MLB Rookie of the Year 2024: Top Candidates and Predictions for Wide-Open American League Race

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Image credit: Mason Miller (Photo by Eddie Kelly / ProLook Photos)

The 2024 American League Rookie of the Year race is shaping up to be quite different from preseason expectations. Predicted favorites such as Junior Caminero, Jasson Domínguez and Jackson Jobe haven’t played in the majors this year. Jackson Holliday struggled badly in his first taste of MLB action. Wyatt Langford is coming around, but Evan Carter has battled injuries and inconsistencies.

Position Players

While this year’s AL class isn’t as star-studded as the National League, it isn’t without some impressive performances by former top prospects. We’ll begin with a top-down look at candidates by sorting position players by fWAR:

Colton Cowser’s lead in WAR is notable, and it’s a total that is very much fueled by an impressive defensive performance. Cowser currently ranks tied for 14th among all major league outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved. He’s fourth in Statcast’s Outs Above Average.

While it’s a tiny sample, Cowser’s defensive performance tracks when reviewing BA’s scouting report on him entering 2023: “Cowser might not be more than an average center fielder, but he can handle the position well thanks to his smooth motions and range as an above-average runner. He could be above-average in a corner spot, with at least an above-average arm.”

Cowser has primarily played left field while filling in at center and right. His offensive production has been streaky, but so far, it’s added up to a hitter who’s been 10% better than league average in a year when rookie bats have seemingly struggled more than usual.

Cowser’s offensive inconsistencies could be challenging to overcome in voters’ minds. This leaves the door open for Wyatt Langford to become a central figure in the race.

MLB Rookie Of The Year: AL, NL Favorites To Watch

A pair of budding stars in San Diego and Pittsburgh headline the list of NL candidates.

Langford’s adjustments were covered in greater detail two weeks ago, and the key takeaway was that, before his hamstring injury, the rookie was slashing .224/.295/.293 with one (inside-the-park) home run. Since his return on May 28, Langford is hitting a robust .313/.376/.492 (140 wRC+) with 26 RBI and six stolen bases in 35 games.

Other hitters pop in the wRC+ column in the chart above, but it’ll be interesting to see where Langford ranks by the end of the season. He’s trending in the right direction and has 170 or more plate appearances than many hitters with a higher mark than him.

One of those small-sample superstars is Ben Rice, who on Saturday became the first Yankees rookie ever to have a three-homer game. He replaced Anthony Rizzo as the team’s primary first baseman in the middle of June and on July 4, began hitting leadoff, a highly valuable lineup spot ahead of Juan Soto and Aaron Judge.

Rice is well-suited for leading off. In addition to plus walk rates throughout his minor league career, Rice has the highest Z-Oswing% among all rookie hitters with at least 60 plate appearances. His strong understanding of the strike zone pairs well with a high barrel rate, and the 25-year-old has already hit a ball 110.8 mph at the big league level, signaling his power upside is legit.

However, with just 64 plate appearances entering Monday, Rice doesn’t yet have the sample size to seriously contend for Rookie of the Year. There’s also the question of how MLB pitchers will begin adjusting to his hot start.

As for a player who has been in the majors the entire season, it should be noted Ceddanne Rafaela easily leads AL rookies in runs and RBI while also ranking second in homers and steals. Poor swing decisions and shaky defensive metrics hurt his WAR total, but he’s been valuable to the Red Sox as he flips between shortstop and center field regularly.

Nolan Schanuel leads this group of rookies in plate appearances, but as a first baseman with little thump, he’s struggled to produce value, and his poor batted-ball metrics leave much to be desired.Taken 11th overall by the Angels last summer, the 22-year-old has already reached the majors as an everyday player. That should create bullish expectations, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a rush job by Los Angeles.

Lastly, it’s worth touching on Colt Keith. As volatile as Cowser’s season has been, Keith’s wRC+ by month has been even more up-and-down:

  • March & April: 11
  • May: 149
  • June: 57
  • July: 246

Only Jung Hoo Lee and Nick Loftin have a higher zone-contact rate among first-year players. However, Keith’s Z-Oswing% ranks 37th out of 51 rookie qualifiers, seemingly holding him back from leaning into his strengths.

Keith also isn’t pulling the ball like during his 2023 minor league breakout:

Things are trending in the wrong direction, which likely stems from his swing decisions. It’ll be important to see improvement in either area before confirming a legitimate Keith breakout.

Starting Pitchers

Let’s take a look at the 14 AL pitchers (including relievers) who have thrown at least 20 innings and accrued at least 0.4 fWAR this season:

The top of the WAR leaderboard includes four relievers sandwiched between Luis Gil and Simeon Woods Richardson. One of those relievers is a flamethrowing righthander who is thriving in his first season as a closer for the A’s: Mason Miller.

Miller currently leads all relievers—not just rookies—in K%, K-BB%, SIERA, swinging strike rate, CSW%, and Stuff+.

As for Gil, it’s worth noting he recently endured a tough three-start stretch at a time when his workload has been piling up at a rapid pace.

From May 1 through June 14, Gil went 8-0 with a 1.14 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 55.1 innings pitched. Over his next three outings, he allowed 16 earned runs with a 6:9 K:BB ratio. The skid ended on Sunday night with a very encouraging performance against the Red Sox in which Gill tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball to go along with nine strikeouts and no walks.

For as good as he’s been this year, Gil’s recent struggles are a reminder that he pitched less than 30 innings total between 2022-23. After Sunday’s outing, he’s at 96 1/3 for the season. If Gil can replicate his first half performance down the stretch, he’ll have a strong case for rookie honors, but it’s unclear exactly how the Yankees will manage his workload after the All-Star break.

Finally, we should throw a shout out to Cooper Criswell, who has a 3.70 SIERA, a strong ground ball rate and a great walk rate. He’s one of three Boston rookies with at least 0.5 WAR, which can be considered a win for the franchise’s new pitching development.

Predictions

WAR isn’t everything, but it’s often a great starting point in an exercise like this. I like to combine it with how I interpret the “story of the season.” In other words, which players mattered in addition to the stats? That thinking leads me to the following predictions:

  • Current Ballot: Mason Miller, Luis Gil, Colton Cowser
  • End-of-Season Winner: Wyatt Langford

Miller’s unique positional dominance is too hard to overlook in a year without a clear top candidate, but the gap in pure hitting ability between Langford and the field should continue to widen in the season’s second half.

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