The AL East dominated the 2017 Rookie of the Year competition. A year ago, New York outfielder Aaron Judge received all 30 first place votes, and Boston outfielder Andrew Benintendi firmly claimed second place. Both former first-round draft selections, Judge and Benintendi were expected to perform early in their career. But the player that came in third, Orioles outfielder/first baseman Trey Mancini, certainly turned some heads.
Mancini, the Orioles 8th-round draft choice in the 2013 MLB draft, put up strong and consistent numbers throughout the 2017 season. The Notre Dame product hit .293, homered 24 times, and drove in 78 runs in 147 games.
Sure, Mancini’s .488 slugging percentage wasn’t quite Judge’s .627, and his lone stolen base paled in comparison to Benintendi’s 20, but the Orioles had found a hidden gem in their barren farm system. As Baltimore suffered an unfortunate collapse that September, Mancini served as one of the few bright spots in 2017.
The three outfielders have all had their own experiences combatting the “sophomore slump” this season. Let’s get the two painful ones out of the way.
Judge has picked up where he left off. Before fracturing his right wrist six weeks ago, Judge had already homered 26 times (halfway to his league-high 52 a season ago) and was getting on base at a .398 clip. His numbers had gone from super human to simply All Star caliber, but there was little question left about his staying power at the Major League level. Judge is currently rehabbing and appears poised to help the Yankees in a playoff run.
Through 129 games, Benintendi has hit .289 (18 points higher than his rookie year), and already has 11 more doubles than his 26 a year ago. He’s helped Boston jump out to a commanding lead in the AL East, and his 3.8 WAR trumps his 2.6 from 2017. Benintendi appears poised to be a bonafide contributor on a winning club for years to come.
And then there’s Mancini. The Winter Haven, Florida, product has hit only .241 in 132 games this season. His home runs are on a similar pace (21 this year, 24 at last season’s end) and he’s doubled 20 times (as opposed to 26 through 147 games last year). His on base percentage has taken a drastic hit. After getting on base at a .338 clip a year ago, his OBP sits at .301. He’s actually producing a negative WAR at -0.4, compared to his rookie 2.2, and he hasn’t even matched that one stolen base.
Mancini made a habit of exceeding expectations early in his career. He homered in three of the five games he played in September of 2016. The guy went deep in his first major league game. After following up his cup of coffee with a top-three Rookie of the Year performance, he certainly set the bar high for himself.
Mancini hasn’t reached that bar this year. In fact, he hasn’t really come close. But that’s okay. It was completely unrealistic to expect Mancini to stay on pace with Judge and Benintendi, and a large majority of players face some form of adversity in their second season.
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year competition. A former second round pick in 2011, Bell was highly regarded in the Pirates organization, and he did not disappoint when he made his way to PNC park. The rookie clubbed 26 home runs, drove in 90 runners, and got on base at a .334 clip.
Flash forward to this year, and Bell has also struggled for the Pirates. Pittsburgh benched the first baseman Tuesday night after he hit only .143 in the past seven games. Bell’s average and OBP have not deviated far from his rookie year, but he’s experienced a severe power outage. The switch hitter has only eight home runs through 127 games after hitting 26 last season. Bell also holds a -.2 WAR after putting up a 1.7 WAR a year ago.
The Pirates, who recently traded away former All Stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, are currently 68-71 and in fourth place in the NL Central. Stuck in a division with the Cubs and Cardinals, the Pirates can relate to Baltimore being forced to compete with Judge and Benintendi’s winning teams. But whether or not the Pirates enter a full rebuild mode like Baltimore, they’re certainly not giving up on Bell. Both the Orioles and Pirates can count on contributions from their sophomore first basemen moving forward.
Unlike Bell, Mancini has heated up in the second half of the season. Mancini is hitting .292, only .001 lower than his 2017 campaign, since the All Star break. In the second half, and in nearly half the games, Mancini has improved in nearly every category. He’s hit nine home runs (compared to 12 before the break) and needs only two more RBIs to equal his total of 26 before the Mid-Summer classic. After not having a month with double-digit RBIs, he drove in 20 runs in August.
While Baltimore continues to evaluate talent in September, Mancini’s resurrection has given the club one less thing to worry about. Mancini has shown enough in the past two years that he can be counted on day-in and day-out to contribute at the Major League level.
Through almost two seasons, he’s a .270 hitter who will get you 25-30 homers a year. Is there room for improvement? Sure. But that improvement could certainly come next year. His days in the outfield should be numbered, but the Orioles have a quality first baseman/DH that appears ready for a strong 2019 season.