Both have started out of the gates, in their rookie seasons, by tearing it up and making a legitimate case to contend for the coveted National League Rookie of the Year award.
The Padres don’t have a long history with the award like the division rival Dodgers do (18 total winners; the all-time best), but they have had two winners in the past. The first was relief pitcher Butch Metzger, who was out of the league two years after his rookie season. The second winner is more well-known; Benito Santiago, who is arguably the best catcher in Padres history, was the winner of the 1987 award.
Benito put up a .300/.324/.467 slash line with 18 home runs and 79 RBI, while also contributing elite defense with one of the strongest arms from behind the plate in modern baseball history. He ended up playing six full seasons for the boys in brown, and over the course of his 20-season playing career, collected 1830 hits (217 of which were home runs) as well as collecting three Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers for his work as a catcher.
Whether Lucchesi and Villanueva will follow as successes like Santiago remains to be seen in the coming seasons, but for now, the focus is on their current success as rookies.
Joey Lucchesi began his professional career with little fanfare as a 4th-round draft pick out of Southeast Missouri State University. Not known for producing many draft prospects, the only other major leaguer to come from there is Kerry Robinson, who had a short-lived career with the Cardinals. He soon began to turn heads in his first pro campaign, as he pitched to a 1.29 ERA over 42 innings pitched, the majority of which came with the Tri-City Dust Devils. The more phenomenal part is that he struck out 56 hitters and only walked three of them, which amounts to a ridiculous 18.6 K/BB ratio. Numbers like that are only seen in video games, and a 0.81 WHIP and zero home runs allowed show he was able to limit good contact as well as miss bats.
Despite his phenomenal performance, he was still extremely overshadowed in an organization with arms like Cal Quantrill, Eric Lauer, Logan Allen, and Anderson Espinoza. To make matters worse for him, the Padres added three more top-level amateur arms in the next year; MacKenzie Gore, Adrian Morejon, and Michel Baez were all drafted or signed as international free agents and all rank currently in the top 100 prospects in baseball. But none of this seemed to distract Lucchesi, as he went out in 2017 posting a 2.20 ERA across 139 innings split between A-ball and Double-A, with 148 strikeouts and 33 walks, which pales in comparison to his previous year’s numbers, but is still extremely good, especially for a young pitcher.
This performance, to go along with his excellent job in spring training 2018, seemed to put him in the good graces of upper management, as they placed him directly on the Opening Day roster (after a day in El Paso), skipping the Triple-A level entirely, which is rare for even the most prestigious prospects. Lucchesi’s age definitely played a role in this, but this does show that A.J. Preller has confidence in Lucchesi’s ability to succeed at the major league level without the extra seasoning at Triple-A. So far in his young MLB career, he has followed through on that promise that he has shown in his brief professional career. For starters, his 2.78 ERA leads all qualified rookie pitchers, and he is top three in both innings pitched and strikeouts, with 32.1 and 35 respectively.
Over a full season, that would total 173.1 innings pitched and 189 strikeouts; numbers like that compare very favorably to past MLB Rookie of the Year winners who were pitchers. Current aces like Jacob deGrom and Michael Fulmer had much lower numbers in both categories in their debut seasons, and neither can top Lucchesi’s current 9.7 K/9 or his sterling 3.5 K/BB marks. Only deGrom can claim a lower ERA, and even then it was hardly a big difference, sporting a 2.69 ERA over 22 starts.
Nonetheless, looking at the past competition won’t help much if this year’s competition is tough. As it stands, Lucchesi’s biggest competition for NL pitchers include Cincinnati’s Tyler Mahle (10.3 K/9 and a 4.32 ERA that is sure to lower once his crazy 21.9% HR/FB rate stabilizes), Walker Buehler (1.80 ERA through two starts, and a highly touted prospect from the Dodgers’ system that has produced the past two NL ROY winners), and Alex Reyes/Mitch Keller, both top prospects who are currently in the minors, but have electric arms. Whether Reyes is put back in the rotation and can succeed in that role will play a big part in his part of the ROY conversation.
Christian Villanueva has had a completely different professional career, as he signed as an international amateur free agent out of Mexico in 2008 by the Texas Rangers, but was soon blocked by former top prospect Mike Olt, and saw himself shipped to the still rebuilding Chicago Cubs along with Kyle Hendricks in exchange for Ryan Dempster at the 2012 trade deadline. He never really stood out as a top prospect, and his minor league numbers never stood out above the crowd; he was what most people would call a fringe prospect. Per Minor League Ball, he had good defense to go with decent pop and bat-to-ball skills. None of those things was a knock on Villanueva; it showed a balanced player, but also not very exciting.
When the Cubs drafted uber-prospect Kris Bryant out of nearby USD, Villanueva was blocked once again and back to square one. Villanueva would float between Double-A and Triple-A for the next three seasons until after 2015, he was non-tendered by the Cubs and given the opportunity to choose his next home. He eventually signed a minor league deal with the Padres and spent the 2017 season with El Paso, where he proceeded to have his best season yet and tore the cover off the ball, as evidenced by his .528 slugging percentage. But he wasn’t just an all-or-nothing slugger, as he carried an average of .296, and got on base at a clip of .369, while only striking out 83 times. His walks were just a tad low at 43, but that’s getting meticulous for an otherwise fantastic season that also included 20 bombs.
He would make his major league debut in September, about nine years after he signed with the Rangers (quite the difference from Lucchesi) and continued to crush the ball, putting up an OPS over 1.000. Turning the calendar over to 2018, Villanueva knocked every spring training pitcher out of the park and made the team despite steep odds and established veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, like Chase Headley and Cory Spangenberg. So far in the regular season, Villanueva has been the most exciting rookie to watch in MLB so far in the young season, as he continues to put on a hitting clinic for all the young boys and girls in San Diego every game. Just a quick little rundown of how he is performing so far; he currently leads the National League in slugging percentage (.707), leads all rookies in homers (9), RBI (20), and OPS (1.112), and leads all NL rookies in batting average (.317).
With numbers like those, it will be hard for anyone to stand a chance against him in ROY voting if he keeps his pace up, and certainly has many Padres fans excited for his future. And for a city with such a large Mexican population, he could be the next big Padre to come from our neighbors to the south since Adrian Gonzalez (although Adrian wasn’t actually born in Mexico). So far, Villanueva’s biggest competition in terms of rookie hitters are Cincinnati’s Jesse Winker (.313 average), San Diego’s own Franchy Cordero (6 HR), and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. (OPS of 1.231 through first six games, consensus number two prospect).