B/R's 2015 All-MLB Rookie Team at the Midseason Mark
Just like that, the first half of the 2015 Major League Baseball season has come and gone. That's our cue to pay homage to the many things that have entertained us along the way.
High up on that list, as usual, are the kids.
As we discussed earlier, MLB has spent the last few years in the grip of a major youth movement. It hasn't quit in 2015, as the season has produced a strong class of rookies who are very much worthy of some props.
So, props are what we're going to dish out.
We're going to go position by position—all eight defensive positions, designated hitter, starting pitcher and relief pitcher—and identify the best of the best who deserve a spot on MLB's All-Rookie Team. It's not an actual thing, of course, but it's the type of imaginary thing that will make your brain happy.
Step into the box whenever you're ready.
Catcher: James McCann, Detroit Tigers
In Blake Swihart and Kyle Schwarber, the 2015 season has seen two big-name catching prospects debut in The Show. But because one of them hasn't been great and the other's time in the big leagues lasted just a few days, we're picking a less heralded name for the season's All-Rookie Team.
That would be James McCann, who's quietly making a name for himself on the Tigers.
In 54 games, he has hit .268 with a .724 OPS. Though these figures make the 25-year-old only about a league-average hitter, that's good enough to make him the best hitter among rookie catchers who have accumulated at least 100 plate appearances.
McCann's real moneymaker, however, is his defense.
Though Baseball Prospectus doesn't rate him as a good strike-framer, McCann has thrown out a ridiculous 48 percent of would-be base stealers. As Mike Petriello of MLB.com highlighted, that's largely a product of McCann having about as quick a pop time as a catcher can have.
Outside of McCann, the list of rookie catchers who have played as much, hit as much and played as well on defense has McCann is pretty much empty. Thus, he's the man.
Honorable Mention: J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
First Base: Justin Bour, Miami Marlins
The rookie pickings at first base are admittedly slim. It's not a position that produces many elite prospects to begin with, and it hasn't produced any to speak of in 2015.
As such, it's oddly fitting that the best rookie at first base is a guy like Justin Bour.
The Chicago Cubs drafted Bour in the 25th round way back in 2009, and at no point during his minor league travels was he on the top prospect radar. But you'd never know it from looking at the 27-year-old now, as he's hitting .263 with an .836 OPS and nine homers in 52 games.
With a 9.8 percent walk rate to his name, Bour is good at working at-bats. But his biggest strength is his ability to hit the ball hard. Per Baseball Savant, he entered Thursday's action with an average batted ball velocity of 93.5 mph. That put him in the top 10 among qualified batters.
One area where Bour hasn't really impressed is on defense. But relative to his fellow first base rookies, that's immaterial. He's one of only three to accumulate at least 100 plate appearances, and he's been the best hitter of the bunch.
Honorable Mention: Ben Paulsen, Colorado Rockies
Second Base: Devon Travis, Toronto Blue Jays
The rookie second basemen with the most hype is Chicago Cubs super-prospect Addison Russell. But in terms of performance, he can't match Devon Travis.
Travis began his season by lighting the American League on fire (not literally, of course...but you knew that) with his bat, hitting a staggering .356 with a 1.097 OPS and six homers in his first 20 games. It was around then that Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs broke down just how much Travis was clobbering the ball:
At the moment, 146 players have hit at least 30 balls that've been captured by StatCast. On average, they've hit the ball 88.5 miles per hour. Travis has averaged 91.6 miles per hour.... Some averages of note: Nelson Cruz has averaged 91.7 miles per hour. Mike Trout, 91.4.
Alas, that now looks like the high point of the 24-year-old's season. Travis spent a few weeks on the disabled list with a bad shoulder, and in general his offensive output has plummeted since late April.
But with a .286 average and an .841 OPS, he still checks in as far and away the best offensive second baseman among those who have accumulated at least 100 plate appearances. He's held his own on the other side of the ball as well, playing solid defense at second base.
So despite his decline, Travis has still been the best total package among his peers.
Honorable Mention: Addison Russell, Chicago Cubs
Third Base: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Behold by far the toughest choice in this entire process. Kris Bryant, Matt Duffy, Maikel Franco, Yasmany Tomas and Jung Ho Kang have all been various degrees of awesome in 2015.
