15 players emerging as 2nd-year standouts

Detroit Tigers

It’s not easy for rookies to hit the ground running — and that has been especially true the last couple of years.

With the Minor League season canceled in 2020 and shortened in ’21, plus a spate of big league injuries accelerating the timetables of various prospects, one can understand if players need a few more innings or at-bats before they truly find their comfort zone.

So it’s more important than ever to pay attention to MLB’s “sophomore” class, if you will. And that’s what we aim to do with this list of second-year standouts.

The following players all exceeded their rookie limits in 2021 with performances that did not garner any Rookie of the Year ballot support. But in ’22, they have emerged to make a bigger impact. Note that in cases in which a team has multiple super sophomores, we went with the guy who best illustrates improvement.

Tarik Skubal, LHP, Tigers
In his first 181 1/3 big league innings across the 2020-21 seasons, Skubal wasn’t consistent enough to live up to the hype that preceded his arrival. But all those glowing things said about him as a prospect have been proven true in a ’22 season in which he’s in the American League Cy Young Award conversation. Skubal has a 2.33 ERA, 164 ERA+ and 0.94 WHIP in 65 2/3 innings over 11 starts, thanks in large part to harnessing his command. The Tigers have also gotten big outs from second-year reliever Alex Lange.

Jazz Chisholm Jr., 2B, Marlins
Chisholm has become a must-watch player. He plays the game with enthusiasm and swagger. And after 2020 and 2021 seasons in which his offensive impact was muted, he’s really turned on the power in ’22. His .559 slugging percentage following play on Friday leads all second basemen (Jose Altuve’s .515 mark ranks second). Chisholm is a dynamic defender, too.

Logan Gilbert, RHP, Mariners
It was a pretty big deal when Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic got the call to the big leagues in May 2021, seemingly ushering in a new era for the M’s. But Kelenic endured tremendous trouble at the plate, which continued into this year, and Gilbert’s 4.68 ERA and 90 ERA+ were indicative of a pitcher who simply needed to make adjustments. We’ve seen that this year. Gilbert’s slider and changeup have been much more effective weapons at limiting damage this year — and that’s helped him go 6-2 with a 2.41 ERA and 155 ERA+. Also, outfielder Taylor Trammell, a former Top 100 prospect who struggled at the plate and suffered a hamstring injury last year, is off to a nice start (.841 OPS) after being summoned to replace the demoted Kelenic.

Jonah Heim, C, Rangers
Heim spent seven years in the Minors, bouncing around from the Orioles to the Rays to the A’s before landing with the Rangers. He played and hit sparingly in 2021, with a .196/.239/.358 slash line to show for it. But this year, he seized the regular catching duties and has been the club’s best hitter, posting a .262/.324/.485 slash. He’s also owned Shohei Ohtani. The Rangers have another super sophomore in closer Joe Barlow (2.21 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 11 saves), but he also pitched really well out of their ‘pen in his rookie season.

Andrew Vaughn, OF, White Sox
Starter and early Cy Young candidate Michael Kopech (1.94 ERA) is also deserving of being listed here. But even though he didn’t factor into the rookie voting, Kopech was an important bullpen piece for a division winner last year. Vaughn, meanwhile, struggled last season. Not only did the White Sox carry the third overall pick in the 2019 Draft on Opening Day after just 212 professional at-bats, but they also asked Vaughn to play left field for the first time to account for the absence of Eloy Jimenez. It all proved to be too much too soon for Vaughn, who was below league average at the plate and graded out poorly in the outfield. But while the defense is very much a work in progress, no one ever doubted his hit tool — and this year Vaughn’s plus bat-to-ball skills and power have shone through, with a .291/.346/.482 slash, six homers and nine doubles.

Trevor Larnach, OF, Twins
The 20th overall pick in the 2018 Draft, Larnach made his debut in 2021 and played in 79 games, striking out in more than a third of his 301 plate appearances and not hitting for much power. This year, the 25-year-old Larnach is not being fooled by quite as many breaking and offspeed pitches. He’s slashing .258/.331/.477 to carve out a regular role in the Twins’ outfield. The defensive metrics are split on Larnach (Outs Above Average rates in the 40th percentile, but he’s tied for second among MLB outfielders with nine defensive runs saved), but his four outfield assists have definitely helped. Overall, Larnach’s improvement has helped the Twins take a commanding position in the AL Central.

Alejandro Kirk, C, Blue Jays
Kirk’s high-contact bat was a source of fascination briefly during his 2020 debut, but he kind of faded into the background on the Blue Jays last year, when he had a .242/.328/.436 slash as a catcher/DH hybrid. Kirk started slowly this year, but lately he’s been a monster at the plate — building an All-Star case with a .327/.407/.484 slash overall while logging the majority of his time behind the plate.

