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RoundtabLLe: assessing Julio’s chances to win Rookie of the Year

Davis, Sasaki, Ichiro, Lewis ... Julio?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Can anyone take their eyes off Julio Rodríguez when the Mariners are playing? He’s been simply electric with play that demands recognition. But Rookie of the Year is a relative award. So we sat down to assess the state of the field in the American League. There are three clear tiers: a two-man race at the top between Julio and the Astros’ Jeremy Peña; a trio of solid players who could very plausibly win if they pour it on in the second half; and a set of dark horses that can’t be counted out.

MLB: Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 1: The Frontrunners

Julio Rodríguez

While Peña remains the favorite, Julio currently has better odds some places than Peña for ROY, a fact that incenses Astros fans because Peña has some better numbers due to Julio’s slow start, although marginally so: the big difference is Peña has about fifty points more of slugging, and strikes out a tidier 23% of the time compared to Julio’s 30%. In many ways, the difference between the two is marginal: Julio is in the 97th percentile for Outs Above Average; Peña, 100. But if you dig down you see why Julio, winner of May’s AL Rookie of the Month award for MLB, has captured more attention: he makes the bass drop (in our hearts). Julio consistently hits the ball harder and louder than Peña, something he’s been doing his whole career, which is part of the reason he entered into this season, along with Witt Jr. and Rutschman, with the most ROY buzz. Peña ranks below league-average in hard-hit percentage and middling for exit velocity; Julio is in the 90th percentile and better. Loud noises alone don’t produce good results, of course, but if you look at how the two have been producing over the past month, you can see how Julio’s consistent loud contact is helping him pull away in this race:

The trick will be for Julio to continue on this upward trajectory without falling into a rookie slump, while Peña continues to fall off some from his torrid early-season pace. We’ve seen the kind of star-stuff Julio is made of and how he responds to big moments. My money is (figuratively) on Julio (and literally too, if I were ever to make a Sports Bet.). —KP

Jeremy Peña

The best thing Peña has going for him is his uniform. Rookie of the Year isn’t automatically awarded to the player with the highest WAR; you’ve got to capture the attention of 30 national writers, which is easier to do when you’re playing for a team like the Astros. He’s also got a heck of a story, having so seamlessly replaced one of the game’s premier players, Carlos Correa. And while he doesn’t have Julio’s megawattage, relative to the average ballplayer, he more than holds his own on the charisma scale.

As for his play, he’s got all five tools, hitting almost 40 points above league average, blasting eight home runs, stealing four bases to zero times caught, and scoring a ridiculous 100th percentile in Outs Above Average, at the toughest position in fair territory. He’s already racked up 2.4 fWAR and 2.8 bWAR, on pace to finish way ahead of 2021’s Rookies of the Year, Jonathan India and Randy Arozarena.

Peña checks out under the hood too, striking out at just a league-average rate and barreling up more than 10% of his batted balls. As a right-handed pull hitter playing his home games at the Juice Box, he’s likely to make the most of that. And for as much fun as we’ve had watching Julio’s centerfield heroics, Peña’s year-end defensive highlight reel is going to look pretty good too.

Nor are there a lot of holes to exploit. He’s demolishing fastballs, to the tune of a .421 wOBA (.497 against four-seamers!), but he’s also holding serve against today’s it pitch, with a .329 wOBA on sliders. Perhaps he’ll start to see more pitches with depth as the year goes on, since his wOBA on curveballs and changeups is in the .200s. But to get him out on a curve or change, you have to throw a curve or change, and those aren’t many pitchers’ specialties in 2022.

Balancing all that, Peña’s got two big obstacles. First, the projection systems haven’t fully bought in, like they have with Julio. The major public systems project him for a wOBA between .306 and .326 for the rest of the year, about 20 points behind Julio. The other problem facing Peña is Julio’s reputation for being able to adjust so quickly. Obviously, Peña’s an elite athlete, but he’s going up against someone special. —ZM

MLB: Houston Astros at Kansas City Royals William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 2: The Contenders

Bobby Witt, Jr.

Like Julio, Bobby Witt Jr. impressed during spring training and won an Opening Day roster spot for the Royals. And like Julio, he really struggled in his first exposure to major league pitching; he limped to a .216/.247/.311 (57 wRC+) slash line in April. He did put together a nice nine-game hit streak to end that month, a sign that he was finally adjusting to the big leagues. On May 2, he blasted his first home run of his career and followed up with five more last month. He posted a 133 wRC+ in May, pushing his overall season line to .221/.269/.417. The power has looked legit, with a max exit velocity that’s in the top 7% in baseball. His plate discipline has left a lot to be desired however. He’s been pretty aggressive leading to a high swinging strike rate and an extremely low walk rate.

