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Awards Watch: Billy Burns emerges as new leader in AL Rookie race

Speedy Athletics centerfielder Billy Burns is your new leader in the AL Rookie of the Year race, but with a new wave of talent incoming, will he hold onto first for long?

Awards Watch’s latest look at the Rookie of the Year races finds considerable upheaval in the American League, with a new leader and three new names among the five spots on my list. That rate of turnover could continue three weeks from now, as well, as the recent influx of elite prospects into the league has yet to have a significant impact on the list.

As it stands, top prospects Carlos Correa, Joey Gallo, Byron Buxton, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Rodon, Chi Chi Gonzalez and Vincent Velasquez are still on the outside looking in, largely due to insufficient playing time. Indeed, Correa, Gallo and Gonzalez would seem to be locks for this list if they are able to maintain their current levels of production for another three weeks.

There is new talent in the National League, as well, with the Phillies' Maikel Franco and the Mets' Noah Syndergaard the most likely to force their way onto the list next time around. But the NL list, as you’ll see below, is much stronger to begin with and could prove more difficult to crack for the league's late arrivals.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, June 17. 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.

American League

1. Billy Burns, CF, Athletics (3)
Season Stats: .316/.365/.424, 4 3B, 27 R, 13 SB
Last Three Weeks: .341/.380/.471, 3 3B, 16 R, 6 SB

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The aptly named Burns is one of the fastest players in baseball and knows how to use his speed on both sides of the ball. At the plate, his 16 infield hits, two of them bunt singles, are just one behind Dustin Pedroia’s AL lead. On a per-plate-appearance basis, only Dee Gordon has reached base more often on balls that haven’t left the infield. On the bases, Burns's 13 steals are tied for fifth most in the AL and have come at an impressive 81% success rate. In the field, he grades out as an above-average centerfielder capable of doing things like this:

As Oakland’s leadoff man in 30 of the team's last 31 contests, the 25-year-old switch-hitter has posted a .371 on-base percentage and reached base in 28 of those games. Meanwhile, among AL rookies, only Rays rightfielder Steven Souza Jr. has had more plate appearances this season, and Souza’s .222 batting average and lousy play in the field continue to keep him off this list entirely.

2. Devon Travis, 2B, Blue Jays (1)
Season Stats: .271/.336/.504, 7 HR, 26 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: (injured)

Despite having now spent a full month on the disabled list due to shoulder inflammation, Travis is still sixth among AL rookies in place appearances, and his production while healthy has kept him near the top of this list. Having begun a rehab assignment on Monday, Travis is believed to be close to returning to the Blue Jays. It will be interesting to see if the 24-year-old can recapture his April form once he does, as his bat had gone cold in May before his injury.

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3. Joey Butler, DH, Rays
Season Stats: .336/.370/.504, 4 HR, 17 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .357/.384/.529, 2 HR, 10 RBIs

The 29-year-old Butler is on his third organization in three years, having appeared in eight major league games with the Rangers in 2013 and six with the Cardinals last year. Signed to a minor-league deal in January, Butler—an outfielder and career .294/.379/.446 hitter in the minor leagues—hit well enough in Triple A Durham to get the call when Desmond Jennings hit the disabled list in early May.

Since then, Butler has emerged as the Rays’ everyday designated hitter, putting up impressive numbers. With Jennings out until August due to knee surgery, Butler should stay in the lineup as long as he remains productive, though as a designated hitter, he could have difficulty competing for this award against more multi-dimensional players.

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4. Lance McCullers, RHP, Astros
Season Stats: 3–1, 2.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS, 1 CG, 197 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 2–1, 1.78 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 4.83 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

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​McCullers has made just six major league starts, but he has thrown more innings (36) than any rookie reliever in either league and has arguably pitched better than any other rookie starter this season regardless of playing time—certainly better than any other rookie starter with more playing time. McCullers has allowed as many as three runs in just one of his six starts, doing so two turns ago in a seven-inning outing in which he struck out seven men against no walks. In his start before that, he went the distance against the Orioles, holding Baltimore to one run on four hits and striking out 11 against no walks. In his last start, he held the Mariners hitless for five innings only to get the hook because he was at 90 pitches (due in part to a season-high four walks) and had an 11-run lead.