Owen Miller, 1B/2B, Guardians
Miller’s bat-to-ball skills were highly touted before his arrival in the big leagues last summer. But he was overmatched in his first 202 plate appearances, with a .204/.243/.309 slash. It’s been a much different story this year, as Miller’s explosive April performance (1.166 OPS, two homers, nine doubles) helped the Guards’ offense get off to a better-than-expected start. Miller, 25, has cooled since then, but he’s regularly hit in the cleanup spot — and his .306/.372/.556 slash in what Baseball Reference labels high-leverage situations has been crucial for this club. Though we limited ourselves to no more than one entry per team, Cleveland is loaded with sophomore standouts. Starter Triston McKenzie and relievers Sam Hentges and Eli Morgan have all been impactful on the pitching staff.

Tylor Megill, RHP, Mets
An eight-run implosion in 1 1/3 innings against the Nationals in his last start before hitting the injured list with right biceps inflammation had Megill’s overall 2022 numbers (4.41 ERA, 91 ERA+) looking similar to what he posted in 2021 (4.52 ERA, 90 ERA+) — and that remained roughly the same following his outing against the Angels after his activation from the IL (4.50 ERA, 89 ERA+). But you can’t tell the story of the first-place Mets without mentioning Megill’s terrific work for a rotation in need. He went 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA in April and pitched the first five innings of a combined no-no against the Phillies.

William Contreras, C, Braves
We already had a pretty good-hitting catcher named Contreras in the big leagues in the form of William’s brother, Willson. But hey, what’s one more? The younger Contreras is making a name for himself in Atlanta, seizing the opportunity that arrived when veteran signee Manny Piña got hurt. Contreras has slashed .289/.366/.651 to become more than just a backstop backup.

J.P. Feyereisen, RHP, Rays
Though Feyereisen quickly became an impact piece in the Rays’ bullpen after he was acquired from the Brewers midseason last year, he reached another, darn-near-untouchable level this year. In 24 1/3 innings over 22 appearances, the mustachioed 29-year-old with the rising fastball didn’t allow so much as an earned run while posting a ridiculous 0.49 WHIP and striking out 29.1% of opposing batters. Unfortunately, a shoulder impingement recently landed him on the injured list, but an MRI revealed no structural damage.

Keegan Akin, LHP, Orioles
Drafted, developed and debuted as a starter, the 27-year-old Akin has found his first Major League success as a key member of a much-improved Baltimore bullpen. Last year, in 24 appearances that included 17 starts, he was roughed up for a 6.63 ERA. This year, in 35 2/3 innings exclusively out of the ‘pen, he’s put up a 2.02 ERA and 0.84 WHIP — while holding opponents to a 31.6% hard-hit rate. They’re batting just .077 against his slider.

Ha-Seong Kim, SS, Padres
As a pinch-hitter and utility guy, Kim labored at the plate in his first year in the States in 2021 (.202/.270/.352 slash). He hasn’t fared much better this year (.219/.300/.348). The difference — and the reason Kim is worth including here — is that he’s been locked into a regular role, filling in for the injured Fernando Tatis Jr. at short. It’s an important responsibility, to say the least, and Kim’s five Outs Above Average are tied for third in MLB at the position. That’s why he has been worth 1.2 BWAR — the third-highest mark among second-year players. Colombian-born reliever Nabill Crismatt has also been an important sophomore piece for the Padres.

Keegan Thompson, RHP, Cubs
Thompson’s rookie year was not bad at all. He made 32 appearances, including six starts, and posted a 3.38 ERA and 127 ERA+ in 53 1/3 innings. But he had a 7.11 ERA over the final six weeks, and his 12.8% walk rate was among the worst in the league. In 2022, the 27-year-old Thompson has tamed the walks (7.8%) and, despite an ugly start in Baltimore this past week, has put up better numbers – a 3.17 ERA and 134 ERA+ in 48 1/3 innings over 13 appearances, including five starts. Sidearm-tossing sophomore reliever Scott Effross has also been an important piece of the pitching staff.

Aaron Ashby, LHP, Brewers
The nephew of two-time All-Star Andy Ashby has a 96-mph sinker with a plus curve and change. Pitching predominantly out of the bullpen last year, he had some trouble harnessing the potential that comes with that repertoire on a consistent basis. But with seven starts among his 13 appearances this year, Ashby has helped fill the rotation void left by the injured Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff and posted a 3.91 ERA and 107 ERA+ in 50 2/3 innings overall. He’s held opponents to a 24.6% hard-hit rate while striking out 27.7% of batters faced.

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