Editor’s note: Statistics and standings are current as of August 26 and may have differed by the time of publication
What’s been a surprising source of joy and entertainment in a wacky year has been the emergence of the new stars who have gotten the chance to contribute to their respective teams in the wake of expanded rosters, positive COVID results, and unfortunate injuries to starters. The young bats and arms have been undeniably successful against some of the most dominant opponents in the game.
So who are the front runners? Who could make a surprise run? Let’s take a peek at 7 rookies who have shown that they belong in the bigs, and the upper echelon at that.
ROY contenders since Spring Training
Kyle Lewis, OF, Seattle Mariners
Lewis is arguably the frontrunner for 2020 Rookie of the Year honours. He’s universally touted as a star in the making on a Mariners team with enough homegrown talent to build a competitive team in the next few years.
Lewis leads the majors in OBP at .456, BA at .360, runs scored (25), and has an elite 1.041 OPS. His 7 home runs put him tops among rookies (tied with Luis Robert) but his advantage over Robert in production comes in plate discipline and hitting for average. I know batting average isn’t as in vogue as it once was, but batting .360 over 130 plate appearances as a rookie is still a strong marker of a guy who can put the ball in play all over the field (a .440 BABIP speaks for itself) and make something happen.
A stat I don’t often look at but that’s relevant here is around baserunning: Kyle Lewis has contributed 1.4 runs above the average baserunner. Watching him play it’s clear he’s smart, fast, and has the instincts to take advantage of defensive mistakes. You can’t teach that and it’s so often the difference between wins and losses.
With speed and power, plus the ability to get on base, Lewis has the kind of tools that create chances to win. If his defensive errors (he’s made a fielding and a throwing error this season) can lead to refinement in centre, he’s got the potential to be very good for a very long time.
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Jesús Luzardo, LHP, Oakland Athletics
For the AL West-leading A’s, having a rookie starter eat up as many outs as Luzardo has done over his rookie-best 33.2 IP is incredibly valuable and it allows their powerful bats to put them ahead. He’s also keeping pace with the rest of the A’s arms in the win column (2 wins over 5 starts and 7 total appearances).
On a pitching staff with guys like fellow starter Sean Manaea and closer Liam Hendriks, it appears Luzardo is already learning to use his mid to high-90s heater and killer changeup to induce poor contact from hitters: batters have only barreled up 5.4% of batted balls and are swinging at pitches outside the zone 30% of the time.
A great indicator of mindset on the mound is how often pitchers throw a first pitch strike. Most of the league is between 55% and 63% and Luzardo is in the top 10 in the majors at 65%. He’s aggressive, and he’s got a reputation for being cool and calm on the mound, which will continue to serve him in tough situations.
To break through to the Rookie of the Year level, Luzardo has to keep the ball in the ballpark. 16% of fly balls given up have become home runs, and that can hurt him when paired with a 3.48 BB/9. If he maintains command and continues to strand runners when they get on, he’s looking at a long career as an effective starter and potentially some hardware.
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Luis Robert, CF, Chicago White Sox
The chatter about Robert being a Rookie of the Year frontrunner has been going since last season, before the number 3 MLB prospect ever set foot in Chicago, and it’s only getting louder now that he’s arrived.
In 28 appearances, Robert has notched 7 home runs to tie Kyle Lewis’s mark, 4 stolen bases, and 17 RBI which is good for second among rookies. He’s above average defensively as well, having contributed an errorless season so far in centre field with 7 defensive runs saved. That puts him first in the American League for defensive WAR at 0.8 according to Baseball Reference. For a guy whose bat tool was the most highly touted, Robert’s ability to bring tight defensive play along with a power bat might keep him in the race with others who are outpacing him in a few categories at the dish.
He needs to bring his strikeouts down and exercise patience at the plate. If he walks even marginally more than he does (7.2%) to inflate his OBP (currently at .336), then that OPS will rise to the .900+ elite level. The whiff rate is also worth noting: Robert swings at 43% of pitches outside the zone. If he wants to continue along his hard-hitting slugger trajectory, he’s got to find some plate discipline and step into the box with a plan.
