Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ten Best Rookie Seasons

In honor of the new year, today I will examine the best rookie seasons of all-time, dating back to 1901.
  • Note 1: The player must have qualified for either a batting or ERA title in his rookie year to appear on this list.
  • Note 2 (UPDATED): I had originally only included players who hadn't played at all before their rookie seasons.  Then I decided to not be so lazy, and thus the new and improved post includes players for whom their rookie season was not their first shot at the bigs.  The old entries are preserved, however, making this technically a top twelve list.  Thanks to Mike and "anonymous" in the comments, for inspiring me to go through with this. 
  • Note 3: I've been trying out giving all pitchers a uniform heading line of WAR/ERA+/W-L and hitters WAR/OPS+/FV (though FV will be replaced another stat for today).  I may play around with this, as I don't know how much I love WAR yet, so don't get mad if I seem inconsistent with my "important" statistics.

1. Vean Gregg, SP, 1911 (CLE): 7.8 WAR/189 ERA+/23-7
Here are Vean Gregg's standings among rookies, all-time: ERA+, 2nd; ERA, 3rd; WHIP, 3rd; wins, 3rd; and shutouts, 4th.  No, he doesn't lead in any of those categories, but find me another rookie pitcher who can claim top-four status in all of those categories.  What Gregg do, however, was establish himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball in 1911, leading the American League in ERA, WHIP, and H/9.  He only finished tenth in MVP voting for that year, but performed markedly better than some of the players who came ahead of him.  Gregg continued his dominance for the next two seasons, and then fell off.  His WAR over his first three seasons: 18.3; over his next (and final) five: 0.9.  It's not a wonder that Gregg isn't talked about as one of the all-time greats.  His career simply wasn't there.  His rookie season, however, seems to be criminally underrated.  For a very small amount of time he was one of the best pitchers in the game--a period set up by his brilliant rookie season, the best of all-time of its kind.

2. Ichiro Suzuki, RF, 2001 (SEA): 7.6 WAR/126 OPS+/242 H
Ichiro probably didn't deserve the MVP award that he received for this season, but his dominance over the AL cannot be understated.  In an era dominated by power hitting (you may remember that Barry Bonds hit his 73 home runs in 2001), Ichiro's brand of play was a breath of fresh air.  He was fast (leading the AL in stolen bases with 56), could hit (led the AL in hits, as well as batting average [.350]), and was a flashy defender (fourth in the AL with a fielding value of 27).  His game wasn't that balanced--he only hit eight home runs with sixty-nine RBI--but that didn't matter when he was getting on base more than anybody else in the league.  His contribution to his team, which had just traded away Ken Griffey, Jr. for a pretty uninspiring bunch of talent, was astounding.  As a rookie, albeit one with prior experience in Japan, he carried the Mariners through their outstanding 116 win season and made them forget all about the last star outfielder from Seattle.  Simply amazing.

3. Ted Williams, LF, 1939 (BOS): 6.8 WAR/160 OPS+/145 RBI
While Williams only ranks eighth among rookies in WAR, I give him the number three spot here for a few reasons: I know RBI is a statistic much dependent on the hitters in front of you getting on base, but it clearly takes more than a little skill to consistently drive them in all season.  Williams didn't just do that well in 1939, he did it better than anybody else in the American League.  The second-place hitter in that category, none other than Joe DiMaggio, only had 126.  (Williams also led the league in total bases, with 344.)  His OPS+ of 160 is second-highest all-time among rookie position players, but he had more eleven more home runs, fifty two more runs batted in, and forty nine more hits than Johnny Mize (who had an OPS+ of 162 in his rookie year).  Williams leads all rookies (all-time) with an OBP of .436, an OPS of 1.045, and led all left-fielders in WAR in 1939.  In his first season in the majors, only two years before he would hit .406, the Splendid Splinter had already established himself as one of the finest all-around players in the major leagues.  For doing that, I'm happy to give him the number three spot on this list.

4. Albert Pujols, 3B, 2001 (STL): 6.9 WAR/157 OPS+/37 HR
While the dynamic Ichiro was taking the American League by storm, a young, mostly unknown Hispanic third baseman named Albert Pujols was destroying the National League.  What Pujols accomplished was nothing short of spectacular.  As you might be able to tell, the difference between Ted Williams' and Pujols' seasons is mostly negligible.  I gave the tie to Williams because of his slightly higher OPS+ and greater dominance on a statistic-by-statistic basis relative to the other hitters in the league at the time.  Still, Pujols' 2001 is clearly one of the all-time great rookie seasons.  He hit for power, average (.329 AVG, 194 hits), and his slugging percentage of .610 is an all-time rookie high.  His durability was admirable too, as he played in 161 games, making him one of only four rookies ever to play in 160 or more games.  For his 2001, Pujols was fairly rewarded with the Rookie of the Year, an All-Star appearance, a Silver Slugger, and a fourth place finish in the MVP voting. Fourth may seem too low (as in, closer to 10th) for this season; but that just speaks to the competition he has from Gregg, Ichiro, and Williams, rather than the quality of Pujols' 2001.