But I'm going with Bryant. Predictable, yes, but also well earned.
With 68 games and 299 plate appearances to his name, the Chicago Cubs' 23-year-old phenom has racked up more playing time than any of the names listed above. He's also slugged 10 home runs, swiped six bases and racked up an .838 OPS. He doesn't rank as the best hitter of the bunch, but he does rank as the best overall offensive contributor.
This is because Bryant is doing a good job of living up to the book on him. He's showing off a strong batting eye with a 13.4 percent walk rate, and his .381 BABIP comes mainly from his ability to hit the ball hard all over the yard. Despite not rating well in terms of exit velocity, his hard-hit rate of 37.0 is well above league average. And on his spray chart at MLB Farm, you'll see dots stretching from line to line.
As for the other side of the ball, the metrics are split on Bryant's defense at the hot corner. In reality, that likely tells us his defense has at least been good enough.
Honorable Mention: Matt Duffy, San Francisco Giants
Shortstop: Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
Like at catcher and first base, the rookie pickings at shortstop are slim. Only Nick Ahmed has logged substantial playing time, and he just hasn't been very good.
So, we'll go with a guy who's been very good in a short amount of time: Carlos Correa.
The 20-year-old phenom began his pro career as the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 and promptly surged to the top of prospect rankings everywhere. Now he's in the big leagues and looking good with a .287 average, .852 OPS, five homers and four stolen bases in 22 games. Next to his fellow rookie shortstops, he's been easily the best hitter and overall offensive producer.
According to Brian McTaggart of MLB.com, all this made Correa an easy choice for the American League Rookie of the month for June. Likewise, it makes him an easy choice for our list.
Honorable Mention: Nick Ahmed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Left Field: Randal Grichuk, St. Louis Cardinals
There are a few solid rookie left fielders to choose from but only one right choice: Randal Grichuk.
The 23-year-old looked like a throw-in in the 2013 trade that sent David Freese to Anaheim and brought Peter Bourjos to St. Louis, but now he looks like the headliner. Through 48 games, he's hitting .269 with an .852 OPS and seven home runs, making him the top rookie hitter among left fielders.
While Grichuk is striking out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances, he doesn't get cheated when he does make contact. Heading into Thursday's action, Baseball Savant put his average exit velocity at 94.5 mph.
That's Giancarlo Stanton territory.
That has translated into about as much success you'd expect. And despite his swing-and-miss habit, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny chalks that success up to a hitter who's clearly learning.
"Randal's going up there with more of an approach now and an idea of what guys are trying to do," said Matheny to Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It’s not necessarily being a guess hitter, but knowing himself, knowing his strengths and weakness and how to maybe maximize what he brings to the table."
Meanwhile, Grichuk is also rating well as a defender in left field. Between that and his offense, he's proving to be quite a find for the Cardinals.
Honorable Mention: Delino DeShields Jr., Texas Rangers
Center Field: Joc Pederson, Los Angeles Dodgers
If you were expecting to see any other name here, you've either just returned from a sabbatical on Mars or simply haven't been paying attention.
Either way, prepare to be filled in on the awesomeness of Joc Pederson.
The 23-year-old Dodgers sensation has played in 79 games this season and has dominated offensively to the tune of a .907 OPS and 20 home runs. He's been the best hitter among rookie center fielders by a mile, and that's thanks mainly to two strengths.
One is Pederson's discipline, which has led to a 16.9 percent walk rate. The other is his power, which he maximizes by hitting nearly 60 percent of his batted balls in the air and by belting them really, really hard. Per Baseball Savant, only Giancarlo Stanton hits line drives and fly balls at a higher exit velocity than Pederson.
Not content to just be an offensive star, Pederson is also a stud defender in center field. So much so, in fact, that legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully says he looks like the best defensive center fielder the Dodgers have ever had.
Yeah. 'Nuff said.
Honorable Mention: Billy Burns, Oakland Athletics
Right Field: Steven Souza Jr., Tampa Bay Rays
The most noteworthy big-name prospect playing right field in the big leagues this year is Jorge Soler, who could one day turn into a star for the Chicago Cubs.
