(Photo Credit: REUTERS/BRAD MILLS)
Remember when Andrew Benintendi was favored to win Rookie of the Year prior to the start of the 2017 season?
And yet, his .270 average, paired with 20 home runs and 90 RBI, wasn’t enough to topple the giant—both literally and figuratively–season Aaron Judge compiled on the strength of a rookie record-setting 52 bombs.
It was widely agreed that, in any other season, Benintendi would’ve been the unanimous winner of the award. Instead, he was a footnote in someone else’s debut season that defied expectations as Judge became the talk of baseball.
It’s 2018, and much like the prior year, we are blessed to have two rookies standing above and beyond a deep and talented pool of first-year players. Shohei Ohtani for the Los Angeles Angels, and Gleyber Torres of the New York Yankees, have become this year’s Benintendi and Judge. They are lighting up the baseball world with their poise, athletic ability, and their incessant knack of historic achievements all before they’ve hit 25 years old.
It seems unfair that only one of them can be celebrated as the best rookie in the American League. But baseball has always had little care for hurt feelings and snubs, and come season’s end a player, a team, and an entire fanbase will be sorely disappointed when the voting concludes and the winner is announced.
When Torres homered off of Doug Fister in Texas to give the Yankees an 8-5 lead over the Rangers, he became the youngest Yankee ever to homer in three straight games.
Consider that for a moment. Consider the titanic, almost mythological names that have worn the pinstripes. DiMaggio, Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and yet Gleyber Torres, he of eight career home runs at 21 years old, is the youngest Yankee ever to achieve such a feat. It came two nights after he slugged two home runs off of 45-year-old ageless wonder Bartolo Colon. Torres was only three months old when Colon made his Major League debut for the Cleveland Indians on April 4th, 1997.
Torres could always hit. His scouting report projected him to be a yearly contender for a batting title with his ability to make adjustments not only mid-game but mid at-bat. What has come as a complete shock, however, is his propensity for the longball. His 11 home runs across two levels of Minor League baseball in 2016 were the most he’s ever hit. Despite an average of .347 in Triple-A before his call-up, Torres had only one home run.
And yet now, he has eight in his first 27 games, a flash of serious power potential as he’s averaged a home run distance of 412 feet, well above the league watermark of 398 feet. He’s already recorded eight multi-hit games and six games where he’s driven in three RBI. He has the makings of a top three hitter in a lineup, but due to the depth of the Yankees’ offense, he’s hitting ninth—and thriving—in the lineup.
His impact in a game translates to him in the field. A natural shortstop who has used his strong arm and smooth footwork to serve him well at second base, Torres owns a rate of 18.8 defensive runs saved per 1,000 innings. That’s second to the Tampa Bay Rays’ Joey Wendle (22.3/1000) with a minimum of 200 innings played.
The Yankees were 9-9 and sitting in third place when they promoted Torres from Scranton. Since his debut, the Yankees embarked on a 22-6 run over their last 29 games. In another year, Torres would be a clear-cut favorite to win Rookie of the Year at this pace, except there’s one another kid who is setting the baseball world on fire in more than one way.
(Photo Credit: REUTERS/KIRBY LEE)
Benintendi’s misfortune can well be Gleyber Torres’ in 2018. Because standing in his way as he marches toward serious Rookie of the Year consideration is Shohei Ohtani, the two-way wunderkind from Japan who has been lighting up the baseball world across two continents.
Everyone knows the story: Ohtani spurned larger market teams like the Yankees to sign with the Los Angeles Angels. Paired with baseball’s best in Mike Trout, the Angels have turned the AL West into one of the most competitive divisions in the sport as they seek to dethrone the Houston Astros.
The comparisons to Babe Ruth have been validated, because not only is Ohtani hitting over .300 with six home runs in 91 at-bats, but over the course of 40.1 innings pitched, he has struck out 52 and has a 3.35 ERA in seven starts.
Ohtani is no cheap parlor trick. The dismal Spring Training showcase is well in the past. The Angels have found the perfect balance to use Ohtani’s skillset while making sure the 23-year-old, 6’4″ Oshu native isn’t overburdened. Every fifth day he goes out there and pairs a devastating splitter with a fastball consistently in the high 90’s. When he’s not pitching, he’s turning on those high 90’s fastballs and depositing them in the right-field seats.
And as long as Ohtani continues to produce at such high levels from both the mound and the plate, he will be one of the most exciting players in all of baseball. Early critics have already apologized profusely for their early dismissal of his abilities—one critic being myself, who has been proven wrong and apologized a hundredfold—and now comes such a show which the likes haven’t been seen since Babe Ruth.
The Rookie of the Year award is Ohtani’s to lose, and it seems like he won’t be anytime soon.
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