A look the rookies on both teams World Series rosters this year. Rookies will be considered players who entered the 2020 season with what Major League Baseball defines as rookie eligibility.
Since the Coronavirus Pandemic shut down Major League Baseball’s spring training in March, it was clear this was going to be an unprecedented season if there was going to any season at all. While many were worried about the legitimacy of this season, given the shortened schedule and odd situation, there were no major surprises among the four teams to reach the respective league championships series and the World Series matchup. The Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers both finished the regular season with the best record in their respective leagues.
Over the course of the shortened 60 game regular season, teams were faced with tough player development decisions since they could not utilize the Minor Leagues to get their top prospects real in-game experience. While alternative sites could provide prospects some action, many remained concerned about the lack of real game experience these prospects were getting. The results of this dilemma were many teams calling up prospects who were not Major League ready.
Some prospects that made their debuts struggled, but some rookies have impressed this postseason. These performances have played a key factor in helping their respective teams advance to the World Series.
Tampa Bay Rays
While there has certainly been many impressive performances this postseason, few performances have been more impressive than that of Randy Arozarena. Arozarena, who will still have rookie eligibility next season, has emerged as a legitimate star for the Rays this October and he was even honored on October 17th as the first Cuban born player to win the American League Championship Series MVP since 1999.
His breakout this postseason has certainly been surprising, but Arozarena has been a fairly well-known prospect commodity for a while now. He came up in Cuba before moving to the Mexico in 2015 and spending time playing in the Mexican League during the 2016 season. Going back to his time as an international prospect, while many thought the bat would definitely be able to play at the Major League Level, there was some uncertainty surrounding his ultimate positional landing spot.
After signing with the St. Louis Cardinals as an International Free Agent in 2016, Arozarena began his ascent up the minor league ranks. He reached the majors briefly in 2019 and was ranked as Major League Baseball’s 42nd overall prospect at Fangraphs prior to the season. The Cardinals traded Arozarena, along with Jose Martinez, to Tampa Bay this past January for a return package that included pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and 2017 international free agent signee Edgardo Rodriguez.
After posting one of the higher ground ball rates in the Cardinals farm system from 2018-2019, Arozarena made some adjustments at the plate and added strength this past offseason in an attempt to develop the in-game power many thought he was previously lacking.
Following the Coronavirus shut down, Arozarena began this season at the Rays alternative site before being called up to the Major League Roster on August 30th. He received 70 plate appearances during the regular season, where he was solid, but struggled against breaking pitches.
While he was certainly good during the regular season this year, few could have predicated what was coming for Arozarena this October. Over 60 postseason plate appearances through the completion of the league championship series, he hit 7 home runs. Those 7 home runs are the most ever for a rookie in the postseason and it is 1 shy of tying the all-time record for home runs in a postseason.
Thanks to visualizations from Michael Augustine, we can better visualize the swing path of Arozarena to see what he has used to hit all of those homeruns this postseason.
Likely a result of Arozarena’s struggles against breaking pitches during the regular season this year, opponents have been attacking him with this type of pitch much more frequently during the postseason. Arozarena, however, has actually started hitting breaking pitches to the tune of a .428 wOBA these playoffs after hitting for only a .162 wOBA against such pitches during the regular season. While he has improved his performance against breaking pitches, Arozarena has also continued to crush fastballs.
While Arozarena overall has seen pitches in the strike zone during the postseason at about the same rate as he did during the regular season, he has been seeing breaking balls in the strike zone almost twice as frequently.
While Arozarena posted a Z-contact% much lower than league average during the regular season this year, he has been killing all opposing pitchers mistakes these playoffs. The fact he is seeing breaking pitches in the zone more frequently also might, at least partially, help explain his breakout against these types of pitches this October. This is especially true since he chased pitches out of the strike much more frequently and made contact less frequently against such pitches during the regular season this year.
While the offensive production of Randy Arozarena has certainly been the primary driving force of the offense this postseason, much of the Rays success this season has been a result of their superb pitching and defense. The Rays have assembled a very good pitching staff despite the payroll limitations faced by the team and they have a group of guys that attack opponent hitters with many different looks and different angles. By targeting guys on the extremes of both the release point and extension scales, they are able to throw many different looks at opposing lineups throughout the course of a game.