But because he hasn't yet, let's talk about Steven Souza Jr. instead.
At 26, the Rays right fielder qualifies as a late bloomer. And with just a .209 average and .297 OBP, he clearly has issues with consistency that point to an approach that needs work. But he's a dangerous offensive presence nonetheless, as he's slugged 14 homers and stolen 10 bases in 76 games.
No other rookie right fielder has played in that many games, hit that many homers or stolen that many bases, which is why Souza is the best offensive rookie at the position. And as of the start of play Thursday, he was one of only eight players in the majors with double-digit homers and steals.
That's about the extent of Souza's accomplishments in his rookie season, though. Beyond the aforementioned issues with his approach, he's also rating as, at best, just an OK defender.
Still, what he's doing beats the competition.
Honorable Mention: Jorge Soler, Chicago Cubs
Designated Hitter: Joey Butler, Tampa Bay Rays
As you can imagine, the list of rookie designated hitters in the league this year is a bit on the short side. To be exact, it contains only three names.
Thank goodness that one of those names is actually worth talking about. That would be the one belonging to Joey Butler, who's quietly having a strong season for the Rays.
The Rays picked up the 29-year-old off the scrap heap after the St. Louis Cardinals let him go, and he's showing that a bat that was occasionally excellent in the minors is fit for the majors. In 50 games, Butler is hitting .314 with an .833 OPS and six homers. Never mind just rookies—he's been one of the better-hitting DHs in the entire league.
Butler is doing this despite a high strikeout rate (28.3 K%) and a low walk rate (4.8 BB%), which goes to show just how much he's needed his .422 BABIP. But he's done enough to earn that, as his batted-ball profile shows a good line-drive stroke that seldom makes weak contact and goes to all fields.
In other words, Butler is a designated hitter who's actually pretty good at hitting. He gets it.
Honorable Mention: [Shrug]
Starting Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr., Houston Astros
Quite a few rookie starting pitchers have made a name for themselves in 2015, and there are a number of different ways you could pinpoint which one has been the best.
But let's make this simple and choose the guy who's dominated the most over a sample size large enough to make it believable: Lance McCullers Jr.
The 21-year-old right-hander has made nine starts and logged 53.1 innings for the Astros, and in those he's racked up a 2.19 ERA that's easily the best among rookies with at least 50 innings pitched. Along the way, he's struck out just about 10 batters per nine innings.
That's what you can do when you have a three-pitch mix as nasty as McCullers'. He has a fastball that averages in the mid-90s. Per Baseball Prospectus, he also has the hardest curveball among all fellow starters. He also throws his changeup around 90 mph and once got it up to 94.
"It's propelled me into a category where I have a chance to become a great starter," McCullers told Grantland's Jonah Keri of his changeup, "because of three great pitches."
Another reason we know McCullers has a chance to become a great starter? Because he already is one.
Honorable Mention: Chris Heston, San Francisco Giants
Relief Pitcher: Carson Smith, Seattle Mariners
Maybe you're not surprised to see Carson Smith's name here. After all, the Mariners right-hander does have a 1.45 ERA with a ratio of 37 strikeouts to six walks in 31.0 innings this season.
But he wasn't an obvious choice. Sizing up relief pitchers is not a simple task. It took a process of elimination to get to Smith.
Draw up a list of the top rookie relievers based on Baseball-Reference.com's version of wins above replacement, and you'll get a choice between Smith, Chasen Shreve and Roberto Osuna. Narrow things down by looking at who has pitched in pressure situations the most, and it comes down to Smith and Osuna.
And between these two, there is a case to be made for Osuna. The Blue Jays right-hander beats Smith in fielding independent pitching (2.05 to 2.41) and in good, old-fashioned innings pitched (36.2 to 31.0). Those are two good areas for a reliever to have advantages in.
But it's hard to overlook what Smith has on Osuna. His 1.45 ERA is significantly better than Osuna's 2.21, and Smith also has advantages in strikeout rate (31.6 to 29.2) and walk rate (5.1 to 6.9).
Short version: Smith has been legitimately dominant amidst regular action in high-pressure situations. Inexperienced though he may be, he clearly understands relief pitching.
Honorable mention: Robert Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays