American League Rookie Roundup: Top Five Midseason Turnarounds

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish—at least, that’s the case for these five rookies who have overcome slow beginnings and are starting to hit their midseason strides.
Boston Red Sox center fielder Ceddanne Rafaela hits a two-run home run against the Detroit Tigers in the sixth inning at Fenway Park.
Boston Red Sox center fielder Ceddanne Rafaela hits a two-run home run against the Detroit Tigers in the sixth inning at Fenway Park. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Rookie Roundup, a weekly look-in on baseball’s best and most interesting first-year players. Last week, we examined key rookie contributors to the National League’s best teams. This week, we’ll highlight five American League hitters who struggled out of the gates this season but have since begun to find their rhythm.

As evidenced by the prolonged matriculation period from the minor leagues to The Show, baseball’s learning curve is steeper than most other sports. Even the players selected highest in their respective draft classes can take years to make it to the majors (unless, of course, they’re affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels, who are making a habit of rushing any prospect of promise to the big leagues as quickly as possible).

Of course, the growth period doesn’t stop once players reach the biggest stage. Every first-year player experiences growing pains, but the ones who last are able to learn from their early struggles and shore up their weaknesses. In the cases of these five hitters, April slip-ups have laid a foundation for mid-year improvement. Here’s a deeper dive on how each of these rookies have found their strides following sluggish starts.

Ceddanne Rafaela, CF, Boston Red Sox

The speedy Rafaela inked an eight-year, $50 million contract with the Red Sox on April 8, just 10 games into the season and 38 games into his major league career. He advanced through the minors on the strength of his speed and fielding tools—drawing comparisons to former Red Sox star Mookie Betts along the way—and Boston’s eight-figure investment was a bet that his bat would develop in time.

By the end of April, the 23-year-old was struggling to keep his head above water. Rafaela had a .186/.218/.343 slash line with just four walks and 29 strikeouts over 110 plate appearances, and it was getting increasingly difficult to justify keeping him in the lineup. The offensive turnaround hasn’t been Betts-ian, but the numbers are encouraging: Rafaela has hit .274/.298/.411 since the start of May, with multi-hit efforts in four of his last five games. With elite defense at a premium position, managing a league-average offensive output would make Rafaela an immediate impact player. Even with a wRC+ that’s well below league average (75), he leads all rookies in runs scored (34) and RBI (39).

Colt Keith, 2B, Detroit Tigers

The 22-year-old Keith made a quick ascent through the minors after the Tigers drafted him out of high school in the fifth round in 2021. A bat-first prospect without an obvious best fit defensively, Keith had a .932 OPS with 27 home runs across Double and Triple A in ‘23, earning a spot on the Opening Day roster this season. Getting thrown into the fire immediately proved to be a tough ask, as he hit .152/.227/.172 through his first 30 games with no home runs.

The bat has started to come alive. In Keith’s subsequent 32 games, he’s posted a .308/.333/.442 slash line, a run that’s included three homers. After he hit his first career home run on May 24, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch lauded the youngster’s patience as key to his maturation.

“I know we want the first week to be his best week. But for him it took a few at-bats to just calm down and get to his approach, and now he’s doing a little more of that,” Hinch said, per The Athletic’s Cody Stavenhagen. “He’s still not free-swinging, which is great. That’s not how he’s collecting these hits. He’s good at pitch recognition. He’s good at executing a good swing, and he’s finding a lot of success right now.”

Brayan Rocchio, SS, Cleveland Guardians

Rocchio’s offensive strides aren’t as pronounced as the previous two players mentioned, though he’s showing real signs of improvement. The switch-hitter managed only nine extra-base hits (all doubles) through the end of May. Since the start of June, though, he’s had four extra-base hits—including the first two home runs of his career—in 12 games.

Rocchio takes more of an up-the-middle approach in the batter’s box, with only 36.7% of his batted balls going to the pull side (league average is 40.2%). Pulling the ball is how the majority of hitters tap into their power, and it’s no surprise that of the eight hardest-hit balls for Rocchio this season, six were pulled (including both home runs). Perhaps leaning more into pulling the ball will help the slick-fielding 23-year-old tap into his offensive potential a bit more.

Oakland A's first baseman Tyler Soderstrom
Soderstrom celebrates his home run against the Minnesota Twins in the second inning at Target Field. / Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Soderstrom, 1B, Oakland A’s

Unlike the other players on this list, Soderstrom didn’t make his 2024 debut until May 8 after beginning the season in Triple A. His first taste of the majors in ‘23 was a mess, as he hit .160/.232/.240 in 45 games. A first-round pick in ‘20, Soderstrom has big power, though he floundered to start after getting called up again this season, batting just .174 through his first 20 games.

Since then, he’s mashed his way into becoming Oakland’s everyday first baseman. Soderstrom has a 1.077 OPS in his last 11 games, with four home runs against eight strikeouts. He looks much more like the player who bashed 21 homers in 77 Triple A games in 2023 than the one who appeared lost against big-league pitching.

David Hamilton, SS, Boston Red Sox

Drafted by the Brewers in the eighth round in 2019, a torn Achilles tendon cost Hamilton his junior season at Texas, and the COVID-19 pandemic relegated him to independent league ball in ‘20. As a result, he didn’t make his affiliated professional debut until the ‘21 season when he was 23 years old. Milwaukee shipped him to Boston as part of the package for Hunter Renfroe, and Hamilton has produced steady numbers on his way to the big leagues, with his speed and double-digit walk rate supporting so-so power and a somewhat elevated strikeout rate.

The Red Sox called him up on April 7 following Trevor Story’s injury, and after receiving sporadic playing time through his first month, he’s emerged as Boston’s everyday shortstop and thrived. He’s started 23 of the team’s last 28 games, hitting .333/.375/.533 during that span. Hamilton has also been successful in 18 out of 19 stolen base attempts, including Sunday’s 4-for-4 performance against the Yankees. He might not have another four-steal game in him, but Hamilton has shown enough to keep his name in the lineup for the foreseeable future.


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Nick Selbe

NICK SELBE

Nick Selbe is a programming editor who also provides MLB and college sports coverage for Sports Illustrated. Nick, who has written about the MLB postseason and All-Star Game for SI, previously worked for MLB Advanced Media, Yahoo Sports and Bleacher Report. He graduated from USC in 2014.