The best rookie seasons of all time

June, 28, 2014
Jun 28
8:01
AM ET


The reason for doing this piece should be pretty obvious: Masahiro Tanaka is 11-2 with a 2.11 ERA, leading the American League in wins and ERA. He's not just the clear best rookie so far but a Cy Young and MVP contender.

Tanaka makes his 16th start on Saturday and his consistency has perhaps been his most impressive attribute. He's pitched at least six innings each start and allowed more than three runs just once, a four-run game against the Cubs in May. He's allowed more hits than innings three times and has reached double-digit strikeouts in five starts, second-most in the majors only to David Price. His splitter has been as good -- or better -- than advertised, as opponents are hitting .119 against it with one home run (his first pitch of the season, actually).

Of course, some don't like to call him a rookie considering his years of experience in Japan, but he's a rookie under MLB rules. We're just about at the halfway point and Tanaka has earned 4.1 Wins Above Replacement via Baseball-Reference. Double that and you get 8.2, and only one rookie pitcher since the lively ball era began in 1920 has been worth more.

More on that guy later. Let's take a look at some of the great rookie seasons ever since 1901.

The MVPs: Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners (7.7 WAR), and Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox (7.4 WAR)
Suzuki and Lynn rank fourth and fifth on the all-time rookie list for WAR among position players, if we consider Joe Jackson a rookie in 1911. Did both deserve their awards? Suzuki ranked fourth in the AL in WAR, behind Jason Giambi (9.1), teammate Bret Boone (8.8) and Alex Rodriguez (8.4). I always thought Boone deserved MVP honors that year, hitting .331 while driving in a league-leading 141 runs. Of course, one reason he drove in 141 was Ichiro getting on in front of him. There's no doubt Ichiro had the "wow" factor that year and was so unique -- this little guy playing small ball in the middle of the steroids era -- that everyone fell in love with him.

Lynn hit .331 with 21 home runs and 105 RBIs, leading the league in slugging percentage, runs and doubles and winning a Gold Glove for his defense in center. Baseball-Reference has Rod Carew (7.8 WAR) better, but you can't argue with Lynn getting MVP honors considering the numbers are close and the Red Sox won the AL East while the Twins finished under .500.

The should-have-been MVP: Mike Trout, 2012 Angels (10.8 WAR)
Not to rehash old wounds, but Trout's rookie season WAR is easily the best ever for a rookie position player -- and one of the best ever no matter the experience level. He hit .326/.399/.564 with 30 home runs, 129 runs and a league-leading 49 steals in a depressed offensive era. He played great defense, including four home run robberies. Baseball-Reference ranks his season 22nd all-time since 1901 among position players and the seventh-best of the expansion era (1961).

The only other rookie position player to lead his league in WAR was Paul Waner of the 1926 Pirates, by the modest total of 5.3.

A guy you've probably never heard of: Russ Ford, 1910 Yankees (11.0 WAR)
Actually, they were still called the Highlanders back then. Ford was a right-hander born in Manitoba, Canada -- the first player born in that province to reach the major leagues (and still just one of three, and the other two played a combined 14 games in the majors). Ford had pitched one game in 1909 and then went 26-6 with a 1.65 ERA in 1910, great numbers even for the dead-ball era. He ranked second to Walter Johnson in pitching WAR. His secret? He used an emery board hidden in his glove to scuff up the baseball. The pitch was actually legal back then and Ford was apparently an early practitioner of the pitch, or maybe even its inventor.

This SABR bio of Ford says he claimed to the press that he had 14 different varieties of the spitball (also still a legal pitch). "He had the emery paper attached to a piece of string, which was fastened to the inside of his undershirt," said umpire Billy Evans. "He had a hole in the center of his glove. At the end of each inning he would slip the emery paper under the tight-fitting undershirt, while at the start of each inning he would allow it to drop into the palm of his glove."

Ford wasn't quite a one-year wonder. He was effective in 1911 but then led the league in losses in 1912 as he started suffering from arm fatigue. He jumped to the Federal League in 1914 but then the emery ball was banned, and combined with his arm problems, Ford was out of the majors by 1916.

Best rookie teammates: Shoeless Joe Jackson (9.2 WAR) and Vean Gregg, 1911 Indians (9.1 WAR)
There is dispute on whether to call Jackson a rookie or not. He had 127 plate appearances with the Athletics and Indians over the three previous seasons, below the 140-PA standard we now use, although he probably exceeded the roster time limits. I would prefer to call him a rookie, and what a year he had: He hit .408/.468/.590, knocked in 83 runs and stole 41 bases. He was the second-best player in the league behind Ty Cobb, who hit .420.

His teammate has been forgotten, but Gregg went 23-7 with a league-leading 1.80 ERA. The 6-foot-2 left-hander was already 26 years old when he joined the Indians. Actually, the Indians had purchased his contract from Spokane in 1910, but Gregg refused to sign with Cleveland for $250 a month and was instead sold on option to Portland of the Pacific Coast League. He won 32 games and finally went to Cleveland.

