Rookie of the Year races are hard to preview ahead of each MLB season, and even a month into a campaign, you still don’t have a firm grasp of who will be in the running.
Some of the rookies off to hot starts will fade and perhaps even end up back in the minors for fine-tuning. Other entrants to this derby are in the minors now but will be in the conversation in due time. A player’s status as a prospect is only very loosely correlated with the awards race. In many seasons, sheer opportunity is as important as talent and long-term ceiling.
At the same time, we’ve seen a number of rookies hold down key roles on their teams, some of them among the top clubs in baseball. In fact, according to my team rookie metric, based on consensus WAR figures, the top five teams in rookie production are all contenders:
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (1.17 rookie WAR)
2. New York Yankees (1.13)
3. Houston Astros (1.07)
4. Milwaukee Brewers (0.96)
5. Baltimore Orioles (0.92)
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the early leading candidates through the prism of AXE, my awards rating that creates a consensus index based on Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR and win probability metrics. The average is 100. Today we’re going to zero in on the rookies who have AXE ratings better than 100, while touching on a few who might get there before too long.
These races might — and probably will — look very different a month from now, much less by the end of the season. For now, based on what we’ve seen so far, these are the rookies making the most impact.
James Outman, Los Angeles Dodgers (AXE: 127)
Outman’s recent tear has given him clear early separation, though the key word in that declaration is “early” and over the past few days, Arizona’s Corbin Carroll has closed a gap that after last weekend was more like a chasm. Outman’s four homers and nine RBIs in three days at Wrigley Field last week accelerated what was already a strong start for a player who wasn’t guaranteed a regular spot when spring training began. That AXE rating is not only the top total among all rookies, but it’s the 10th-best total among all players overall. With a .287/.367/.644 slash line, seven homers and 19 RBIs, Outman leads rookie NL hitters in just about every major hitting category. His 1.3 fWAR leads all rookies. The Dodgers have featured 14 Rookie of the Year winners since 1960 but haven’t had once since Cody Bellinger in 2017. Maybe they are due.
Hunter Brown, Houston Astros (118)
Brown launched himself into the AL’s top rookie spot with his domination of the front-running Rays on Wednesday. Brown had sandwiched two so-so outings around two seven-inning gems before shutting down a Tampa Bay lineup that has done historic things over the opening weeks of the season. Brown looks like an ace in the making and a rotation mainstay on one of baseball’s best pitching staffs. Opposing batters just haven’t been able to elevate his pitches with any degree of consistency. Of the first 200 hitters Brown has faced in the majors, none have taken him out of the yard and his career ERA over 50⅔ innings is 1.78.
Other NL standouts
Corbin Carroll, Arizona Diamondbacks (122): To say that Carroll is an elite prospect might be an understatement. He’s an absolute dynamo on the field and with a .311/.374/.556 slash line, four homers, 10 stolen bases and 17 runs, he is already among the top-producing power-speed players in baseball. Not for nothing, he’s shining for the Diamondbacks, who are emerging as one of baseball’s breakout teams. If Arizona is able to hang in the playoff chase all season, the context of Carroll’s rise will be that much more compelling.
Blake Sabol, San Francisco Giants (106): Sabol isn’t going to play much against lefties and he isn’t a regular at any position on the Giants, so he’s unlikely to gather much awards support a few months from now. Still, he’s been a unicorn of a utility player for Gabe Kapler, someone who has started six games in left field, but also nine behind the plate. He has hit for power with four homers and a .481 slugging percentage, and put that power to good use with a game-winning homer off St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley on Tuesday.
Joey Wiemer, Milwaukee Brewers (106): Wiemer is a marvel. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he looks more like a budding tight end than a ballplayer, at least until you see him throw, run and take batting practice. His kit of tools is complete. At the plate, however, he’s raw, with his primary skill right now being his patience. Pitchers have flooded him with breaking pitches and he’s in a period of adjusting to that. Still, despite a .227 average and just two homers, his overall metrics are strong. His defensive numbers are among the best in baseball and he’s a legitimate threat on the basepaths.
Spencer Steer, Cincinnati Reds (104): Steer was rolling early in the season, but he has slowed a bit since he returned from a minor knee injury. Still, he’s been hitting second or third in the Reds’ lineup on a nightly basis and, as the weather warms, he could produce the kind of power numbers at Great American Ballpark that can draw the attention of voters.
Miguel Vargas, Los Angeles Dodgers (103): Vargas’ advanced approach at the dish (16 walks, 17 strikeouts) has pushed his on-base percentage to .368 and propped up his bottom-line metrics. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing propping up his metrics so far. He’s going to have to start putting more balls into play and bringing some power to the table to enter the awards race. His minor league track record suggests he’s quite capable of doing both of those things.
