Appreciating this year's exceptional crop of MLB rookies

October 3, 2022

If you are a baseball fan, chances are you have marveled at several outstanding rookies this season. Julio Rodriguez mashed a ton of dingers during the Home Run Derby. Perhaps you caught Adley Rutschman gunning down a would-be base stealer or lining another double in the gap. Steven Kwan dominated a few early-season news cycles. Carlos Correa has put up a more-than-respectable 4.3 fWAR for Minnesota this year, but his replacement, rookie Jeremy Peña, has put up 3.3 fWAR for Houston. Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider have been wildly productive for Atlanta. The Mariners’ George Kirby has basically matched Gerrit Cole in fWAR — this year’s crop of rookies have been so good that I bet most baseball fans outside Seattle are largely ignorant of who Kirby is, even though in a normal season he’d be among the front runners for AL Rookie of the Year.

Riley Greene, Bobby Witt, Jr., and Oneil Cruz are all athletic marvels who are already helping their teams and have been slated as future All Stars for years. What can Joey Meneses do in a full season? Why are the Cardinals always able to develop guys like Brendan Donovan and Lars Nootbaar?

This is all good for baseball, but the player I want you to spend a few minutes considering is the one Fangraphs has pegged as the sixth-most productive position player rookie in MLB this year, even though he had only played 96 games as I write this, and every other player in the top 10 had appeared in at least 108 games: Jake McCarthy.

Who? Jake McCarthy of the Arizona Diamondbacks, hitting .295/.355/.445 and a 125 wRC+, with 22 steals in 25 attempts, all while playing credible defense at all three outfield positions.

McCarthy didn’t come out of nowhere. He had and has plus tools, hit all three seasons he played at the University of Virginia, and in 2018 was drafted 39th overall by Arizona. A pattern developed where he would hit reasonably well — though not jaw-droppingly well — at a given level, get promoted, and just keep hitting at pretty good rates. The year he was drafted, he hit at low-A. In 2019, he hit at high-A. Like many others, he didn’t play competitive games in 2020, but in 2021, he started at Class-AA, where he kept hitting, so the Diamondbacks promoted him to Class-AAA, where he kept hitting, so the Diamondbacks brought him up to the big club, where he struggled in 70 plate appearances.

This season, he started with the Major League club, but was sent to Class-AAA a couple times to get at-bats, where all he did was torch the Pacific Coast League across 36 games, hitting .369/.457/.596. The Diamondbacks, like many outside evaluators, apparently put more stock in Alek Thomas, Daulton Varsho, and Corbin Carroll than they did McCarthy, and in the first half of the year, they were also content to give playing time to veteran David Peralta. However, even though Peralta’s been traded and Thomas has been sent down to Class-AAA, Stone Garrett has also contributed a bunch of production at the dish with the big league club, further crowding the outfield situation.

Looking forward, it seems McCarthy should be a clear-cut starter to begin next season. Varsho, whose versatility has fascinated me for a while, could spend more time at catcher. Just last season, Ketel Marte was primarily a center fielder, but he looks locked in at second base, so long as he’s healthy. That leaves Corbin Carroll and Alek Thomas as likely starters at the other outfield spots, which would, potentially, give Arizona three natural center fielders with elite speed out there (per Statcast, Carroll has the fastest top sprint speed in MLB this year; McCarthy is 11th; Thomas is 34th), and McCarthy arguably profiles as the best hitter of the group, moving forward. Garrett and Varsho could take some starts in the outfield, but given the minor league production McCarthy, Carroll, and Thomas have demonstrated, it sure seems like Arizona is set at those positions for the next few years.

McCarthy isn’t at Julio Rodriguez’s level, or Harris’s, but it’s kind of wild how he’s solidified himself in the heart of the Diamondbacks’ order, does everything on the field pretty well (Look at him go first to home! Highlight starts about 5:40…), is still only 24 years old, and yet he’s just another guy in this exceptional class of MLB rookies.

As a Giants fan, it’s unnerving to see the Diamondbacks taking strides toward competing for a playoff spot as soon as next year. But as a baseball fan, I’m grateful to see so many first-year players having an immediate impact on the game and can't wait to see what they do next.

(Photo: "ball and glove" by dcJohn. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)