The Best Rookie Seasons in MLB History

Photo by SD Dirk (Flickr) CC License

Look up “Rookie of the Year” on the Internet and you’re likely to find two things: 1) a synopsis of the 1993 family film starring Thomas Ian Nichols and 2) thousands of images of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger. With all due respect to Nichols, Judge and Bellinger are the ones you’ll want to watch over and over again. The fresh-faced phenoms easily claimed the top two spots on our 2017 rookie countdown, and have been taking Major League Baseball by storm with eye-popping stats that belie their age and inexperience.

On the East Coast, Judge has been the league-leading cause of whiplash among pitchers thanks to his epic moonshots. His 35 dingers rank first among all first-year players this season, and he’s the first player since Mike Trout to win AL Rookie of the Month three consecutive times.

Bellinger has been equally dominant on the Left Coast. His 32 home runs, 62 runs, 75 RBIs, and .950 OPS lead all NL rookies and he’s become an indispensable part of a Dodgers team that went 43-7 over a recent 50-game span.

Judge and Bellinger’s numbers have certainly been eye-opening. Where will they rank among rookie superstars from yesteryear when the 2017 season is all said and done? To answer that question, we first need to establish a baseline of rookie brilliance. We dusted off our almanacs and gently nudged our grandparents to learn more about the best rookie seasons in Major League history. Our countdown begins with a contemporary closer and includes a surprise or two from players best known for their infamous off-field pursuits.

10. CRAIG KIMBREL (BRAVES)

As good as Craig Kimbrel is now, he was even better in 2011 when he set an all-time rookie record with 46 saves, leading the NL in the category. Voters rewarded Kimbrel for his dominance by naming him to his first of six All-Star teams and handing him the NL Rookie of the Year award. Those are nice, but he really should have been given a humanitarian award for mercifully wiping John Rocker’s name out of Atlanta’s record books.

9. DWIGHT GOODEN (METS)

No one told Dwight Gooden that rookie pitchers are supposed to get knocked around a bit before finding their groove. The 19-year-old hurler was the clear-cut choice for NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1984 when he posted a 17-9 record to go along with a 2.60 ERA. Doc’s league-leading 276 punch-outs also secured him a spot on the All-Star team and turned enough heads to allow him to finish second behind Rick Sutcliffe in the race for the NL Cy Young.

8. MIKE PIAZZA (DODGERS)

Major League scouts had a lot of explaining to do in 1993 after Mike Piazza hit .318 to go along with 35 home runs and 112 RBIs. This was, after all, the same slow-footed kid who had been selected in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft as a personal favor from Tommy Lasorda to Piazza’s dad, his longtime friend. Scouts may not be perfect, but Piazza’s rookie season nearly was, and he was rewarded for his efforts with Rookie of the Year honors, an All-Star nod, and his first of ten Silver Slugger trophies.

7. FRED LYNN (RED SOX)

The Red Sox have had plenty of red-hot rookies over the years, but few have been better than Fred Lynn. The Chicago native had a season for the ages in 1975 when he hit .331 with 21 home runs and 105 RBIs while leading the league in runs and doubles. Lynn powered the Sox all the way to the World Series that year and he became the first player in MLB history to win the AL MVP and the AL Rookie of the Year awards in the same season.

6. WALT DROPO (RED SOX) 

Walt Dropo may not be a household name now, but the man affectionately known as “Moose” became a national sensation in 1950 when he hit .322 with 34 home runs and 144 RBIs for the hard-charging Boston Red Sox. Dropo’s prodigious production netted him the AL Rookie of the Year award as well as his first – and only – All-Star selection.

5. JOE JACKSON (NAPS)

Long before he was a baseball outcast, Shoeless Joe Jackson was one of the finest hitters in the game. The five-tooler from Pickens County, South Carolina, hit .408 in his rookie season with the Cleveland Naps and led the league with a .468 OBP. In any other year, Jackson would easily have wrapped up MVP honors, but his breakthrough campaign coincided with Ty Cobb hitting .420 and Ed Walsh winning 27 games. Timing is everything, and Jackson’s entire career serves as a cautionary tale for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

4. TONY OLIVA (TWINS) 

Rookies aren’t supposed to lead the league in anything other than errors and hazing incidents. That’s why Tony Oliva’s rookie campaign with the Minnesota Twins was so astounding. The 25-year-old right fielder burst out of the gate from Opening Day and ended up leading the American League in hits, runs, doubles, total bases, and batting average. Oliva ran away with the AL Rookie of the Year award that season and finished fourth in MVP voting behind Brooks Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and Elston Howard.

3. ALBERT PUJOLS (CARDINALS) 

Albert Pujols went from unheralded draft pick to franchise centerpiece in 2001 when he hit .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs for the St. Louis Cardinals. His massive production easily earned him NL Rookie of the Year honors to go along with his first of ten All-Star appearances. Not bad for a guy who was selected in the 13th round of the draft.

2. TED WILLIAMS (RED SOX)

Just how good was Ted Williams as a 20-year-old? The Red Sox liked him so much that they traded a .340 hitter for pennies on the dollar to make room for him in the outfield. That’s the kind of move that can get a GM tarred and feathered, but Williams quickly erased any doubt among fans and the media by hitting .327 with 44 doubles, 11 triples, 31 home runs, and a league-leading 135 RBIs. Major League Baseball did not award a Rookie of the Year award at the time, but Teddy Ballgame’s brilliance was recognized by voters as he finished fourth in MVP Balloting.

1. ICHIRO SUZUKI (MARINERS)

Ichiro was a rookie in name only when he arrived in the US in 2001. The fleet-footed right fielder was already a seven-time batting champion and a three-time Nippon Professional League MVP when he took over the lead-off spot in the Seattle Mariners’ lineup. That dominance carried over into his first season in the Bigs as the 5’11” spark plug became the first player since Jackie Robinson to lead the league in batting average and stolen bases. Ichiro was a natural choice for Rookie of the Year that season, and narrowly beat out Jason Giambi to become the American League’s first – and only – Japanese MVP.