By James Bailey
It’s been six years since the National League has crowned a pitcher as its Rookie of the Year (Dontrelle Willis, 2003), but that streak will likely end this year. The top contenders for the award with six weeks to play are all moundsmen. None of the three leading candidates began the season in a starting rotation—at least not at the major league level.
J.A. Happ was the only one of the trio to break camp in a big league uniform. But Tommy Hanson and Randy Wells have each won nine games since getting the call. They, like Happ, are pitching with the pressure of a pennant race every time they take the hill. It doesn’t seem to be affecting them.
J.A. Happ, lhp, Phillies
Key stats: 10-2, 2.59 ERA, 135.2 IP, 110 H, 49 BB, 93 SO
The only reason he’s no longer his team’s most consistent starter is they acquired Cliff Lee, who never loses and rarely gives up hits. Happ began the season in the pen, and didn’t make his first start until May 23. But when Lee and Pedro Martinez joined the club, it was veteran Jamie Moyer who got bumped from the rotation. Happ is the only rookie to rank among league leaders in either batting average or ERA.
What he needs to do: Keep on doing what he’s been doing. The stakes will rise for the Phillies in September and if he can handle that, he’s the man to beat.
Tommy Hanson, rhp, Braves
Key stats: 9-2, 3.12 ERA, 86.2 IP, 77 H, 32 BB, 69 SO
Atlanta resisted the urge to call him up until early June. He’s made up for spending the first two months in Triple-A by efficiently winning nine of his 14 starts. The righthander, who turns 23 on Friday, has won all four of his starts this month while striking out 28 and walking six in 25.2 innings. His consistency is a big reason the Braves have crept back into the wild-card picture.
What he needs to do: Because of his limited innings, he’s got to clearly outpitch Happ the rest of the way. He’s still got an outside shot at 14-15 wins, and that might be what it takes.
Randy Wells, rhp, Cubs
Key stats: 9-6, 2.84 ERA, 120.1 IP, 116 H, 29 BB, 74 SO
It took him eight starts to register his first victory, but that wasn’t through any fault of his own. He logged a 2.55 ERA in his first seven games and went 0-3 with four no-decisions. Since then he’s won nine of 12 starts. That stretch includes five victories since the All-Star break. In his most recent outing, last Friday, he lost despite not allowing an earned run in 6.2 innings against the Dodgers. In 13 of his starts he’s allowed two earned runs or fewer.
What he needs to do: Same as Hanson, he needs to somehow push ahead of Happ. Barring an astounding finish from one of the position players, this race should come down to the best pitcher standing.
Andrew McCutchen, cf, Pirates
Key stats: .287, 282 AB, 50 R, 81 H, 18 2B, 6 3B, 8 HR, 38 RBI, 15 SB
Summoned to man center field when Nate McLouth was dealt to Atlanta, McCutchen has been one of the few consistent factors in a turbulent setting in Pittsburgh. As the lineup has changed around him, he’s kept getting on base and scoring runs. Since Aug. 1 he’s drawn 14 walks while striking out eight times in 72 at-bats. He’s also hit .306 with five homers in that time. His blend of speed, power, and prospect pedigree is unique among the contenders.
What he needs to do: Getting his average back over .300 would help him stand out. He’s unlikely to lead the rookie pack in any other offensive category, though he should rank near the top in runs, doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases.
Garrett Jones, 1b, Pirates
Key stats: .294, 180 AB, 28 R, 53 H, 13 2B, 1 3B, 14 HR, 28 RBI, 7 SB
One of many beneficiaries of Neal Huntington’s musical chairs, Jones received his first legitimate big league opportunity in July at age 28. In his second week he homered in four straight games, capping that run with two bombs that accounted for the Pirates’ only runs in a 2-1, 14-inning victory over the Giants. He blasted 10 home runs in July to capture NL Rookie of the Month honors. August hasn’t been too bad, either, with four homers and 11 RBIs.
What he needs to do: Build a resume with highlights outside of July. He leads all rookies in home runs, but with just 180 at-bats, he needs a spectacular finish to vault ahead of the other contenders.
Chris Coghlan, lf, Marlins
Key stats: .289, 343 AB, 52 R, 99 H, 17 2B, 3 3B, 7 HR, 34 RBI, 6 SB
Coghlan loves the dog days. He opened August with a streak of eight straight multi-hit games and hasn’t slowed down much since. The Marlins called him up in May to solve their problem with the leadoff spot and he’s produced, though not consistently. His first three months saw batting averages of .212, .294, and .231.
What he needs to do: Avoid the slumps that visited him earlier in the year. He’s building his entire case around getting on base and scoring runs. The rest of his stat line won’t do much for voters.
Gerardo Parra, of, Diamondbacks
Key stats: .280, 353 AB, 48 R, 99 H, 13 2B, 8 3B, 5 HR, 45 RBI, 5 SB
Since July 1, Parra is hitting .301 and has scored 29 runs. Unfortunately, he doesn’t walk frequently and hasn’t hit for much power, so his secondary numbers are fairly pedestrian across the board. He’s been especially troubled by southpaws. He’s batting just .209 with a .445 OPS against lefties, compared to .303 with an .812 OPS against righties.
What he needs to do: Finish over .300 and somehow erupt for power to grab some attention. The first part is within reach, but he doesn’t profile as a home run guy and his chances of winning ROY are low.
Dexter Fowler, cf, Rockies
Key stats: .270, 378 AB, 62 R, 102 H, 27 2B, 9 3B, 4 HR, 33 RBI, 26 SB, .372 OBP
Fowler emerged as an on-base machine over the past two months, with an OBP of .394 in July and .458 in August. He scored 27 runs in that time, helping to spur the Rockies to the lead in the wild-card race. Unfortunately, he fouled a ball off his knee on Monday night and was placed on the disabled list Tuesday.
What he needs to do: Heal. He’s expected back in mid-September, which is too late for him to realistically have a chance in ROY balloting. The Rockies have to be excited about his future, however, after he showed the ability to set the table.
Best of the Rest
The Cubs were reluctant to give Jake Fox a chance, leaving him in Triple-A Iowa to punish PCL pitching staffs despite their stunted offensive showing in Chicago. When he finally got the call, he proved he belonged. He’s been one of the team’s best hitters, batting .297 with nine homers and 34 RBIs. Unfortunately, he only has 155 at-bats, and even if he plays full time the rest of the way, he probably won’t have enough of a resume to earn much voting support … The last time we checked in on the ROY race, Cardinals center fielder Colby Rasmus looked like a good bet. That was just before the All-Star break. He’s been brutal since then, hitting just .172 in 87 at-bats. Maybe Matt Holliday stole all his hits … Casey McGehee was hitting .329 with six homers and 27 RBIs in 146 at-bats at the break. Since then he’s batting just .250 to drop his average below .300. He’s still a nice underdog candidate, but there are too many guys ahead of him to see him even placing in the ROY balloting … Add Mat Latos to the too little, too late group. The 21-year-old righthander has had a few eye-opening starts for the Padres, but with just four wins and a 4.06 ERA in 44.1 innings, he won’t be a factor in this race.