Wade Miley has held the top spot in the National League since my very first Rookie of the Year column back in May and Mike Trout has an iron-clad grip on the American League's top spot. Nothing has changed this week, though there has been some shuffling in the four spots behind the leaders, including a first-timer in the final spot on the NL list, and the extreme second-half performances of high-profile rookies Bryce Harper and Yoenis Cespedes bear watching.
Miley leads qualified major league rookies in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio and wins and he has returned to form after having a bit of a hiccup in his three starts before I last visited this award.
He had his only disaster start (more runs allowed than innings pitched) of the season on June 30 and followed it up with two more non-quality efforts but he has held his opponents to just one run three times in his four most recent starts. In his last 11 starts, dating back to June 6, Miley has held his opponents to one or fewer runs in six or more innings seven times, and 11 of his 12 quality starts this season have seen his opponents score one or no runs.
In that June 30 disaster and the start that followed it, Miley allowed a total of five home runs. He has allowed just five home runs in his other 20 appearances this season, including just one in his last five starts. The 25-year-old lefty also hasn't walked more than two men in any game this year and has only done so twice in 12 starts since the end of May.
Aoki and Frazier are pretty tightly bunched here although they are very different players. Aoki is a contact-hitting leadoff man with little power but who hits for a higher average, gets on base more often and steals bases. Frazier's offensive value is largely tied up in his home runs, which come with a typically high strikeout rate and not enough walks, but he adds value on defense via his flexibility, having filled in at both infield corners during the injury absences of Scott Rolen and Joey Votto, as well as having started five games in leftfield.
Using Gross Production Average, which improves upon OPS by giving proper weight to the more-important on-base percentage and adjusts the results so that they sit on the batting average scale (.200 is bad, .300 is good, etc.), we get a .271 GPA for Frazier and a .265 GPA for Aoki. However, that doesn't factor in Aoki's steals (which have come at an excellent 82 percent success rate) or the fact that he has come to the plate 70 more times than Frazier. Frazier hasn't derived any particular benefit from his homer-friendly ballpark according to his home/road splits, and he does give his manager flexibility, but Aoki is the better fielder. I'm still giving Aoki the edge here, but a hot streak from the 26-year-old Frazier would push him past the 30-year-old Nippon Professional Baseball veteran.
Harper has been slumping for more nearly two months now. His high water mark this season was his .307/.390/.553 line after the action of June 12. In 48 games dating back to June 13, more than half his season of 89 games, he has hit just .210/.285/.305. Since July 6, his line has been just .186/.281/.265, and his last three weeks, broken out above, have been even worse.
This is not a major concern as far as how it might reflect on Harper's future, as he's still just 19 and, quite frankly, he's not supposed to be in the major leagues at all. That he put up a .943 OPS in his first 40 games remains remarkable and a great indicator for future success, but the league has caught up to him.
Harper now has seven weeks left to make the necessary adjustments or risk riding pine in the postseason. Even if he fails, it won't cause much change in his long-term projection. Mike Trout hit a mere .220/.281/.390 in 40 games last year in his age-19 season. Being a teenage major leaguer is impressive enough.
Three weeks ago I had Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario in this spot and wrote this:
"Rosario has made the most of his playing time of late, but that playing time is now being constricted by the return of Ramon Hernandez from the disabled list. Between that restriction on his opportunities and his lousy on-base percentage, it seems likely that there will be someone else in this final spot three weeks from now, with 27-year-old Brewers starter Michael Fiers the leading candidate at the moment."
Bingo. Rosario has started just nine games in the last three weeks, hitting .121/.216/.394 in those opportunities, dropping that on-base percentage 11 points to .280. Fiers, meanwhile, has been dominant, most recently retiring the first 18 Reds he faced on Tuesday night in a game that saw him ultimately hold the NL Central leaders to one run on three hits, two singles and a double, over eight innings while striking out seven against no walks. Friers has made just 12 starts and thrown only 80 innings on the season, but the only other NL rookies who have been anywhere near as good are either part-timers, such as Rosario, the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, and the Nationals' Tyler Moore, or late arrivals, specifically Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Rockies shortstop Josh Rutledge.
Sometime between now and mid-November, when these awards are announced, I'm probably going to be writing a piece ranking the greatest rookie seasons of all time. That's because Trout is in the middle of one of them. One needn't even invoke Trout's age or rookie status to put his season in elite company. Consider this: Just three players in major league history have hit .340 with 20 home runs and 30 steals in a season in which they qualified for the batting title. Two of them played at Coors Field in the 1990s (Ellis Burks in 1996 and Larry Walker in 1997). The other was Willie Mays in 1958. That's the kind of season Mike Trout is having.
Since returning from the All-Star break, Cespedes has hit .402/.455/.630. He did sit out a couple of games over the weekend due to a wrist sprain but went 3-for-9 in his last two games and returned to the outfield on Wednesday.
Cespedes' fragility remains a concern, but he's nonetheless proving to be an excellent investment for the A's, who have surged into a playoff spot with significant help from rookie players. Cespedes is the best of that crop, but first baseman Chris Carter has come on strong of late, hitting .267/.411/.633 with 10 home runs since being recalled at the end of June. The rotation has been anchored all season by Tommy Milone, was buoyed by the addition of Jarrod Parker at the end of April, both of whom have spent time on this list, and recently added Dan Straily, who has the most strikeouts of any pitcher at any level this season, though he was roughed up by the Angels in his second big league start on Wednesday afternoon.
Oakland has also gotten strong relief pitching from rookie closer Ryan Cook, who came over from Arizona with Parker in the Trevor Cahill trade, and converted fist-base prospect Sean Doolittle. However, they all pale next to Cespedes, the 26-year-old Cuban who, despite an injury plagued first half, is living up to the hype.
Diamond leads qualified major league rookies in innings per start, quality start percentage (he is tied for the rookie lead in quality starts with 12 in just 17 turns) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (tied with Miley), and leads qualified AL rookies in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and wins (tied with Wei-Yin Chen). Diamond also authored the only shutout by an American League rookie this season, dominating the Indians on July 27. In that game, the 26-year-old lefty retired the first 14 men in order, allowed just three baserunners, none of whom reached third base. He also struck out six.
Middlebrooks drew two walks off Matt Harrison in Wednesday's game against the Rangers, marking the first time since he was called up at the start of May, less than a week before Diamond, that he took ball four twice in one game. In fact, only once all season had he drawn two walks over the course of two consecutive games.
Those two walks don't appear to be the start of a trend; rather they highlight the one area in which the 23-year-old Middlebrooks needs to improve. He's hitting for average and power and playing a solid third base, he just needs to get on base a bit more often. The good news is that he's working deep counts, seeing 3.86 pitches per plate appearance, right around the major league average, but he has walked less often than once every 18 plate appearances over the last two seasons, majors and minors combined. That has to change.
A's lefty Tommy Milone is the only rookie to have thrown more innings than Chen this season, and among qualified rookies, only Miley and Diamond have a better ERA and ERA+, though 23-year-old White Sox lefty Jose Quintana is gaining quickly, having posted a 2.78 ERA and 154+ ERA+ over 90 2/3 innings in 13 starts and a pair of relief appearances.
Chen has held off that charge and leapfrogged the suddenly scuffling Milone (0-3, 7.58 ERA over his last three starts) on the strength of a strong run of five starts which saw him post a 1.95 ERA and strike out 12 men in the only one of those five starts that wasn't quality (he fell an out short in that game in which he allowed just one unearned run).