Top 20 Rookie of the Year Seasons Over the Last 35 Years

Atlanta Braves 20 year old outfielder Jason Heyward made the opening day lineup and has begun to produce immediate results with three home runs and ten runs batted in.

Other recently drafted, under-25 players such as Brian Matusz of the Baltimore Orioles, Wade Davis of the Tampa Bay Rays and Alcides Escobar of the Milwaukee Brewers began the 2010 season in the majors.

But other young players such as Washington Nationals RHP’s Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez, San Francisco’s Buster Posey, Texas’ Justin Smoak, Cleveland’s catcher Carlos Santana (.423, 4 HR’s, 8 RBI’s) and Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman, started the season in the minor leagues but expect to contribute to their parent clubs in 2010.

With the influx of solid young talent, and many teams willing to give these youngsters a good opportunity, it reminds us here at Bleacher Report of the best and most influential rookie seasons over the last 35 years.

With 70 different Rookie of the Year (ROY) winners over this term, there will be plenty of arguments on what are the best rookie seasons.  Also, these “Best Seasons” include only those for winners of the ROY, so Chipper Jones’ great 1995 season is not included, neither are Troy Tulowitzki’s 2007 season, Todd Helton’s 1998 season, Kent Hrbek’s 1982 season or Tim Raines’ 1981 initial season.

All those players finished second for ROY.

But the winners of the award in all those seasons are included.

Many of the ROY winners here were dominant in their leagues that season and made this list. However, others who made this list might not have had a great season, but those players began a trend or their arrival began a nice run of success for their teams.

It is definitely not solely about numbers, but also about influence and importance.

Winning the Rookie of the Year award is not an indication of future greatness. Only 15 of the 124 ROY winners have made the Hall of Fame, but about a half dozen others are likely to enter.

Enjoy and let the arguing begin.

 #20 Dontrelle Willis – 2003 Florida Marlins

Dontrelle started 27 games in 2003, fashioning a 14-6 record to go along with a 3.30 ERA. The 21-year old Willis was important to that 2003 Marlins team, giving them five quality starters all under the age of 30, eventually helping the Fish to an improbable World Series title against the mighty New York Yankees.

Willis’ highlight year came two seasons later when he went 22-9 and finished second in the 2005 National League Cy Young voting.

While Willis’ career has fizzled in recent years, he is expected to make a push this season for Comeback Player of the Year for the Detroit Tigers, winning a starting rotation spot out of spring training.

He is a solid fifth starter who is still only 28.

#19 Andrew Bailey – 2009 Oakland A’s

Bailey came out of nowhere to become the 2009 closer for the Oakland A’s. A team struggling to fix a newly designed bullpen, Bailey found his role as former closer Huston Street was traded to Colorado. While several other pitchers were ineffective, Bailey dominated in March and made the team out of spring training. 

He continued his dominance during the season, posting a 6-3 record, 1.84 ERA, 26 saves and miniscule 0.876 WHIP.

This rookie season is important in that a pitcher who nobody ever heard of prior to 2009, makes the majors out of his first spring training and dominates a hitting friendly American League in a pressure packed role.

Bailey was the top rookie in an impressive crop of 2009 first year American League players, and won the ROY award beating out other outstanding freshmen such as Elvis Andrus, Rick Porcello, Jeff Niemann and Gordon Beckham.

He has continued his impressive major league career by not allowing a run in four appearances thus far in 2010.

#18 Andrew Dawson, Montreal Expos/Eddie Murray, Baltimore Orioles – 1977 Rookies of The Year

This spot goes to the two rookies of the year in 1977, Andre Dawson of the Montreal Expos and Eddie Murray of the Baltimore Orioles.

This is the only third time that both ROY winners in an individual season have become baseball Hall of Famers. The other seasons were in 1956 with Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds and Luis Aparicio of the Chicago White Sox; and in 1967 with Tom Seaver of the New York Mets and Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins. 

While Dawson and Murray were the third rookie of the year duo to make the Hall of Fame, they will not be the last as a few other possibilities exist, including one virtual lock.

Dawson will join the others in Cooperstown later this year when he is inducted into the Hall this August.

#17 Justin Verlander – 2006 Detroit Tigers

This former #2 overall draft pick has cemented himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball. The only reason he is with Detroit is that San Diego did not want to deal with Scott Boras, but Verlander’s father stepped into the Tigers negotiations and hammerd out the deal.

Verlander has never looked back.

Justin was promoted very quickly up to the majors, and dominated at times during his first full season in 2006. Not only did he fashion a 17-9 record with a 3.63 ERA his rookie season, but spun a complete game shutout at Kansas City.