Brent Honeywell, San Diego Padres (101): OK, Honeywell isn’t a starter or a closer and he ranks third among the Padres’ key relievers in leverage index. He’s not going to enter the rookie of the year chase unless something changes. Still, he has pitched really well in the role he’s been given and deserves recognition after the horrific string of injuries he has battled over the years. Once one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Honeywell retains rookie status even though he’s now 28. That kind of perseverance merits attention and, besides, the guy throws a screwball. How could you not root for him?
Brice Turang, Milwaukee Brewers (101): The bouncy Turang was developed as shortstop making him an ideal 2023 second baseman in the post-shift era. He has already emerged as catalyst in the Brewers’ team defense, one of the top units in baseball. He has a live bat and speed on the bases. Right now, Turang appears to be going through a period of adjustment. Still, the Brewers love this guy and he’s going to play most every day and do so on a team positioned to challenge for prime playoff position in the National League.
Other AL standouts
Anthony Volpe, New York Yankees (113): Volpe has struck out a lot but even as his average has lagged and he hasn’t hit for as much power as you’d expect, his full range of skills has kept his overall value strong as he settles into one of the highest-profile positions in sports. Volpe’s 16 walks have kept his on-base percentage strong, which in turn has allowed him to swipe eight bags. The fielding metrics have been solid as well. Good start and it’s only going to get better from here.
Josh Jung, Texas Rangers (110): Jung is off to a terrific start, one that hopefully won’t be disrupted for long after X-rays on a hand injured on a checked swing came back negative. He’s still a big swinger who strikes out a lot, but so far, he’s made more consistent contact than last season, and his walk rate has edged upward. Perhaps because of this modestly improved approach, Jung has been hitting the ball hard more consistently. His average (.281) is bolstered by an unsustainable .377 BABIP, but that doesn’t mean he’s not getting better. Jung has only 49 career games under his belt, but he’s homered at a rate of 34 per 162 games played.
Taj Bradley, Tampa Bay Rays (106): Bradley did nothing but impress while winning his first three big league starts while posting a ridiculous 23:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 15⅓ innings. Alas, the Rays shipped him back to the minors. According to reports, this was done so that could become accustomed to pitching in a five-man rotation framework. Seems odd but I guess when you start 20-4, you have the buffer to do things like that.
Ian Hamilton, New York Yankees (106): I’ll be honest: When Hamilton’s name popped up on the AXE leaderboard, I thought it had to be a different Ian Hamilton. It happens. If there are two Max Muncys in professional baseball, there certainly can be two Ian Hamiltons. But, no, it’s the same one, the guy who debuted for the Chicago White Sox way back in 2018 and was largely known for being teammates with a pitcher named Burr (Ryan Burr). Hamilton has gotten heavy use in the Yanks’ bullpen and has pitched well (1.84 ERA, 2.18 FIP, 11.7 K/9), albeit in lower-leverage situations. Because of that last factor, Hamilton won’t be a candidate in the awards race unless his role changes, even if he has somehow retained rookie eligibility nearly five years after his MLB debut.
Esteury Ruiz, Oakland Athletics (106): The Athletics should be, and have been, a team of opportunity for young players, and so it has been for Ruiz. He’s hit for no power — zero homers and an average exit velocity 6.5 mph below the MLB average — but he has looked like a neo-Willie Wilson by putting the ball in play and doing damage on the bases. His on-base percentage (.343) is playable but it has also been propped up by a league-high seven HBPs. The biggest concern in the short term is that Ruiz’s early defensive numbers have been poor.
Zach Neto, Los Angeles Angels (103): Neto was the 13th pick of the draft last June and then raced through the Halos’ minor league system to claim the organization’s everyday job at shortstop. It’s quite a whirlwind to go from playing for Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, to playing in front of Mike Trout in less than a year. So far, his glove has looked ahead of his bat and to factor into awards consideration, he’ll have to show more than a preternatural ability to get struck by a baseball. (Neto has six HBPs over his first 48 career plate appearances.)
Ryan Noda, Oakland Athletics (103): It’s been a slow climb to the majors for Noda, who turned 27 just before the start of the season. He’s kind of a classic take-and-rake A’s slugger, with rates in walks and strikeouts alike. His slash line tells the story: .228/.397/.404. It’s this last figure that needs to change if Noda is going to stick. It’s a tough road for a take-and-rake slugger who doesn’t slug, even on the A’s.
Masataka Yoshida, Boston Red Sox (103): Perhaps no rookie has been more under the microscope than Yoshida, thanks to the $90 million deal he signed in the offseason and his status as an established star in international baseball, something U.S. fans got to see this spring when he was a starter for the Japan club that won the World Baseball Classic. Yoshida struggled out of the gate but over the past week or so, he’s been making up ground fast. From the week starting with April 20, he hit .464/.484/.821 and mashed two homers in one inning in a game at Milwaukee, including a grand slam. It’s a fair debate to wonder if players as established as Yoshida (and the New York Mets‘ Kodai Senga) should really be classified as rookies, but for now, he is and he’ll factor into the awards race for sure.
