The best rookies of the new milleniumby Chad Dotson
August 23, 2013
Let’s just get this part out of the way right now: I love rookies.
I love everything about them. Love the mystique surrounding a guy who emerges from nowhere to become a star on the big league level from day one. I love the story of a player (Billy Grabarkewitz, anyone?) who bursts onto the scene with a brilliant first season, only to flame out later.
I love Yasiel Puig. I know some old-school-types and ink-stained wretches think he needs to be “tamed,” but that’s a concept that seems ludicrous to me. What’s not to love about Puig’s enthusiasm, not to mention his production?
Every year, a new group of rookies appears in the majors, as we all look on expectantly. Baseball fans are like Wooderson, standing outside the Emporium, asking Mitch, “So tell me, man, how's this year's crop of freshman chicks lookin'?”
Okay, maybe not.
At some point, I’m sure I will write extensively about this year’s rookie class. It’s a pretty fun group. Puig, of course, is getting all the headlines, but there have been some excellent rookie performances from other guys. Miami’s Jose Fernandez is having a brilliant season, and is probably the leader (ahead of Puig) for the NL Rookie of the Year. Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller, Wil Myers, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and my personal favorite, Tony Cingrani, are all making names for themselves.
Let’s widen our scope beyond 2013. Today, I want to look at the best rookies of the 2000s, as the first installment in a series examining great rookie performances from each decade. Of course, 2000 to 2013 is more than a decade, obviously. I’m making the rules here. Quit your complaining.
Here’s the top ten since Y2K.
1. Mike Trout (2012): It’s almost impossible to overstate how great Trout’s rookie season was. The Angels center fielder posted a gorgeous .326/.399/.564 line, with 30 HR and 83 RBI. He led the league in stolen bases (49) and runs scored (129), and Trout’s WAR of 10.9 is far and away the best of any rookie in the history of baseball.
Not to put too fine a point on it: Mike Trout had the best rookie season of any player in baseball history.
2. Ichiro Suzuki (2001): Ichiro (or, as Reds broadcaster Jeff Brantley calls him: “Itchy-row”) had one of the top fifteen rookie seasons of all time back in 2007. Sure, it’s a little unfair to call him a rookie, as Ichiro had made his debut in Japan’s Pacific League all the way back in 1992. In all, Ichiro collected 1,278 hits in Japan, with a .353 average, before taking his talents to the great Pacific Northwest.
He hasn’t done so poorly in America, either, beginning with a rookie season (at age 27) in which he hit .350/.381/.447. That batting average led the league; Ichiro also led the AL in hits, with 242.
Earlier this week, of course, Ichiro collected his 4,000th hit between Japan and America. He’s a Hall of Famer.
3. Albert Pujols (2001): What a great season. Everyone knows about Pujols’ recent injury-related struggles, but I hope no one forgets how great Pujols was at his peak. In his rookie season, Pujols posted 6.6 WAR, hitting .329/.403/.610 with 37 homers and 130 RBI. The WAR dipped a bit in his sophomore campaign, but Pujols proceeded to go on an historic run, averaging 8.6 wins above replacement from 2003 to 2010.
Like Itchy-row, Pujols won the Rookie of the Year award, and is a future Hall of Famer.
4. Troy Tulowitzki (2007): Tulowitzki has been a star since the first day he arrived in the big leagues with the Rockies, but it certainly seems as if most people don’t realize it. As a rookie shortstop in 2007, Tulowitzki accumulated 6.8 wins above replacement; his slash stats were equally impressive (.291/.359/.479), while playing the toughest position on the field.
Tulowitzki finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. Braun certainly had a great season (and went on to garner more fame, and infamy, later in his career), but only played 113 games. I’ll take Tulowitzki’s season.
5. Jason Heyward (2010): What a great rookie season. Heyward has been beset by injuries (including a broken jaw this week, suffered on a high-and-inside pitch from the Mets’ Jonathon Niese), and hasn’t quite reached the same heights in the years since, but 2010 provided a glimpse of a player with unique talents who still has a bright future.
Heyward hit .277/.393/.456 as a rookie, with 18 homers and 72 RBI. He displayed an uncommon command of the strike zone for a rookie, drawing 91 bases on balls on the way to a 6.4 WAR. Keep in mind that Heyward just turned 24-years-old this week; his career will be interesting to watch.
6. Brandon Webb (2003): Webb is the first pitcher to appear on this list, and he was dominant until injuries sidelined his career before the age of thirty. As a rookie at age 24, Webb posted a 6.2 WAR, going 10-9 with a 2.84 ERA and a career-best 165 ERA+ (ERA+ is basically an adjusted ERA, taking into account a pitcher's ballpark and the ERA of his league; 100 is average).
Webb finished third to Dontrelle Willis and Scott Podsednik in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2003. He retired this year, a sad end to a once-brilliant pitching career.
7. Bryce Harper (2012): A national phenomenon since he was a high school catcher, Harper burst upon the scene last year and lived up to all the expectations heaped upon the former first-round draft choice. Aa a 19-year-old, Harper took full advantage of an unexpected early opportunity at the big league level, winning the Rookie of the Year while hitting .270/.340/.477 with 22 homers and 5.2 WAR.
His follow-up campaign has been injury-filled, but when he’s been able to step onto the field, Harper has improved across the board (.270/.369/.505) while making his second straight All-Star team. There are very few young players in the league who will be more exciting to watch over the next few years.
8. Jonathan Papelbon (2006): Papelbon had actually pitched 34 pretty effective innings in 2005, but he was officially a rookie in 2006. He made the first of five All-Star teams that year, collecting 35 saves with an almost unfathomable 0.92 ERA, posting 5.0 wins above replacement. Papelbon played for Boston, so I’m sure you remember the absurd media coverage, but he earned it that year. His ERA+ was 517, for crying out loud!
The great Justin Verlander (17-9, 3.63 ERA, 3.0 WAR) actually won the Rookie of the Year award that year, and I had a difficult time leaving Verlander off this list. Verlander has certainly been more valuable since, but this is my list, and I choose to include Papelbon. Feel free to disagree.
9. Jose Fernandez (2013): Fernandez is the only current rookie to make this list, and I imagine he’ll be higher on this list if we reevaluate after the season ends. I’m not sure anyone really knows about Fernandez, since he’s toiling in relative obscurity in Miami, but he has been great: 9-5, 2.41 ERA, 162 ERA+, and 4.8 WAR through mid-August.
Fernandez just turned 21 years old. He’s very, very good.
10. Austin Jackson (2010): Before reaching the majors, Jackson was traded from the Yankees to the Tigers in a celebrated three-team deal involving Curtis Granderson, Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, and Edwin Jackson, among others. The following season, Jackson showed why he was so highly-regarded, hitting .293/.345/.400 as a rookie center fielder for Detroit, posting 5.2 WAR. He finished second to Neftali Feliz in the Rookie of the Year voting, but I don’t have much regard for the contributions of closers, so Jackson makes the list instead of Feliz (ignore my inclusion of Papelbon above, please).
Will Yasiel Puig, or Julio Teheran, or Nolan Arenado make this list by the end of the season? Stay tuned.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can find him on Twitter as @dotsonc.