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Toolshed: Handicapping NL Rookie of the Year race

Cronenworth, Bohm, Williams lead crowded field on senior circuit
Jake Cronenworth and Alec Bohm have made clear cases to win the 2020 NL Rookie of the Year award. (Denis Poroy, Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
September 25, 2020

Sunday brings the end of the 2020 Major League regular season already, meaning potential award contenders have one final weekend to prove themselves to BBWAA voters. Without a Minor League season, most prospect fiends only have had the Rookie of the Year races in the American and National Leagues to

Sunday brings the end of the 2020 Major League regular season already, meaning potential award contenders have one final weekend to prove themselves to BBWAA voters. Without a Minor League season, most prospect fiends only have had the Rookie of the Year races in the American and National Leagues to follow as some of the game's brightest young talents began to leave their marks on the game's top level.

Spoiler alert: the AL isn't a race. Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis seemingly has run away from the pack, namely his White Sox counterpart Luis Robert, and should have the junior circuit's prize wrapped up, thanks to a .277/.378/.462 line and his rookie-best 11 homers and 1.9 fWAR over 55 games for Seattle.

Nothing, however, has been decided in the NL, and that's where this Toolshed turns its focus. Voters will vote for three rookies on their ballots following the conclusion of Sunday's play, but more than that amount should draw consideration based on their performance in 2020. These are the strengths, weaknesses and chances for the top five National League Rookie of the Year candidates:

1. Jake Cronenworth, INF, Padres

Stats: 50 G, 181 PA, .304/.376/.509, 4 HR, 20 RBIs, 3 SB, 139 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR, 1.5 bWAR

Strengths: A great performance across the board for a good team. Cronenworth felt like a throw-in in the deal that brought Tommy Pham to San Diego from Tampa Bay, but he's proven to be the most productive member of that five-player swap in 2020. The 26-year-old has been an above-average hitter since he cracked the Opening Day roster, originally expected to be a utility infielder. He now ranks behind only Manny Machado (155), Wil Myers (154) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (148) in wRC+ among San Diego regulars on a Padres club that has been the talk of the league for big chunks of the summer. Beyond the bat, Cronenworth, who quickly settled in as San Diego's everyday second baseman, has shown an elite glove at the keystone. His 3 Outs Above Average, per Statcast, are fourth-best among Major League second basemen. Add in his time at the other three infield spots, with 4 Outs Above Average placing 21st among all Major League fielders, regardless of position. That all-around production pushes up his WAR, which shouldn't be used as a crutch but can be helpful in award conversations. It also doesn't hurt that Cronenworth plays for a Padres team that has been watched heavily as it cruises comfortably to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. There are a lot of positives going into Cronenworth's award equation.

Weaknesses: Stumbling to the finish line. Like it or not, there can be some recency bias in voting for an award like this. That may be especially true in a 60-game season in which one strong final week could make it a close race, and voters could lean toward the candidate who has done the most for them lately. If that is used as a tiebreaker, Cronenworth will need a turnaround over the weekend. The Padres infielder is hitting .217/.319/.317 without a homer over 19 games since the start of September. That has dropped Cronenworth's average 52 points and his OPS 149. It's caused other candidates -- namely the next one below -- to storm back. Cronenworth may have gotten enough of a head start -- and a defensive advantage -- to claim the award in the end, but he hasn't made it easy for himself in the season's final month.

Verdict: Cronenworth remains the favorite to be San Diego's first Rookie of the Year since Craig Kimbrel, but barring a late surge, he probably lost his chance for it to be a unanimous victory, in so much as that matters.

2. Alec Bohm, 3B/1B, Phillies

Stats: 41 G, 167 PA, .333/.401/.483, 4 HR, 22 RBIs, 1 SB, 139 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR, 0.6 bWAR

Strengths: The bat, the bat, the bat. What everyone saw out of Bohm in college and the Minor Leagues is what he's brought to the game's top level. That is to say, he has shown an impressive all-around hit tool that is surprisingly ahead of his power for someone standing 6-foot-5, 218 pounds at the corner infield spots. Among rookie batters with at least 150 plate appearances, Bohm leads in average and OBP and is tied with Cronenworth in wRC+. He has been even better of late, leading all Major League hitters with 35 hits in September and a .365/.426/.521 line over 108 plate appearances in the month entering Thursday's play. Assuming he continues his hot streak over the Phillies' final three games, that should leave a good taste in the mouth of award voters.

Weaknesses: The glove is an issue. Bohm has been just about average at the hot corner in the eyes of Statcast at 0 Outs Above Average. However, other metrics are much harsher; for instance, he is at -6 Defensive Runs Saved as well at third base. Those defensive measures hurt his overall impact, especially compared to a more well-rounded player like Cronenworth. Additionally, Bohm has played more first base following the elbow injury to Rhys Hoskins, and that elevates his need to produce offensively to provide value to the Phils. He is capable of doing it, but the WAR positional adjustments just add to the uphill nature of his battle.

Verdict: You'll hear a big push from Phillies Twitter about Bohm's bona fides, and they are indeed impressive ... so long as you keep the focus on the bat. In the modern age when so much data is available on every aspect of the game, a more well-rounded view is required of voters, and with Bohm's shortcomings on the defensive side, he seems likely to fall short of the first-year prize.

3. Devin Williams, RHP, Brewers

Stats: 21 G, 25 IP, 0.36 ERA, 52 K, 9 BB, 0.60 WHIP, 0.74 FIP, 1.4 fWAR, 1.1 bWAR

Strengths: We're contractually obligated, like the rest of baseball media, to bring up the changeup first in any discussion of Williams' strengths. The Milwaukee right-handed reliever has thrown the cambio 53.3 percent of the time, or 218 times total on the season. He has gotten batters to whiff at it 62.7 percent of the time while allowing just one hit (a single) off it all year. Batters are hitting a stunning .017 off the changeup alone. It's become the best pitch in baseball and a constant feature on the Pitching Ninja Twitter account for good reason. Because of the devastation of Williams' change, the rest of his numbers are eye-poppingly good as well. He is the Major League leader in ERA, FIP, WHIP, average-against (.071) and strikeout percentage (55.3 percent) among pitchers with at least 20 innings. His 1.4 fWAR is third-highest among rookie pitchers, despite being the only one among the top three with fewer than 40 frames pitched. If you needed one NL rookie to do a job for one at-bat in 2020, you'd call on Williams without hesitation and sleep well that evening.

Weaknesses: He's a reliever. That's really about it. Williams isn't an everyday player like the two rated above him, lessening his otherwise impressive impact. Even among pitchers, he isn't a starter, and there might be voters who prefer hurlers who have to face a lineup multiple times. Williams hasn't gone deeper than two innings in his otherwise sterling campaign. The limited role clamps down on his WAR compared to some others, and the need to lower innings minimums hurts his other qualifications on leaderboards.

Verdict: It's not impossible for relievers to win Rookie of the Year awards -- the aforementioned Kimbrel and Neftalí Feliz did it in 2011 and 2010 respectively -- but it's an uphill climb. In a weaker year -- and maybe elongated season -- Williams' numbers could have pushed him to the summit. But Cronenworth and Bohm have been strong enough in more sustained roles to nip the top spots.

4. Tony Gonsolin, RHP, Dodgers

Stats: 8 G, 7 GS, 40 2/3 IP, 1.77 ERA, 40 K, 7 BB, 0.79 WHIP, 2.44 FIP, 1.5 fWAR, 1.4 bWAR

Strengths: Being good by any measure. Gonsolin bounced between starting and relieving during his first foray to the Majors last season, and even this year, he has been optioned three different times as Los Angeles tried to figure out its rotation. But the 26-year-old right-hander has made the case that he might be the Dodgers' second-best starter this season. Both his fWAR and bWAR rank second among Los Angeles pitchers behind only Clayton Kershaw's numbers in both categories, and they're tops among all rookie pitchers in either league. Utilizing a mid-90s fastball with tons of spin along with a changeup and two breaking balls, Gonsolin keeps the ball in the yard -- allowing only two homers in 40 2/3 innings -- and keeps the strikeouts coming at a decent clip. He wasn't a Top-100 prospect at the start of the season, but he's certainly pitched like one at a time when other rookie hurlers have struggled to make the transition.

Weaknesses: Pitchers are already behind the eightball in awards in which they're put up against everyday players, and it doesn't help Gonsolin's case that he didn't really solidify his spot in the L.A. rotation until September. Right now, 40 1/3 innings don't put him in a position to qualify for the NL ERA title -- he'd sit just behind Trevor Bauer's 1.73 -- and that lessens his case as well.

Verdict: Gonsolin's overall numbers are sensational and should provide the Dodgers with another point of pride in their conveyor belt of player development. But Cronenworth and Bohm have more of an everyday impact, and Williams' numbers (while coming over fewer innings) are just too good to keep off a three-person ballot entirely. Gonsolin will be rewarded with postseason appearances, and that's a prize in itself.

5. Dustin May, RHP, Dodgers

Stats: 11 G, 10 GS, 52 IP, 2.77 ERA, 39 K, 14 BB, 1.10 WHIP, 4.80 FIP, 0.3 fWAR, 1.1 bWAR

Strengths: Staying with the NL West leaders, May was a Top-100 prospect at the outset of 2020 and was thrust into the spotlight when he became the Dodgers' first rookie to be an Opening Day starting pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela. (He replaced an injured Kershaw at the last minute.) The lanky right-hander has thrown heat all summer, featuring a high-90s sinker with plenty of movement, a mid-90s cutter and a solid curve. He is tied with Julio Urías for most starts among Dodgers pitchers with 10, and his 2.77 ERA and 1.10 WHIP as well as a 153 ERA+ have kept Los Angeles in the picture.

Weaknesses: May's FIP, however, is much less attractive. The 23-year-old has struck out only 18.6 percent batters at a time when the Major League average is 23.3 percent. He has also served up nine homers in 52 innings, which is a surefire way to get the FIP to jump. The FanGraphs version of WAR, which relies on FIP, has him just a smidge over replacement-level because of that rough number.

Verdict: The numbers tell two different stories here, and that could be tough to marry for award voters, especially those who dig into non-traditional stats. May will be competing for down-ballot votes with the likes of Williams and Gonsolin, and those two have more well-rounded stat sheets to rely on.

Apologies to:

Two players, in particular, deserve quick shoutouts. Ke'Bryan Hayes has been astounding since joining the Pirates, hitting .333/.403/.623 over 20 games while bringing his trademark plus glove to the Pittsburgh hot corner. If he had come up earlier than Sept. 1, he definitely would be in consideration. Also, Sixto Sanchez has been a rookie revelation for the upstart Marlins, drawing comparisons (including from the man himself) to Pedro Martinez. Sanchez sports a 3.46 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 39 innings and has been worth 0.9 fWAR for the Fish.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.