Cleveland’s Series with Detroit to Feature Rookie of the Year Battle
This weekend’s series between the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers has serious implications for the Central Division pennant race, but there’s a smaller battle being waged between two rookies looking to take home some hardware.
When the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers take the field on Friday night to begin a three-game series at Progressive Field, there’s no question there will be a lot on the line. Cleveland currently holds a six-game lead in the American League Central Division, and has an opportunity to back Detroit into the proverbial corner with a series win.
But there’s also a smaller drama that will be playing out, as the Indians’ Tyler Naquin and the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer vie to be named AL Rookie of the Year. Among a handful of contenders for the award, both players have exceeded expectations in 2016, and both have played key roles in their teams’ being in contention.
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Naquin hit the cover off the ball in spring training and made the Opening Day roster, and aside from a two-week stint at Triple-A Columbus, has been a mainstay in manager Terry Francona’s outfield platoon system all season. Entering the weekend, the 25-year old is slashing .300/.372/.544 with 18 doubles, five triples, 14 home runs, and 42 RBIs in 102 games, with an OPS+ of 130.
According to FanGraphs, Naquin ranks second among AL rookies in fWAR, wOBA, and wRC+, third in homers, and fifth in runs batted in.
If there has been a knock on him, it’s that he has experienced a regression in the second half of the season, and while his numbers have suffered since the all-star break, they are still solid for a rookie. Naquin’s second half slash line is .281/.369/.484, and he’s hit 11 of his doubles and five of his home runs, knocking in 20 of his RBIs, and had perhaps the most iconic play of the season for the Tribe with his walkoff inside the park homer against the Toronto Blue Jays in August.
The 23-year old Fulmer arrived in the Tigers’ organization as part of last summer’s Yoenis Cespedes trade with the New York Mets, and his performance as a rookie is making that deal look much less one-sided. In 23 starts for Brad Ausmus, the right-hander is 10-6 with a 2.76 earned run average.
Fulmer’s campaign has him at the top of the class among AL rookie starting pitchers in nearly every meaningful statistical category, including wins, ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts. He’s also among the league leaders in fWAR for pitchers, in company with the top arms and Cy Young candidates in the game.
The question with Fulmer from the beginning has been about his workload and Detroit’s plan for not overworking him. He threw 124.2 innings last season in the minor leagues, and enters his start on Friday night at 159 this year between the Tigers and Triple-A Toledo.
The plan as discussed by Ausmus before the all-star break was for Fulmer to throw in the 155-165 innings range, so he is essentially staring right at his maximum. With 16 games remaining and the club in the midst of a playoff chase, how much Fulmer is used will be interesting to follow.
Naquin and Fulmer have to be considered among the handful of favorites to win Rookie of the Year in the AL this season. Along with Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins and Nomar Mazara of the Texas Rangers, they have been consistent, valuable pieces for their teams. On Friday night, they’ll get a chance to go head-to-head, and perhaps the outcome will provide a little more clarity on who will have bragging rights when the award is handed out after the season.