Gregory Santos, Chicago White Sox (102): There haven’t been many bright spots on the White Sox, but Santos is emerging as one of them. He throws a hard, heavy sinker at 99 mph that so far, opposing batters have struggled to elevate. And he has complemented that with a slider that’s generated a 44% whiff rate. He’s been used in low-leverage spots almost exclusively but in a Chicago bullpen struggling for answers, these kinds of metrics might portend a better role for Santos moving forward.
Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles (101): Rodriguez hasn’t had a breakout outing as yet, unless you call five shutout innings against the Tigers a breakout. But he’s in the majors, in the rotation of a playoff contender and the raw stuff is as advertised. Rodriguez has been BABIP’d to death somewhat, but he has also yielded a lot of hard contact, at least when batters aren’t flailing at his pitches. He needs more consistency to get deeper in games but there’s nothing he’s done that should change what you read about him in the prospect reports.
Waiting in the wings
Kodai Senga, New York Mets (100): Well, Senga was a headline signing by the Mets over the winter. He’s in their rotation, and they’re the Mets. Sure, he’s 30 years old and owns more than 100 career victories in high-level international leagues, but in MLB, he’s a rookie. All of this means he very well could factor heavily into the Rookie of the Year balloting. He’s 3-0 after four starts, for what that’s worth, but overall his performance has been up and down, especially his sweeper — the newfangled pitch everyone is fawning over. Senga’s has been crushed so far. Still, it’s not been hard to see why the Mets liked him.
Drey Jameson, Arizona Diamondbacks (99): Jameson’s early season has been a whirlwind. He looked initially like he could be a dominant multi-inning threat out of the bullpen. Then he was inserted into the rotation, where he’s vacillated between dominance and wildness. The ability is there, but the seven walks Jameson has issued over his last two outings tell you that he’s still searching for consistency. Arizona shipped him back to the minors to find it.
Brett Baty, New York Mets (97): Baty’s numbers in the majors don’t tell us much, as he wasn’t recalled from the minors until last week. He was bashing everything in sight for Syracuse before that and if he starts doing the same thing for the Mets, well, people will notice. His 3-for-3 showing with a walk and a homer on Thursday is a good start.
Gunnar Henderson, Baltimore Orioles (97): ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel’s No. 1 prospect before the season, Henderson has struggled, hitting .194 with poor defensive metrics. He has been very patient at the plate, drawing 16 walks, and that’s kept his on-base percentage playable. The talent is immense, but so too is his early whiff rate against sliders (46%). So now we’ll see how Henderson adjusts.
Francisco Alvarez, New York Mets (90): Alvarez has started slow since being recalled in the aftermath of Omar Narvaez‘s injury. He hit his first homer on Sunday but is just 6-for-34 overall. He might end up back in the minors but then again, there is so much upside in his bat that if he gets rolling, he could end up seeing time at DH as well as behind the plate, so he could make up ground quickly.
Ezequiel Tovar, Colorado Rockies (90): Tovar’s glove gives him plenty of runway and an everyday shortstop — if a rookie can hold the spot for a full season — is going to stand out in a rookie awards chase. So far though, Tovar hasn’t hit at all and every runway ends at some point.
Jordan Walker, St. Louis Cardinals (90): Early on, Walker’s strong start at the plate didn’t show up in the value metrics because of starkly negative, small-sample fielding metrics that dragged his numbers down. That’s still happening but Walker has really yet to hit his stride at the plate despite a solid .274 batting average. His secondary skills haven’t shone through yet and with the defensive issues, the Cardinals optioned Walker back to the minors on Wednesday. He’ll be back eventually, but with St. Louis off to a rough start, the majors weren’t the place for Walker to iron out his rough edges.
Triston Casas, Boston Red Sox (83): Casas has shown the occasional penchant for the spectacular, like a super-long plate appearance or a mammoth home run. He hasn’t flashed these things very often and owns a .169/.322/.358 career batting line. He’s hitting just .139 in 2023. He’s still getting regular play so maybe he can get things rolling, but you do wonder how long the Red Sox can remain patient in the short term considering how vicious the race in the AL East is shaping up to be.
On the injured list
Garrett Mitchell, Milwaukee Brewers (109): Mitchell is a joy to watch and was showing signs of developing pop at the plate, though his strikeout rate remained too high. Still, as recently as last Thursday he was tied with Outman as the top rookie in the NL. Then the news dropped that Mitchell was headed to surgery for labrum damage suffered on a slide during a game in Seattle. Mitchell will be out for at least a few months.
Logan O’Hoppe, Los Angeles Angels (107): Sigh. O’Hoppe, acquired last season in the deal that sent Brandon Marsh to the Phillies, looked like a blossoming, premier all-around backstop. His defensive metrics were positive and his bat (141 OPS+, four homers, 13 RBIs in 16 games) was a revelation. Then he damaged the labrum in his left shoulder on a swing and underwent surgery that might keep him out for the rest of the season. As with Mitchell, we’ll just have to hold in our minds what we’ve seen from these guys so far.