Grading Top MLB Rookies' Performance Entering the 'Fourth Quarter'
The home stretch of the Major League Baseball season can be exhilarating as all the races finally get settled. One of the most intriguing and competitive battles is for Rookie of the Year, in both leagues.
There is a discrepancy between the National League and American League crop of freshman. The star power is overflowing in the senior circuit with no fewer than four players battling over the award.
The AL crop that boasted names that fans knew—Texas' Jurickson Profar being the most prominent—was barren for a long time but has come into its own over the last few months.
But there is still time for the race in both leagues to change, as so often happens. As we reach the final phase of the 2013 season, here are our grades for the top rookies in each league through August 12.
Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
From the time he debuted on June 3, Yasiel Puig has been all anyone wants to talk about. His ability to hit, run, throw and catch seem to have improved exponentially after being called up to Los Angeles.
What's been most impressive, at least to me, about Puig's season to this point is the way that he has adjusted to pitchers making adjustments against him. He was trying to swing at everything out of the gate with great success.
But now Puig has gotten more patient, willing to take pitches out of the strike zone and walk. He's got 23 walks this season, and 16 have come since July 23. He's still striking out at a high rate (20 times in 67 at-bats since July 23), but the fact he's waiting to hit his pitch more is a great sign.
Puig is still too reckless on the bases and in the field. He will try to take a base that clearly isn't there, or make the spectacular play when he should wait back to play the ball on a hop, but so far the results haven't dropped off.
I do wonder about how successful Puig can be in the future since so much of it this season is based on random variations that won't last (.469 BABIP), but who am I to argue with what's going on now?
Jose Fernandez, RHP, Miami Marlins
Remember right before the season started, the Marlins announced Jose Fernandez was going to make the 25-man roster after one season in A ball and we all worried that he would get knocked around since his off-speed stuff and command weren't ready yet?
They don't do a lot of things right, but the Marlins certainly proved the world wrong with this move. I know Puig is THE story among rookies this year, but Fernandez should be the NL Rookie of the Year if the season ended today.
Unfortunately, due to an inning restriction that is rapidly approaching and Puig playing out the rest of the year, Fernandez probably doesn't have a chance to win it.
But that shouldn't detract from what Fernandez, just two weeks past his 21st birthday, has done this season. He became the sixth pitcher in baseball since 2000 to record at least 13 strikeouts in consecutive starts on July 28 against Pittsburgh and August 3 against Cleveland.
Fernandez's ERA+ of 150 means he is 50 percent above average and factors in adjustments for league and ballpark. For the sake of comparison, Adam Wainwright's ERA+ this season is 137.
He leads all NL rookie starting pitchers in strikeouts and ERA. He also ranks fourth in innings pitched.
What's scary is that Fernandez is younger than Stephen Strasburg when he signed his first professional contract with Washington and three years younger than Mets phenom Matt Harvey.
Shelby Miller, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Shelby Miller has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle because he plays on a team that has a Cy Young contender (Adam Wainwright) and that isn't having a season quite as good as the top rookie pitcher (Fernandez).
But that shouldn't detract from how good Miller has been in 2013. The 22-year-old has looked stronger the deeper we have gotten into the season, though he could be slowed a bit by an elbow injury thanks to a Carl Crawford liner on August 7.
In four starts since the All-Star break, Miller's ERA is just 2.70 with 20 strikeouts in 16.2 innings. Admittedly not the biggest sample size, but he was also starting against teams with deep lineups like Atlanta and Cincinnati.
What's been most impressive about Miller is the control and command he has shown. One knock against him coming up through the minors was his ability to consistently throw the fastball for quality strikes. He still has moments where he will catch a little too much of the plate, but a 132-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio is phenomenal for a first-year pitcher.
Not that the talent-rich Cardinals are hurting for another top-of-the-rotation stalwart, but Miller figures to be a prominent piece in the starting five for a long, long time.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Talk about flying completely under the radar, Hyun-Jin Ryu came out of South Korea with some hype after the Dodgers signed him to a six-year, $36 million deal. But no one really knew what to expect from him.
Now, after four months of really good pitching, Ryu has set himself up nicely as a quality No. 3 starter. Unlike the previous NL rookies, who can bring the heat when they need to, Ryu succeeds with a combination of deception and a much-improved changeup.
Ryu's ERA does benefit from playing in a big ballpark, but he also generates a lot of groundballs (51.1 percent) and can get double plays when he needs them.
Even though Ryu doesn't stack up great against Fernandez and Miller among NL rookies, he will be a very solid big league starter for a long time because he understands how to pitch and change speeds.
Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
What's been so great about watching Julio Teheran from the start of the season to where he is right now is the way he has learned to pitch with lesser stuff. When coming up through the Braves' system, he was touted as a star thanks to a mid-90s fastball and an incredible changeup.
As Teheran moved up, the lack of a consistent breaking ball and command really hurt him. He bottomed out with a 5.08 ERA at Triple-A in 2012.