Two guys who definitely fit this description of being on the extremes are relievers Aaron Slegers and Ryan Thompson, both of whom have pitched well for the Rays this postseason. Slegers delivery featured an average extension of 7.18 feet during the regular season, which was second on the Rays to only Tyler Glasnow, and ranked in the leagues 98th percentile overall. Slegers was also one of the better pitchers in the league at both limiting hard contact and walks this season. Despite his success in the postseason, he was left off the teams World Series Roster in favor of Ryan Sherriff. Sherriff was added to the roster for the World Series to give the team another left-hander to throw at the Dodgers, who have performed much worse against left-handers this year and especially in the playoffs. Thompson, on the other hand, uses his extremely low release point to throw a completely different look at opposing lineups.
There are many more rookie relievers that have pitched out of the bullpen for the Rays in these playoffs. One of these relievers being Josh Fleming who, after having a sold regular season, has struggled in a limited sample this postseason allowing 2 earned runs in his 3 total innings pitched.
Another rookie reliever pitching out of the pen for the Rays this postseason is Pete Fairbanks. Fairbanks, a survivor of two Tommy John surgeries, pairs a triple digits fastball with a low-spin efficiency slider and an extremely bizarre delivery. After not recording a save during the regular season, Fairbanks has recorded three for the Rays so far this postseason.
After previously spending time with both the Twins and Angels organizations, John Curtiss had a breakout season for the Rays during the regular season this year. Despite allowing a high rate of hard contact, much of Curtiss’ regular season success was driven by his ability to limit the free passes. Despite struggling over his 6.2 innings this postseason, Curtiss did make a very impressive play during the American League Championship Series.
The Rays have used multiple rookie pitchers this postseason, few with better stories than Shane McClanahan. While there had previously only been two players in the history of Major League Baseball to make their debuts in the postseason prior to this year, there have been three such players this year. Alex Kiriloff of the Minnesota Twins and Ryan Weathers of the San Diego Padres both saw their teams make early postseason exits, but McClanahan got the opportunity to pitch in the American League Championship Series and is now on the Rays’ World Series Roster.
McClanahan was the Rays 31st overall pick in the 2018 draft out of the University of South Florida. He had the stuff, including a fastball that had been clocked up to 100 MPH, that had many projecting him as a very high first round pick prior to his final college season. He was pushed down teams draft boards prior to the draft however due to a number of concerns, including some surrounding his mechanics, durability and his command/control. The Rays selected his contract from the Alternative site on September 29th and he got his first Major League action during Game 1 of the American League Division Series on October 5th. Through the completion of the ALCS, McClanahan has made 3 appearances where he has pitched a total of 3.1 innings and has allowed 4 earned runs on 7 hits with 4 strikeouts and 2 walks.
Yoshi Tsutsugo was signed by the Rays as a free agent this past offseason. Tsutsugo was signed by the Rays after spending 10 seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League. In Japan he was mostly known for his prolific offensive numbers and had a very impressive 2016 season which saw him hit 45 homeruns and post an OPS north of 1.100. Despite being targeted mostly due to to his offense, Tsutsugo has struggled with the adjustment to the Major Leagues. Fortunately, he has showed good plate discipline this year and chased at pitches out of the strike zone at a much lower rate than league average. Tsutsugo was the victim of bad luck at the plate this season as he posted an exit velocity in the leagues 73rd percentile and a hard hit rate in the leagues 86th percentile but hit for a very low batting average on balls in play. The left-handed hitting utilityman hasn’t done much in his limited playing time so far this postseason, going only 2-13 with only a pair of singles up to this point.
Los Angeles Dodgers
While the Dodgers are known for their high payroll and star-packed roster, they still continue to be very impressive on the player development side of things. One of the Dodgers recent player development successes is certainly that of Dustin May. The Dodgers drafted May in the third round of the 2016 draft out of Northwest High School in Texas. As May has matured physically during his time in pro-ball, he has added a significant amount of fastball velocity and and has also seen an uptick in some of his secondary offerings. While people were unsure if May could stick in the rotation long-term during his time as an amateur, he is now a guy we should definitely get used to seeing pitching in the Dodgers rotation. While the rotation is likely his long-term outcome, the Dodgers have been using him in shorter bursts and as an opener this postseason, though this strategy has certainly raised many questions about the teams usage of him.
As May steadily progressed up through the Dodgers system, he was able to impress evaluators at each step along the way. He was impressive enough during his time in the minors that he was generally considered among the top prospects in all of baseball when he graduated from prospect eligibility this summer.
May’s most frequently used, and certainly his most known offering at this stage, is his sinker which he threw for over 50% of his total offerings this season. The pitch is at the top of the scale for sinkers in terms of both horizontal movement and velocity. The graph below shows the average horizontal movement and velocity for all Major League Pitchers sinkers in 2020, with the names displayed for those with the most horizontal movement on the pitch.
