It only seems like forever that Randy Arozarena has been a rookie, probably because MLB fans have watched him play in the past three postseasons.
Thanks to Arozarena earning MVP of the ALCS and having one of the hottest runs in postseason history for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2020, he became something of a household name more than a year before the BBWAA named him the Jackie Robinson AL Rookie of the Year on Monday night.
Fred Lynn, who won honors for top AL Rookie and league MVP in 1975, made the announcement, which floored Arozarena as he watched with his family remotely (including his newborn in his lap):
“It’s a blessing to be able to share this with my family, who’ve been there with me through ups and downs,” Arozarena said with the help of former major league Carlos Peña translating from Spanish.
By getting 22 of 30 first-place votes, Arozarena beat out Houston Astros right-hander Luís García, and Arozarena’s teammate, infielder Wander Franco, to become the fourth Rays player — after Wil Myers (2013), Jeremy Hellickson (2011) and Evan Longoria (2008) to be named top AL rookie.
Arozarena batted .274/.356/.459 with 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases, 94 runs scored and 69 RBIs, and finished with an average WAR of 3.2 among the respective formulas for Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus. He also was a finalist for the Gold Glove in left field. Here’s how he matched up with Franco and García:
Adolis Garcías of the Texas Rangers finished fourth after receiving three first-place votes — one more than Luís García or Franco. Right-hander Emmanuel Clase of Cleveland also received a first-place vote and finished fifth overall. Left-hander Shane McClanahan of the Rays got a second-place vote.
Arozarena’s biggest moment of the season probably came in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Red Sox when he hit a home run and stole home.
Nobody in history ever had made two trips to the postseason — much less three, as Arozarena did — before winning Rookie of the Year. Six others, most recently Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers when he won NL Rookie of the Year in 2016, came in with postseason experience the season before. (This doesn't count Sam Jethroe, who began his career in the Negro Leagues at age 21 in 1938, won a Negro World Series with the Cleveland Buckeyes in 1945, and won NL Rookie of the Year with the Boston Braves at age 33 in 1950.)
Postseason experience doesn't count against regular-season awards like Rookie of the Year; only time spent in the lineup and on the active roster does — as long as it happens before Sept. 1, when rosters can expand. As far as meeting rookie classification requirements, Arozarena came into 2021 with five games and 13 at-bats under his belt in months other than September, October and November — well short of the threshold of 130 at-bats (50 innings for pitchers), or a total of 45 days spent on the active roster.
Arozarena's actual experience in 2019 and 2020, regular season and playoffs, was 180 at-bats in total. But because almost all of it came in September and October, he was still eligible for Rookie of the Year in 2021. Theoretically, a player could be used this way in perpetuity and never exhaust their rookie status — but Arozarena won't be a rookie again in 2022.
The award was a long time in coming, as was Arozarena's route to the big leagues. Born in Cuba, he left in a boat for Mexico at age 20, just as he was beginning to establish himself in Cuban professional baseball. Arozarena said that, at the time, his dad had recently died and he wanted to provide for his family by playing in the United States, but rules insist Cuban defectors need to establish residency in a bridge country first. Mexico was closest, even if it took eight hours and required faring through 15-foot waves. Read the story by James Wagner in the New York Times for additional details on the Mexican part of Arozarena’s emotional journey to the U.S. and success with the Rays.
Arozarena made himself stand out among other potential prospects in Mexico, and the St. Louis Cardinals signed him for $1.25 million before the 2017 season. It was more money than Arozarena had ever seen, but it wasn’t the kind of jackpot that Cuban stars like Yoenis Céspedes, Aroldis Chapman and Luís Robert had gotten. Arozarena made his major league debut Aug. 14, 2019, a little more than four years after the boat ride to Mexico, when the Cardinals called him to Kauffman Stadium for a game against the Kansas City Royals. Arozarena went 2-for-4 with an RBI in a 6-0 victory.
The Cardinals returned Arozarena to the minors three days later but brought him back in September and he continued to leave a good impression, batting .300/.391/.500 in 23 plate appearances overall, which encouraged them to put him on the postseason roster. Arozarena never got more than one plate appearance in any of his NLDS or NLCS games. If only the Cardinals realized what kind of postseason performer they had sitting on the bench.
The Rays liked enough of what they saw to trade their top pitching prospect for Arozarena before the 2020 season. A positive COVID-19 test in July delayed his promotion until the final week of August, but it wasn’t long after that when Arozarena was playing daily and raking. A hot September segued into one of the hottest postseasons on record: .377/.442/.831 with 10 home runs in 20 playoff games, which helped him earn MVP of the ALCS. A great but also well-timed performance that allowed him to remain eligible for Rookie of the Year the next season.