The best rookies of the ‘60sby Chad Dotson
October 18, 2013
The sixties. John Coltrane, Elvis Presley, the Kinks, and Joan Baez. Cool Hand Luke. Jed moved his family (to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimming pools. Movie stars.) Breakfast was served at Tiffany’s. The British invaded, and Dylan went electric. Oh, Mrs. Robinson. Everyone learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Oh yeah, and they played a little baseball in that decade too.
We return to our examination of the top rookies in each decade by stepping back into the turbulent 1960s. Perhaps the most memorable baseball moment of the decade was Roger Maris’ 61 homers in 1961. An important milestone in baseball history, to be sure, but it caused me, your humble correspondent, some problems as I tried to put together this list.
As you know, baseball responded to Maris’ huge season by overreacting, and sticking a thumb on the scale to shift the balance of power over to the pitchers. The strike zone was expanded, and hitting continued to decline until 1968, the much-discussed Year of the Pitcher, when Bob Gibson posted a dazzling 1.12 ERA, tossed 13 shutouts, and struck out 268 hitters. The powers that be then lopped five inches off the top of the pitcher’s mound, and things began to return to some sense of normalcy.
So, it is with those parameters that we try to determine which rookies had the best individual seasons in the 1960s. Remember, we are talking about the best of all qualified rookies from the years 1960 to 1969.
1. Dick Allen, Phillies (1964). As a 22 year-old in 1964, Allen put together a rookie season for the ages. Allen, playing 3B for the Phils, won the Rookie of the Year award by hitting .318/.382/.557, with 29 homers and 91 RBI. He led the league in runs scored (125) and triples (13), and had the highest adjusted OPS+ (162) and slugging percentage (tied with Tony Oliva) of any qualified rookie in the ‘60s.
Allen’s 8.8 wins above replacement is the third-best mark of any rookie in the history of baseball, behind Mike Trout and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Allen went on to a fine 15-year career, in which he blasted 351 homers and made seven All-Star teams. With the White Sox in 1972, he enjoyed his finest moment by winning the American League MVP and leading the league in homers, RBI, walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
2. Tony Oliva, Twins (1964). After two cups of coffee in 1962 and 1963 (totaling 19 plate appearances), Oliva was brilliant in 1964: .323/.359/.557, 32 homers, 94 RBI. Oliva led the American League in batting average, runs scored (109), hits (217), and doubles (43). He also posted 6.8 WAR, and a 150 OPS+, which is the fourth-best mark for any rookie in the decade.
Oliva’s Rookie of the Year-winning season, which was just as good as Dick Allen’s in many respects, was the first of many outstanding campaigns Oliva enjoyed for the Twins. He retired in 1976, after compiling nearly 2000 hits and making eight All-Star teams. Oliva, of course, is frequently mentioned as an overlooked Hall of Fame candidate (most notably, by Tony Perez in Perez’s own Hall of Fame speech). I’m not buying that, but Oliva has a great case for the Hall of Very Good, and that ain’t shabby, my friends.
3. Gary Peters, White Sox (1963). Peters had actually pitched 21 innings over four separate seasons with Chicago before the Sox decided to keep him around for the entire 1963 season. It was a good decision. The 26-year-old Peters went 19-8 with a league-leading 2.33 ERA, and an adjusted ERA+ of 150 (which also led the league), and 189 strikeouts. He was an easy choice for Rookie of the Year.
That rookie season began a five-year stretch in which Peters was among the best in the game: 77 wins, 2.50 ERA, 131 ERA+. Perhaps no one took greater advantage of the rule changes that benefited pitchers in the 1960s than Peters, as the prime of his career coincided perfectly with that era. Beginning in 1969, however, Peters never again posted an ERA below 4.00, and he was out of baseball by 1972.
4. Jerry Koosman, Mets (1968). Koosman and Stan Bahnsen (see below) were docked a few points because their rookie seasons occurred in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. Make no mistake, however: Koosman’s rookie year was outstanding in its own right, as he went 19-12 with a 2.08 ERA, 17 complete games, a 145 ERA+, and 6.3 WAR. He finished second to Johnny Bench in the balloting for top National League rookie.
That season, Koosman also broke Tom Seaver’s franchise records for wins, shutouts (seven), strikeouts (178), and earned run average. He was just as good the following season, when the Miracle Mets shocked the world.
5. Rico Carty, Braves (1964). In most seasons, Carty would have been an easy choice for Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, he chose to come along at the same time as Dick Allen. During his rookie season for Milwaukee, Carty hit .330/.388/.554 in 133 games, with 22 homers and 88 runs batted in. His adjusted OPS+ of 161 was the second-best mark of any rookie in the ‘60s.
