The story (if there has to be one story) of the 2015 MLB season has been, to many who follow the game, the infusion of youth and its impact. Both the American and National Leagues have produced several strong, young candidates for various awards, but the National League has one of the best story lines in two supremely heralded prospects, both of whom were brought up at the beginning of the year. The headline matchup to which I’m referring? Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant for the Rookie of the Year award. Both players have come into their own in short and decisive fashion, setting the bars for their futures quite high, even if they have cooled from their stellar All-Star levels. Each show an advanced approach and powerful batted balls when they do manage to make contact. But even throwing other position players and pitchers like Noah Syndergaard aside, a third potential challenger for the ROY award has quietly emerged. His name: Randal Grichuk.

Infamously picked one spot ahead of Mike Trout in the 2009 draft, the outfielder has managed to post a batting line that makes his case for him. His playing time has been limited, but in terms of rate stats, the numbers are there. The triple-slash as of August 5: .291/.341/.571. The operative number here being that whopping 571. If Randal had more than the 267 appearances that he’s managed to rack up from a combination of Matt Holiday’s injuries in June and July, and his trade-mate Peter Bourjos’s continued lackluster play, he would be ranked 8th in slugging percentage among qualified hitters.

This production has been propped up by a series of white-hot weeks, including the first after the all-star break in which he cleared the fences of Busch four times in seven games played. It goes further though, being also constituted of seven triples and nineteen doubles. Even if you throw Grichuk into the deep end and compare his XBHs against those who have been playing all season and who have near-or-above 400 PAs to his 243, he ties for 22nd with 38 in the NL. Joc Pederson ranks one spot ahead with 39 (in 428 PAs) and Kris Bryant trails with 34 (32nd in the NL over 417 PAs). If you project Grichuk’s figure against the NL’s category leader (Todd Frazier’s) 446 appearances, Grichuk would come up with 61 on the season, good for first on the leaderboard.

Which is all to say that Grichuk hits the ball for outstanding power, something that the Fox Sports Midwest crew has said influenced the team’s desire for him to be included in the David Freese/Fernando Salas trade. The underlying statistics on Grichuk do suggest some cause for concern, however. The major stat that your average Cub, Pirate (or really any other-Cardinal-hating-team’s) fan will point out to say the numbers aren’t sustainable is his astronomical BABIP. It currently sits at .387, good for sixth-highest in the majors with the minimum PA set to 250.

Of course, like many on this leaderboard, Grichuk possesses the kind of hard-hit average and exit velocity to believe that this is at least somewhere in the realm of sustainability. His Hard%, per FanGraphs, is 37.3%, good for 23rd in the majors and his average exit velocity is 94.8mph, per MLB’s Statcast, and good for fifth in all of baseball. Both figures show that Grichuk is perhaps one of those players who will post aberrational numbers in the batted ball category. There’s also his above-average speed on the base-paths to consider, something that has propelled many speedsters to great BABIP heights in years past. This year’s leader in the category, Dee Gordon, is one example of the role this factor can play, although clearly Grichuk and Gordon are still vast distances apart in foot-speed if we get down to it.

The comparison to Pederson and Bryant is interesting because each player seems to compare favorably to one another. Pederson is the big pop, big walk, Adam Dunn descendent; Bryant has the cerebral, patient approach; Grichuk possesses an over-eager, swing-at-it-like-it-owes-you strategy. Some worthwhile stats to compare between Pederson, Grichuk, and Bryant, respectively: Walk %: 14.2, 6.2, 13.2. Strikeout %: 29.3, 30.9, 30.4. ISO: .236, .277, .198. So in a general sense all three are similar (excepting Grichuk’s allergy to the walk), although their payouts in terms of power output are quite disparate; the most heralded “power guy” of the three, Bryant, lacks the most out of the group, although his numbers there are still respectable. To sum up their production thus far in 2015, here are the three’s WRC+ posted in order of Pederson, Grichuk, and Bryant: 121, 150, 126.

The ultimate test for Grichuk will be to amass the requisite 4.2 PAs per game required to reach 500 plate appearances and qualify for the batting title over the last 56 games the Cardinals will play in 2015. This would seem to be the easiest way to quiet potential sample-size critics, although we have to look no farther back than 2013’s AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and his 335 PAs or Buster Posey’s 406 in 2010 to see that the right candidate can assuage these misgivings. When confronted with the hype machines around the aforementioned contenders, though, one can see how important this milestone could be to Grichuk.

The test gets tougher when you consider that he will have to maintain not only his outstanding level of play, but his role as an everyday center fielder. Since moving to that position, Grichuk’s defensive numbers have been above-average with a DRS of +6 and no errors made. The sample couldn’t be much smaller, of course, but the tools are all there between the right-field-caliber arm and the above-average speed. The emergence of Stephen Piscotty as a possible fixture in left field and the defensive reputation of Peter Bourjos in center, though, does make one nervous about Grichuk’s chances to take enough trips to the plate to amass the arbitrary PAs outlined above. Grichuk has only finished 14 of the 23 games he’s started in center and while earlier in the season he may have been put into Holiday’s spot in left, he’s now confronted with much more able competition at that spot and inside competition for his job in center, at least late in games when Mike Matheny may opt to sell out for defense.

The major caveat is that Grichuk has posted these numbers in a smaller sample than that of Pederson and Bryant, and time has indeed taken a toll on the latter two as they’ve both seen pronounced dips in their production as the season has worn on. This could be one possible outcome for Grichuk as well, to be sure. It’s just that so far he has seemed oblivious to the strain of prolonged playing time, despite his relative lack of patience and the proliferation of strikeouts. The fact that he is within eight one-hundredths of Pederson and fourteen of Bryant in OBP is quite telling of how far down that list the April favorites have fallen and how steady Grichuk has proven to be throughout the summer doldrums.

The race, then, has become not only between who can hit the most dingers or take the most bases on balls in the National League (both of which being prime categories for award-voters), but also the one between Grichuk and the ticking clock of summer’s end. The more high-scoring, lineup-churning games that the Cardinals can play the better for their emerging rookie. The counting stats will probably never quite reach the heights set by the Dodger and Cub position-player candidates, but based solely on rates, this fall could feature a photo-finish from many angles. The question now becomes whether one of the preseason picks will pick up their game to match Grichuk’s, or if the latter can simply maintain his torrid hitting through August and September, all while managing to get enough plate appearances to make the conversation worth having.

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