The American League Rookie of the Year race looks like it will go down to the finish as Julio Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, and Steve Kwan are each producing worthy seasons and playing important roles for contending teams. There are, of course, other candidates for the award but barring a collapse by all of those three, players like Jeremy Pena and Bobby Witt Jr. are likely to get down-ballot votes but not be seriously considered as the best rookie in the junior circuit.
Kwan burst onto the scene in April by recording hits in eight of his first 10 at-bats and reaching base safely in 12 of his first 14 plate appearances. There have been some ups and downs at the plate since then but the 24-year-old has settled into the leadoff spot in Cleveland over the last two months and leads all rookies with a .293 average and .369 OBP and his 12 stolen bases rates third. His nine outs above average in left field lead all of baseball and his 18 defensive runs saved leads all rookies. He’s the only first-year player to walk more than he strikes out and his 119 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR and 3.9 bWAR are some of the top marks around.
Unlike the others in consideration, Rutschman didn’t make the Opening Day roster as he suffered a triceps injury in Spring Training. The catcher has put together a healthy .244/.353/.425 line with eight homers in 82 games and his 125 wRC+ ranks second in the AL among rookies. The 24-year-old’s 13.5% walk rate is tops among first-year players while his 17.4% strikeout rate is second for those with at least 300 plate appearances.
Even with his strong offensive line, the biggest strength for the backstop has been his defensive play. His 13 defensive runs saved ranks second in the AL for catchers and his pitch framing has been above average. His defensive value is one of the main reasons he’s second in the AL in fWAR with 3.4 and fourth in bWAR with 3.6. Baltimore is 47-32 when he starts and 22-29 when he does not.
For many reasons, Rodriguez is considered the favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year award. Entering play Friday, the 21-year-old leads all rookies with 22 homers, 69 runs scored, 66 RBI, 132 wRC+, 3.8 fWAR and 4.6 bWAR. With a strong finish, he has a chance to join Mike Trout as the only rookies in baseball history to post a 30-30 season. Defensively, he’s also been quite good and his seven outs above average in center field are fifth in the AL. He was the only rookie to be selected to the All-Star team and, even though he didn’t win, he stole the show in the Home Run Derby.
Who will win?
Rodriguez has to be the front runner but he’s slowed down a bit since his All-Star debut, posting a .237/.295/474 line with six homers and two stolen bases. While Kwan is having a great season, it seems unlikely that he will overtake Rodriguez in the voting considering his lack of power and the fact that Julio already has produced a 20-20 season.
Rutschman, on the other hand, has a decent chance to win the AL Rookie of the Year award. Baltimore’s run this season has shocked the baseball world and Rutschman’s ascension to the big leagues corresponds with the team’s climb in the standings. After starting slowly at the plate, he’s produced a .272/.411/.432 line with more walks than strikeouts since the All-Star break and navigated a pitching staff with no aces. If the award were selected today, Rodriguez would probably win unanimously but, with a month to play, there’s a chance Rutschman could be named top rookie if he puts together a strong September and the Orioles sneak into the postseason.