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Alec Bohm, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies
Philly promoted the 2018 third-overall pick to the majors on August 13 and despite being the player with the fewest plate appearances on this list (39 as of August 25), Bohm is showing great patience at the plate with an ability to reach base and put good pitches hard into play.
His walk rate (17.9%) is second highest among rookies behind the Nationals’ Carter Kieboom (18.3%), while maintaining a .400 batting average on balls in play and a .993 OPS in 10 games.
Defensively, his play is average at best but at only 24 he has the time to develop into a solid glove at third. Especially since the Phils had to resort to moving middle infielder Jean Segura to the corner to replace the Kansas City-bound Maikel Franco, it’s good news that he’s looking stronger as time goes on.
Look for more clutch at-bats and regular playing time for Bohm through the back half of the season. If he can keep up the pace with the bat and come through on both sides of the ball in key moments, he could have a shot.
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Jake Cronenworth, UT, San Diego Padres
This guy has gone from zero to Padres hero in a matter of weeks. Last week, I featured him as a key reason why Slam Diego is breaking away from the pack in pursuit of the first place Dodgers, and since then there’s even more evidence that his performance may be worthy of league honours.
His stats look good from just about all angles. Among rookies he contributes the second highest WAR behind Seattle’s Kyle Lewis, and his wRC+ of 177 puts him third in that category and second on the Padres behind Fernando Tatis Jr. He’s slashing .347/.410/.627 over 83 plate appearances while maintaining an excellent 13% K rate, good for top 25 in the majors. As of August 25, Cronenworth is riding an 8-game hit streak, including a grand slam and four doubles.
Among his success to the midway point, “Rake” has played every infield position except for pitcher and catcher, though he has pitching experience in the Tampa Bay system and could take the mound in an emergency. Cronenworth will continue to be a front-runner if he can continue succeeding in high-leverage situations (and if manager Jayce Tingler can keep a spot for him in the lineup).
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Luis Guillorme, 2B, New York Mets
Despite two stints in the majors between 2018 and 2019, Guillorme is still considered a rookie in 2020 as a result of service time rules. This bodes well for his bid for Rookie of the Year, given his strong return to the majors as the replacement at second in place of the injured Robinson Canó.
Guillorme’s performance is a bit of a surprise after an unproductive preseason, but he has outshone much of his rookie cohort and many big names in his 2020 campaign to date. In terms of production, an OPS of 1.087 and BABIP of .542 put him above even the likes of some of the biggest names in baseball (I’m talking a full .285 higher than Aaron Judge’s BABIP, and .215 above Bryce Harper’s). Only one teammate, Dominic Smith, has met his wRC+ at 200, which is also good for 5th in the majors. Defensively, the tools are there at 2B to keep in in the starting spot while Canó is out or DHing.
He needs to continue making solid contact to show he can keep the pace up for the playoff race. The number that’s lacking so far is power (he has yet to hit a home run) and proof that his contributions aren’t happening in a vacuum; a big question coming into September will be whether Guillorme’s production can start turning into wins for the floundering Mets.
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James Karinchak, RHP, Cleveland
Cleveland’s newsworthy pitching staff has another mark in the positive column: James Karinchak’s work as a reliever. The 9th round draft pick from 2017 has impressed over 14 appearances in 2020 and offers consistent shut-down performances behind potential Cy Young candidate Shane Bieber and his rotation-mates.
Over 16.1 innings pitched out of the bullpen, Karinchak makes a strong case for ROY honours. His 16.74 K/9 puts him first in the majors among pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched, and the 0.54 ERA combined with not giving up a home run makes him Cleveland’s go-to arm to hold the lead. His work out of the bullpen give him 0.9 WAR to this point in the season, a sizeable contribution over a 60-game season.
If his results hold up through the 20-30 innings pitched mark, he’s well on track for some hardware. That, and avoiding injury. He’s set up well to be an everyday arm with stamina, given his strong tools. He does register above average strikeouts, but with BABIP in the low .200s and a hard hit percentage of only 30%, the defence also have lots of opportunity to get efficient outs behind him. Look for Cleveland to use Karinchak in high leverage situations against the tough righties of the AL Central.
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