Beyond the numbers, McCullers is just a thrill to watch pitch, pumping fastballs up to 98 miles per hour, then dropping a nasty curve or changeup. He’s new to this list this week, but I don’t expect him to fall back off any time soon.

5. Nathan Karns, RHP, Rays
Season Stats: 3–3, 3.67 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 2.27 K/BB, 5.7 IP/GS, 105 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 0–1, 3.57 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 2.75 K/BB, 5.7 IP/GS

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​Karns edges Rangers leftfielder Delino DeShields’s comparably competent mediocrity and Texas starter Chi Chi Gonzalez's small-sample success by virtue of having spent the entire season in the Rays' rotation and delivering solid, slightly above-average results. A 27-year-old acquired from the Nationals in minor deal prior to last season, Karns is nothing special, but he had an outstanding May, posting a 1.88 ERA in five starts and striking out 28 men in 28 2/3 innings. He deserves some recognition for that performance, but he’s ultimately a placeholder here, likely to be knocked out by that bumper crop of elite prospects three weeks from now.

Off the list: Delino DeShields (2), James McCann (4), Carson Smith (5)


National League

1. Joc Pederson, CF, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .252/.390/.537, 17 HR, 33 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .227/.386/.500, 5 HR, 10 RBIs

Pederson has hit just .184 in 12 games since his streak of five straight games with a home run came to an end earlier this month, but over those same dozen games he has reached base at a .380 clip. Combine that with his fine play in center, of which the below is a mere sampling, and Pederson has remained tremendously valuable despite his hitting slump. That’s a testament to his broad range of skills, and it suggests that he will be difficult to knock out of this top spot.

2. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (2)
Season Stats: .295/.398/.488, 8 HR, 39 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .333/.410/.507, 1 HR, 8 RBIs

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Bryant has an active 13-game hitting streak and has gone 9-for-23 (.391) in his last five games, but his home run in the Cubs’ 17–0 win over Cleveland on Wednesday night was his first in 18 games, and his next multi-home run game will be his first in the major leagues. Bryant is still slugging .507 despite failing to deliver a barrage of home runs comparable to the one he let loose in the minors, but his somewhat underwhelming power performance and sub-par play at third base are preventing him from being a real threat to Pederson.

3. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants
Season Stats: .294/.344/.441, 6 HR, 29 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .281/.361/.484, 3 HR, 7 RBIs

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An 18th-round pick out of Cal State Long Beach in 2012, Duffy hit .304/.387/.413 as a shortstop across three minor league seasons but has found his home at third base in the majors. Not only has the scrawny 24-year-old been a dramatic improvement at the hot corner in San Francisco compared to free agent Casey McGehee (.207/.267/.289), but Duffy’s current line is also better than anything Pablo Sandoval has done in the last three years. Sandoval has hit .277/.331/.415 since the start of '13 and has been a replacement-level player for the Red Sox this season, due in part to his poor play in the field. Duffy, meanwhile, has been worth nearly two Wins Above Replacement. I guess we now know who’s going to be known as “the other Matt Duffy.”

4. Jung Ho Kang, 3B/SS, Pirates (4)
Season Stats: .280/.363/.420, 4 HR, 24 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .216/.333/.373, 2 HR, 10 RBIs

Kang’s bat went cold almost immediately after I last checked in on the Rookie of the Year races, but he’s warmed back up of late, going 8-for-22 (.364) with a couple extra base hits and a .481 on-base percentage over the Pirates' last seven games. That was enough for him to hold on to his spot here, though his place is more tentative than it was three weeks ago.

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5. Addison Russell, 2B, Cubs
Season Stats: .259/.314/.425, 5 HR, 20 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .273/.344/.436, 2 HR, 7 RBIs

Russell has been a slightly above-average hitter thus far in his major league career (103 OPS+) and even better by the standards of his position (the average major league second baseman has hit .257/.315/.375 this season), but the reason he’s on this list is his play in the field. Russell is a shortstop by trade, and a good one, and his play at second base has made it clear that he’s by far the Cubs’ best defensive infielder. The only question is how long it will take the team to restore him to his rightful place on the diamond. In the meantime, we get to enjoy watching him do things like this:

Off the list: Alex Guerrero (3), Anthony DeSclafani (5)