5. Mark Fidrych, SP, 1976 (DET): 8.5 WAR/159 ERA+/19-9
Man, what more can be said about Mark "The Bird" Fidrych's rookie season?  He charmed the MLB with his odd antics (e.g. he would talk to the ball while on the mound), but unlike some of the other most colorful characters baseball has seen, Fidrych could flat-out play.  (His nationally televised game against the Yankees is still shown on MLB Network.)  He led the MLB in WAR, ERA (2.34), and complete games (an astounding 24 out of just 29 starts).  He didn't strike out very many batters, but made up for it by having a WHIP of only 1.079, third in the AL.  Fidrych ran away with the Rookie of the Year and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Jim Palmer.  Although Fidrych's career would soon take a disastrous and injury-filled turn, the magic of his rookie season still inspires years later.

6. Fred Lynn, CF, 1975 (BOS): 6.1 WAR/161 OPS+/.331 AVG
In 1975, Fred Lynn won Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, a Gold Glove, and was an All-Star.  There was a reason for this: he was basically unstoppable.  Lynn, as a mere 23 year-old, helped lead the Red Sox to an ill-fated World Series appearance by doing basically all that he could.  He led the AL in runs, doubles, slugging percentage, and OPS, and finished second in batting average and extra base hits.  He even finished in the top ten for defensive WAR.  No, I don't think that Lynn--despite a slightly higher OPS+--had a better season than Ichiro, Williams, or Pujols.  His OPS, home runs, and RBIs are inferior to those of the other two power hitters, and he clearly didn't hit or run as well as Ichiro did.  Lynn definitely deserved all the accolades he collected during his historic 1975 season.  In the scheme of rookie seasons, however, I believe he's right at home in 6th place.

7. Dick Allen, 1B, 1964 (PHI): 9.1 WAR/162 OPS+/29 HR
I don't understand how WAR is calculated.  I'm sure it's a good system, as I trust it enough to use it here, but I don't see how Allen's 1964 has been deemed to be worth two more wins than either Williams' or Pujols' aforementioned seasons.  In any case, while I don't think Allen had as good of a season as either of those two all-time greats, he certainly put up impressive numbers in 1964.  His 29 home runs, 201 hits, and .939 OPS are daunting, and any player would kill to be able to have that line.  My main problem with Allen's 1964 is that he didn't lead the league in any categories besides WAR, runs, triples, and strikeouts.  To my untrained eye, Willie Mays and Ron Santo actually had better seasons (something borne out by the OPS of each).  Allen in 1964 established himself as an all-around threat and hitting machine, but I don't think he did better than any of the players ahead of him on this list.  (Not that there's any shame in that.)

8. Ed Reulbach, SP, 1905 (CHC): 7.8 WAR/209 ERA+/18-14
Reulbach pitched in the middle of the Dead Ball Era, but unlike Vean Gregg was not far and away the best pitcher in baseball during his rookie season (that honor would go to Christy Mathewson).  His statistics are impressive, to be sure: an ERA of 1.42; 28 complete games; a WHIP of 0.963; and a paltry 6.4 H/9 (the only major category in which he led the league).  eulbach, despite not having as good rookie seasons as Gregg or Fidrych, went on to have a long and prosperous career, winning 182 games with a career ERA+ of 123.  The presence of Mathewson, and the general dominance of pitching in his era, means that I can't move him higher than this (though finishing sixth on this list is still pretty nice).

9. Reb Russell, SP, 1913 (CHW): 7.3 WAR/154 ERA+/22-16
Oh look, another Dead Ball Era pitcher whom nobody's ever heard of!  That's not quite fair, as I'm sure there are a few people out there who know Russell for his nickname.  While he didn't have much of a career of which to speak, his rookie season was plenty good.  He pitched eight shutouts, a rookie record, and his WHIP of 1.039 is second among rookies.  His ERA was 1.90, tied for third in the AL, and his 26 complete games was second.  Like Reulbach, Russell suffers from the strong pitching competition he had that year (Walter Johnson had a 1.14 ERA with an unreal WHIP of .780).  His durability (he led the league in games pitched, with 52; maybe he suffered from Mark Prior syndrome before we knew of such a thing?) and dominance, however, ensure that his rookie season will still be remembered as one of the all-time greats.

