Our countdown of the best rookies in each decade has brought us to the fabulous decade of the 1970s. (If you missed the previous installments, here are my suggestions for the top rookies of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.)
The ’70s weren’t just bell-bottom jeans and ABBA. Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s were dy-no-mite! Mr. Kotter was welcomed back with open arms. It wasn’t the Thrilla in Manila, but Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson quarreled. Several pantheon films were released, including Annie Hall, The Godfather, and Star Wars. Mark Spitz was the original Michael Phelps, with much cooler facial hair. The Reggie Bar was disgusting, but Mr. October was grand. Porkchops and applesauce.
Let’s jump right into it, shall we? Remember, we are talking about the best of all qualified rookies from the years 1970 to 1979. And if you haven’t already guessed the name atop this list, you aren’t trying very hard.
1. Mark Fidrych, Tigers (1976). Who else? On May 15, 1976, Fidrych, a lanky 21-year-old right-hander, was forced to make an emergency start. He tossed a complete game, surrendering just one run on two hits, and a legend was born. Fidrych would go on to make 29 starts that year, tossing 24 complete games with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 ERA.
Fidrych became a national sensation because of his wacky antics on the mound (e.g., constantly talking to the baseball), but he was the real deal, posting 9.6 wins above replacement as a rookie. He led the league in complete games and ERA, had the highest adjusted ERA+ (159), started the All-Star Game, and won the Rookie of the Year award. Unfortunately, Fidrych started only 27 more games in his career, but in 1976 (have you heard?) Mark Fidrych was the word.
2. Fred Lynn, Red Sox (1975). Rookie of the Year. Unanimous Most Valuable Player. Gold Glove. It’s difficult to imagine a much better freshman season than Lynn’s 1975, though he checks in at only second on this list. Patrolling center field in Fenway Park as a 23-year-old, Lynn led Boston to the World Series by hitting .331/.401/.566 with 21 homers and 105 RBI (the most of any 1970s rookie). Lynn led the American League in runs (103), doubles (47), slugging percentage, and OPS. His 7.3 WAR was the highest for a rookie hitter in the ‘70s.
Jim Rice, who was also a rookie on that 1975 team, would end up in the Hall of Fame (somewhat controversially), but Lynn’s season was clearly superior. Rice hit .309/.350/.491 with 22 HR and 102 RBI, with 2.9 WAR. Unfortunately, Lynn was slowed by injuries later in his career, but that doesn’t diminish his brilliant rookie campaign.
3. Bernie Carbo, Reds (1970). Drafted by the Reds in the first round in 1965 (Johnny Bench was taken in the second round), Carbo finally broke through five years later as if he were determined finally to prove that the Reds knew what they were doing. In his first season, Carbo hit .310/.454/.551 with 21 home runs and 63 RBI in 125 games. He posted the highest on-base percentage, OPS, and adjusted OPS+ (164) of any rookie in the 70s.
Carbo finished second to the immortal Carl Morton (18-11, 3.60 ERA) in Rookie of the Year balloting. Thanks largely to off-field issues, he had worn out his welcome in Cincinnati within a couple of years, but Carbo made the Reds pay after he resurfaced in Boston in 1975. Carbo’s game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning of World Series Game Six set the stage for Carlton Fisk’s famous blast (see below).
4. Carlton Fisk, Red Sox (1972). Three of the first four players on this list played for the 1975 Red Sox, but Fisk is the one everyone remembers from that year’s World Series (even though Boston lost to Cincinnati or, as Fisk famously said, Boston won three games to four). The image of Fisk hitting a ball down the left field line, and bouncing to first, waving the ball fair will be ingrained in our collective memories for as long as we have baseball to obsess about.
Well, Fisk’s Hall of Fame career began with a bang three years earlier, when he posted 7.3 WAR while hitting .293/.370/.538 with 22 homers and 61 RBI in 131 games. He also performed the rare feat of winning a Gold Glove as a catcher while leading the league in triples (nine). Spoiler alert: Fisk is the only Hall of Famer who makes this top 10, unless Dusty Baker is ultimately selected for his managerial career.
5. Mitchell Page, Athletics (1977). Page finished second to future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray (.283/.333/.470, 27 home runs, 88 RBI) in the 1977 Rookie of the Year voting, but to my imperfect eyes, Page was the superior player for that one season. Posting 6.0 WAR, Page put together a .307/.405/.521 line, with 21 homers, 75 RBI, and 42 SBs. His on-base percentage was the second-best for any rookie in the 1970s, and his OPS was third-best.
Only one thing Page did later would ever compare to that outstanding rookie campaign: his appearance in the 1994 “classic” film, Angels in the Outfield.