More impressively, Verlander allowed one or fewer runs in 15 of the 30 starts that year and had the most wins and lowest ERA on a World Series team. He was nearly a unanimous AL ROY beating out Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Liriano.

Verlander has extremely clean mechanics which will allow him to consistently put up 33 start, 220+ inning seasons without injury.

His future as a dominant pitcher should last for another 10 seasons or as long as Verlander wishes to continue.

#16 Bob Horner – 1978 Atlanta Braves

Bob Horner was the 1977 College World Series MVP and the first ever winner of the Golden Spikes award as the best collegiate player in the nation.

Horner was a major power threat and he set records for most home runs in a collegiate season (25) and in a career (58).

He was drafted first overall pick by the Atlanta Braves in the 1978 draft, and played his first major league game a few weeks later. In his first game, Horner homered off of Bert Blyleven. He finished his first abbreviated major league season with 23 homers, 63 RBI’s and won the NL ROY award over Ozzie Smith.

Horner never played a single game in the minor leagues.

Horner went directly from the Arizona State University campus to the major leagues, switching from metal to wood bats, and never mised a beat.

His 1978 rookie season was a classic season, which he became the first position player to go directly from college to the major leagues since Dave Winfield five years earlier.

A career 124 OPS+ indicates his impressive power ability, while his 162 game average season was for 35 home runs and 109 RBI’s in 600 at bats.

Although injuries (including breaking his right wrist twice) curtailed a HOF caliber talent, when Horner was healthy, he teamed with Dale Murphy (who came up a season earlier) to form the most feared 4/5 hitters in any lineup.

#15 – Ichiro Suzuki – 2001 Seattle Mariners

It is amazing to realize that Ichiro (the only player who has his FIRST name on the back of his jersey), has been in the major leagues now for ten seasons.

Although I really do not consider major league players from other countries as rookies (and thus should not be eligible for ROY), this was Ichiro’s first year in the majors after nine seasons in Japan’s Pacific League.

In 2001, Ichiro led all players with 242 hits, and hit .350 while stealing 56 bases.

His first year in the U.S. major leagues is important because Ichiro became only the second position player to make the Japan to U.S. transition, but was the first player to succeed in America.

This success paved the way for other foreign born postion players to play in the United States.

Ichiro is the first Japanese player in the U.S. to make the Japanese Hall of Fame, and is a virtual lock for the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. 

#14 Cal Ripken, Jr. – 1982 Baltimore Orioles

Cal Ripken is the rare player who grew up in the shadows of his hometown team, was drafted and became a superstar for that same team.

As a Baltimore Oriole for his entire career, Ripken went on to a member of the 400 HR, 3000 hit club, and became a first ballot HOFer.

His rookie year was sensational with 28 home runs, 93 RBI’s which led to a Hall of Fame career, only the fifth American League player (and thus far the last) to win the ROY award and enter the Hall.

Coming up as a tall (6″4″) power hitting shortstop, Ripken revolutionized the shortstop postion. Up unilt Ripken cam eup, the shortstop position was very much an all-field, very little hit position.

Ripken’s success lead other teams to begin developing similarly built shortstops, which permeate the major league landscape even to this day.

Cal is the rare player to play entirely for one team, and one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history.

#13 Huston Street

The 2002 draft was the last big high school draft. That season saw eight of the first 11 players taken were high school guys. After that season talent evaluators began to think more of drafting college players.

Entering the 2004 draft, Huston Street was the most accomplished college relief pitcher of all time, and in 2002 he was voted College World Series MVP as he led his Texas Longhorns team to the title.

Street made the majors ealry inthe 2005 season, becoming the AL ROY with a stellar 5-1 record, 1.72 ERA and 1.009 WHIP. Only Mariano Rivera had better numbers that season as a closer.

Street’s rookie year success began a resurgance in recent college draftees being promoted to the major leagues very quickly. Other players like Troy Tulowitski, Justin Verlander, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, David Price and Matt Wieters made similar early jumps to the major leagues after Street’s meteoric rise.    

Currently on the disabled list with an arm issue, Street will eventually be back to his old form, but Street began the standard for the drafting of college players to make and immediate impact on major league rosters.

#12 Hideo Nomo – 1995 Los Angeles Dodgers

Hideo Nomo played major league baseball in Japan for five seasons before becoming the first Japanese player to play in the major leagues in 30 years.

