs, 4 SBs

Espinosa leads all major league rookies in home runs, RBIs, steals, runs scored (39), triples (4), extra-base hits (30), total bases (129), times hit by pitch (13), and sacrifice flies (4), and is tied with Trumbo for the major league lead in slugging among rookies with 100 or more at-bats, and leads that group in isolated power (slugging minus batting average; Espinosa's is .224). He has also been one of the best defensive second basemen in the game this year. Ultimate Zone Rating rates him as the best in the NL this season, and Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs have him third in the league (behind injured fellow rookie Darwin Barney and sophomore Neil Walker). It's a bit troubling that Espinosa has only drawn two walks in his last 92 plate appearances dating back to June 5, but one of them came on Sunday, and he has been playing his best ball over the last month or so, hitting .293/.358/.564 with nine homers, 25 RBIs, and 6 steals since May 20. It will be more problematic if the walks don't come back when his bat cools off.

3. Dillon Gee, RHP, Mets (N/A)

Season Stats: 8-1, 3.32 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 1.70 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 3.27 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 4.9 K/9, 1.20 K/BB

Gee hasn't been the best rookie starter in the National League this year (see below), but he has been the most successful. A command-and-control righty with a pair of 90 mile-per-hour fastballs, a solid changeup, and the occasional curve, Gee made five starts, all quality, last September, and a pair of spot-starts, both wins and one out shy of both being quality, in mid-April. He was then bounced to the bullpen for a couple of weeks until Chris Young's shoulder gave out, at which point he made what seems likely to be a permanent return to the Mets' rotation. Gee's first two starts in May were underwhelming no-decisions, but he followed them with a run of five straight wins during which he posted a 2.02 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and 3.14 K/BB. He seemed well on his way to a sixth straight win and a fifth quality start in six turns in his next outing, but rain cut that start short after four innings of scoreless, one-hit baseball. He has had one bad start (his only loss this season) and one good since then, though his eight walks against two strikeouts in those two games are reason for concern. Gee seems capable of being a solid back-end starter, but his opponents hit just .213 on balls in play during that six-start stretch from May into June, and his outstanding record owes some debt to his strong run support (5.68 runs per game), so there's reason to expect some correction on both accounts.

4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (N/A)

Season Stats: .269/.336/.425, 8 HRs, 30 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .242/.296/.424, 3 HRs, 9 RBIs

Freeman does not deserve to be on this list, but with no obvious alternative presenting himself, it's my impression that Freeman, simply by virtue of being a pre-season favorite, a season-long regular for a likely playoff team, and enough of a power source to pop 15 to 20 home runs with an RBI total north of 60, will draw some of the votes that should go to lower-profile candidates such as Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos. Ramos is hitting just .242/.319/.398, but the average major league catcher is hitting .242/.314/.380. The average major league first baseman, meanwhile, is hitting .270/.348/.450, significantly above Freeman's rates. Clearly Ramos, who is also an outstanding defender, having thrown out 43 percent of attempting baserunners, second only to the Rays' Kelly Shoppach among catchers with 300 or more innings caught this season, is the more deserving candidate here, but I can't convince myself that the vote, if held today, would reflect that.

5. Brandon Beachy, RHP, Braves (N/A)

Season Stats: 2-1, 3.22 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 4.07 K/BB (9 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 1 GS: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 11 Ks

Beachy has been the best rookie starter in the NL this season, but an oblique strain carved six weeks out of his season and sullied one of his starts. Still, his rousing return last Wednesday (see his pitching line above) was enough to rejuvenate his Rookie of the Year candidacy. Drop out the May 13 start during which he injured himself, and Beachy's rate stats improve to: 2.80 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 4.31 K/BB. In his four starts before he got hurt (all quality starts, three of them no-decisions), Beachy posted a 1.40 ERA, 0.64 ERA, and 7.00 K/BB. He was hit-lucky in those starts (.190 BABIP), but his tremendous strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio suggest he could be nearly as good without the luck. Don't be surprised if Gee and Beachy switch spots on this list three weeks from now.

Off the list: Justin Turner (2), Darwin Barney (4), Domonic Brown (5)

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.