But this season has shown the maturity of Teheran. He no longer has the huge fastball, though it's still very good in the 91-93 range. His changeup isn't as good as it once was, but it's still deceptive enough to throw hitters off.
The biggest change for Teheran has been adopting a slider, which he has a good feel for, and all but abandoned the curveball that he could never control and still lacks good shape. After a disastrous April with a 5.08 ERA, he hasn't had a full month with an ERA over 2.93. He's also recorded 107 strikeouts in 114.2 innings since the start of May.
Teheran still has some issues with the long ball, boasting the highest home-run rate (1.07) of any qualified rookie starter, but that is a small gripe because everything else is working for him right now.
Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays acquired Wil Myers from Kansas City hoping he would give them another big bat in the middle of the lineup to pair with Evan Longoria and add depth to their offense. It's only been 44 games, but so far, so good.
Myers is probably already the favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year award despite only playing in 44 games, which should tell you how soft this year's crop is. That's not meant as a slight to Myers, who has tremendous upside and could be a superstar for a long time.
Despite not playing in a lot of games this season, Myers already ranks third among qualified AL rookies in WAR and is just two behind Nick Franklin, Conor Gillaspie and Oswaldo Arcia for the home run lead.
In addition to his offensive prowess, Myers has proven to be a solid defensive player in center field and right field. His projected UZR over 150 games would be 17.7, and he's already saved two runs in center field.
Eventually Myers will settle into right field full time, but the Rays are taking advantage of his athleticism to maximize his value.
Yan Gomes, C, Cleveland Indians
Even though Cleveland actually made a few high-profile moves in the offseason by signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, but the best deal may have been a trade with the Blue Jays that sent Yan Gomes to the Indians.
Gomes has proven to be a valuable asset behind the plate, especially with Carlos Santana having all sorts of problems on defense. The 25-year-old (admittedly a little old for a rookie) has also proven to be an offensive weapon with a lot of power, leading all AL rookies in weighted on base average (.380).
While I don't think Gomes would stick as an everyday player because his approach is below-average, he could prove to be worthy of a starting gig thanks to his glove. He's 13-for-25 in throwing out baserunners and saved seven runs.
It certainly seems like Terry Francona is going to give Gomes a lot of playing time down the stretch, so don't be surprised to see him remain a factor in the AL Rookie of the Year race.
Jose Iglesias, SS, Detroit Tigers
After a scorching start, Jose Iglesias' offensive performance is closer to what most expected it to be when he was coming through Boston's system. He has hit just .214/.214/.257 since the All-Star break and .229/.234/.237 since the start of July.
The best thing that could have happened to Iglesias' Rookie of the Year candidacy was being traded to Detroit. He was splitting time between shortstop and third base with Boston, and Iglesias' offensive numbers as an average defensive third baseman wouldn't stand out.
But if you put Iglesias at his natural shortstop position, where he projects to be a plus-plus defender, and he's able to get by without embarrassing himself on offense, suddenly his value skyrockets.
I don't expect that to happen because so much of Iglesias' ability to hit depends on infield hits. He will be one of the five best rookies in the AL at season's end, but the drop in offense the last month has been disconcerting.
Dan Straily, RHP, Oakland Athletics
The rookie pitching crop in the AL has been a wasteland in 2013. Dan Straily leads the pack in WAR, despite having an ERA+ that is below average and being sent down to the minors for two weeks at the end of June when his ERA was 5.00.
In seven starts since returning, Straily has thrown 40.2 innings with 32 strikeouts, 36 hits allowed, five home runs and 13 earned runs. But even during that stretch he had three consecutive starts that lasted less than five innings.
Straily is the kind of pitcher who is perfect for Oakland's big ballpark. His stuff is fringe-average, at best, and he gives up a lot of fly balls that would leave a lot of stadiums.
I don't have a case for Straily to be AL Rookie of the Year, or even a reason for him to be in the mix other than to say how soft this class really is. He's the only rookie pitcher in the league with more than 90 innings pitched.
Martin Perez, LHP, Texas Rangers
The fifth rookie from the AL was difficult to pick. I thought about Oswaldo Arcia (Minnesota) or Sean Doolittle (Oakland), but the former's value is tied strictly to power and the latter is a reliever with 53 innings.
What made Perez the final choice are his combination of current numbers and potential to keep getting better over the final quarter of the season.
Like Julio Teheran, Perez was on the prospect radar for a long time before being passed over by other players after he struggled in the minors. Yet he is still just 22 years old with a fastball that has picked up velocity this season (averaging 93.1 mph).
Perez is still getting his feet back under him after missing the first two months of the season, but he's been able to throw 22.2 innings his last three starts including a complete game (albeit against Houston).
I believe there is a lot more left in the tank for Perez this season. If he can finish with around 110-120 innings and increase his strikeout rate, Perez could slip into the No. 2 spot in this race behind Wil Myers.