Two super-prospects have emerged as the early leaders in the National League Rookie of the Year race, but the battle for first in the AL hasn't been as compelling or close.
As has been the case for the last several years, the disparity between the Rookie of the Year races in the two leagues is striking. While the American League had the top-heavy list of candidates last year, among them Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and eventual winner Jose Abreu, the White Sox' slugger, this year it is the National League that is packed full of headliners.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, May 27. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. 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.
Pederson slumped a bit mid-month, but he is locked in again as May comes to a close. He homered against the Padres last Friday and Saturday and went 7-for-13 in the Dodgers’ just-completed series against the Braves. Never mind rookies: Pederson leads all major league centerfielders—Mike Trout included—in home runs, slugging, OPS (.945) and walks (31), with that last total tied for fourth in the majors among all hitters. That’s particularly impressive when one considers that, at a little more than 23 years and one month old, Pederson is the second-youngest everyday centerfielder in the majors after only Boston’s Mookie Betts.
Bryant didn’t hit his first major league home run until his 21st game, but he now has seven in his last 18 games. The 23-year-old has slugged .636 over that stretch, but more recently he has stopped taking walks and seen his batting average dip. A three-true-outcome hero like Pederson, Bryant drew 24 walks in his first 28 games (one every 5.3 plate appearances) to swell his on-base percentage to .425, but he then went nine games without another base on balls before finally breaking that streak on Wednesday.
Bryant now has just one walk in his last 41 PA and has hit just .243 over that span, a 10-game stretch in which he has just one multi-hit game. None of that is a major concern, but it’s evidence that Bryant is still making adjustments to the league, and that Pederson’s lead in this race is safe for now.
3. Alex Guerrero, LF/3B, Dodgers
Season Stats: .310/.344/.701, 9 HR, 21 RBIs
Guerrero is 22nd among rookies in plate appearances with 93, but second to only his teammate Pederson in home runs. Buried in Triple A last year by Dee Gordon’s hot start and a bizarre incident in which teammate Miguel Olivo bit off a piece of Guerrero’s ear, the Cuban infielder hit .329/.364/.613 in 258 Triple A plate appearances in 2014 and homered in three of his first four starts for the Dodgers this April. He also added a pair of pinch-hit homers, giving him five round-trippers in his first 24 PA on the season. When Carl Crawford hit the disabled list at the end of April, Los Angeles, recognizing the need to get the 28-year-old Guerrero into the lineup more often, started giving him starts in leftfield, despite the fact that his experience in the outfield was limited to nine games there in Triple A last year.
That move hasn’t worked out particularly well, as Guerrero is a poor fielder and hasn’t hit much while playing the position (.175/.250/.400 in 44 PAs with two homers, one of which came on Wednesday). He has, however, continued to hit when given starts at third base or in pinch-hitting opportunities, hitting .360/.360/.680 with a pair of homers in 25 PA in those roles over the same period. That was likely a factor in the Dodgers’ decision to trade third baseman Juan Uribe, a 36-year-old veteran in his walk year, earlier this week. With Justin Turner—who has drawn the bulk of the starts at third base for L.A. this month—cooling off of late and Crawford still not particularly close to returning, it will be interesting to see where Guerrero slots into Los Angeles' lineup in the wake of that deal.
Like Guerrero, Korean native Kang (pronounced “Gung”) is a 28-year-old–foreign-league veteran who had to play his way into the lineup this season. The left side of the Pittsburgh infield—shortstop Jordy Mercer (.189/.248/.221 on the season) and third baseman Josh Harrison (.259/.287/.400)—has made that fairly easy for Kang, and he has taken full advantage, hitting .351/.425/.506 over his last 21 games and proving to be a slick fielder at both shortstop and third base. Entering Thursday’s action, Kang was leading all Pirates hitters in Baseball-Reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement despite playing a dozen fewer games than star outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.
DeSclafani is 0–3 with a 5.88 ERA in May, but he turned in a strong start in Cleveland his last time out (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 6 K) only to be out-pitched by Corey Kluber. His five quality starts are tied with San Francisco’s Chris Heston (4.33 ERA on the season) for the most by a rookie this season. I don’t expect DeSclafani to remain on this list three weeks from now—particularly not with Noah Syndergaard already living up to expectations in the Mets’ rotation and Addison Russell showing steady improvement at second base for the Cubs—but the 25-year-old New Jersey native deserves one last mention here.
After a fantastic April (.325/.393/.625, 6 HR, 19 RBIs), Travis’s bat cooled in May before he suffered a strained shoulder mid-month that eventually forced him to the disabled list. The 24-year-old has thus done nothing to aid his cause since he topped this list three weeks ago, but the competition in the AL has been unable to topple him from his perch nonetheless. The Blue Jays expect to activate Travis when he’s eligible to return on Monday.
The eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft, DeShields—son of the former second baseman of the same name, but not a junior due to having a different middle name than his father—was a highly regarded prospect in the Astros' organization. At 19, he stole 101 bases and hit 12 home runs in a '12 season split between the Sally League and High A, then hit .317/.405/.468 at the latter level as a 20-year-old the following year. In '14, however, he was moved from second base to the outfield for his Double A debut and had a poor showing at the plate, prompting the Astros to leave him unprotected for December’s Rule 5 draft.
Claimed by the Rangers, DeShields made Texas’s Opening Day roster and has been a regular presence in the lineup since centerfielder Leonys Martin injured his wrist in early May. DeShields has hit .288/.405/.394 over his last 20 games, 19 of them starts in either left or center. However, the return of leftfielder Josh Hamilton has put DeShields and Martin, both lefthanded hitters, in a battle for playing time in centerfield. They have alternated starts over the Rangers’ last five games.
Another speedy centerfielder, the 25-year-old Burns has had no struggle for paying time in Oakland, effectively taking over centerfield on May 2 and starting there in all but four of Oakland's games since. His hold on the position has been strengthened by Coco Crisp’s return to the disabled list due to his chronic neck issues. Acquired from the Nationals for lefty reliever Jerry Blevins in December 2013, the aptly-named Burns is a lightning-quick on-base machine who hit .289/.387/.357 in parts of five minor league seasons while stealing 184 bases at an 88% success rate.
Due to turn 25 in mid-June, McCann opened the season as Detroit’s backup catcher but ascended to the starting job when incumbent Alex Avila hit the disabled list due to a loose body in his left knee. McCann, a former second-round pick, has since posted a batting line superior not only to that of the average major league catcher (.232/.299/.362) but also to anything Avila has done over a full season since 2012. He's even thrown out 44% of attempting base stealers (8 of 18), to boot. And while McCann has graded out as a below-average pitch-framer so far, Avila was even worse before getting hurt. With Avila lacking a timetable for his return and due to become a free agent this fall, McCann—who hit .295/.343/.427 in Triple A last year and threw out 40% of attempting base stealers across parts of four minor league seasons—just may have taken Avila’s job for good.
Smith has been charged with a run in just two of his 22 appearances this season and, despite averaging less than one inning per outing, has recorded four or more outs four times. The 25-year-old hasn’t been great about stranding runners, but he has excelled at preventing runners from reaching base on his own watch, and he has locked down the eighth inning for Seattle. He takes the final spot here over 20-year-old Blue Jays reliever Roberto Osuna, who gave up two runs in the 10th inning Tuesday night to take the loss against the White Sox.
Off the list: Mark Canha (2)