Jonathan India Is Baseball America's 2021 MLB Rookie Of The Year
The results were immediate when Jonathan India moved to the leadoff spot for the first time on June 5. He drew a walk in his first plate appearance, hit a solo home run in his next and followed with a double.
It was the first time India hit higher than sixth in the Reds’ lineup, and there was no mistaking his impact. Cincinnati vaulted into the playoff race. India leaped into the Rookie of the Year conversations. The guys hitting behind him raved about how much he helped the offense.
As the Reds’ leadoff hitter, India hit .275/.383/.482 with 31 doubles, 17 home runs, 46 RBIs and 82 runs in 103 games.
“Definitely there's a lot more in me, I know that,” said India, who turns 25 in December. “I have a lot more to show. I'm not completely satisfied with the year I've had, but I'm very happy with what I did.”
Each time India was granted an opportunity this year, he ran with it. He went from a player who wasn’t even on the big league spring training roster to an Opening Day starter. He spent two weeks as a backup after slumping at the end of April. He was hit by a National League-leading 23 pitches this year and, somehow, played through it all.
When the Reds were eliminated from the playoffs, manager David Bell tried to sit India for the final two games of the season. Bell said India was the player who was physically the furthest from 100% healthy. India talked his way into the lineup for the season finale, scored two runs and hit a double in a win.
It was a fitting end for an impressive rookie season. India led the Reds in games played (150) while hitting .269/.376/.459.
“I wouldn’t be surprised one day if he’s in the conversation for . . .” Joey Votto said before pausing. “I don’t like putting pressure on players. He’s got a lot of potential. I think he’s just scratching the surface. I think we are lucky to have him in this uniform.”
India is the Baseball America Rookie of the Year. To understand how he became a leader for the Reds and the league’s most productive rookie, it’s important to know how hard he worked when nobody kept stats.
When he arrived at the Reds’ alternate training site at Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio, last year, the organization wanted him to learn second base to increase his versatility. India had played shortstop in high school and third base in college, from where the Reds drafted him fifth overall out of Florida in 2018.
India was often the first player on the field with Luis Bolivar, Cincinnati’s academies coordinator, for one-on-one instruction. They worked a lot on India’s footwork now that he was on the opposite side of the infield.
“He took the opportunity as a challenge,” Bolivar said. “He’s out there, like, ‘Hey, let’s do it,’ every day. It was awesome to see.”
The reports from Prasco were glowing. India made major strides at second base, impressing staff with his improvements turning double plays. The ball was jumping off his bat. He was looking the part of former Southeastern Conference player of the year.
The Reds planned to call him up in September 2020 when they needed an offensive boost, but he was sidelined with an oblique injury from overswinging.
“Prasco was a blessing in my life,” India said. “We didn’t have games, we couldn’t compete against anyone, but we did have live ABs, scrimmages. I took everything really serious. Every guy did there, but for me, it was just different. I was there every day early working at second base. I took thousands of swings. Honestly, I would go back. I would go back and work out there for an offseason. That’s how much I loved it.”
India was one of 18 minor leaguers the Reds brought to spring training but didn’t receive an official invite to big league camp. India figured he’d start the season at Triple-A Louisville. After a couple of weeks, he was the talk of camp. Scouts were impressed. Coaches loved the way he carried himself with natural leadership skills.
Reds bench coach Freddie Benavides said Bell pushed for India. Midway through camp, India was added to the big league camp roster. The Reds shuffled their infield to make room for India at second base, moving Mike Moustakas to third and Eugenio Suarez to shortstop, a position Suarez hadn’t played regularly since 2015.
After India’s promotion to the big league camp roster, he went 11-for-32 with four doubles and two homers during the next two weeks against major league pitching. He proved he could handle velocity and he wasn’t expanding his strike zone.
India was the first Reds second baseman to make his MLB debut on Opening Day since Pete Rose in 1963.
“I just put my head down,” India said, “and said, ‘Screw this, I'm going to make the team. I'm going to do it.’ I did. I worked really, really hard at it in spring training and at Prasco to be where I'm at. I had the motivation to make it and be on the team and help the team win this year. I definitely made it a point to do it.”
2021 Baseball America MLB All-Rookie Team
One area of strength for the 2021 rookie crop was starting pitching.
It was an up-and-down first month in the majors for India as an everyday starting second baseman. After hitting well in the first week of the season, pitchers adjusted to him. He had a stretch where he hit .104 over 48 at-bats with seven walks and 17 strikeouts.
The Reds, off to a slow start as a team, began playing center fielder Nick Senzel at second base.
“It simply was just a little bit of a break for him with every intention to get back into the lineup,” Bell said. “I think he handled it great. He definitely didn’t talk to me during that time, but from everything I could tell, he handled it exactly the way you’re supposed to.”
India returned to the everyday lineup when Senzel sustained an injury. He looked better at the plate with a newly added toe tap before his leg kick, a timing mechanism he picked up from teammates Tyler Stephenson and Tyler Naquin in their pregame batting practice group.
“When he went through the struggles, he was getting close to being sent down,” shortstop Kyle Farmer said. “Man, most guys would just crumble. They would just crumble, a rookie doing that. He came back and fought.”
India was no longer just surviving in MLB. He became a huge part of the Reds’ lineup. After hitting well for about three weeks as an everyday starter, Bell began writing India’s name in the leadoff spot on June 5.
Hitting in front of All-Star Game starters Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos, India reached base in 50 of his first 55 games as a leadoff hitter.
“He forced himself into that,” Bell said. “It just became obvious. I probably waited too long. He just made it happen.”
Fifteen of India’s 21 homers came after the all-star break. He ranked fifth in the NL in on-base percentage (.376) and eighth in runs (98). He held his own defensively at his new position.
The thing that stood out to his teammates was his ability to play through pain. Farmer says India’s shoulder popped out regularly when he would dive for ground balls. India was often hit by pitches on his wrists and hands, and he refused to come out of games.
“He's been undeniable this year,” Votto said. “More than anything, he's played hurt. He gets hit all the time. He plays dirty. He plays with effort. He's always playing hard, always diving . . . He plays the game with intensity.”
Family members and friends texted India every day near the end of the season about winning Rookie of the Year, “You’re going to win,” they wrote to him.
It was a goal he said publicly at the beginning of the year.
“He’s done everything in his power to make our team better and he has done that,” Bell said. “He’s personally had just a great season, great accomplishments, but he’s just simply made us a much better team by being in our lineup every day, and I think that’s what it is all about.
“I absolutely think he is deserving.”