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Handicapping the American League Rookie of the Year race

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Who's it going to be? Who should it be? Is the answer to either of those questions Tyler Naquin?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

With a little more than three weeks left in the regular season, there are still three division races up that are far from decided, and both leagues have more Wild Card contenders than Wild card spots. Which teams make the postseason is understandably what will draw the most attention, but most baseball fans care about the big awards too, and in the American League especially, there’s still a lot to be decided there. Today I want to look at the Rookie of the Year race, which features a number of candidates, including the one of greatest interest to most Let’s Gp Tribe readers: Tyler Naquin.

(If you’re not up to speed on the NL ROY race, allow me to catch you up: Corey Seager is going to win in a landslide, and any voter who doesn’t have him atop their ballot is going to deservedly receive a lot of criticism.)

The questions of who will win and who should win don’t always have the same answer, but in the AL right now, neither of those questions has an especially clear answer.

The Candidates

Michael Fulmer (starting pitcher, Tigers)

2.77 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 150 ERA+, 136.2 IP, 10-6, 112 K, 4.9 bWAR, 2.5 fWAR

He's your guy if... you simply look at whose played the best baseball. He leads all AL rookies in both versions of WAR, with more than double the total of his closest competitor in Baseball-Reference's version. If he pitches another 25.1 innings and maintains his lead over all American League pitchers in ERA, he'll be a lock to win. (The last rookie to lead either league in ERA was Mark Fidrych in 1976. He won ROY with almost every vote, and finished second in AL Cy Young voting.) Even if Fulmer doesn't pitch another 25.1 innings, it'll take a strong finish by one of the guys below to unseat Fulmer. If you feel strongly that pitchers should be judged by their FIP, not their ERA, then Fulmer falls a lot closer to the pack, and if he stumbles the rest of the way, a proper case for someone else could take shape.

Nomar Mazara (outfielder, Rangers)

.275/.329/.424, 97 wRC+, 502 PA, 125 H, 13 2B, 17 HR, 52 R, 57 RBI, 0.1 bWAR, 1.4 fWAR

He's your guy if... playing time and counting totals are especially important to you. Mazara is the one guy on this list who's currently "qualified," and he leads all AL rookies in hits, home runs, and runs scored. Since he's the only qualified hitter among AL rookies, be default he also leads in every rate stat.

Gary Sanchez (catcher, Yankees)

.328/.423/.713, 198 wRC+, 130 PA, 40 H, 9 2B, 11 HR, 20 R, 21 RBI, 2.3 bWAR, 2.3 fWAR

He's your guy if... what matters to you is how well a guy plays when he gets the opportunity, whether he's played anywhere near a full season or not. Sanchez has been arguably the best hitter in baseball since he was recalled on August 3, but he still has only 120 plate appearances for the season. His offensive numbers and the fact that he plays catch have pushed him near the top of the WAR leaderboards for rookies despite relatively little playing time.

Tim Anderson (shortstop, White Sox)

.288/.307/.431, 94 wRC+, 328 PA, 90 H, 18 2B, 7 HR, 44 R, 23 RBI, 2.2 bWAR, 1.6 fWAR

He's your guy if... you believe offensive and defensive contributions are both important, you put a fair amount of stock in single-season defensive metrics, and you don't believe someone needs to play a full season to be Rookie of the Year, but you want at least half a season's worth of work. Among position players with 300+ PA, Anderson has the highest average between bWAR and fWAR.

Max Kepler (outfielder, Twins)

.244/.320/.457, 101 wRC+, 373 PA, 80 H, 18 2B, 16 HR, 48 R, 59 RBI, 2.4 bWAR, 1.2 fWAR

He's your guy if... you believe a lot of the same things Tim Anderson's supporters believe, but put a bit more stock in offense than defensive metrics. Kepler leads all AL rookies in extra-base hits and RBI, and leads all rookie position players in bWAR.

Tyler Naquin (outfielder, Indians)

.303/.361/.557, 141 wRC+, 301 PA, 82 H, 17 2B, 14 HR, 44 R, 40 RBI, 0.6 bWAR, 2.0 fWAR

He's your guy if... you strongly favor offense, and want your Rookie of the Year to have been up for more than two months. Naquin's rate stats are second only to Sanchez's, and Naquin has more than twice as many plate appearances as Sanchez does. Naquin's defense rates out as pretty bad, especially at Baseball-Reference, so supporting his candidacy requires focuses on offense, where there's a strong argument for putting him at the top.

My Ballot

While I would love to back Naquin, on merit I think it's Fulmer's award to lose. If he has some really rough starts between now and season's end, he could very well lose it, but he's built up some margin for error. I think I'd have Naquin second on my ballot, because I don't put a ton of stock in partial-season defensive numbers, and that's all we really have for these guys. If Sanchez continues to hit the way he has, he'll pass Naquin on my ballot, but for as long as Naquin has his own strong offensive numbers and more than double the playing time, I'll likely favor him among the position players.

For now...

1) Michael Fulmer

2) Tyler Naquin

3) Gary Sanchez