We ran down the leading American League Rookie of the Year candidates on Thursday. In this edition, we’ll examine the first-year standouts in the NL.
1.) Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers:
The 18th pick in the 2012 draft, Seager was a heralded minor leaguer whom Baseball America ranked as a top three prospect four years running. As was the case in 2015, Seager came into 2016 as BA’s No. 1-ranked prospect. For good reason, too, as the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder tore through Major League pitching during a 27-game cup of coffee with Los Angeles last season.
Seager has continued to toy with the league this year, crushing opponents with a .309/.362/.530 line and 58 extra-base hits (21 homers, 34 doubles and three triples) through 508 PAs. He’s had success hitting to all fields and virtually never pops up, as evidenced by a 1.8 percent infield fly rate.
While the 22-year-old has been a revelation offensively, the same is true in the eyes of multiple defensive metrics. UZR (11.6) and UZR/150 (17.7) regard Seager as a top 10 defender in the league, regardless of position, though DRS (+1) only places him 13th among shortstops. That disparity notwithstanding, both fWAR (5.9) and rWAR (4.9) portray Seager as one of the most valuable players, not just rookies, in the sport. Seager is the clear NL Rookie of the Year front-runner.
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2.) Trevor Story, SS, Rockies:
Story, 23, became Rockies property when they selected him 45th overall (coincidentally, one slot behind Fulmer). While other first-year Rockies like David Dahl, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson held their own in 2016, Story outdid them all before suffering a torn UCL in his left thumb a couple weeks ago. That injury likely ended his rookie year, unfortunately, but not before he slashed .272/.341/.567 with 27 home runs in 415 plate appearances. The power-hitting Story was leading the NL in homers when he landed on the disabled list Aug. 2, and he’s currently second in baseball in ISO (.296, trailing only David Ortiz) and ahead of all non-Seager rookies in extra-base hits (52).
Story, who has the sixth-highest fly-ball percentage in the Majors (47.1) and the second-lowest ground-ball rate (29.3), looks built for Coors Field. The extreme tendency to elevate has been key for Story, whose fly balls have produced an absurd 1.165 slugging percentage and an eye-popping .826 ISO. Troubling strikeout and contact rates aside, he’s in the right place to continue posting quality offensive numbers.
On the defensive side, the advanced metrics have given Story mixed reviews. He’s ninth among shortstops in DRS (+4), but UZR (minus-4.4) and UZR/150 (minus-7.4) aren’t nearly as bullish. Regardless, if Story’s season is over, it was undoubtedly a terrific inaugural showing. Were it not for Seager’s otherworldly introduction, Story would likely be the front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year.
3.) Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cardinals:
Twenty-nine months ago, the Cardinals inked Diaz to a four-year, $8MM deal as a Cuban free agent. Thirteen months ago, the Cardinals designated Diaz for assignment. The league’s other 29 teams, especially those in serious need of middle infield help, are now kicking themselves for letting him get away. Diaz somewhat rebuilt his stock in the minors last season, but it took a March thumb injury to fellow shortstop Jhonny Peralta for the 26-year-old to garner his first Major League opportunity.
Diaz burst on the scene by hitting .423/.453/.732 with a measly four strikeouts in 75 April plate appearances, and while the opening month has been his high-water mark, he hasn’t experienced very many offensive hiccups since. In the aggregate, the right-handed hitter has batted .312/.376/.518 with 14 long balls in 401 PAs with just a 13.5 percent strikeout rate. As a result, Diaz forced Peralta off short and over to third when the two were healthy.
Like Story, a thumb injury has unfortunately robbed Diaz of pushing Seager for top rookie honors. Diaz hasn’t collected an at-bat all month after going on the DL on Aug. 2 with a hairline fracture of his left thumb. At best, he’ll return sometime next month, which is frustrating for a St. Louis club that has a one-game lead in the NL Wild Card race. While Diaz’s defense has left plenty to be desired (16 errors, minus-8 UZR, minus-3 DRS), his bat has made him an eminently valuable commodity as a rookie — not bad for someone that no team really wanted a year ago.
It’s admittedly somewhat of a cop-out to feature two players in one spot, but Matz and Maeda have been similar enough as rookies that it isn’t completely unforgivable. Only 4 1/3 innings separate the two, with Maeda having tossed 136 2/3 and Matz 132 1/3. Their ERAs (3.29 for Matz, 3.40 for Maeda) are also right in line, and Maeda has an 18.8 K-BB percentage to Matz’s 17.9. If you like fWAR, Matz has a small edge (2.8 to 2.5). Maybe you prefer RA9-WAR, which gives Maeda a 3.1 to 2.6 lead. Either way, it’s too close to call between these two.
Maeda, 28, emigrated from his homeland of Japan last winter to join the Dodgers on an eight-year deal with just $25MM in guarantees. While Maeda was a great starter in Japan from 2008-15, both his small stature (6’1″, 175 pounds) and concerns over his elbow limited the righty’s earning power. He has held up so far, though, and used his expansive repertoire to give the injury-riddled Dodgers a quality starter in the process.
Contrary to Maeda’s season, injuries have been a fairly significant part of the story this year for Matz, whom New York chose 72nd overall in the 2009 draft. Matz was diagnosed with a bone spur in his pitching elbow toward the end of June, but the 25-year-old has worked through it. He’s now dealing with shoulder discomfort, too, which will cost him at least one start. Matz’s injury issues are certainly troubling, especially considering he has pitched like a long-term core piece since his initial call-up last year. If his elbow and shoulder hold up, he should be a prominent part of the Mets’ future.
5.) Seung-hwan Oh, RP, Cardinals:
As has been the case with Diaz, going abroad to sign Oh has worked out beautifully for the Cardinals. St. Louis inked Oh, 34, to a one-year, $5MM deal with a 2017 club option this past January after he was long a dominant force in Asia. The Korea native, known as the “Final Boss,” has lived up to that moniker with the Cardinals, who — barring an injury — will exercise his option for 2017.
Oh took over for the shaky Trevor Rosenthal as the Cardinals’ closer at the beginning of July and has since converted 12 of 13 save opportunities. Over 62 1/3 innings this season, he ranks third among NL relievers in both ERA (1.88) and K-BB percentage (28.6), fourth in WHIP (0.85), and sixth in batting average against (.170). Oh has confounded hitters with his fastball and slider, the latter of which he has used to hold batters to a .128/.181/.192 line. His age and role likely combine to make him an unpalatable Rookie of the Year candidate to many, but it’s impossible to deny that the first-year Major Leaguer has been superb.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.