Baseball

Quarter-Season NL Rookie of the Year

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Every team in Major League Baseball has passed the 40-game threshold, so let’s look at five contenders for National League Rookie of the Year.

No.5: Luis Gonzalez, Outfielder, San Francisco Giants

After accumulating 13 plate appearances with the Chicago White Sox in 2020 and 2021, Gonzalez has popped for the Giants in 2022. In 91 plate appearances, Gonzalez is slashing .338/.385/.475 for a 144 OPS+. He has used a high-contact approach, poking 20 singles plus seven extra-base hits. The results are a decent bit better than the underlying batted-ball data, but the Giants will consistently put Gonzalez in a position to succeed.

Reason to be Optimistic: Rarely Makes Unproductive Outs

Gonzalez’s contact approach might hurt his exit velocity, but he has a low strikeout rate, particularly for a rookie. He is in the 78th percentile in strikeout rate and 86th percentile in whiff rate. Putting the ball in play is a recipe for success.

Reason to be Pessimistic: 35th-Percentile xwOBA

A glance at Gonzalez’s Baseball Savant page could sow quite a bit of doubt about his sustainability. He is in the bottom half of MLB in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, expected slugging percentage, barrel rate, and walk rate. This means Gonzalez is more prone to streakiness than other players. He does not produce his “luck” because he is not consistently hitting the ball hit.

No.4: Spencer Strider, Pitcher, Atlanta Braves

Strider is closer to a cartoon character than he is an MLB pitcher. It starts with his historically great mustache, and it continues with his flame-throwing style on the mound. Strider is in the 99th percentile in fastball velocity, sitting at 99 miles per hour. He even touched 101 in an at-bat against Bryce Harper. Strider has a 99th-percentile strikeout rate and a 93rd-percentile whiff rate. He is striking out 13.7 batters per nine innings, a ridiculous 39 percent of batters faced.

Reason to be Optimistic: Increasing Role

Strider began the season in a low-leverage, bulk-innings role. He has four three-inning outings, but three of the four came in April. Strider is slowly working through the pecking order toward higher leverage situations. The Braves could stretch Strider out to be a rotation arm, but the likely outcome is him assuming the seventh inning as Will Smith and Kenley Jansen close games in the eighth and ninth innings.

Reason to be Pessimistic: Unnecessary Baserunners

Strider walks too many hitters. While he has erased the damage, for the most part, it results in him throwing extra pitches. He has walked 4.1 batters per nine innings, ranking in the 19th percentile. In fairness to Strider, he has issued only two walks across 45 batters faced in May.

No.3: Alek Thomas, Centerfielder, Arizona Diamondbacks

The former second-round pick has turned his first few weeks of MLB action into a successful run. Thomas is slashing .281/.317/.526 through 60 plate appearances, lacing five doubles and three home runs. He has accumulated 0.5 bWAR so far, a mark that should only increase moving forward as he becomes accustomed to playing centerfield at the Major League level. He has cooled off a bit in his last 10 games, but he has a healthy .447 slugging percentage in that span anyways.

Reason to be Optimistic: Defense and Speed

There will be ebbs and flows in Thomas’ hitting, but if he brings consistent speed and defense, he will be an everyday player for the Diamondbacks. He ranks in the 94th percentile for sprint speed, 80th percentile in outs above average, and 67th percentile in outfielder jump.

Reason to be Pessimistic: Walk Rate

Thomas has drawn just three walks in his first 60 MLB plate appearances. Thomas could be resigned to the bottom half of the order because of his general inability to draw walks. He will have more opportunities to drive in runs, but he likely profiles as more of a top-of-the-order bat than a bottom-half hitter.

No.2: MacKenzie Gore, Pitcher, San Diego Padres

It took nearly five years, but Gore finally made his MLB debut in April. In his seven appearances, Gore has been excellent. He has worked to an ERA+ of 185 with more strikeouts than innings pitched. He also has reduced his number of walks, walking hitters less often than the average MLB pitcher. The lefty has used a strong fastball to baffle MLB hitters.

Reason to be Optimistic: Contending Team

For better or worse, the Padres are in the heat of the NL West race. Gore will have plenty of high-leverage starts as the season progresses. These could have a larger than intended effect on his NL Rookie of the Year hopes. If he pitches well in these critical games, he will be a lock. If he pitches poorly, it would be a death blow to his chances.

Reason to be Pessimistic: Weird Strikeout Peripherals

Gore has a strong 75th-percentile strikeout rate. However, he has below-average metrics in whiff rate and chase rate. Hitters are chasing at a 12th-percentile rate which is entirely unsustainable. Similarly, Gore has generated just a 36th-percentile whiff rate. Relying on called strikes can yield inconsistent results depending on the umpire and catcher framing.

No.1: Seiya Suzuki, Outfielder, Chicago Cubs

Suzuki has cooled off after an electric start, but he has several key factors in his court. Suzuki has been in the Majors for the entire season, so he would likely have the advantage in many counting stats including WAR, hits, and home runs. However, Suzuki has not hit a home run since April 18, a 32-game power absence. He has had 10 doubles and 12 walks in this stretch though.

Reason to be Optimistic: Better Strikeout Peripherals

In an inversion of Gore’s issues on the mound, Suzuki is striking out at an unsustainable rate. He ranks in the 10th percentile for strikeout rate despite being in the top half of MLB in whiff rate and being in the 94th percentile for chase rate. Over a full season, this should balance out, but Suzuki’s high strikeout rate is matched with a high walk rate at the very least.

Reason to be Pessimistic: Overachieving Based on Batted-Ball Data

The strikeouts explain part of this discrepancy, but Suzuki is overperforming his batted-ball data. His real-life batting average is 22 points above expectation. The gap is smaller in slugging percentage and wOBA, but Suzuki is more likely to regress than progress based on the data he has to this point.

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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Ryan Potts is an avid football and baseball fan. He covers the NFL and Major League Baseball, focusing on the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Braves.