Don't look for Bryce Harper on the below lists of the current top five Rookie of the Year candidates in each league. He's not there. It's not that I don't expect Harper to contend for the National League award; he was my pre-season pick and I still think he'll take home the hardware. However, as I explain in detail below, as exciting as his play has been thus far, his aggregate production has been underwhelming. Harper is hitting just .238 in his first 17 games, though he has gone 5-for-16 (.313) in his last four games with two homers and a triple, and I fully expect him to be on this list when I return to the rookie races in three weeks. These lists, however, are based on the games that have been played, not the ones that will be.
The absence of three other high-profile rookies from the below lists is easier to explain. Rays lefty Matt Moore is 1-3 with a 5.31 ERA after seven starts. A's centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes has hit .238/.286/.345 since April 13 and is on the disabled list with a minor hand injury. The Mariners' Jesus Montero has hit .364/.390/.655 with four homers in 15 games as a catcher, but has also played 20 games as a designated hitter and hit just .176/.205/.230 in those, dragging his overall line down below league average.
You could flip these two without much argument from me. Darvish, in one more start, has the same number of quality outings, one of which just barely qualified as he allowed four runs but only three earned in six innings. Smyly has the edge in ERA, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also ran off five straight quality starts, each with six innings pitched and two or fewer runs allowed, after allowing one run over four innings in his major league debut. However, Darvish has thrown 13 more innings than Smyly, who has thrown just one pitch after the sixth inning all year; Texas' Japanese import also has a far more hitting-friendly home ballpark to pitch in and has faced stronger competition.
After walking as many as he struck out in his first three starts, Darvish has a 3.38 K/BB and 1.08 WHIP over his last five starts. Over that same stretch he has struck out seven or more batters in every game and had three dominant outings in which he went at least seven innings while allowing no more than one run or two walks. Also, since allowing four runs in his first major league inning, he has posted a 1.94 ERA in his last 51 frames.
The lefthanded Chen isn't far behind the top two men on this list. He has just four quality starts in as many turns as Smyly, but in his last three outings, he has gone 2-0 with a 2.75 ERA against the top three offenses in the league, the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees. Incidentally, while Darvish and Chen are veterans of Nippon Professional Baseball, they are only 25 and 26, respectively. That's a stark contrast against the 22-year-old Smyly, who is in just his second professional season, but just looking at recent history, Andrew Bailey, Geovany Soto, Ryan Howard and Jason Bay were all 25 when they won the Rookie of the Year award, and the average age of the top four NL candidates below is 25.
Trout had the flu during spring training, opened the season in Triple-A, and wasn't called up until April 28, which is the main reason he's so low on this list. His line above is tremendous, but it has been assembled over just 69 plate appearances. That said, it's entirely consistent with his minor league track record (.342/.425/.516 in 1,312 plate appearances over three-plus seasons, nearly all of them as a teenager). Trout is an excellent defensive centerfielder and is a perfect 7-for-7 in his career in stolen base attempts. Expect the 20-year-old New Jersey native to be closer to the top of this list three weeks from now.
Non-closer relievers don't win this award (or any award, for that matter), but with the A's closer situation in flux, don't be surprised if Cook, who saved 19 games in the minors last year, ends up with the job. Acquired as an apparent throw-in in the trade that sent Trevor Cahill to Arizona during the offseason, the 24-year-old Cook has thus far been one of the best set-up men in baseball thanks to a mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slider, both of which have been missing bats. Not only has he not been charged with a run, earned or otherwise, he has stranded all six of his inherited runners, allowed just four hits in 17 2/3 innings and been perfect in seven of his 16 appearances this year. Cook is due for some correction, but he deserves mention for what he has done to this point in the season.
Miley threw seven innings of scoreless relief in his first two appearances of the year and has thus far posted a 2.35 ERA in five starts since replacing the injured Daniel Hudson in the Diamondbacks' rotation. He has also improved his peripherals since moving into the rotation, striking out 7.3 men per nine innings with a 3.13 K/BB ratio in those five starts. One ugly relief outing separated those first two appearances and his move to the rotation, but it's easy to overlook that hiccup given how well the 25-year-old lefty has pitched since.
Alonso's line isn't terribly impressive for a first-baseman, but it's above league average for the position, and the fact that he has put those numbers together as a left-handed batter who plays his home games at Petco Park means there's more there than meets the eye. That gives Alonso the edge over a nearly identical line from Nieuwenhuis, who played centerfield in his first 21 games but was pushed to left when Andres Torres came off the disabled list. Nieuwenhuis doesn't contribute much in the field and the league average for leftfield is similar to that for first base at this point in the season (centerfield is higher than either, thanks in large part to Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp).
One could make a legitimate argument that Cozart, a slick-fielding shortstop who is hitting above the league average at his position, should be above Nieuwenhuis and perhaps Alonso as well. I have a hard time putting him there because he is giving up nearly 70 points of on-base percentage to the two men above him and plays in a much more favorable home ballpark for hitters.
Bryce Harper has provided plenty of highlight-reel moments already in his young career, but he's hitting just .238/.319/.460 in 72 plate appearances as a corner outfielder, which isn't quite enough to crack this list just yet given that the average rightfielder is hitting .259/.331/.438 and the three hitters on this list have each come to the plate roughly twice as many times this season. Braves shortstop Tyler Pastornicky is hitting right around the major league average for his position, but his fielding drags him below average. Dale Thayer, the Padres' 31-year-old rookie replacement for injured closer Huston Street, and Pirates middle reliever Jared Hughes have been strong in relief, but Hughes isn't pitching high-leverage innings, and Thayer has thrown just eight frames all season. All of that allows the 24-year-old lefty Friedrich to slip into the final spot after just two major league starts against weak-hitting teams on the road.
Friedrich, who was the Rockies' first-round draft pick in 2008, was slowed by elbow problems in 2010 and struggled in his repeat of Double-A last year. He got off to a strong start with Triple-A Colorado Springs this April, though, and was quickly sucked into the Rockies' rotation vacuum that was created by injuries to and/or struggles by Jeremy Guthrie, Jhoulys Chacin and fellow rookie Drew Pomeranz. In his major league debut on May 9, Friedrich held the Padres to two runs (one earned) on five hits and one walk while striking out seven over six innings. In his next start, he held the Giants to one run on six hits and one walk while striking out 10 over seven innings, needing just 93 pitches to do it. His next start should come at home but against another weak-hitting team in the Mariners.