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MLB Rookie of the Year 2014: Breaking Down Best Candidates from Both Leagues

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIISeptember 25, 2014

Chicago White Sox's Jose Abreu doubles during the third inning of the first game of a baseball doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Matt Marton/Associated Press

As the end of the 2014 MLB season approaches, much of the focus will rightly be on the playoff picture and pennant races. However, the first-year stars who made the biggest splashes are in battles of their own to secure top honors as the most distinguished rookies.

There are two front-runners in the American League and National League, respectively. Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu has been a phenom since he set foot on the field, and he appears to be a lock as the AL's top rookie.

If not for New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka's extended DL stint with an elbow injury, Abreu might have had some serious competition for the accolade. Now it doesn't appear so, what with his .317 batting average, 35 home runs and 105 RBI through Wednesday.

Meanwhile, New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom has given the team's rotation hope for a long-term staple beyond ace Matt Harvey, who's missed the year recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton has a strong case to beat out deGrom, but the young pitcher did strike out his first eight batters on September 15 against the Miami Marlins:

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That type of stuff is hard to argue against, as has been the case with deGrom's body of work that's featured a 9-6 record with a 2.63 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 140 innings.

Even though both Abreu and deGrom play for losing teams, they offer plenty of promise for those fanbases to look forward to. Below is a closer look at the two studs who have made an immediate impression and have bright futures ahead of their sensational 2014 campaigns.

American League: Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 27:  Jose Abreu #79 of the Chicago White Sox runs up the first base line after hitting an RBI single, scoring Adam Eaton during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at U.S. Cellular Field on August 27, 2014 in Chicago, Ill
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

The rare ability to come into the MLB and immediately be a force in the batter's box is no small feat. Abreu has been beyond what the White Sox could have hoped for in his maiden MLB campaign.

Daren Willman of BaseballSavant.com notes just how well Abreu makes contact at the dish—and how there is hardly anywhere to pitch around him:

Daren Willman @darenw

Jose Abreu has the highest batting average this year when swinging at pitches in the zone. He's 111 for 266 (.417) http://t.co/TqVt9x5cjQ

Daren Willman @darenw

#WhiteSox Jose Abreu has had some pretty crazy plate coverage this year... Here's a heatmap of his base hits. http://t.co/bVJOjyallS

To understand just how complete of a hitter Abreu is, though, check out where he stacks up over the past half-century or so with regard to major batting categories, per numberFire's Jim Sannes:

Jim Sannes @JimSannes

Among rookies w/500 PA's since 1960, Abreu ranks third in wOBA, third in slugging, sixth in home runs. https://t.co/uE7TQSP72r

Weighted on-base average takes into account situational baseball, where Abreu has thrived. The 27-year-old has a .320 batting average with runners in scoring position, but he has also drawn 30 walks to 31 strikeouts in those instances.

That tells you Abreu knows when to be patient and when to be aggressive to help lift a lineup that would struggle far more without him. Eighteen of Abreu's 35 home runs are of the solo variety. Imagine what his production could be with a little more teammate support, not to mention MLB experience.

Abreu should run away with the AL vote in nearly unanimous fashion. There are still several more games for him to bolster his numbers, too.

National League: Jacob deGrom, P, New York Mets

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets pitches in the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Citi Field on September 9, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

That leads us to deGrom, who unfortunately won't have the benefit of one more start to enhance his resume amid a tight race with the likes of Hamilton. The Mets shut deGrom down to protect him for 2015 and beyond.

It may not matter, though, because deGrom put on as epic of a two-start stretch as you'll see from a rookie. He struck out the first eight hitters in his penultimate start of 2014—then followed it up with more excellence versus the Atlanta Braves, per ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Mets P Jacob deGrom, who struck out 8 straight to begin his last start, has struck out 7 of first 9 Braves he's faced today

Mark Simon of ESPN highlighted how deGrom used a versatile array of punch-out pitches to get the job done en route to 10 strikeouts over six innings in New York's 10-2 victory:

Mark Simon @MarkASimonSays

Mets P Jacob deGrom had some pretty ridiculous strikeouts on Sunday. Here are a few in heat-map form http://t.co/CvX48onUXu

USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported what deGrom had to say when he learned the Mets were shutting him down the rest of the way:

I really wanted to make my last start Saturday. I tried to talk them out of it, but they told me they wanted to be careful. It probably was going to be more risk than reward. I'm pretty happy the way my year went, and especially my last start against the Braves. I just didn't know it would be my last one of the year.

The Mets official Twitter account made a strong case for their right-handed hurler:

New York Mets @Mets

Since 6/21 @JdeGrom19’s ERA is < 2! #’s in a class w/Kershaw. Full #deGrom4ROY #infographic: http://t.co/PxKJt5NutU http://t.co/UXIjV7gbZp

Hamilton may have a strong case with his mind-boggling 56 stolen bases, but his speed makes him a bit of a one-dimensional candidate. If not for that attribute, he would be a rather pedestrian contender for the NL's best rookie.

A slash line of .250/.292/.355 doesn't make Hamilton a complete enough threat to truly challenge a dominant pitcher like deGrom. Chad Dotson brings up a relevant point about how Hamliton has regressed as 2014 has worn on, while deGrom has come on strong late:

Chad Dotson @dotsonc

Billy Hamilton in the second half: .202/.256/.259. 43 wRC+, 235 wOBA. Brutal.

Having the chops to befuddle even the most experienced MLB hitters as deGrom has done, especially toward the end of the year with many clubs fighting for playoff positioning, is most impressive.

So it will be a shock if Abreu wins AL Rookie of the Year, and it ought to be if deGrom doesn't secure the accolade in the NL too.

The White Sox need wholesale changes to the roster to bolster their chances to contend in 2015, but Abreu is a promising player to build around.

As for the Mets, their rotation featuring Harvey, deGrom and other young standouts in Zack Wheeler and Jonathon Niese looks promising. The latter two have ERAs under 4.00 this season. If Wheeler can be re-signed this winter, New York has a lot to look forward to on its pitching staff in the coming years.

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