In five of the past six seasons, either the AL or the NL has produced a unanimous rookie of the year (Craig Kimbrel in 2011, Mike Trout in 2012, Jose Abreu in 2014, Kris Bryant in 2015 and Corey Seager in 2016). But a strong case can be made that both leagues will have a unanimous winner this season.
That actually has happened three times: 1987 (Mark McGwire, Benito Santiago); 1993 (Tim Salmon, Mike Piazza); and 1997 (Nomar Garciparra, Scott Rolen).
But with Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger bashing, here’s why this season could be the fourth:
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Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees
He’s become a must-see attraction in batting practice and a human highlight machine when the game begins — seemingly clubbing a mammoth homer each night. And in addition to being the runaway favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, Judge arguably is the front-runner for AL MVP as Mike Trout likely faces another month on the sideline. In 259 plate appearances, Judge is slashing .341/.448/.714 with 22 homers, 49 RBI, a 200 OPS+ and a MLB-best 4.0 WAR. He leads the majors in homers and runs (57), and leads the AL in batting average and walks (40) — and is three RBI shy of leading the league in all Triple Crown categories.
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Cody Bellinger, OF/1B, Dodgers
Bellinger didn’t make his make his major-league debut until April 25 but certainly has made up for lost time. He has four multi-homer games, including each of his past two games — with perhaps his most impressive coming Tuesday. First, he took lefty Andrew Miller deep in the eighth inning and then went yard against southpaw specialist Boone Logan in the ninth. Through 185 plate appearances, Bellinger is humming along at .261/.335/.630 with 17 homers, 39 RBI, a 150 OPS+ and a 1.6 WAR.
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The AL competition
The field includes Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who is heating up after an extended slump but is lagging far behind Judge at .281/.346/.439 with nine homers and 38 RBI. The White Sox’s Matt Davidson (.245/.291/.503, 12 homers, 33 RBI), the Orioles’ Trey Mancini (.288/.333/.528, 10 homers, 33 RBI) and the Astros’ Yuli Gurriel (.271/.303/.430, seven homers, 29 RBI) also are in the picture. As for the pitchers, the Yankees’ Jordan Montgomery (4-4, 3.55 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 8.7 K/9) is unlikely to steal any votes from Judge.
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The NL competition
The Padres’ Hunter Renfroe (.224/.276/.443, 13 homers, 30 RBI) and Pirates’ Josh Bell (.236/.317/.449, 11 homers, 27 RBI) don’t match up to Bellinger despite having nearly a one-month head start. Ditto for preseason favorite Dansby Swanson (.224/.304/.350, six homers, 29 RBI). In a development few saw coming, the field also includes two Rockies starting pitchers: Antonio Senzatela (8-2, 3.84 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 6.3 K/9) and Kyle Freeland (7-4, 3.57 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 5.6 K/9).
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The (early) verdict
Barring an injury that sidelines him for a large chunk of the next three months, you can put Judge’s name on the AL award right now. And there’s little reason to think the vote won’t be unanimous, even if opposing pitchers eventually identify a weakness to exploit or stop giving him anything to hit.
Clearly safe from a demotion — remember when that actually was an expectation? — Bellinger also has a relatively clear path to unanimity as long as the inevitable slump doesn’t dampen his stats too much.
A lot can happen over the next 3.5 months for a guy (Judge) who was projected to start the season in the minors and a guy (Bellinger) who did start the season in the minors, but each has significantly distanced himself from the rest of the rookie field thus far.