That was a pretty interesting team. Besides Jackson and Gregg, you had an aging Cy Young in his final season (for seven starts) and Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie. Star pitcher Addie Joss, who had fallen ill the previous season, died in April. Anyway, Gregg was a revelation. Cobb and Eddie Collins called him the best left-hander in the league. He remains the only pitcher to win 20 or more games his first three seasons in the majors. Unfortunately, Gregg suffered from recurring arm pain throughout his career and 1913 was his last good season in the majors, although he eventually returned to the PCL and had some good years with Seattle.

1964: Dick Allen, Phillies (8.8 WAR) and Tony Oliva, Twins (6.8)
Allen's WAR total is third among rookie position players behind Trout and Jackson. He hit .318/.382/.557 with 29 home runs while leading the NL in runs and triples. Oliva won the AL batting title with a .323 mark and hit 32 home runs, also leading in hits, runs and doubles. Both had Hall of Fame talent, although they failed to get there. Oliva led the league five times in hits and won two more batting titles but had knee injuries that ruined the second half of his career.

The catchers: Carlton Fisk, 1972 Red Sox (7.2 WAR) and Mike Piazza, 1993 Dodgers (7.0)
In a dominant year for pitchers, Fisk hit .293/.370/.538, making him one of the best players in the league. Piazza hit .318/.370/.561 with 35 home runs. Fisk finished fourth in the MVP voting, Piazza ninth (although he ranked second to Barry Bonds in WAR).

The shortstops: Troy Tulowitzki, 2007 Rockies (6.8 WAR) and Nomar Garciaparra, 1997 Red Sox (6.6 WAR)
Kind of similar in one regard: If Garciaparra had remained healthy, he was on a Hall of Fame trek through the first part of his career. As a rookie, he hit .306 with 85 extra-base hits. Tulo: If he stays healthy, we could be talking about a Hall of Famer.

Ted Williams, 1939 Red Sox (6.7 WAR)
Williams hit .327 with 31 home runs and a league-leading 145 RBIs as a 20-year-old rookie. He was already cocky. When asked before the season opener who he hit like, Williams said, "I hit like Ted Williams." It was in April of his rookie season when he uttered his famous quote, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'"

Fifty-two years later, another future Hall of Famer put up nearly identical numbers:

Williams: .327/.436/.609, 31 HR, 145 RBIs
Albert Pujols: .329/.403/.610, 37 HR, 130 RBIs

Greatest relief season ever: Mark Eichhorn, 1986 Blue Jays (7.4 WAR)
By greatest, I don't mean just among rookies. Eichhorn's season was a season for the ages: 14-6, 1.72 ERA, 10 saves and a mind-boggling 157 innings pitched. The sidearmer struck out 166 and allowed just 105 hits. Somehow, he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner, whose combined WAR doesn't beat Eichhorn's 7.4.

Britt Burns, 1980 White Sox (7.0 WAR)
Among starting pitchers since 1980, Burns has the highest WAR -- Jose Fernandez's 6.3 from last year would be second-highest. (Dwight Gooden had a 5.5 WAR in 1984; thought he'd rank a little higher.) Burns went 15-13 with a 2.84 ERA, throwing 238 innings at age 21. He actually led AL pitchers in WAR that but didn't factor in the Cy Young voting due to his win-loss record (the White Sox were 70-90 that year). Burns also finished just fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting, which didn't make any sense. Joe Charboneau won it and Dave Stapleton, a part-time first baseman for Boston who hit seven home runs, was second.

Burns, who made his debut in 1978 just two months after getting drafted, made the All-Star team in 1981 and could have been a great one. He hurt his shoulder in 1982, costing him velocity, and suffered from a degenerative hip condition. After winning 18 games in 1985, he never pitched again in the majors.

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Who had the best rookie season?

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Mark Fidrych, 1976 Tigers (9.6 WAR)
A lot of pitchers in the pre-1920 era put up big numbers as a rookie. Hall of Famer Pete Alexander, for example, went 28-13 while pitching 367 innings for the Phillies. Even then, Alexander's WAR doesn't beat what Fidrych did in his rookie season with the Tigers.

The numbers are astounding -- 19-9, 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games in 29 starts -- but don't begin to tell the story of Fidrych's magical season. He didn't even begin the season in the rotation, pitching once in relief in April and then once in early May before finally making his first start on May 15. He threw a two-hitter. He started again 10 days later and lost that game but then came a remarkable run: From May 31 through July 20, Fidrych went 10-1 in 11 starts with 10 complete games. He averaged more than nine innings per start because he twice pitched 11 innings. He was a phenomenon, this quirky kid with the curly hair who talked to the baseball.

I just mentioned this video the other day, but here it is again: the final moments of Fidrych's Monday night game against the Yankees that June. As the announcer says, "He is some kind of unbelievable."

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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