Again using visualizations from Michael Augustine, we can get a better look at how May is able to generate so much horizontal movement on his sinker.
Despite the combination of elite horizontal movement and high velocity, this pitch doesn’t generate nearly as many swings and misses as one would think and the pitch had an 11.4% whiff rate during the regular season this year.
The only other pitches May threw more than 10% of the time this season were his cutter and a curve ball. While the curve ball has an elite spin rate, he changed the tilt of the pitch this year and added over 3.5 MPH of average velocity to it. These changes make the pitch appear closer to a slider and allow it to play better off the other pitches his arsenal features. The curve ball features a spin efficiency closer to 50% (on the lower end for curve balls) and this lower spin efficiency allows some gyroscopic spin to impact the ball’s flight path and create the vertical break the pitch still features. The changes made to May’s curve ball this year appear to have worked as he was much more effective with the pitch overall this year compared to last. May is very good at tunneling all of his pitches off of one another and this makes it even more difficult on opposing hitters.
This postseason May has appeared in 7 games, starting 3 and appearing in 7.2 total innings. He hasn’t gone more than 2 innings in any outing, mostly by design, though the teams usage of him has raised many questions. While May’s number from this postseason overall look solid, he has struggled with his command at times and his control has also been an issue through the short sample as he has already walked 6 batters through his 7.2 innings pitched.
Another Dodgers rookie starter who has pitched for them this postseason is Tony Gonsolin. Gonsolin is another member of what is shaping up to look like an historically good 2016 draft class for the Dodgers. Gonsolin was the Dodgers 9th round selection that year and he was considered a back-end top-100 overall prospect by many outlets entering the season.
Gonsolin mixes a mid-90’s fastball with three separate offerings (splitter, slider and curve) that he used to generate swings and misses with over 40% of the time during the regular season. While Gonsolin has performed well during the regular season at the Major League Level thus far in his career, he has struggled in a short sample in the postseason. So far this postseason he has allowed 7 earned runs over his 6.1 innings pitched while walking 6.
The Dodgers have also gotten notable performances from some of the rookies in their bullpen this season and this October. Brusdar Graterol, who was traded to Los Angeles as part of the package that brought Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, has appeared in 6.2 innings out of the pen this postseason after having a solid 23.1 innings during the regular season. Graterol is essentially a two pitch pitcher with a fastball up to triple digits and a slider which he used to limit opposing hitters to .124 wOBA against during the regular season. Despite the high velocity, Graterol typically does fairly well at locating his pitches and he was able to locate 48% of his pitches in what Statcast defines as the shadow region of the zone during the regular season this year. It is generally believed optimal to locate pitches in this region and the rate he was locating pitches in this zone was much higher than the league average rate of 43%. Perhaps the reason for his ability to locate his fastball is the ease in which he is able to generate this velocity.
Perhaps the most surprising rookie performance out of the Dodgers bullpen this season has been that of Victor Gonzalez. Gonzalez, a 2012 International Free Agent signing by the Dodgers out of Mexico, had a steady climb through the ranks of the major leagues in which he battled multiple injuries, including a Tommy John Surgery that wiped out his entire 2017 season. He also struggled frequently during his early pro career and had to repeat multiple levels on the way as a result. Gonzalez had a breakout season in the minor leagues in 2019, one that put him back on the prospect radar and put him on the brink of the Major Leagues.
Gonzalez pitched 20.1 innings at the Major League Level during the regular season and was dominant, allowing only 3 earned runs and walking only 2 total batters. Through 3 innings so far this postseason he has allowed only 1 run and his biggest moment came during Game 1 of the NLCS.
The Dodgers also carried Edwin Rios and Matt Beaty on their NLCS Roster. While neither are full time regulars for the Dodgers at this point in time, Edwin Rios hit two home runs for the Dodgers during the National League Championship Series. Rios was the Dodgers 6th round draft pick in 2015 and has always been known for his power and he put up impressive power numbers during his time in the minor leagues. Beaty is another member of the Dodgers 2015 draft class and played sparingly during the League Championship Series. He likely won’t play much of a factor for the Dodgers in the World Series this year.
While many people may not be as familiar with many of the players on the Rays, both of these teams feature many young players that are exciting. These teams are both fun to watch and after a pair of thrilling league championship series, one can certainly get hyped for what this series has in store. While I ultimately believe the depth of the Dodgers will be too much for the Rays, I do believe this series will likely go 6 or 7 games.