His rookie year saw Nomo go 13-6, 2.54 ERA and 1.056 WHIP. His deceptively delayed delivery and tremendous fork ball allowed Nomo to strike out 236 hitters in only 191 innings.

Currently retired, Nomo’s success in the United States prompted many more Japanese stars such as Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Diasake Matsuzaka to come over and play in the U.S.

#11 David Justice – 1990 Atlanta Braves

When David Justice came up to the Atlanta Braves in 1990, it is no coincidence that the Braves made the playoffs a year later in 1991, beginning a streak of 14 straight playoff appearances. Justice’s arrival in Atlanta added power to a lineup which only had Ron Gant to provide home run production.

He did win the NL ROY award in 1990 with his .282/.373/.535/.908 OPS line, at that time one of the highest OPS marks for a first year player.

The Braves did win with pitching as Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and then Greg Maddux dominated lineups, but Justice provided power and an ability to get the huge hit for a team which was built on pitching and defense. 

Justice was an outspoken leader throughout his career, helping six teams get to the World Series, winning the title twice. His arrival in Atlanta helped that franchise win for the next 15 seasons.

#10 Bob Hamelin – 1994 Kansas City Royals

Throughout the 1994 season, the Royals though they had their power hitting first baseman of the future. Hamelin was a slugger who also hit for average.

Hamelin’s rookie line of .282/.388/.599/.907 OPS was very impressive with his 23 home runs and 65 RBI’s, winning the 1994 AL ROY award over some guy named Manny Ramirez. 

But Hamelin went on to have various leg injuries and only hit 41 more home runs in his career.

The Royals has three AL ROY winners from 1994 through 2003, with Carlos Beltran winning in 1999, and Angel Berroa taking home honors in 2003.

But typical of the Royals over the last twenty years, they develop a decent player and either they fizzle out like Hamelin and Berroa or succeed like Beltran, but then are traded away.

Hamelin was the first of the Royals rookie stars to fizzle out, leading to a continuation of bad seasons for a once proud franchise.

#9 Kerry Wood – 1998 Chicago Cubs

Wood was a top draft pick (#4 overall) in the the 1995 draft, and three seasons later was the top starting pitcher on an almost comletely veteran staff.

Wood started 26 games, striking out 233 batters in 166 innings, with a 13-6 record, 3.40 ERA and 1.212 WHIP. His fifth start in the big leagues tied a record with 20 whiffs in a single game. It is considered one of the msot dominant pitching performances of all time.

Wood was shut down late inthe season with elbow soreness, but still did well enough to garner the ROY award, beating out Colorado Rockies slugger Todd Helton.

The elbow injury proved more severe as Wood underwent TommyJohn surgery in spring training 1999, missing that entire season. He came back to dominate again in 2003, teaming with Mark Prior to lead the Cubs to the 2003 NL Pennant.

After that season, Wood and Prior suffered sever arm injuries and neither player would regain his dominant starting stuff.

Many people blame manager Jim Riggleman’s use of Wood in that 20 strikeout performance (Wood threw 122 pitches) as the beginning of the babying of starting pitchers via pitch counts and innings limits. Wood would throw seven more games of more than 120 pitches that season, with a 133 pitch performance in his penultimate start before his elbow issues surfaced.

Because of these injuries, which I believe are more the result of Wood’s violent delivery than overuse, Wood never fulfilled what was a promising power-pitcher, major league career.

#8 Derek Jeter – 1996 New York Yankees

The Yankees had a good team in 1994 and 1995, but lacked strength up the middle. Tony Fernandez (SS) and Pat Kelly (2B) were good defensive players but more offense was needed.

Enter Mariano Duncan for Kelly, and 21 year old Derek Jeter for Fernandez. Jeter began his rookie campaign with a home run off of 245 game winner Dennis Martinez,a nd a great over the shoulder catch in shoret left field.

That type of catch would become one of Jeter’s trademark defensive plays.

Jeter went on to hit .314/.370/.430/.800 OPS with 10 home runs and 104 runs scored. He was a unanimous selection for ROY.

His early success helped the Yankees win their first World Series title in 12 seasons, and Jeter was the main position player during a 15 year run of excellence that rivals the best teams of all time.

Jeter is approaching 3,000 career hits and shows no signs of slowing down. If healthy, Jeter could get into the top 10 in career hits, and possibly top 5. He will be a first ballot Hall of Famer and could better Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan’s percentage of Hall of Fame votes of 98.8%.

#8 Ryan Braun – 2007 Milwaukee Brewers

Ryan Braun was a high draft pick (#4 overall) for the Brewers, and moved up to the majors leagues after only 340 at bats above Class A minor league baseball.