6. Jon Matlack, Mets (1972). You may not be surprised to learn that I nearly put Jonathan Trumpbour Matlack at the very top of this list, primarily because of that awesome name. Okay, so he wasn’t the best of this group, but Matlack’s 1972 season was pretty special: 15-10 record, 2.32 ERA, 145 ERA+, four shutouts, and a Rookie of the Year award. His 6.0 WAR doesn’t look too shabby either.
7. Al Bumbry, Orioles (1973). One of the things I struggle with every other week when compiling these lists is how to value the seasons of players who don’t play a full season, as rookies often don’t. Some of those seasons, like Carbo’s above and Bumbry’s, are just too good to ignore. In 1973, Bumbry, just three years removed from a tour of duty in Vietnam (where he was awarded a Bronze Star), hit .337/.398/.500 with a 154 OPS+, seven homers and 34 RBI in 110 games. Despite the short season, he led league in triples (11). Bumbry didn’t qualify for the batting title, but he did win top rookie honors in the American League. (If you include all rookies who played in 100+ games, Bumbry’s .337 was the highest average for any rookie in the decade.)
8. Steve Rogers, Expos (1973). Much like Bumbry’s, Rogers’ rookie season was abbreviated, but outstanding. Rogers went 10-5 with a 1.54 ERA and a ludicrous 245 ERA+ in 17 starts. He completed seven of those starts, and posted 5.1 wins above replacement while finishing second to San Francisco’s Gary Matthews (.300/.367/.444, 12 homers, 58 RBI) in rookie award voting.
One year later, Rogers would lead the National League in losses and earned runs allowed, but he quickly rebounded to become one of the best pitchers in Montreal history over a 13-year career.
9. John Montefusco, Giants (1975). The first two seasons of The Count’s career were as good any undrafted amateur free agent could ever dream of: seasons of 6.8 and 6.9 WAR. In 1975, Montefusco was named Rookie of the Year after going 15-9 with 2.88 ERA and four shutouts. His 215 strikeouts that season were the most of any 1970s rookie, and the most by a Giants rookie since some guy named Christy Mathewson.
Montefusco never again compiled more than 2.0 WAR in a season, but we’ll always have ‘75, won’t we?
10. Dusty Baker, Braves (1972). Known primarily among today’s baseball fans for questionable managerial strategies, postseason collapses, and for always quoting to reporters what Hank Aaron once told him when they played together, it’s easy to forget that Johnnie B. Baker put together a very nice playing career. As a 23-year-old in 1972, Baker hit .321/.383/.504 with 17 home runs, 76 RBI, and a 142 OPS+. His 5.2 wins above replacement that season represented the high-water mark of his career, but he would go on to collect nearly 2000 hits during a 19-year playing career spent mostly with the Braves and Dodgers.
So there you have it. As always, there were dozens of excellent rookie seasons that, for one reason or another, I just couldn’t find space to include on this list. I hesitate to note any honorable mentions here, because I can’t include everyone, and I know that you, the devoted reader, will always find someone else who deserves to be here. But a few names do merit mention.
First, there were several Rookie of the Year winners who would go on to fine careers, but weren’t quite good enough in their initial campaign to deserve inclusion. Other than those mentioned above, we have guys like Chris Chambliss (1971), Thurman Munson (1970), Andre Dawson (1977), Sweet Lou Whitaker (1978), Bob Horner (1978), and Rick Sutcliffe (1979)
The only other future Hall of Famer who had a rookie season worthy of mention was Dennis Eckersley. As a member of the Cleveland Indians in 1975, Eck was 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA and 5.3 wins above replacement. Though he started 24 games that season, Eckersley did pick up the first two saves of his illustrious career.
Only two 1970s rookies hit 30+ homers, but neither quite made the cut here. Braves catcher/third baseman Earl Williams won the 1971 Rookie of the Year award while hitting .260/.324/.491 with 33 homers (the most of any ’70s rookie) and 87 RBI. Philadelphia’s Willie Montanez also hit 30 home runs that year, to go along with 99 RBI (third-best total for 1970s rookies).
There are dozens more I could mention—Bobby Grich, Dale Murray’s 374 ERA+, Richie Zisk, Pat Zachry, Steve Mingori, Cy Acosta. I wish I could have included Ron Guidry and the always-popular Billy Grabarkewitz, but it looks like they didn’t technically qualify as rookies in their breakout seasons.
Enjoy. The ’70s were a fun decade for baseball, and I’ve certainly enjoyed dipping my toe into those waters once again. Next up in this series will be the turbulent 1960s. I know you’ll be eagerly anticipating that piece but remember: this is only an exhibition. This is not a competition. Please, no wagering.