Monday July 25th, 2011

With barely more than two months left in the 2011 regular season, it seems safe to say that, whomever the eventual Rookies of the Year are going to be, they are not only already in the majors, but they are already excelling. That means that anything pre-season candidates such as Brandon Belt, Kyle Drabek, Domonic Brown, Mike Moustakas, Jesus Montero, Brett Lawrie or even the just-promoted Desmond Jennings or Jose Altuve do from here on out will likely be too little too late.

Still, that doesn't mean that the award is guaranteed to go to one of the 10 men listed below. After all, as seems to have happened to Michael Pineda, the league or fatigue might still catch up with a top contender. Because that is far more likely to happen to a rookie than a veteran Cy Young or MVP candidate, the races can still open up and a player who, as of this moment, falls short of the list due more to a deficit in playing time than in performance could make a late push for the trophy. Players currently in position to make that kind of charge up the charts include rightfielders Josh Reddick of the Red Sox and Eric Thames of the Blue Jays, second basemen Dustin Ackley of the Mariners and Jemile Weeks of the A's, and starting pitchers Vance Worley of the Phillies and Alex Cobb of the Rays. Note that five of those six players are American Leaguers and that the AL race has opened up in the wake of Pineda's recent struggles.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, July 24; 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 Sept. 1.

1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays (2)

Season Stats: 9-7, 3.17 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 1.88 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Weeks: 2-1, 3.54 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 6.00 K/BB

A rainout and the All-Star break combined to give Hellickson 15 days off between his last two starts, so his "last four weeks" line above includes just three starts compared to the typical five. That time off will prove beneficial in limiting Hellickson's innings. His 155 2/3 frames between Triple-A and the majors last year was a career high, and he has already thrown 110 2/3 innings this season. Cobb's success helps there as well, as the Rays have gone to a six-man rotation (something which has proven disturbingly popular this season) with Wade Davis's return from the disabled list. As for Hellickson, he seemed unaffected by the long layoff, turning in a two-run, seven-inning gem and striking out seven Yankees in his return. With that, Hellickson, who struck out nine Reds on June 27, has recorded two of his top three strikeout totals this season in two of his last three starts. That's an encouraging sign from a pitcher who struck out nearly 10 men per nine innings in the minors, but just 5.7 in his first 14 starts this season.

2. Michael Pineda, RHP, Mariners (1)

Season Stats: 8-7, 3.64 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 3.15 K/BB

Last Five Starts: 1-3, 7.71 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 2.42 K/BB

Pineda's ERA has shot up 1.19 runs over his last five starts, four of which saw him allow five or more runs, and two of which saw him allow exactly seven. Still, as ugly as those games have been, his pitching hasn't been noticeably worse. He's still striking out more than a man per inning. He only walked more than two men in one of those four starts. He still hasn't allowed more than eight hits in any start this season. His velocity isn't down. His slider isn't missing fewer bats. He hasn't even been all that unlucky, with his opponents hitting .254 on balls in play in the first four of those starts (compared to .251 in his first 15 starts of the season). Given all that, there's reason to think he'll bounce back from this rough patch. Then again, there's no reason for the Mariners, a team 14 ½ games out of first place, to push a 22-year-old kid who has never thrown 140 innings in a season but has already thrown 123 2/3 this year.

3. Jordan Walden, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats: 2.63 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 2.53 K/BB, 23 SV

Last Four Weeks: 1.23 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 5.0 K/BB, 6 SV

With Pineda struggling, it's entirely possible that Walden could win this award by default, becoming the third-consecutive AL West closer to claim the rookie hardware. I suspect that Craig Kimbrel's performance as a rookie closer for the Braves will hurt Walden's case, as Walden is quite clearly the second-best rookie closer in baseball, and some voters might bristle at the idea of both Rookie of the Year awards going to closers (though, it should be noted, there is no overlap between the voters for the two awards). Still, if there's not a clear alternative, it's hard to argue against Walden, who was one of just four rookies to make the All-Star team, along with Pineda, Kimbrel and the Royals' only representative, setup man Aaron Crow.

4. Mark Trumbo, 1B, Angels (5)

Season Stats: .256/.300/.473, 18 HRs, 46 RBIs, 8 SBs

Last Four Weeks: .253/.305/.493, 5 HRs, 14 RBIs

Trumbo leads major league rookies in home runs and slugging percentage (minimum 160 plate appearances), but has struggled to keep his on-base percentage in the .300s. As a result, he has been less productive than the average major league first baseman, despite hitting for more power than that average first-sacker. That makes it difficult to hand him the award, though if he hits 30 home runs with around 75 RBIs and double-digit steals, which he is roughly on pace to do, he'll finish at least this high in the voting.

5. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals (N/A)

Season Stats: .277/.328/.439, 9 HRs, 40 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .299/.354/.517, 4 HRs, 15 RBIs

Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia has been more valuable than Hosmer due to the relative offensive standards of their respective positions, but if Trumbo's .300 OBP is problematic, Arencibia's .281 (and .216 batting average) is a deal breaker. One could easily sub a hot hand like Reddick, Weeks, Eric Thames or Dustin Ackley into this spot. All have been more valuable than Hosmer according to statistics such as Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), again in part because of the high offensive standard for first basemen, which Hosmer, like Trumbo, has failed to meet. Then again, Hosmer seems just as likely as any of those four to make a late charge for the award, which, given the significant head start he has in the key counting stats, is why I have him here. Hosmer has had nearly twice as many at-bats as Thames, the most veteran of that alternate quintet, and has hit .300/.356/.525 in July, but unless he can sustain and perhaps even build on that recent surge, he remains an outside contender for this award.