His bat was a terror for National League pitchers in his rookie 2007 season, and Braun put up a torrid line of .324/.370/.634/1.004 OPS with 34 home runs and 97 RBI’s. His .634 slugging percentage  (SLG) led the NL in 2007, and was the highest slugging percentage for any rookie in baseball history.

If it wasn’t for fellow 2005 first round draft pick Troy Tulowitzki, Braun likely would have been a unanimous ROY selection.

Braun’s presence in the Brewers lineup gave them a potent lefty – righty duo with Prince Fielder, and help lead the Brew Crew to their first playoff appearance in 26 years a season later.

Braun has all the potential to be a major offensive force for the next 10-12 seasons where he has the potential to hit over 500 home runs with better than a .300 career average.

Only nine other player in history have done that.

#6 Mike Piazza – 1993 Los Angeles Dodgers

A rookie year line of .318/.370/.561/.932 OPS with 35 home runs and 112 RBI’s. Not bad for a former 62nd round draft pick, right?

Mike Piazza made the most of his late round drafting as a favor to his brothers godfather, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

Mike was the second of a record five straight ROY winners to come from one team, the Dodgers. It ws not the first time the Dodgers had a string of winners as they also has a run of four straight ROY winning seasons from 1979-1982.

What Piazza’s (and the other four winners did) was establish a base of young talent for the Dodgers, allowing the team to win two division titles and finish second twice. That is what good teams do; they develop their own talent. It works to set a foundation for winning.

Piazza is widely regarded as the best hitting catcher of all-time, with Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra all fighting for second place.

He will be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

#5 – Mark McGwire – 1987 Oakland A’s

Long before the steroid allegations, and subsequent admission, Mark McGwire was a power hitter extraordinaire. During his rookie season in 1987, Big Mac hit a record 33 home runs before the All-Star break, and, ironically, there was a tremendous amount of talk whether McGwire would break Roger Maris’ long held record of 61.

But while McGwire quieted down from the long grind of a baseball season, he still managed to hit 49 home runs, breaking the rookie home run record. Mark also drove in 118 runs and slugged .618, a rookie record until Ryan Braun came along.

Mac helped the Oakland A’s to three straight World Series appearances, winning the earthquake interrupted 1989 Series.

Whether HOF voters allow Big Mac entry into Cooperstown’s hallowed Hall remains to be seen, but his recent admission of such steroid use basically eliminated all the questions.

As with his rookie HR record, Big Mac has set the standard with voters during the steroid era. I doubt that he will see entry anytime soon, thus indicating how the voters will react to the entire steroid era.

#4 Dwight (Doc) Gooden – 1984 New York Mets

Similar to the #2 season, Dwight (Doc) Gooden was a young pitcher who burst upon the major league scene in dominating fashion. Brought up to the majors as a 19 year old rookie in 1984, Doc used a power fastball and knee buckling curve ball to set a rookie pitching record of 276 strikeouts, breaking Herb Score’s record set 30 years prior.

Gooden’s arrival transformed the Mets from 6th place also rans in 1983 to a strong second place finish in 1984. The Mets then went on to finish first or second for seven straight seasons after Gooden’s arrival, including winning the 1986 World Series Championship.

Off field issues curtailed what was definitely a Hall of Fame career, but when Gooden was young, and that fast ball was popping and that curve ball was snapping, at the time there was no one better.

He was the Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax of his era. 

Similar to the #2 season on this list, Dwight (Doc) Gooden was a young pitcher who burst upon the major league scene in dominating fashion. Brought up to the majors as a 19 year old rookie in 1984, Doc used a power fastball and knee buckling curve ball to set a rookie pitching record of 276 strikeouts, breaking Herb Score’s record set 30 years prior.

Gooden’s arrival transformed the Mets from 6th place also rans in 1983 to a strong second place finish in 1984. The Mets then went on to finish first or second for seven straight seasons after Gooden’s arrival, including winning the 1986 World Series Championship.

Off field issues curtailed what was definitely a Hall of Fame career, but when Gooden was young, and that fast ball was popping and that curve ball was snapping, at the time there was no one better.

He was the Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax of his era. 

#3 Fred Lynn – 1975 Boston Red Sox

Despite the success the Boston Red Sox have had this last decade, there were various times the franchise was terrible. They made the World Series in 1967, but finished no better than third in five of the next seven seasons. It was not until 1975, and the arrival of 23 year old Fred Lynn, that the Red Sox again made the World Series.

