Over the last month or so, we’ve been examining the best rookie classes of each decade. We began with the best of the 2000s, or as it will soon be known, the Century of Mike Trout. That was followed by a look at the top rookies of the 1990s, led by Mike Piazza and The Backstreet Boys.
We move now to the 1980s, back when you couldn’t even be considered for a list like this unless you wore a Members Only jacket on travel days. It was a strange decade. Baseball suffered through a strike, but Bill Buckner and Kirk Gibson provided memorable moments. Mr. T pitied the fool. Molly Ringwald was America’s sweetheart. John Lennon and Bob Marley were taken too soon. Run-DMC showed us that you didn’t actually need shoelaces in your Adidas. The worlds of entertainment and sports collided and were engulfed in controversy when David Letterman called Braves pitcher Terry Forster “a fat tub of goo.” Zooey Deschanel was born. Parents just didn’t understand.
Paring a list such as this down to ten is not easy. There are going to be objections, and since this is an inherently subjective project, disagreements are encouraged. Feel free to make the case for anyone who was excluded. There are only ten slots, so a lot of great players aren’t going to make the cut.
For example, Hall-of-Famers like Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Ryne Sandberg, and Craig Biggio aren’t in the top ten. (Okay, most of those guys aren’t actually in the Hall of Fame yet, but I’m happy to argue their qualifications with anyone. A lot of Rookie-of-the-Year winners didn’t make the list either. Among those, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Kittle, and the immortal Joe Charboneau had compelling cases. Other Rookie of the Year winners who weren’t quite good enough: Benito Santiago, Dave Righetti, Vince Coleman, Steve Sax, Jerome Walton, Ozzie Guillen, Walt Weiss, Todd Worrell, Gregg Olson, Steve Howe.
But that’s enough about the players who didn’t make the list. Let’s talk about the cream of the crop. Remember that we are looking at qualified rookies from the years 1980 to 1989. Yes, that’s really an arbitrary cutoff, but this isn’t rocket science. Cut me some slack. Please? Let’s begin:
1. Mark McGwire, Athletics (1987). Three short years after starring for the University of Southern California, McGwire announced his presence on the big league scene with 33 homers before the All-Star break. Not surprisingly, Big Mac made the first of 12 All-Star teams that summer, en route to a record-breaking rookie season. When the dust had settled, McGwire hit .289/.370/.618 with 49 homers and 118 RBI. He led the league in HR and slugging percentage, and those 49 longballs demolished the previous rookie record (which had been held by Frank Robinson and Wally Berger, with 38 HR).
If you talk about McGwire today, you’re likely to get into a discussion about things that didn’t happen on the field. Frankly, I don’t care about all that. I enjoy home runs. And as much fun as that home run party of 1998 was, McGwire’s rookie year was something to behold, as well. Mostly because it led to this poster that adorned the bedrooms of youngsters all over the Bay Area.
2. Dwight Gooden, Mets (1984). Everyone is understandably astounded by the sheer brilliance of Mike Trout‘s first two big league seasons (and I’m guilty as charged), but what Gooden accomplished in 1984 and 1985 is nearly as impressive. As a 19-year-old rookie, Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, and a 137 adjusted ERA+. Gooden’s 276 strikeouts led the league, and he posted 5.5 wins above replacement while winning the Rookie of the Year award and finishing second in Cy Young balloting. As a sophomore, Gooden was better. Much better: a 24-4 record, 1.53 ERA, 229 ERA+, 268 strikeouts, 16 complete games, and a unanimous selection as the NL Cy Young winner. Oh yeah, and did I mention that Gooden compiled 12.1 WAR as a sophomore?
We can play the “what might have been?” game all night long, but at his height, Gooden was nearly as good as anyone has ever been.
3. Fernando Valenzuela, Dodgers (1981). I know a lot of you won’t remember Fernandomania. Heck, I barely remember it, but during the spring of 1981, with a strike looming, Fernando Valenzuela was every bit as big as Pac-Man or the Rubik’s Cube would become later in the decade. After the first eight starts of his rookie season (including an Opening Day assignment), Valenzuela was 8-0 with 0.50 ERA, seven complete games, and five shutouts. Are you kidding me?
The strike eliminated nearly two months of the season, from June to August, but the media storm surrounding Fernando didn’t diminish at all. By the end of the season, Valenzuela and that funky screwball ended up with 4.8 WAR, a 13-7 record, with a 2.48 ERA and a 135 ERA+. The rookie led the league in games started, complete games, innings pitched, and strikeouts. When he edged Tom Seaver for the Cy Young Award, Valenzuela became the first pitcher ever to win both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.
In terms of sheer excitement created, it is difficult not to rank Valenzuela’s rookie campaign as the best of the decade. It was definitely the most fun.
4. Alvin Davis, Mariners (1984). Some players just come along about a decade too early. Once upon a time, Alvin Davis was the Seattle Mariners, and that started with his first season. In 1984, Davis hit .284/.391/.497 with 27 HR, 116RBI, and 5.9 WAR. He beat out teammate Mark Langston for Rookie of the Year (Langston doesn’t make the top ten here, but he had a pretty good season too: 17-10, 3.40 ERA, league-leading 204 strikeouts).
During Davis’ tenure with Seattle, the Mariners had exactly one winning season, and only once did they finish better than fifth in their division. Unfortunately, Davis’ career was over at age 31, and he missed out on the fun Mariner years of Junior Griffey, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez. Despite that, he’s still considered “Mr. Mariner” in some circles. That wasn’t quite cool enough to get you a guest spot on Miami Vice, but still…
5. Kevin Seitzer, Royals (1987). You know, Seitzer had a nice little 12-year career. Remembered mostly as a Royal, Seitzer collected more than 1500 hits in his career with four different clubs. He was a solid player, but his 1987 rookie season was by far his best. During that campaign, Seitzer hit .323/.399/.470 with 15 homers, 83 RBI, and 5.5 WAR. More impressively, his 207 hits led the league.
