Tyler Mahle’s six inning, one hit shutout performance against the Cubs on Monday has Reds fans everywhere dreaming big about this young man. But let’s take that dream even further and ask the question: “Can he win NL Rookie of the Year this season?” It’s not uncommon for pitchers to win the award. In the last seven years, three pitchers have taken the crown in the NL and two more in the AL.
The last pitcher to win NL ROY was New York’s Jacob deGrom in 2014, a season in which he went 9-6 with a 2.69 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 140.1 innings. The late, great Jose Fernandez won the award in 2013 with a 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings. Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, although a reliever, won the award in 2011. In 77 innings, he had a 2.10 ERA and 127 strikeouts to go with 46 saves.
In each of those three years, the winning pitcher deserved the award, but there wasn’t a lot of competition. Fernandez and Yasiel Puig battled it out in 2013, but Fernandez, with a WAR of 6.7, pitched ridiculously well. deGrom won over Billy Hamilton — you may have heard of him — in 2014, and despite Hamilton’s 56 stolen bases, deGrom was the clear winner that year.
This season, however, Mahle will be facing some tough competition with the other rookies in the league, including his own teammate. Jesse Winker is a legitimate candidate. Then we have players like Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson, Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff, Rockies first baseman Ryan McMahon, Phillies shortstop J.P. Crawford and second baseman Scott Kingery. All seven are on MLB’s Top 100 prospects list.
Of course, this doesn’t include the top prospects who are not with teams now, but will likely be later in the season due to service time, including Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna, Nationals outfielder Victor Robles, and Cincinnati’s own highly regarded Nick Senzel (author’s note: I think Senzel will be a contender for the award in 2019). Lots of candidates for 2018 NL ROY, but way too early to narrow it down to a couple of players.
So what kind of a 2018 performance would it take for Mahle to be the first Reds ROY winner since Scott Williamson in 1999? All three pitchers who recently won the award struck out more than 100 batters. Narrowing it down to just the two starters, deGrom and Fernandez, we see both pitchers had an ERA under three and more strikeouts than innings pitched. Using that as the baseline, Mahle’s past numbers would suggest he can achieve that — though it remains to be seen if he can replicate those numbers against big league pitchers. Early returns, however, are good.
In 2017, Mahle pitched 20.0 innings at the major league level, giving up 19 hits and six earned runs while walking 11 and striking out 14. Sure, it’s a limited sample size, but from what he showed, he was impressive. Fans already knew what he was capable of if they followed him throughout the minors. At Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville, Mahle had a 2.06 ERA in 144.1 innings, giving up only 33 earned runs, including nine home runs, while striking out 138.
Based on Mahle’s stats from the minors, it’s very possible he could be a contender for ROY, assuming the Reds don’t shut him down at some point in the second half of the season. Twice he has pitched more than 150 innings in a season, once at Single-A and once at Double-A. Last year, he pitched about 160 innings between the minors and the Reds. Mahle is not a stranger to pitching a lot of innings, but if he’s approaching the 160 inning mark, the team might put an innings limit on him. However, even if Mahle pitches only 140 innings and he’s half as dominant as Fernandez was in 2013, that’ll be a pretty darn good season, and one that might just nab him that award.