Think back to 2007, one of the best seasons in the history of the Red Sox franchise. If you'll recall, at the start of that season there was a small, rookie second baseman who was struggling to hit, and many wanted him ousted from the everyday lineup in favor of a more polished veteran. The first-year player was hitting just .182/.308/.236 after the month of April, and between that and his out-of-control uppercut swing, Terry Francona was catching quite a bit of heat from the fans who had seen enough.
Well, the manager's patience paid off that year, with Dustin Pedroia eventually heating up on his way to a .317/.380/.442 batting-line (112 OPS+), and being a key contributor to a postseason run that ended with a World Series. On top of that, he ended up winning the Rookie of the Year award hat season, despite the initial numbers suggesting he'd never hit.
Now, the Red Sox may have another Rookie of the Year middle infielder who, at least at first, many people didn't want to see in the lineup.
Coming into the season, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who could've anticipated Jose Iglesias making a run at the Rookie of the Year, especially since Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks had the left side of the infield locked down. Well, with the symbolic second-half of the season beginning today, the young shortstop is the clear favorite, albeit in a weak class. There aren't a ton of great rookies in the American League this year, especially compared to last season when the demigod known as Mike Trout won the award with other excellent players such as Yoenis Cespedes, Yu Darvish, Wei-Yin Chen and Jarrod Parker also receiving votes. Before we look at just how well Jose Iglesias is playing this year, we'll take a quick look at his competitors at the moment.
Right now, amongst fellow rookie position players, the biggest competitor to Iglesias is likely Texas' outfielder Leonys Martin. At the moment, he actually leads Iglesias in fWAR, but I'll get to that a bit later. His offense has been solid, with a .283/.336/.422 batting line which translates to a 102 wRC+. Combined with outstanding defense in center field and good baserunning skills (19 stolen bases in 23 attempts), Martin is giving Texas a strong rookie season. While his offensive numbers aren't standout quality, his complete game makes him a viable candidate in a year like this.
The only other two players who have been worth more than one win by Fangraphs' measure have been David Lough, and Yan Gomes. Lough has filled the void in right field that was left after Kansas City traded away Wil Myers, but his sub-two percent walk-rate probably doesn't bode well for him later. Gomes has had an impressive offensive season for a first-year catcher, but he is behind Carlos Santana on the depth chart, which will likely keep his plate appearances down too much for his value to justify his winning the award.
As for pitchers, there are some talented arms in the race, but no one who has really stood out enough this season. In the AL East, Tampa has Chris Archer, who has an impressive 2.96 ERA through nine starts this season, though he probably won't stay at that level. If he is even able to stay in the rotation once Alex Cobb returns from injury, he'll likely suffer from some regression as his .238 batting average on balls in play rises towards more normal levels. Martin Perez has a 3.00 ERA in just six starts, but his five strikeouts per nine innings don't inspire too much confidence, and there's an outside chance he'll be moved before the trade deadline, possibly to the National League. Dan Straily and Nick Tepesch have both been putting up consistent numbers, but neither one has done enough to compete with the likes of Iglesias at this point. There have been some good rookie relief pitchers this year too, such as Casey Fien, Aaron Loup, Tanner Scheppers and Cody Allen, but voters usually need saves to be involved to consider a reliever for an award like this, and none of them have a closer role locked down.
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports
The only other players who may compete for the award are some top prospects who got a late start to this season. Specifically, I'm thinking of Wil Myers in Tampa, and Jurickson Profar in Texas. Myers, who was the centerpiece the Rays received in exchange for James Shields, spent much of the first-half in AAA, but has accrued 112 plate appearances to this point. In his first taste of major-league hitting he has looked impressive in that he hasn't been overmatched at the plate. He currently has a 112 wRC+, and has played well enough in the field as well. Going forward, it wouldn't shock anyone if one of the top hitting prospects in the game picked up the pace offensively, especially in the power department where he currently holds a .125 isolated power.
Profar, on the other hand, has been less impressive. The game's top prospect before the season, he is hitting just .235/.309/.346 (76 wRC+) at the moment. Though his talent suggests there should be some improvement, he may not get a great chance to show it with Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler already holding down the middle infield.
This brings us to our local candidate in Iglesias. Say what you will about the sustainability of his play, but for someone who was as maligned as he was before he got consistent playing time, he's looked great at the plate. He's currently hitting .367/.417/.461 (141 wRC+). The reason he is trailing Martin in fWAR, as I mentioned above, is because UZR has him as providing negative defensive value so far this year. If you've been watching, you know that's just small sample defensive stats being goofy, because he's been as great as expected with the glove, even playing mostly out of position at third.
What we constantly hear about with respect to Iglesias is the inevitable regression. It's a valid concern given his .414 BABIP. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe that, if this isn't the real Jose Iglesias we're seeing at the plate, this also isn't the Jose Iglesias from the past few seasons. His approach at the plate is markedly better, displaying a newfound patience which has led to him cutting his strikeout rate down from 22 percent the last two years to 15 percent this season. People always point out his infield singles as well, but giving him no credit for them is just as bad as giving him full credit. He's shown a great ability to get out of the box for a right-hander which has led to infield hits that would be outs for many other players.
Given the weak class of rookies this season, and Iglesias' ridiculous start to the season, the award seems to be his to lose. The top competitors will likely be Myers and Martin, but the lead that Boston's infielder holds now should be enough to hold them off as long as he keeps consistent playing time and avoids a complete crash-and-burn scenario.
It's always fun when a major award goes to a hometown player, especially the Rookie of the Year, which comes with dreams of a future like Pedroia's. It's impossible to expect Jose Iglesias to turn into the next Pedey, picking up an MVP and consistently making the All-Star Game, but there's definitely a strong possibility of him following in Pedroia's footsteps from oft-criticized offensive black hole to Rookie of the Year winner.
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