Carty ultimately put together a pretty good 15-year career that would have been even better if he hadn’t missed two full seasons with injuries during his prime. He was also renowned for having a number of what might charitably be termed “personality clashes” with his teammates. Either way, the guy could hit a baseball.
6. Stan Bahnsen, Yankees (1968). Though he enjoyed a long, 16-year career in the big leagues, Bahnsen only had one other season that rivaled his excelptional 6.4 WAR rookie campaign. In 1968, Bahnsen went 17-12 with a 2.05 ERA, and a 140 ERA+. He was the runaway winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award.
Though Bahnsen’s ERA was the best of any 1960s rookie, it was only the ninth-best ERA in that season (Year of the Pitcher, remember?). Seven pitchers in 1968 qualified for the ERA title with an ERA under 2.00. I’m pretty sure Professor Ned Brainard was one of them.
7. Gary Nolan, Reds (1967). Perhaps the most underrated player of the Big Red Machine was Gary Nolan. The young fireballer was superb as a 19-year-old in 1967, going 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA, 206 strikeouts, a 147 ERA+, and 6.3 wins above replacement. His strikeout total and ERA+ were second-best among all qualified rookies in the decade.
Nolan has long been considered a case study for the effects of overworking young pitchers. In his first six seasons, Nolan won 76 games with a 2.83 ERA, including a brilliant 1972 season in which he went 15-5 with a 1.99 ERA. By age 24, however, Nolan had thrown 1156.2 innings, and the arm problems had begun. Though he was serviceable for the championship Reds teams of 1975 and 1976, Nolan’s career was effectively over by age 28. Oh, what might have been.
8. Tom Seaver, Mets (1967). Seaver beat out Nolan for top rookie honors in 1967 by going 16-13 with a 2.76 ERA, 18 complete games, and a 122 ERA+. You already know the rest of Seaver’s story.
Yes, we know how it turned out, but after 1968, it wasn’t clear who was better between Seaver and Nolan. If the 1969 expansion clubs had been given the opportunity to choose one of the two pitchers, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan were the top choice at that time. Of course, Tom Terrific went on to win three Cy Young awards, make 12 All-Star teams, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. You can’t predict baseball.
9. Dick Radatz, Red Sox (1962). Radatz wins the honor of being the only reliever on this list, by going 9-6 with a 2.24 ERA and a league-leading 24 saves in 62 games (which also led the league. While he only threw 124.2 innings, Radatz did post 5.5 wins above replacement, with a 185 ERA+. That’s an effective season.
I said Radatz “only” threw 124.2 innings, but think about that in the context of the current state of bullpen usage. One can only imagine how great Aroldis Chapman could have been this season if Dusty Baker had allowed him to throw 124 innings instead of half that total.
10. Tony Conigliaro, Red Sox (1964). Conigliaro is the sentimental choice for the Bob Hamelin/Chris Sabo spot on this list. He was only 19 years old in 1964, and he only played in 111 games, but Conigliaro hit .290/.354/.530 with 24 homers and 52 RBI. His OPS+ was 137, and his slugging percentage was fourth-highest among rookies in the 1960s.
You probably know Conigliaro’s story. After emerging as a star for the Red Sox, Conigliaro took a Jack Hamilton fastball to the face in August of 1967 that permanently damaged his eyesight. Though he made a surprisingly effective comeback, he was forced to retire after the 1971 season, at age 26. (A later comeback, in 1975, was aborted after 21 games and a .123 batting average as a designated hitter for Boston.)
So there you have it. Let’s talk honorable mentions now. Frankly, there were a number of players whose rookie seasons were good enough to make that tenth spot on the list (or even higher, perhaps); Tommie Agee (1966), Joe Morgan (1965), Rich Rollins (1962), Jimmie Hall (1963), Tom Tresh (1962), and Jim Ray Hart (1964) all came very close to making the cut.
Three Orioles—Jim Gentile (1960), Curt Blefary (1965), and Wally Bunker (1964)—should receive honorable mention, and a fourth Oriole, Chuck Estrada, led the league in wins (18) in 1960, but didn’t really come close to making the top ten. Don Sutton struck out more batters in his 1966 rookie season than any other rookie in the 1960s (209), but he doesn’t sniff this list either. Willie Horton was the only rookie of the decade to drive in more than 100 runs in a season (104 in 1965), but he’s on the outside looking in, as well.
By my count, eight future Hall of Famers had rookie seasons that put them in contention for the unparalleled honor of being included in my top ten list, but only one—Tom Seaver—actually made the final cut. Left out in the cold: Rod Carew, Billy Williams, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Bench, Morgan, and Sutton.
(Yes, I’m calling Pete Rose a Hall of Famer. Feel free to register your disapproval with the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska.)
As a postscript, permit me to link to the previous examinations of the best rookies in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Next up: the fabulous ‘50s!
Chad Dotson is a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can find him on Twitter as @dotsonc.