May 25, 2024

Ranking the top 10 National League rookies: Imanaga, Jared Jones, Yamamoto lead early ROY race


On Thursday, I took stock of the early race for American League Rookie of the Year. Now it’s time to look at the National League’s top “rookies.”

I put rookies in quotes because, unfortunately, the NL Rookie of the Year race features international veteran players whose eligibility goes against the spirit of the award in my opinion. I’ve argued for years that international players’ service time in other pro leagues should count and be transferred to MLB, and they should not be eligible for Rookie of the Year honors. However, by the book they are considered rookies, so let’s move on and assess the NL field.

Cubs sensation Shota Imanaga, a 30-year-old veteran with eight years of experience in Japan’s NPB, is the early front-runner for the NL award. Dodgers star Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who pitched seven years professionally in Japan before signing his record contract, is in the top tier of contenders. Giants center fielder Jung Hoo Lee, who played seven years professionally in South Korea and leads all MLB rookies in hits, is among the top position players in this NL field.

In terms of true rookies, Jared Jones of the Pirates and Kyle Harrison of the Giants have stood out among starting pitchers, while Jackson Merrill of the Padres and Michael Busch of the Cubs have made early statements from the league’s position player pool. And Paul Skenes, the top pitching prospect in baseball, is set to make his major-league debut for the Pirates. (He’s not included in these rankings but is clearly one to watch.)

There will be twists and turns in the Rookie of the Year race. We are dealing with small samples and these rankings will change: Some rookies will catch fire, others will struggle; some prospects will impress after call-ups and some lesser-known names will wow. But with more than six weeks of the season complete, here are the top 10 NL rookies based on performance.


1. Shota Imanaga, LHP, Cubs

Age: 30
Height: 5-10 Weight: 175

Imanaga is not only the front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year, but also the NL Cy Young Award as he’s arguably been the best starting pitcher in baseball. He’s gone 5-0 with a 1.08 ERA and 0.816 WHIP over seven starts. Imanaga is a strike-thrower with a rare combination of an elite chase rate (96th percentile) and walk rate (96th percentile). Opposing batters have hit .140 against his four-seam fastball and .214 against his wipeout split-finger. He gets hitters to chase the fastball at the top of the zone and the split-finger at the bottom of the zone. His command and control have been much better than advertised as he’s making very few mistakes over the middle of the plate.

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2. Jared Jones, RHP, Pirates

Age: 22
Height: 6-1 Weight: 190

A second-round pick in 2020, Jones has had a stellar start to his major-league career, posting a 2.63 ERA  and 0.780 WHIP over seven outings with a staggering 52 strikeouts in 41 innings. He ranks in the 95th percentile or better in chase rate, whiff percentage, strikeout rate and walk rate. Opposing batters have hit .176 against his four-seamer and .154 against his slider.

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3. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP, Dodgers

Age: 25
Height: 5-10 Weight: 176

Outside of his first start of the season in South Korea — when he was knocked out of the game by the Padres after one inning — Yamamoto has lived up to the billing, and the record $325 million contract. He’s posted a 2.79 ERA over eight starts, striking out 47 in 42 innings and yielding two earned runs or fewer in all but three starts. His split-finger has proven to be a wipeout pitch, and opposing batters are hitting .137 against it with only two extra-base hits in 50 at-bats. But what really separates Yamamoto is his elite command and control in and out of the strike zone, as he lives on the black and is able to dominate east to west and north to south.

4. Michael Busch, 1B, Cubs

Age: 26
Bats: L Throws: R
Height: 6-1 Weight: 210

The Cubs front office, realizing Busch was blocked in the Dodgers organization behind first baseman Freddie Freeman (who is signed through 2027), made an aggressive trade of top prospects this past offseason to land him, filling their opening at first base. Busch has delivered as they anticipated thus far, hitting .259/.309/.488 and leading NL rookies with seven home runs and 19 RBIs. His barrel percentage (93rd percentile) and sweet-spot percentage (90th) have been impressive. He’s also demonstrated plus range at first base despite being a below-average defender overall.

5. Jackson Merrill, CF, Padres

Age: 21
Bats: L Throws: R
Height: 6-3 Weight: 195

Merrill has made a smooth transition from shortstop to center field, putting up 2 defensive runs saved to start the season while ranking in the 91st percentile in outfield range (outs above average) and the 87th percentile in arm strength. An above-average runner, Merrill is hitting a respectable .274 with four doubles, a triple, two home runs, 16 RBIs and four stolen bases.

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6. Kyle Harrison, LHP, Giants

Age: 22
Height: 6-2 Weight: 200

After logging a 4.15 ERA in seven starts last year, Harrison has posted a 3.20 mark over eight starts to begin this season. He’s struck out 40 and walked 12 in 45 innings. Opposing batters are hitting .229 against his four-seam fastball with 28 strikeouts in 105 at-bats. His fastball run value ranks in the 96th percentile and his extension is in the 77th percentile.

7. Andy Pages, OF, Dodgers

Age: 23
Bats: R Throws: R
Height: 6-0 Weight: 212

After many years in the minors, Pages is finally getting his major-league opportunity and making the most of it, as he’s batting .308 with four homers, 14 runs scored and 13 RBIs in 78 at-bats. Pages can play all three outfield positions at an above-average level. He ranks in the 83rd percentile in outs above average (range) and in the 81st percentile in arm strength. He is in the 84th percentile in sprint speed, but the most impressive early stat is his cream of the crop sweet-spot percentage (99th percentile).

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8. Jackson Chourio, RF, Brewers

Age: 20
Bats: R Throws: R
Height: 6-0 Weight: 198

The Brewers signed Chourio to a landmark eight-year contract extension in the offseason that includes club options for 2032 and 2033. He was guaranteed a record $82 million for a player with no prior major-league experience. He was rushed to the majors before he was ready but has held his own overall despite a .221 batting average and .264 on-base percentage. He has four homers and six stolen bases, which puts him on pace for approximately 20 homers and 30 steals. Chourio still needs to develop but there’s no reason he can’t finish his development in the majors.

9. Jung Hoo Lee, CF, Giants

Age: 25
Bats: L Throws: R
Height: 6-1 Weight: 192

Lee signed a six-year, $113 million deal with the Giants this past offseason after playing seven years in the KBO. He’s hit .262 with a .310 on-base percentage and played above-average defense in center field. He currently has a six-game hitting streak and is tied for the team lead in hits. He ranks in the 97th percentile in arm strength and in the 84th percentile in sprint speed. Most impressively, he ranks in the 99th percentile in both whiff rate and strikeout percentage.

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10. Jacob Young, CF, Nationals

Age: 24
Bats: R Throws: R
Height: 5-11 Weight: 192

Young has hit .301 with a .372 on-base percentage and leads all rookies with 12 stolen bases. He has a 121 OPS+ and has played 28 games for the Nationals after being called up in early April. A seventh-round pick in 2021 out of the University of Florida, Young ranks in the 97th percentile in sprint speed and in the 89th percentile in outfield range based on outs above average. He’s also in the 89th percentile in strikeout percentage.

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(Top image photos: Shota Imanaga: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images; Jared Jones: Justin Berl / Getty Images; Yoshinobu Yamamoto: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)





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