Seager leads way in NL, while Fulmer, Naquin and Sanchez are AL finalists
By Matt Kelly
After an incredible season for rookies in 2016, baseball's future continues to look bright in regards to the exciting young talent entering the Major Leagues.
We thought we had seen the zenith of what first-year players could do in 2015, when a record 64 players (33 position players and 31 pitchers) totaled at least one win above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball Reference. But while the 2016 rookie class -- which saw a total of 50 players (20 position players, 30 pitchers) tally at least 1.0 WAR -- didn't quite match the volume of the previous year, the cream of the crop was just as impressive.
In fact, the top-five rookie pitchers last season produced a combined 18.0 WAR, far outpacing the top-five freshman pitchers from 2015 (11.8). The top-five rookie position players in 2016 contributed only a few wins less (19.2 WAR) than the standouts from the year before (23.5).
Esurance MLB Awards week concludes Friday on MLB Network and MLB.com at 8 p.m. ET with the MLB Awards. Categories include Best Major Leaguer, Hitter, Pitcher, Rookie and Manager, and recognize overall MLB winners with no league distinction.
The 2016 Baseball Writers' Association of America Rookie of the Year Awards will be given to each league's top freshman Monday (6 p.m. ET, MLB Network). We know the finalists: Kenta Maeda and Corey Seager of the Dodgers and the Nationals' Trea Turner in the National League, and Michael Fulmer of the Tigers, Tyler Naquin of the Indians and the Yankees' Gary Sanchez in the American League. Before the winners' names are read, here's a deeper look at each rookie's case for the prestigious award.
Kenta Maeda, Dodgers
In a season in which his team had as many as seven starting pitchers on the disabled list at once (including ace Clayton Kershaw), Maeda was the only constant in the NL West champion Dodgers' rotation. The 28-year-old import from Japan led his team with 32 starts and 175 2/3 innings during his first professional season in the U.S., and his 1.14 WHIP and 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the second best of any pitcher besides Kershaw who made at least 10 starts for L.A.
Maeda's 16 wins far outpaced the other rookies across the Majors and were the most recorded by a Dodgers rookie since Rick Sutcliffe in 1979. Los Angeles arguably would not even have won its division, let alone finished just two games from the World Series, without Maeda's consistency.
Corey Seager, Dodgers
Seager, who is also a finalist for the NL Most Valuable Player Award, is the heavy favorite for this honor because his numbers placed him firmly among baseball's elite. The 22-year-old contributed 6.1 WAR to the Dodgers, per Baseball Reference, which equaled roughly 43 percent more than second-place Turner (3.5) among rookie position players. He dominated his position, leading all NL shortstops in WAR, batting average, home runs, runs scored and OPS.
Seager's season even transcended the calendar limits of 2016; his 137 weighted runs created, per FanGraphs, ranks as the eighth-highest single-season total compiled by any shortstop before his 23rd birthday. Some of the names below Seager on that list include Hall of Famers Lou Boudreau, Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Sewell and Arky Vaughan.
Trea Turner, Nationals
Turner is at a disadvantage because he wasn't called up until June, but his 144 OPS+ actually topped Seager's 137 over a much smaller sample size. Over 73 Major League games this season, Turner's rare blend of prowess at the plate and speed on the basepaths turned plenty of heads. The 23-year-old was instant offense at the top of Washington's lineup, becoming the first player to pair at least 10 home runs with at least 30 steals in his rookie season since Norichika Aoki and Mike Trout in 2012, and only the fourth -- rookie or otherwise -- to accomplish the feat in less than 100 games.
Michael Fulmer, Tigers
Detroit acquired Fulmer from the Mets at the 2015 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and the 23-year-old paid big dividends this year. Fulmer's 3.06 ERA would have ranked third in the AL had he not finished only three innings shy of qualifying for the leaderboard. The right-hander reeled off 10 straight starts between May and July in which he allowed two runs or fewer to put himself in the front-runner position for this award.
Fulmer's value to the Tigers was immense, as his 159 innings ranked second on the team behind Justin Verlander in a year where Jordan Zimmermann struggled with injuries in his first season with the club. Fulmer's 4.9 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, topped the AL rookie list and ranked eighth among all pitchers in the Junior Circuit.
Tyler Naquin, Indians
The Indians were crossed off a lot of prognosticators' lists when potential AL MVP Award candidate Michael Brantley was ruled out for the remainder of the season in early May. But Cleveland's lineup persevered to become one of the AL's best thanks in some part to the contributions of Naquin, who took full advantage of his increased playing time by pacing the league's rookies with a .296/.372/.514 slash line.
Naquin also provided what was perhaps the most memorable moment of the Indians' regular season on Aug. 19, when he became only the 11th rookie to hit a walk-off inside-the-park home run -- the first since the Twins' Tim Teufel in 1984.
Gary Sanchez, Yankees
If the Rookie of the Year Award were given out based solely on the peak of a player's season, Sanchez would be the AL front-runner by a wide margin. The catcher tied the record set by Wally Berger in 1930 by hitting his 20th home run in just his 51st career game, and his 20 roundtrippers were the most hit in one season by a player who didn't have any before Aug. 1.
Sanchez's 3.0 WAR ranks as the third-highest single-season total by a player who participated in 55 games or fewer, suggesting that the 23-year-old slugger could be a perennial AL MVP Award candidate in years to come if he can sustain a large percentage of his 2016 production over the course of an entire season.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.