Gary Sanchez continues to mash. On Wednesday, the Yankees’ rookie catcher clubbed two home runs against the Rays in Tampa, running his streak of consecutive games with a homer to four and carving a niche in the record books. Though he didn't stick in the majors this year until early August, Sanchez has hit his way into the AL Rookie of the Year race.
Because he'd been on the radars of prospect hounds since his age-17 season in 2010, Sanchez seemed more myth than man—“Gary the Unicorn” was my own nickname for him—until the Yankees called him up on Aug. 3. He had cracked the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus preseason Top 100 Prospects lists five times apiece, though his stock had fallen in recent years due to questions about whether he could truly stick at catcher. Prior to being recalled for good, the 23-year-old backstop was 0-for-6 in three big league games—two last October and one back on May 23. With the team seemingly out of the postseason hunt after trading Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Ivan Nova—and pushing Alex Rodriguez towards retirement—the Yankees quickly came around to the idea that Sanchez should get the bulk of the work behind the plate for the rest of the season, with the aging Brian McCann shifting into the part-time DH role vacated by Beltran and Rodriguez.
Sanchez collected five hits in his first four games in the lineup, homered as one of his four hits against the Red Sox on Aug. 10 and was off to the races, challenging the "most homers in first ___ career games" records day after day even with the slight handicap of those pre-August cameos and helping to keep the supposedly-rebuilding Yankees in the wild-card hunt. With Wednesday's pair of homers, Sanchez finally overtook Wally Berger, a Boston Braves centerfielder who homered 17 times in his first 43 games in 1930; he now has 19 homers through 45 career games, including eight in his last 12.
In his brief career, Sanchez has homered once for every 10.0 plate appearances, a frequency that tops career record-holder Mark McGwire (once per 10.6 PA) and the slugger he supplanted, Babe Ruth (once per 11.8 PA). Sanchez’s line in 43 games this years is straight out of a videogame: .337/.410/.747 for a 199 OPS+ and 3.0 Wins Above Replacement. That last figure prorates to 11.3 WAR per 162 games, or 10.4 per 650 PA; Mike Trout's numbers this year (10.1 WAR in 149 games and 638 PA) prorate to 11.0 and 10.3, respectively.
Sanchez isn't likely to maintain that breakneck pace over a full season, of course—even 650 PA in a year is unlikely, given that just two players have reached that level in the past eight years while spending the bulk of their time behind the plate. But what Sanchez has done has certainly put him in the Rookie of the Year conversation, even in a partial season. Though he's 19th in plate appearances among AL rookies, his 19 homers rank second.
While some of those rookies have clubbed their way onto that leaderboard in short order, all have substantial edges over Sanchez in playing time. Despite his recent arrival, Sanchez is fifth among AL rookies in extra-base hits with 30 (Cuthbert is first with 39) and seventh in total bases with 124 (Mazara is first with 216). He's the runaway leader in rate stats: The next-highest OPS+ is Healy's 132; the next highest batting average and on-base percentage are those of the Orioles' Hyun-soo Kim (.304 and .379, respectively, in 322 plate appearances); the next-highest slugging percentage is that of Naquin (.535).
While it's likely Sanchez's rate stats would regress with that kind of playing time, his concentrated impact has put him at the head of the line in position player WAR (Baseball-Reference.com version).
Naquin's power has been offset by a dreadful -20 Defensive Runs Saved in centerfield, though via FanGraphs, he's been just eight runs below average en route to 2.1 WAR. Likewise, there's a significant difference of opinion regarding Mazara (-7 DRS, 0.6 bWAR versus +5 UZR and 1.5 fWAR), and the same can be said for Kepler and Healy (1.0 fWAR apiece).
None of those rankings include pitchers, however, and until Sanchez's emergence, the favorite to win—not only via Cliff Corcoran but also elsewhere, including FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, who has an actual vote in the race—had been Tigers righty Michael Fulmer. Acquired in the 2015 deadline deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets, the 23-year-old righty has posted a 3.03 ERA (136 ERA+) in 148 2/3 innings, striking out 7.3 per nine. That ERA isn't just pretty good, it's excellent; with another 1 1/3 innings, he would qualify for the ERA title, edging out Masahiro Tanaka (3.07), Rick Porcello (3.08), Corey Kluber (3.11) and others. He's short on that front because he wasn't recalled until April 29, but since arriving, he's joined with Justin Verlander to give the Tigers' rotation the 1–2 punch it has lacked since David Price was dealt.
Fulmer has benefited from strong defensive support. Among pitchers with at least 140 innings, his .257 batting average on balls in play trails only Marco Estrada (.236) and Verlander (.253), though it also does owe something to his ability to produce ground balls and soft contact; among the 45 AL pitchers with 140 innings, his 48.6% in the former ranks 11th, and his 19.4% in the latter is 13th.
With his peripherals (including 1.0 homers and 2.4 walks per nine) not jumping off the page, Fulmer's FIP is a modest 3.89, and his FanGraphs WAR (which is driven by FIP) is just 2.6. But via B-Ref's version of WAR, which is based on runs allowed, his 4.7 ranks sixth in the league even with the shortfall of innings. The next-highest pitcher, Astros swingman Chris Devenski, has been worth 2.8 bWAR and 2.7 fWAR via 104 2/3 innings with a 1.98 ERA and 2.41 FIP. In the context of compressed timeframes, one other pitcher also worth mentioning given his impact: Mariners closer Edwin Diaz, who has been worth 1.6 bWAR and 1.5 fWAR via a 2.33 ERA, an eye-popping 15.5 strikeouts per nine and 16 saves in 46 1/3 innings since debuting on June 6.
Fulmer’s 4.7 WAR is well ahead of Sanchez, and in fewer games (24)—though of course, just about every pitcher contending for any award will wind up with fewer games than a position player. If you're dishing out bonus points for rookie performances that help their team into contention, the Tigers (80–70) are slightly ahead of the Yankees (79–72) in the AL wild-card race, just a game behind the Orioles and Blue Jays. Had the Yankees brought up Sanchez sooner, they might be closer to a spot as well.
It's worth noting that there is precedent for players winning Rookie of the Year awards with far less than full complements of games. In 1959, Giants first baseman Willie McCovey didn't debut until July 30 but hit .354/.429/.656 with 13 homers and 3.1 WAR in 59 games (out of 154) to win unanimously, kicking off a Hall of Fame career. Only three other rookies have played fewer than 100 games and won the award: the Braves' Bob Horner (23 homers and 2.1 WAR in 89 games in 1978), the Phillies' Ryan Howard (22 homers and 3.1 WAR in 88 games in 2005) and the Rays' Wil Myers (13 homers and 1.3 WAR in 88 games in '13). All beat out players with higher WARs (not that voters were aware, except in perhaps the last case) and more playing time. Sanchez, if he plays in each of the Yankees' last 11 games, would max out at 54 games
There's no automatically right answer as to who should win the award, and with 11 or 12 games left in the season—which means probably two starts for Fulmer and roughly 40 plate appearances for Sanchez—no voter needs to decide today. If I had a ballot, I'd probably lean Fulmer because of the magnitude of his impact over a longer stretch, but if voters decide that the entertainment value of watching Sanchez break through to become more than just a figment of our imaginations outweighs that, I’d hardly complain.