In the field, Witt has been utilized at both third base and shortstop by Kansas City and has shown he’s capable of making flashy plays with regularity. While those plays help him make the highlight reels, the advanced defensive metrics see him as merely average at both positions. The area where he’s really stood out is his speed. He has the highest sprint speed in baseball, though he’s only stolen eight bases for the normally run-happy Royals.

Witt has the skills and tools to breakout at any time and his growing acclimation to the game’s highest level portends good things to come. With lackluster plate discipline and merely average defense so far, his ceiling is probably a little lower than Julio or Peña. —JM

Adley Rutschman

As the third name after Julio and Witt were discoursed to oblivion before Top 100 lists came out this spring, Adley Rutschman hasn’t quite made the impact with Baltimore many were expecting so far. His callup was delayed by a tricep injury suffered in spring training, shutting him down entirely for a couple of weeks before a rather lengthy rehab assignment. He finally got the call to the bigs on May 21st, and so far has struggled at the plate through his first fourteen games, posting just a 27 wRC+ in 61 plate appearances - although his strikeout and walk numbers have been manageable if you’re looking for a silver lining.

This is, to be clear, a very small sample, and we saw both Julio and Witt get off to slow starts before taking off. Rutschman has also proven his defensive chops at a premium position, and with a bat as polished as his, it should only be a matter of time before he turns things around. A late-ish debut might be too much to overcome Julio and Peña’s immediate impact, but a strong second half could see his name climb up ballots come award season. —CD

Joe Ryan

Despite underwhelming raw characteristics, Joe Ryan’s fastball is a monster of a pitch, helping him post a 36.7% career strikeout rate in the minor leagues. The key to that pitch’s success lies in his low arm slot leading to an extremely flat fastball (not unlike Paul Sewald’s heater). The prize of the Nelson Cruz trade last July, Ryan made his major league debut in September of last year and posted a 30% strikeout rate and a 3.43 FIP across five starts. He’s been just as good in eight starts this year — he’s allowed more than two runs just once — though his strikeout totals haven’t been as gaudy. Unfortunately, a bout with COVID has sidelined him since mid-May and he’s only just recently begun throwing. There’s plenty of time for him to make his case for ROTY in the second half of the season, provided he returns from the IL without any ill effects. —JM

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 3: The Dark Horses

Coming into the year Spencer Torkelson was ranked fourth on average among the top prospects lists, right after Julio. And he hasn’t exactly been a disappointment so far–an 83 wRC+ is respectable for a rookie. Of course, to win ROY, you’ve got to do more than be respectable for a rookie. Making matters harder for him, the “3B” designation was always wishful thinking, and the only position he’s played on a big-league field is first base, raising the bar for his offensive production.

Anaheim’s Reid Detmers has the shiniest achievement among rookies, having tossed a no-hitter against the Rays on May 10, the only solo no-no so far this year. But the strikeouts he racked up in his 2021 cup of coffee haven’t returned, and he’s got a smidge of a dinger problem. THE BAT projects him for an ERA over 5 the rest of the year.

Steven Kwan lit the world on fire in April, hitting a ridiculous .354/.459/.500 and setting a 21st-Century record by beginning his career with 116 pitches before whiffing. He cooled off in May, sporting just a 58 wRC+, but there are signs that he’s adjusting back, having a .353 OBP for June. So maybe he’ll put together a strong enough second half to contend. Plus, for awards purposes, the best month to be hot is September, but the second best month to be hot is April. Kwan’s strong first impression should help with the voters.

You were probably amazed by Jhoan Duran’s breaking ball when the Mariners saw him in Minnesota. Everyone else has been too, including hitters, who are striking out in 37.9% of their appearances against him, compared to just a 4.2% walk rate. Duran’s been simply outstanding. But it’s tough to win an award as a reliever, since they rack up so much less playing time. It’s been done, but against weaker competition; in a year without Julio or Peña, Duran might have a stronger shot, sort of like how Argo won Best Picture.

Since getting called up at the beginning of May, MJ Melendez has forced his way into regular time in Kansas City’s lineup. He’s doing everything well, walking more than average (9.4%), striking out just more than average (23.1%), with an above-average ISO to boot (.179). Throw in that he can play catcher, and you’ve got a real ROY contender. Holding him back is that with Salvador Perez in town, he won’t get to play catcher that much, and to win as a DH, you’ve got to hit like Yordan Álvarez. He also lacks Julio’s star power, and he’s not likely to get a ton of attention playing in the Paris of the Plains. Doing everything well is great, but nothing pops. Voters like skills that pop.

Finally, there’s Seattle’s other candidate, George Kirby. The Westchester Wizard’s combination of velocity and command is attracting attention, and if he keeps that walk rate under 3%, even more people are going to notice. And yet, even if he can keep this pace up, he’s unlikely to throw much more than 100 innings, limiting the value he can provide. —ZM