In 2012, the American League Rookie of the Year race was the Mike Trout show. In 2013, it was a race nobody wanted to lead until Wil Myers stood up and said, "Fine, I'll do it."
Things look different this year. Rather than a contest won in a landslide or by default, the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year race is shaping up to be a Royal Rumble featuring several stars.
And Houston Astros slugger George Springer is the latest to join the fray.
First off: Yes, it is safe to use the "slugger" label on him now. It didn't fit so well when Springer exited April hitting .182 with no homers, but it fits now that he's ending May on a heck of a power surge.
Already sitting on eight May home runs, including five in five games, Springer made it nine and six in six with this first-inning two-run blast against the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday afternoon:
And with that home run, the Astros let everyone know that Springer, their No. 11 pick in 2011 and one of their best young players, had set a new club record:
Springer's dinger gave the Astros an early 2-0 lead in a game they would go on to win 9-3. And in also walking twice and getting hit by a pitch, he ended up getting on base four times.
All of a sudden, Springer's numbers are starting to look pretty sweet. Via FanGraphs, here's a taste.
|George Springer in 2014|
Springer's turnaround hasn't happened by chance. One reason his power has exploded, for example, is because he hasn't been hitting the ball on the ground nearly as often in May as he did in April.
FanGraphs puts his ground-ball percentages in the two months like so:
- April: 52.8 GB%
- May: 33.3 GB%
That May ground-ball rate is more like it for a guy who's supposed to be a power hitter, and Springer has further helped himself by cutting down on his strikeouts:
- First 27 games: 37.0 K%
- Last 10 games: 12.8 K%
And being more willing to take his walks:
- First 24 games: 5.8 BB%
- Last 13 games: 19.4 BB%
There's plenty more complicated analysis to be done, but this will do nicely for evidence that Springer is figuring things out. Plus, we also have the testimony of his manager.
"He got out to a slow start, and the game was kind of fast and he kind of pumped the brakes," said Astros skipper Bo Porter after Springer's four-hit game on Memorial Day, via MLB.com. "And now, once he slowed the game down, you're starting to see his natural talent pretty much just take over."
We are indeed starting to see Springer's natural talent take over, and it looks like there's enough there to make a run at winning the AL Rookie of the Year.
It's not going to be easy, though, for Springer faces tough competition from...
Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
The Yankees' $175 million man from Japan is 10 starts into his major league career, and his numbers are downright obscene:
|Masahiro Tanaka in 2014|
The best thing Tanaka has going for him is his 2.29 ERA, which leads qualified American League starters. The fancy-pants metrics say it's no joke, either, as FanGraphs has Tanaka among the leaders in FIP and leading in xFIP and SIERA.
The catch with Tanaka's Rookie of the Year chances is that some writers might give him the Hideki Matsui circa 2003 treatment and deny him votes for not really being a "rookie." Tanaka isn't as old as Matsui was in '03, but he is 25 and a veteran of seven Nippon Professional Baseball seasons.
Still, Tanaka is going to be a factor in the AL ROY race either way. So will...
Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
It's a darn shame that Abreu is currently on the disabled list with an ankle injury, but he's still sitting on some fine numbers:
|Jose Abreu in 2014|
There's more to offense than homers and RBI, but it does bode well for Abreu that he's blowing away fellow AL rookies in those categories. He is in OPS too.
Springer has closed the OPS gap during his hot stretch, however. There's also how Weighted Runs Created Plus—or wRC+, a park- and league-adjusted metric that captures a player's offensive value in runs above average—actually has him as the better hitter in 2014.
And like with Tanaka, Abreu's rookie status could be subject to scrutiny. He may be a rookie by rule, but he's also a 27-year-old who played eight seasons in the Cuban National Series.
If the voters choose to shy away from Tanaka and Abreu, then Springer's toughest competition might come from...
Yordano Ventura, Kansas City Royals
|Yordano Ventura in 2014|
Not exactly Tanaka-level stuff, but definitely good. No other AL rookie who's made 10 starts has an ERA below 4.00 besides Tanaka and Ventura, and only Tanaka has Ventura beat in strikeouts.
And there ought to be more of those to come if Ventura can stay healthy, what with him having a triple-digit fastball and a nasty curveball and changeup and all. That there's strikeout stuff.
But since the "stay healthy" part could be tricky from here on out, perhaps Springer's top competition for the AL ROY will come from...
Others: Xander Bogaerts, Yangervis Solarte and/or Josmil Pinto
Next to Springer, Tanaka, Abreu and Ventura, it's Boston's Xander Bogaerts, New York's Yangervis Solarte and Minnesota's Josmil Pinto who look like the dark horses in the American League Rookie of the Year race.
Thus far, they've done this:
|Bogaerts, Solarte and Pinto in 2014|
You can take your pick with these three, but Bogaerts looks like the guy to watch. While Solarte (.421 OPS in his last dozen games) and Pinto (.659 OPS in May) are cooling down, the Red Sox shortstop is busy heating up.
Over his last 15 contests, Bogaerts is hitting .328 with a .925 OPS. He's starting to swing it like the guy who began the season as arguably the top prospect in the American League, so Springer and Ventura might not be the only traditional "rookies" who pose a threat to Tanaka and Abreu.
We'll see. We're only about a third of the way through the season. And even more so than with other players, you never know when rookies are going to get a reality check from the baseball gods.
But with Springer launching himself into what was already a crowded Rookie of the Year race, it does look like a good bet that this is going to be a wild one.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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