If Trea Turner had played in the majors all season, perhaps the National League rookie of the year voting would have turned out differently. Had the Washington Nationals‘ speedy shortstop played at his natural position, instead of coming up to play center field in July, perhaps he could have challenged Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager for the award. As it happened, Turner did not, and Seager was named the National League rookie of the year Monday by a unanimous vote of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Detroit Tigers starter Michael Fulmer won the award in the American League.
Seager became the National League’s 12th unanimous rookie of the year after hitting .308 with an .877 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his first full major league season. The 22-year-old had 193 hits, 26 homers and 72 RBI in 687 plate appearances this year. Only five other rookies who have debuted in the past 80 years have compiled at least 190 hits, 25 home runs, a .300 batting average and .875 OPS: Joe DiMaggio, Albert Pujols, Nomar Garciaparra, Tony Oliva and Dick Allen.
“It’s a distinguished award. I’m extremely happy about it, extremely excited about it,” Seager said. “It’s a huge honor, obviously. It’s something — nothing can blemish it.”
One member of that group, DiMaggio, is a Hall of Famer. Another, Pujols, seems likely to be one someday. Allen and Oliva are considered two of the best players to not earn that honor. Most believe Garciaparra might have had a shot had he stayed healthy longer. In other words, Seager’s season was a special one by even history’s stringent standards. The Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant got all 30 first-place votes last season, too. Turner is the 17th Dodger to win the award, which is named after former Dodger Jackie Robinson.
But while Seager looked like a no-doubt choice since early this spring, Turner produced at a similar rate. If one projects Turner’s second half to the same number of plate appearances Seager had, the math spits out the following: 223 hits, 28 homers and 85 RBI.
Ultimately, Turner finished just more than 300 plate appearances with a .342 average, 13 homers and 105 hits, providing the kind of leadoff force the Nationals lacked and needed through the first half of the season. He did so while learning a new position, center field, which may or may not be his position in D.C. long term. Regardless, Turner did enough in three months to join Seager and his teammate, pitcher Kenta Maeda, as National League finalists. Turner got the same number of second-place votes as Maeda but more third-place votes to finish with 42 points overall. Seager got 150.
Seager debuted in September 2015 and got a chance with the Dodgers in that year’s playoffs. This season, he emerged as an elite middle-of-the-order bat at a middle-infield position — a combination that earned him enough votes to be a finalist for the National League MVP award, as well. That award will be announced Thursday after the manager of the year award Tuesday and Cy Young Award on Wednesday.
“We’re looking forward to Thursday, too,” Seager said. “Obviously being able to be a part of that, obviously it’s special, too. But tonight is just about what happened tonight.”
Fulmer was close to a sure thing, too. He beat out another half-season dynamo in New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and a less-heralded youngster, Cleveland Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin. Sanchez hit 20 home runs in 229 plate appearances. Over the course of a full season, that projects to 60. Naquin, meanwhile, hit .296 with 14 home runs and an .886 OPS in just more than 300 plate appearances with the Indians.
“I didn’t think anything of it during the season,” Fulmer said. “I kind of noticed the season Gary was having, and it was definitely a historic one.”
The Tigers held back the 23-year-old at times last season, and he did not debut until late April. As a result, he didn’t pitch enough to qualify for league leads among American League starters. If he had, his 3.06 ERA would have been third lowest among AL starters. His .228 batting average against would have been sixth best.
But his 159 innings and 26 starts qualified him for rookie of the year honors, which he earned, becoming the third starting pitcher in the last 35 years to win the American League award. Another was his Tigers teammate, Justin Verlander, who won 10 years before. Fulmer said Verlander reminded him of that fact regularly of late.
“Talking to guys like Justin and all those other guys,” Fulmer said, “they were telling me how big a deal this is.”
Fulmer was the only one of the three AL nominees to have his name on every ballot. Turner, for reference, was named on 20 of 30 ballots. Had he won, he would have been the second Nationals player to do so. Bryce Harper won in 2012.