Off the list: Zach Britton

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (1)

Season Stats: 2.16 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 14.2 K/9, 3.76 K/BB, 31 SV

Last Four Weeks: 0.00 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, 15.8 K/9, 7.00 K/BB, 11 SV

In his last 18 appearances, all exactly one inning in length and thus totaling two full games worth of innings, Kimbrel has allowed four hits, all singles, and no runs while striking out 31 men and stranding his only two inherited runners. In his last four appearances, he has faced 16 batters; just four of them managed to hit a ball fair, and only one of those four fair balls found a hole and became a hit. Kimbrel blew five saves earlier in the year, but he has converted 13 straight chances since his last blown save on June 8. He leads the majors in saves and, barring injury, is a lock to break Neftali Feliz's one-year-old rookie record of 40. He's also on pace to become just the second man to save 50 games since 2004 (the other being Francisco Rodriguez in his record-setting 2008 season).

2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (4)

Season Stats: .280/.351/.472, 15 HRs, 51 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .314/.398/.616, 7 HRs, 21 RBIs

Four weeks ago, Freeman was a Hosmer-like place holder, a below-average first baseman who made this list based more on reputation and playing time than performance. That's no longer the case. Freeman has been on fire over the last month, nearly doubling his home run total and pushing his overall production above the high standards of his position. Even if the 21-year-old Freeman has indeed found himself at the major league level, he won't be able to sustain that torrid pace, but if he can simply live up to his pre-season billing the rest of the way, hitting something in the neighborhood of his .319/.378/.521 line at Triple-A last year (a line that was almost an exact match for his performance in the Sally League two years before)... well, he still won't take this award away from his teammate Kimbrel, but it will be fun watching him try.

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

Season Stats: .236/.324/.445, 17 HRs, 55 RBIs, 12 SBs

Last Four Weeks: .218/.327/.379, 3 HRs, 8 RBIs, 3 SBs

Espinosa is the sort of player who seems destined to be underappreciated. He's a cross between a three-true-outcomes hitter (one who homers, walks, and strikes out in excess -- Espinosa has done one of the three in roughly 35 percent of his plate appearances) and the sort of player who does everything well but no one thing great. Espinosa is an outstanding fielder, but he's a second baseman, not a shortstop. He's a high-percentage basestealer, but not an especially prolific one. He's a power hitter at a middle infield position (and second to Trumbo in home runs among major league rookies), a player whose on-base percentage is nearly 90 points higher than his batting average (the major league average is 66 points), but he's also a .236 hitter as of this writing, which undermines both skills. Also, in the tradition of keystone great Craig Biggio, Espinosa has shown a knack for getting on base via the hit-by-pitch, a skill of dubious merit that is typically dismissed as either fluky or an injury risk. As a rookie, simply hitting 20-plus home runs as a slick-fielding second baseman will get him noticed, but that attention is yet another reason that he'll likely to be considered a disappointment in a couple of years, even if he's still tremendously valuable.

4. Darwin Barney, 2B, Cubs (N/A)

Season Stats: .299/.329/.370, 1 HR, 34 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .316/.358/.408, 0 HRs, 9 RBIs

At the plate, Barney is the anti-Espinosa: a lot of batting average and not much else. The reason analysts tend to deride hitters like Barney in favor of ones like Espinosa is that power and patience are skills that have proven sustainable over the course of the game's history, while batting averages are far more likely to fluctuate. Thus a hitter like Barney, who has what is known as an "empty" batting average, is treated as something of a fluke, in part because when that batting average does drop, he doesn't have any secondary skills to prop up his production. For example, in late May and early June, Barney hit just .229/.259/.266, a line that makes Espinosa's last four weeks look positively robust. However, since returning from the disabled list in late June, Barney has rediscovered his early-season form. That likely won't last, either, but as long as it does, a slick-fielding second baseman who is hitting even an empty .300 is going to get his share of votes, even if those votes should go to Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos instead.

5. Josh Collmenter, RHP, Diamondbacks

Season Stats: 6-5, 2.74 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 3.88 K/BB

Last Five Starts: 2-2, 3.98 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 4.60 K/BB

Called up in mid-April, Collmenter posted a 1.29 ERA in 14 relief innings before taking over Barry Enright's spot in the Arizona rotation. He has since posted a 3.00 ERA in 13 starts, nine of which were quality, and six of which saw Collmenter leave the game without allowing a run. Only once has he walked as many as three men in a game, and despite being a fly-ball pitcher in a home run ballpark, he has allowed just four home runs in his last nine starts and one in his last four. That last points to the fact that Collmenter has been a bit lucky, which indeed he has, with his opponents hitting .238 on balls in play in those 13 starts. Like fellow 25-year-olds Barney and Mets starter Dillon Gee, Collmenter isn't a prospect. This may be the best stretch of his major league career, however long it lasts. However, when it comes to rewarding past success, which awards like the Rookie of the Year do, the fact that it may not be repeatable is irrelevant.

Off the list: Dillon Gee (3), Brandon Beachy (5)

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