As the dog days of summer slip behind us for the cooler climes of September, the AL Rookie of the Year race is entering full swing. According to oddsmakers, it’s a two-man race between Julio Rodriguez and Baltimore’s hometown hero Adley Rutschman. Let’s begin with a focus on the three also-ran candidates.
The first of these is Bobby Witt Jr. The Royals rookie shortstop has yet to fully overcome a poor approach against breaking balls outside the strike zone. Otherwise, he’s shown plenty of talent. A .252/.294/.443 triple-slash in 472 plate appearances is a shade above league average, and he’s added value on the basepaths too. His defensive skills are a work in progress. We can chalk that up to his relative youthfulness. The future is bright for Witt Jr., but his odds of winning the Rookie of the Year are long.
Jeremy Pena has the same longshot odds to win as Witt Jr. He’s batting a comparable .249/.290/.419 in 412 plate appearances. Where Pena differs is via superior defense. At one point, he had a better shot at sticking his nose in the race. Unfortunately, since the All-Star Break, he’s hit just .215/.241/.336 in 158 plate appearances.
Steven Kwan has the longest odds of the plausible winners. He deserves better, but his forms of production aren’t traditionally rewarded by the Baseball Writers Association of America voters. In 455 plate appearances, he’s batting .299/.372/.393 while supplying above average defense in left field. He has more walks than strikeouts along with the second-lowest swinging strike rate in the league after Luis Arraez. Overall, he’s posted a 2.9 fWAR (that’s FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement, a tidy all-in-one valuation stat) season to date – not far behind those of Rodriguez and Rutschman. Kwan has acted as the sparkplug of the first-place Guardians.
The Real Race
With the also-rans out of the way, let’s focus on the real race between Rodriguez and Rutschman. Statistically, the players are neck-and-neck. However, betting sites have set the current odds thusly:
Kyle Newman of OddsChecker.com recently calculated the implied chance of each player winning based on these odds, determining Rodriguez has been given a 78 percent shot at victory. Per Newman, oddsmakers are “often strong in predicting” Rookie of the Year winners. Rutschman, who was +280 when the implied chance was calculated on Monday, was given a 26 percent chance to win. Presumably, Rodriguez is slightly more favored today. You might notice the odds add up to more than 100 percent. That’s one way sportsbooks make money.
Ironically, Rutschman has actually outperformed Rodriguez in every major facet of the game. He’s having the better hitting season, is massively more impactful on defense, and, incredibly, has even contributed more value than Rodriguez on the basepaths. So why is Rodriguez favored?
The 21-year-old future Seattle superstar is batting .271/.329/.470 in 450 plate appearances. That equates to a 131 wRC+ (read as 31 percent above average). He’s hit 19 home runs with 23 stolen bases, 62 runs, and 63 RBI. By comparison, Rutschman is batting .257/.368/.451, good for a 138 wRC+. Where he lags is with counting stats. He’s compiled just 307 plate appearances with eight home runs, two steals, 49 runs, and 25 RBI. While Rutschman has (narrowly) been the better hitter on a per plate appearance basis, Rodriguez has simply compiled more.
Despite playing 32 more games with 147 more plate appearances, Rodriguez’s 3.4 fWAR comes in a hair behind Rutschman’s 3.6 fWAR. Defense is largely to blame. Rodriguez has cost the Mariners a couple runs in the outfield pastures while Rutschman has saved a handful with his glovework. Those defensive valuations are based on average performance at their respective positions. Of course, a catcher is far more important than a center fielder which WAR acknowledges via a position adjustment. If a center fielder and a catcher were to have identical stats over a full season, the catcher would be credited with one additional win. For instance, a 3.0 WAR center fielder would be a 4.0 WAR catcher, all else equal.
Framed in that sense, we can see why oddsmakers like Rodriguez. His contributions are in the form of bulky hitting stats. Nearly all of his value has come from his bat. Rutschman’s stick has been just as fine, but around half of his WAR is from defense and “position adjustment.” Even sabermetrically-inclined voters can be a little squirmy about using adjustment values in an awards race. The traditionalists will throw it out entirely.
Personally, were I to be granted a ballot to cast today, I think the correct choice is Rutschman by a landslide. And I also believe he has a much better chance to woo voters than the odds currently imply.
Here’s why discerning voters could overlook the discrepancy in games played when it comes time to cast ballots. As you might recall, Rutschman was in the mix to make the Orioles out of Spring Training. A triceps injury cost him all of April and most of May. Our own Zach Eisner wrote about The Rutschman Effect a couple days ago. As he notes, the now 64-58 Orioles were just 16-25 without Rutschman. In other words, they’re 48-33 with Rutschman, a .592 winning percentage that only narrowly trails the division leading Yankees (.613 winning percentage). The O’s have accomplished this with a decided lack of high-profile players. Rutschman sure seems like he’s carrying the club.
Moreover, we should consider pace of performance. A little under one-quarter of the season remains. Rodriguez has played three quarters of a season. Rutschman, just half a season. Let’s imagine both players continue at the same pace. Rutschman would finish with around 5.0-5.5 WAR. Rodriguez is pushing towards a 4.5 WAR season. Should the players finish in this way, it would be easier for the voters to justify the WAR position adjustment as a tiebreaker.
While Rookie of the Year doesn’t have the same definitional arguments as Most Valuable Player (i.e. what is “value” intended to mean?), continued contention by the Orioles can only help Rutschman’s candidacy. He’s already the team MVP, and such leadership could nudge some voters to pick against the so-called “obvious” choice of Rodriguez. Of course, the Mariners are also contending which gives Rodriguez his own platform for high-profile heroics.
In any event, the oddsmakers say Rodriguez has the AL Rookie of the Year in the bag. It’s his to lose. The stats say they’re tied despite far less volume from Rutschman. I believe this is truly a coin toss. The victor will be decided by the final quarter of the season.
Brad Johnson is a fantasy baseball analyst for NBC SportsEDGE. He also contributes to “Front Office” content at MLB Trade Rumors. You can additionally find his work and support him directly at Patreon.com/BaseballATeam or follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam.