They’re still getting their first taste of baseball at the highest level. And yet they’ve performed so well on the big stage that they’re considered for the ultimate honor a rookie in the Major Leagues can receive — the Rookie of the Year Award. The 2020 season was unprecedented in its brevity and the challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, but six rookies stood out among the rest, being nominated as Rookie of the Year Award finalists. Here’s a look at the case for each one before the winners are announced on MLB Network tonight at 6 p.m. ET:
Cristian Javier — RHP, Astros
When the Astros lost ace pitcher Justin Verlander after his first start of the season, Javier stepped up. Javier, the Astros’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2019, went 5-2 with a 3.48 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in his 12 appearances (10 starts) for the Astros this year. His .188 opponent batting average was the lowest among AL rookies and ranked fourth among AL pitchers (minimum 150 batters faced). He led AL rookies in ERA, was tied for fourth in wins, tied for second in starts, was fourth in innings pitched (54 1/3) and third in strikeouts (54).
Javier, 23, made his Major League debut in relief on July 25 against the Mariners before joining the rotation on July 29. He allowed one run and struck out a season-high eight batters in 5 2/3 innings against the World Series champion Dodgers. Javier allowed three or fewer earned runs in nine of his 10 starts. Javier’s four-seam fastball averaged 92.2 mph this year, but opponents hit just .208 against a pitch that hitters struggled to square up despite the velocity.
Javier also posted the third-best opponent batting average by a rookie in franchise history (minimum 200 batters faced). Only Billy Wagner (.165 in 1996) and Bill Dawley (.185 in 1983) were better. He also recorded the third-best WHIP by a rookie pitcher in Astros history (0.99), behind Chris Devenski in 2016 (0.91) and Dawley in 1983 (0.92). — Brian McTaggart
Kyle Lewis — CF, Mariners
While Lewis wasn’t prominent in the AL Rookie of the Year Award conversation going into the season, the 25-year-old Mariners center fielder quickly established himself as a leading contender with a scorching start, hitting .328/.418/.527 with eight home runs in 36 games through Aug. 31.
Though the 2016 first-round Draft pick cooled in September, he still wound up with a .262/.364/.437 line and led all AL rookies in FanGraphs WAR (1.7), runs scored (37), walks (34), total bases (90) and games played (58). Lewis tied for first with Luis Robert in home runs (11), finished second in hits (54) and RBIs (28) and fourth in stolen bases (5).
Of rookies with more than 140 plate appearances in the 60-game season, Lewis ranked first in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, and second in batting average.
The Georgia native topped the Mariners in batting average, home runs, runs and walks. The only other rookie in MLB to pull that off for his team since 1969 was Mark McGwire of the Athletics in 1987.
“I’d be more than a little surprised if Kyle isn’t named Rookie of the Year,” said Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. “He’s deserving and led rookies in just about everything.”
Even with the slow September, the 6-foot-4 Lewis continued opening eyes with his defensive prowess in center field, making several spectacular home run robberies at the wall and solidifying the Mariners’ outfield defense with his sure-handed play throughout the season. — Greg Johns
Luis Robert — CF, White Sox
If the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Award was voted on at the end of August, Luis Robert would have been a near unanimous choice. That comment certainly is made with no offense to Kyle Lewis or Cristian Javier, the other AL finalists, but the White Sox center fielder was just that dominant through the first 33 games of this abbreviated season. Robert was even being discussed at that point as a Most Valuable Player candidate, with a .960 OPS, 10 home runs and 24 RBIs.
An 11-for-81 slump in September might have hampered Robert’s award chances, but there’s still no denying Robert was as talented as everyone expected. He finished with a slash line of .233/.302/.436 to go with 11 homers, 31 RBIs and nine stolen bases. Robert topped all rookies in RBIs and was tied for the lead with Lewis in long balls.
He also caught everything hit to him and then some, winning a Rawlings Gold Glove Award after frequently racing into left field or right field to catch balls out of his center-field zone. The 23-year-old bounced back from September struggles with a 4-for-13 showing in three playoff games and connected on a 487-foot home run off Oakland’s Mike Fiers in Game 3 of the Wild Card Series. Robert only figures to get better as the years go on, but made a significant impression in his first big league season after agreeing upon a six-year, $50 million extension before even stepping on the field. — Scott Merkin
Alec Bohm — 3B, Phillies
Perhaps the highest praise for Bohm this season came from teammate and former National League MVP Bryce Harper. “The bigger he gets, the better he gets, he’s going to be a possible MVP player for us,” Harper said.
Here is why Bohm had teammates giddy about the future: he batted .338 with four home runs, 23 RBIs, an .881 OPS and a 136 OPS+ in 180 plate appearances. He ranked first among NL rookies (minimum 100 plate appearances) in batting average, on-base percentage (.400), slugging percentage (.481), OPS, hits (54) and RBIs; second in runs (24) and doubles (11); and fourth in home runs and walks (16).
But Bohm truly made his mark in the clutch. He had a walk-off sacrifice fly to beat the Nationals on Sept. 3, and walk-off single to beat the Red Sox on Sept. 8. He batted .452 (19-for-42) with runners in scoring position. He ranked fourth among all players in both leagues in Wins Probability Added, which measures the change in probability of victory caused by a batter during a game. Only Mike Yastrzemski (2.935), Freddie Freeman (2.705) and Brandon Lowe (2.407) ranked ahead of Bohm (2.287). In a short period of time, Bohm developed a reputation of coming through in big moments. — Todd Zolecki
Jake Cronenworth — INF, Padres
If it’s a question of value, Cronenworth almost certainly has the edge. He was worth 1.4 WAR, tops among the National League finalists, and he was an integral force in the Padres’ 2020 success.
At the plate, Cronenworth was a reliable on-base weapon with pop. On defense, he was outstanding at multiple positions. On the basepaths, he was solid. In short, Cronenworth brought value in every facet. The Padres entered 2020 with major questions at second base. Now they have a long-term answer.
In a way, the 2020 NL Rookie of the Year race echoes the ’04 edition, which has an infamous place in Padres lore. Khalil Greene, despite topping National League rookies in WAR, finished second to Jason Bay. Bay had better offensive numbers than Greene. But it was Greene’s defense and his value as a shortstop that, in retrospect, perhaps should’ve put him over the top. (It’s worth noting that race also featured a dominant reliever finishing in the top three in Akinori Otsuka.)
Sixteen years later, Bohm’s offensive numbers are better than Cronenworth’s. But Cronenworth still posted an excellent slash line of .285/.354/.477, while playing a strong second base (and first base and shortstop, when needed). Like Greene in the 2004 race, Cronenworth also played more games than his primary competition.
No Padres rookie has won this award since catcher Benito Santiago in 1987. Since then, a handful of middle infielders — Greene, Roberto Alomar and Fernando Tatis Jr. — have threatened. But Cronenworth might be poised to finally break through. — AJ Cassavell
Devin Williams — RHP, Brewers
It’s rare for a reliever to win this award (the last in either league was Craig Kimbrel in 2011) and even rarer for a non-closer (Scott Williamson of the Reds in 1999 is the only reliever to win the Rookie of the Year Award without leading his team in saves). Maybe this is the year, after Williams set all-time records — apologies to Francisco Rodríguez’s handful of innings at the end of the 2002 regular season — with a 53 percent strikeout rate and 17.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
Williams pitched in 22 games and was charged with an earned run only once, in his second appearance of the season. Opponents were 2-for-62 with 41 strikeouts in at-bats that ended with his signature changeup. They were 0-for-45 with 31 strikeouts before the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong hit a weak single off a Williams changeup on Sept. 14 at Miller Park. And consider the context — the 2020 Brewers had the worst team batting average in franchise history, yet snuck into the playoffs at 29-31 on the strength of a pitching staff anchored by starters Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, and relievers Josh Hader and Williams. Without any of those pitchers, their streak of postseason appearances would have ended. For BBWAA voters, it became a question of whether Williams’ pure dominance was enough to offset the fact that he only logged 27 innings, compared to the everyday contributions of Cronenworth and Bohm. — Adam McCalvy