10. Pete Alexander, SP, 1911 (PHI): 7.8 WAR/133 ERA+/28-13
"Wait, not another one?" you may thing.  Well, you may know this pitcher better by the name Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Unlike the other pitchers on this list, his rookie year was no aberration.  In 1911, Alexander led the NL in wins, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, and H/9.  The reason why he's not higher is that none of those statistics are particularly compelling.  His ERA, 2.57, is solid but not outstanding, as is his WHIP (1.128).  This season is notable in that it heralded the arrival of one of baseball's great pitchers, and showed just how good he could be.  Alexander would lead the league in wins five more times before his career was over, finishing with 373.  It was his first, however, that would prove to be his most recognized, as he finished higher (3rd place) in the MVP vote that year than in any other season.

*NOTE: The players below would otherwise be on my "runners-up" list, but I decided to preserve what I wrote about them.*

11. Dale Alexander, 1B, 1929 (DET): 4.8 WAR/147 OPS+/215 H
Not to be confused with the similarly-named pitcher on this list, Alexander's WAR can be deceiving (he had an offensive WAR of 5.5, but it got knocked down .7 points for bad defense).  Alexander led the league in hits (215) while also finishing in the top five in many other categories (home runs, 25; slugging, .580; extra base hits, 83; and runs created, 141).  He was an offensive machine with a good all-around game.  To be fair, however, he played during an incredible period of offense, and so his .343 average was only tenth in the AL.  Still, though, his great statistics should be acknowledged (and indeed, his OPS+ bears out that he was a much above-average hitter in 1911; being in the top ten in almost every offensive category as a rookie is no easy accomplishment).  I'll do that by giving him a spot on this ranking.

12. Paul Waner, RF, 1926 (PIT): 5.7 WAR/147 OPS+/.336 AVG
Remember Lloyd Waner, from yesterday's list?  Paul was his more talented brother.  Before winning MVP in 1927, Paul put up quite the impressive rookie season.  He hit .336 with an OPS of .941, and led the league in triples, with 22.  His WAR was third in the league, and first among position players.  It's actually worse, I think, that Waner went on to have such a great career.  This season is one of his more middling ones, so it doesn't stand out as much as, say, Fidrych's does.  But while that might be an interesting thought experiment, it doesn't detract from the quality and dominance of Waner's 1926.  He just had an all-around very good season, finishing 12th in the MVP voting for it, and for that he gets a spot on this list.

Runners-up: ; Curt Davis, SP, 1934 (PHI); Johnny Mize, 1B, 1936 (STL); Mike Piazza, C, 1993 (LAD); Frank Robinson, LF, 1956 (CIN)


  1. Interesting that you have so many pitchers. I appreciate learning about Gregg, but he was no where near "far & away the best pitcher" in '11. Walsh, Johnson, & in the NL, Rucker, had higher WARs, & legends Alexander & Mathewson had about the same. He did not lead in much, & it is others having many more IP that made their seasons more impressive. Perhaps given his moderate Ks-those like The Bird who do not K often tend to fare less well in the long run- he was somewhat fortunate that year with defensive support, on top of being excellent.

    If you included the the cup 'o coffee guys, you would have Dick Allen & his massive 9.1 OPS + at least near the very top. I just scanned a list of ROY to see who was great & qualified...

  2. I'm surprised that Dick Allen's 1964 (.318/.382/.557, 162 OPS+, 9.1 WAR, & ROY) & Fred Lynn's 1975 (.331/.401/.566, 161 OPS+, 7.1 WAR, ROY, & MVP) didn't even receive an honorable mention. Allen was a little bit of a defensive mess. I don't totally understand how WAR is calculated but I know 9.1 is exceptional.

  3. @Mike, that's fair. I'm not sure either how WAR is calculated, especially for pitchers, but a quick look at Walsh's stats compared to Gregg's seems to break in favor of Gregg (save for anything relating to strikeouts; Gregg just found other ways to get batters out). Same with a comparison to Johnson.

    @Anonymous, the problem with Allen and Lynn is that those seasons came after they had already been called up for a few games the previous season. I can't figure out how to get a list of every rookie season, however I could get up every first season. Perhaps at some point I'll get up the energy to add Allen and Lynn, and reevaluate the others.

  4. Those 3 guys score better than Gregg, & others exceedingly close in WAR, since they threw usually significantly more IP. Especially Walsh. This seems fair: if you play a lot more games or throw many more innings, you are adding so0mewhat more value. So Pedro arguably had the best & most efficient year per IP, but due to how much more IP many threw, he did not approach the very best years in terms of adding value/win shares for his team.