What if I told you there used to be an award for Sophomore of the Year in Major League Baseball? Beginning in 1953, and discontinued due to lack of interest after the 1962 season, the award was given to the player who outperformed his counterparts during their second full season of action. After a promising rookie season from Anthony Volpe, the Yankees will be looking for him to take the next step. Is it common for Rookie of the Year vote-getters to perform just as well, if not better, in year two?
Cal Ripken Jr. won A.L. Rookie of the Year in 1982 and followed that up by winning MVP in 1983. He will be the namesake of this made-up, all-in-good fun, Sophomore of the Year award. To keep it simple, I will determine the hypothetical winners for the AL from the past handful of seasons. This is a one-man committee—me—now let’s have some fun.
We get off to a hot start with this list. José Abreu follows up his Rookie of the Year award by posting a 135 OPS+, collecting 30 HR and 101 RBI in the process. From a pitching perspective, Dellin Betances had an outstanding sophomore season with a 1.50 ERA over 84IP. Future All-Stars and MVPs littered this field, including strong seasons from George Springer and Xander Bogaerts.
Winner: Mookie Betts. It was a tough decision between him and Abreu. After only playing 52 games his rookie season, Betts finished the 2015 season Top 15 in the AL in fWAR and posted a .820 OPS while collecting down-ballet MVP votes. He can now add the Ripken Jr. next to his 2018 MVP.
This was a battle of the shortstops, and some years are just easier than others. Carlos Correa was Rookie of the Year in 2015, and put up similar numbers in 2016 (124 OPS+, .274 average, and 20 HR) but…
Winner: Francisco Lindor. His .301 BA and elite defense got him selected to his first All-Star game. He finished the season Top 10 in MVP voting and was awarded a Gold Glove. Not bad for a second-year shortstop.
I may have erased the Michael Fulmer 2016 ROY award from my memory, but it certainly happened. I was hoping we could get a pitcher into the mix, but 2017 will not be the year. This committee of one struggled to piece through these candidates. You have Gary Sánchez and his 33HR, an All-Star appearance, and a Silver Slugger award. You have the Gold Glove-winning season of Byron Buxton. And finally, you have the overall game of Alex Bregman.
Winner: I went with Bregman here. Sometimes you need to let fWAR do the talking, and Bregman just squeaked past the other two players in that category. He posted 39 doubles and a 125 OPS+ during his 2017 campaign. The home run crowd and Sánchez stans (of which there are probably few) might not be happy with my pick.
Andrew Benintendi put together a respectable sophomore season after finishing second behind Aaron Judge in Rookie of the Year voting the year prior. Benintendi hit .290 with a 123 OPS+ but I think we all know who the winner is.
Winner: Aaron Judge. Despite only playing 112 games he still hit 27HR and had a .392 OBP. He was Top 10 in fWAR amongst position players in the AL and finished with a 150 OPS+. Add the Ripken Jr. to the mantel.
Shohei Ohtani burst onto the scene in 2018, capturing the Rookie of the Year Award, but elbow surgery in 2018 and knee surgery in 2019 derailed his sophomore campaign. So with him off the board, who does that leave from the 2018 Rookie class? Gleyber Torres had a career year (All-Star selection, 38HR) and so did Ramón Laureano (.288 BA, 129 OPS+). But the long-awaited time for a pitcher has come.
Winner: Shane Bieber. He finished Top 4 in Cy Young award voting, backed by a 114 ERA+ and 259 strikeouts, eclipsing 200 IP in the process. He also led the sophomore class with a 5.4 fWAR. It would be a precursor to his Cy Young win the following year.
We start getting into funky territory over the next two seasons. The shortened 2020 season throws a wrench into some of the statistics, but MLB handed out awards so I will too. The 2019 Rookie of the Year was Yordan Álvarez, and even though he has blossomed into one of the elite power hitters in the game, he only appeared in two games in 2020 due to a knee injury. This left the door wide open for this award, and I think that door is still open. Not many candidates jumped off the page. It came down to players who were able to stay on the field for the majority of the season. Eloy Jiménez hit 14HR in 55 games, which led to a 139 OPS+. He won the Silver Slugger for his efforts.
Winner: Brandon Lowe. He finished top 10 in MVP voting after finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting the year prior. He matched Jiménez’s HR total of 14 while tallying an OPS of .916 over 56 games. He was top 10 in many major statistical categories among AL batters and finished with an fWAR of 2.3, also top 10 in the AL.
Kyle Lewis won Rookie of the Year in 2020 and then battled injuries that have derailed his career. That fact should set the tone for how this award was handed out for this season (reluctantly). The candidates were so unappetizing that I felt like I must be missing something. Luis Robert Jr. only played 68 games but hit 13 HR and 22 doubles. Sean Murphy’s offensive numbers were underwhelming but he was the best defensive catcher in the A.L.
Winner: Let’s go with Murphy here. He led AL catchers with 10 defensive runs saved and his pitch framing ranked at the top of American League catchers. I’m glad a catcher with a great defensive skillset snuck his way onto this list.
But seriously am I missing someone here?
I was worried that pitchers were not getting enough love for this award until I stumbled upon the candidates for 2022. If 2016 was a battle of the shortstops then 2022 was the year of the pitcher. Randy Arozarena took home the Rookie of the Year in 2021 but it was three pitchers who also received votes—Alek Manoah, Shane McClanahan, and Emmanual Clase—who shined in year two. There can only be one winner though.
Winner: Alek Manoah. In the end, it wasn’t a very difficult decision. Manoah made 31 starts and posted a 172 ERA+ and 180 strikeouts in 196.2IP. It was good for a Top 3 Cy Young finish and one of the better sophomore seasons by a pitcher in MLB history.
Our final Ripken Jr. award comes down to two budding superstars who battled it out for Rookie of the Year honors in 2022: Julio Rodríguez (1st) and Adley Rutschman (2nd). Rodríguez smacked 32 HR and stole 37 bases to go along with his 103 RBI. He was selected to his second straight All-Star game, won a Silver Slugger award, and cemented himself as one of the best players in baseball. Rutschman hit 31 doubles with a 127 wRC+. His 5.1 fWAR was good for Top 15 in the American League and the Orioles have certainly found a stalwart behind the plate for years to come.
Winner: Julio Rodríguez. You don’t finish Top 4 in MVP voting and in fWAR (5.9) for nothing.
Will Gunnar Henderson repeat his success in 2024 to take home this completely fictional award, or will someone like Volpe emerge to take home the crown? Only time will tell.