Examining the best debuts in baseball history, as well as two rookies off to impressive starts
Baseball fans have witnessed an offensive explosion this season, as the league is on pace to shatter the record for most home runs in a single season. The men at the front of the pack, however, are not the veteran sluggers that fans are accustomed to seeing.
Yankees RF Aaron Judge and Dodgers OF/1B Cody Bellinger are two rookies enjoying phenomenal debuts, and their selections to the AL and NL All-Star teams (and participation in Monday night's Home Run Derby, which Judge won) are just the beginning of what should be many accolades to come.
Judge can be found among the leaders in just about every offensive category, including tops in MLB in home runs (30), slugging (.691) and on-base percentage (.448). He also leads the AL in walks (61), is second in RBIs (66), and third in batting average (.329). But it's his prodigious home runs that have gotten a lot of the attention, whether it's for exit velocity or the distance traveled or both, including this blast from June 11. His power shouldn't take away from the fact that he's currently on pace to shatter Albert Pujols’ rookie record for OPS (Judge: 1.139, Pujols: 1.013).
#Statcast (@statcast) June 11, 2017
Bellinger’s numbers hardly pale in comparison to his AL counterpart. The son of former Yankees and Angels utility-man Clay Bellinger, Cody's 25 home runs are one behind NL co-leaders Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto and his .619 slugging percentage trails only Votto in the Senior Circuit. Possibly the most telling sign of Bellinger’s impact on the Dodgers is Los Angeles’ 52-18 (.743) record since his debut on April 25, the best in baseball over that span.
With both reaching the All-Star break at a torrent pace, we ask the question: where do these two rookie seasons stack up among the best rookie seasons of all time?
One disclaimer: although some of the best rookie seasons ever produced occurred nearly a century ago, it is extremely difficult to compare seasons and performances across eras, especially those separated by such long spans of time. So for the extent of this exercise, the cutoff was set after the end of World War II, especially with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and integrating the game just two years later (incidentally, the same year the Rookie of the Year award was introduced). This still leaves with more than 70 years' worth of baseball history to compare, with each passing season only adding to the richness of America’s pastime.
Here are the six greatest rookies seasons in MLB history:
6. Mark McGwire, 1B, Oakland A’s (1987)
Long before any notion or rumor of steroid allegations would seep into the conversation about McGwire, he was a feared hitter as soon as his career began. His rookie season with Oakland in 1987 saw him hit .289 and slug an impressive .618, the latter of which led the league as he compiled a .988 OPS.
Speaking of leading the league, McGwire’s 49 home runs not only were best in the AL (tied Andre Dawson for best in MLB), but that figure stands today as the most by a rookie in a single season. Judge (30 at the break) and Bellinger (25) both could threaten that mark.
5. Mike Piazza, C, Los Angeles Dodgers (1993)
Piazza made his presence at the plate felt in a variety of ways. While he hit .318 with a .932 OPS in 1993 with the Dodgers, Piazza also showed a power-patience combination that is rare in today’s sluggers. He hit 35 home runs with 112 RBIs while walking 46 times compared to 86 strikeouts. His numbers that season were good enough to win the first of his 10 career Silver Slugger awards.
4. Ichiro Suzuki, CF, Seattle Mariners (2001)
This one comes with a bit of a qualifier, as Ichiro spent the first nine seasons of his professional career with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan. Seattle welcomed the then-27-year-old with open arms in 2001, and he rewarded their confidence by putting together one of the best all-around seasons in baseball history.
Not only did Ichiro win the AL Rookie of the Year award, he was an All-Star, the Gold Glove recipient in center field, and AL MVP. He and Fred Lynn are the only players to win a Gold Glove, be named Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.
3. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals (2001)
Pujols made quite the debut with the Cardinals, finishing this 2001 season with 194 hits, including 37 home runs while batting .329. He drove in 130 runs and posted a 1.013 OPS, the highest for a rookie since Ted Williams’ 1.045 in 1939. (Judge is currently on pace to break that with a 1.136 OPS at the break.).
The unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year, Pujols also made his first All-Star team, won the first of his six Silver Slugger awards and finished fourth in the MVP voting. It was the first of 11 straight seasons with Cardinals in which he would wind up in the top 10 for the award, including winning it in 2005, ’08 and ’09.
2. Fred Lynn, CF, Boston Red Sox (1975)
Lynn not only had one of the best rookie seasons in 1975, he had one of the best seasons period. The 23-year-old led the AL in (103) and doubles (47), breaking the rookie record previously held by Cleveland’s Hal Trosky. Lynn also amassed a league-best .967 OPS, helped by his .566 slugging percentage, which also was tops in the AL. Lynn is one of only six players to post a WAR of 7.4 or better as a rookie, joining Shoeless Joe Jackson, Benny Kauff, Dick Allen, Ichiro and Mike Trout.
The Gold Glove recipient in center field with a .983 fielding percentage, Lynn also won the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, making him the first ever to claim that trifecta.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels (2012)
Trout took the league by storm in 2012 after struggling in his brief debut the previous season as a 19-year-old. The 2009 first-round pick from New Jersey capitalized on all his potential by batting .326 with 30 home runs and an AL-best 49 stolen bases. He’s the only rookie to ever post a 30/30 season.
The league leader with 129 runs scored while posting an impressive .963 OPS, Trout was the unanimous choice for AL Rookie of the Year and finished second in MVP voting to Miguel Cabrera. In his first five seasons, Trout has finished no worse than second for the award, claiming it outright in 2014 and ’16. Trout posted an impressive offensive WAR of 8.6 as a rookie, a number he has eclipsed in each subsequent season, establishing himself as the game’s best all-around player in the process.
As previously mentioned, comparing seasons across a span of more than a half century is extremely difficult and can be biased towards more recent players. With that in mind, here are a few players who stood out and, due to era of play or simply by barely missing the cut on performance, have their own space before the comparisons begin.
Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox (2014)
Hit .317 with 36 home runs and 107 RBIs, while slugging a league-leading .581. He was named an All-Star, won the AL Rookie of the Year and Silver Slugger for AL first basemen, and finished in fourth in MVP voting.
Joe DiMaggio, CF, New York Yankees (1936)
He collected 206 hits to finish with a .323 batting average, along with 125 RBIs and a AL-leading 15 triples. He also made the first of 13 consecutive All-Star teams in as many seasons, even though his career was interrupted by his military service during World War II (1943-45).
Ted Williams, LF, Boston Red Sox (1939)
Hit .327 with 31 home runs and an AL-best 145 RBIs. He posted an OPS of 1.045, the first of 17 consecutive seasons with a number more than 1.000. He also finished fourth in the AL MVP voting, something he did nine times in his 19-year career, including winning it twice (1946, ’49) and being the runner-up four times.