Lynn put up a rookie line of .331/.401/.566/.967 OPS, leading the league in slugging and OPS, and finishing second to Rod Carew in batting average. He also made a couple dozen spectacular catches in center field and won the Gold Glove that year and in three other seasons.

Not only did Lynn win the 1975 AL ROY award, but was also a runaway winner for the 1975 AL MVP award, too.

The 1975 season was the height of my baseball life as a kid (I was 11) and Lynn was very special, seemingly winning games for the Sox via a big hit or amazing catch.

Despite an injury bug which did not allow Lynn to play in more than 150 games in any season, he still had a very good career including the Joe Mauer Triple Crown in 1979, leading the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

A very solid career for Lynn, with just over 300 home runs and 1111 RBI’s, but many wonder what could have been.

#2 Fernando Valenzuela – 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers

You had to be there to appreciate the control that Fernando Valenzuela had over the hitters in the National League AND the entire baseball world.

He was similar to Babe Ruth in stature, both in his popularity and in his physique. Like the Babe, Valenzuela was also a pretty good hitter

After being signed out of the Mexican League, Valenzuela was promoted in late 1980 during the Los Angeles Dodgers pennant run, where he posted a 2-0 record, 1 save, and a 0.00 ERA in 10 relief appearances (17.2 innings). 

Fernando followed that up with greatest eight start stretch to open a major league baseball season. In his first eight starts of the 1981 season, Fernando threw eight complete games, including five shutouts! Two other games he allowed only one run and after eight starts his ERA stood at 0.50.

And as a strikeout pitcher (four of his eight starts were double digit strikeout games) Valenzuela likely threw over 120 pitches in each start. Surprisingly, even by throwing his devastating screwball most of the time, his arm did not fall off.

Joe Girardi and other current managers should take note.

Add in the two wins and 17.2 scoreless innings from late in 1980, and after his first 18 major league appearances, Valenzuela had a 10-0 record with a 0.37 ERA.

His success spurred a phenomenon called Fernandomania, and while the Los Angeles Latino community were already big baseball fans, after “El Toro” (Valenzuela’s nickname) came alive, the Latin fans were now out rooting in full force.

Fernando’s patented delivery (see photo) included him “looking to the sky” before every pitch was in itself a separate phenomenon.

Fernando only went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA, but he missed two months worth of starts due to the 1981 players strike.

His rookie year was amazing and I remember my junior year in high school, hanging out with friends at someone’s house on May 8th, watching that Friday night game Fernando pitched against the New York Mets.

A bad Met team (managed by Joe Torre) drew almost 40,000 fans that night to see Valenzuela and he did not disappoint, posting his 8th straight win and fifth shutout.

While he was only a 173-153, 3.54 ERA pitcher for his career, those first seven seasons were tremendous including a 21-11 mark in 1986. While he was dropped from the Hall of Fame voting in 2004, his early career, and the madness which ensued, were definitely Hall of Fame worthy.

#1 Albert Pujols – 2001 St. Louis Cardinals

For the young fans who wish they saw Ted Williams hit in his prime, you really are, but he hits from  the right handed batters box and he goes not by the nickname of “The Splendid Splinter,” “The Kid” or “Teddy Ballgame” but by the nickname of “Phat Albert,” “King Albert” or “The Machine.”

Similar to Ted Williams, Albert Pujols has several nicknames.

It is amazing to think that in Spring Training of 2001, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa wanted to send Pujols down to the minors for more seasoning. But while Mark McGwire was petitioning LaRussa to keep Pujols, the Cardinals third basemen, Bobby Bonilla, was injured and Albert started the season at third base.

He would play four different positions that rookie season for the Cardinals, starting 32 or more games at third base, first base, left field and right field. He also batted .329/.403/.610/.1.013 OPS with 37 HR’s and 130 RBI’s.

Pujols was a unanimous choice for NL ROY.

Albert has continued his dominance over the next decade, winning three NL MVP awards and finishing second three times. In two of those three runner up seasons Pujols finished behind Barry Bonds.

Make your own judgments.

Only Williams, Joe DiMaggio and maybe Frank Robinson have had similar offensive beginnings to a career, dominating from thier first major league season. But unlike Williams, Albert Pujols has helped bring home a World Series title for his team, while Robinson has two titles and DiMaggio has an unbelievably amazing nine such championships.

When his career is over, Albert Pujols will be considered one of the greatest players of all time (likely top seven), and will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, probably recieving 95% or more of the vote.

But he needs to help the Cardinals win another World Series title to fulfill his career. This 2010 season could be the year.

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