Seitzer would never again compile as many WAR in a season, and he never topped his 128 adjusted OPS+ either. Unfortunately, much like Natalie from The Facts of Life, Seitzer was overshadowed by everyone else in the room, even in that excellent rookie season. He took over third base from Kansas City legend George Brett that year; those were some tough shoes to fill. Leading the league in hits wasn’t even enough to win Rookie of the Year honors, since McGwire ran away with that hardware.
Even worse: Seitzer wasn’t even close to being the most-hyped rookie on that 1987 Royals team. Remember Bo Jackson?
6. Mark Eichhorn, Blue Jays (1986). Pop quiz, hotshot! Of all the rookies who made their debut during the 1980s, which one had the highest total WAR? If you guessed Mark Eichhorn…well, I guess it was pretty obvious that Eichhorn was the answer, huh? But anyway: it’s Eichhorn!
Even as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if I should have Eichhorn higher on this list. I have a long-standing bias against relievers when comparing them with other positions, but Eichhorn bore more of a resemblance to the relievers of the 1970s than those we see in the current game. In 1986, he went 14-6 with a 1.72 ERA and a brilliant 246 ERA+, holding hitters to a miniscule 549 OPS. Though he only collected 10 saves (for much of his tenure with the Jays, Eichhorn set up games for Tom Henke), he pitched in 69 games…and threw 157 innings. You don’t see that anymore, and it’s the reason his WAR was 7.4.
Yeah, he should be higher on this list, shouldn’t he? Or should he?
7. Cal Ripken, Orioles (1982). The only Hall of Famer in the top ten (though I would certainly vote for McGwire). As a 21-year-old rookie, Ripken won Rookie of the Year by hitting .264/.317/.475 with 28 homers, 93 RBI and 4.7 WAR, while playing the toughest defensive position on the field. One season later, Ripken won an MVP and a World Series.
What more do I need to say about Ripken? He’s an all-timer who was great from the very beginning. Of course, Ripken only played 160 games in that 1982 season. Slacker.
8. Britt Burns, White Sox (1980). Burns is the flip side of the Eichhorn coin. I keep wanting to drop him lower, or off the list entirely, but he was one of only two rookies in the 1980s to compile 7 wins above replacement.
As a 21-year-old rookie in 1980, Burns was 15-13 with a 2.84 ERA and a 143 ERA+. He only finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year balloting, behind Super Joe Charboneau, Dave Stapleton, Doug Corbett, and Damaso Garcia (Charboneau (.289/.358/.488, 23 HR, 87 RBI) and Corbett (5.7 WAR, 8-6, 1.98 ERA, 221 ERA+ 23 saves, 73 games, 136.1 IP) were honorable mentions for this list). Burns would go on, however, to a pretty good run for the White Sox over his six full seasons with the club, including a fine performance in Chicago’s ALCS loss to Baltimore in 1983. Burns took a shutout into the tenth inning, before finally succumbing to the eventual champion Orioles.
Unfortunately, Burns’ career was finished after age 26, thanks to a degenerative hip condition.
9. Matt Nokes, Tigers (1987). A 20th-round draft choice, Nokes actually made his debut with San Francisco in 1985, before being traded to the Tigers. By 1987, Nokes had earned his way into the Detroit lineup, and as a 23-year-old, he put together the best season he’d ever have: .289/.345/.536, with 32 HR, 87 RBI, and a 133 OPS+ in 135 games. He was a left-handed hitting catcher, and the sky appeared to be the limit.
You know the rest of the story: that year was the high point. Nokes eventually landed in New York, with the Yankees, where he had a decent season at age 27, but his career as a big leaguer was effectively over by age 31.
10. Chris Sabo, Reds (1988). You have to give me one spot on this list for a sentimental favorite, right? In the spring of 1988, Buddy Bell was entrenched as the Cincinnati third baseman. When Bell went on the disabled list just prior to Opening Day, Sabo got the call.
He did not disappoint, posting 5.1 WAR with a slash line of .271/.314/.414. Sabo hit 11 HR and stole 46 bases en route to a Rookie of the Year award. Those goofy goggles along with Sabo’s strange mannerisms immediately endeared him to Cincinnati fans. At the 1988 All-Star Game, which was held in Cincinnati, Sabo entered the game as a pinch runner and immediately stole second. Until Billy Hamilton came along this year, I’ve never heard Reds fans cheer more loudly for a stolen base.
Sabo was an old rookie, and his career was short, but it contained plenty of highlights. In the 1990 World Series, Sabo hit .563 and drove in five runs, including two homers in Game 3 alone. Want an even bigger career highlight? Check out Sabo’s appearance (near the end of the video) as a celebrity endorser of this fine product.
For some reason, everyone compared Sabo to Spuds MacKenzie. The 1980s were weird.
I’ve already mentioned some names that I had difficulty excluding (Boggs, Strawberry, and Charboneau, especially). There are plenty more: Tom Brunansky (1982), Devon White (1987), Mike Greenwell (1987), Mike Boddicker (1983). Jose Canseco hit 33 homers in 1986, and didn’t make the cut. Tom Browning remains the only rookie pitcher since 1954 to win 20 games, and he didn’t make it either.
There wasn’t nearly as much competition for the honor of being named the best television program of the ‘80s. Clearly, “Alf” runs away with that title.