Kris Bryant has Cubs fans drooling in anticipation of his arrival. To some Bryant winning NL Rookie of the Year is a foregone conclusion. As high as Bryant’s ceiling is he’ll play at a position, third base, that is traditionally one that requires top level offensive production. What will Bryant need to do to have the historic rookie campaign that Cubs fans so desperately want? Using WAR as the key I’ve compiled a list of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. WAR looks at offense and defense and factors in base running. Essentially, it’s as close to quantifying a players all around contributions as baseball currently has. For this article we used baseball reference’s version of WAR.
Before we get to the top 10 let’s look at 5 earning honorable mention:
Billy Grabarkewitz, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1970, 6.5 WAR
Kenny Lofton, Cleveland Indians, 1992, 6.6 WAR
Nomar Garciaparra, Boston Red Sox, 1997, 6.6 WAR
Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals, 2001, 6.6 WAR
Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox, 1939, 6.7 WAR
10. Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins, 1964, 6.8 WAR
In 1964 the 25 year old Oliva received 19 of 20 first place Rookie of the Year votes along with being an All-Star. Oliva was the first player ever to win the Rookie of the Year award and the batting title in the same season. He did so by hitting .323 while also leading the league in runs (109), hits (217), doubles (43), and total bases (374). When Oliva first arrived in the states from his native Cuba his defense was suspect. Despite this he was able to carry a .981 fielding percentage during his opening campaign.
9. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies, 2007, 6.8 WAR
Tulo had one of the best all around rookie seasons ever. His 3.8 defensive WAR is the major league rookie record. On April 29th he completed baseball’s 13th unassisted triple play. In addition to the unassisted triple play he lead all MLB shortstops in fielding percentage (.987), putouts (262), total chances (834), assists (561), and double plays turned (114). His .987 fielding percentage also set the record for fielding percentage for all rookie shortstops. He was no slouch at the plate either. Tulo lead all NL rookies in plate appearances (678), at bats (609), games (155), hits (177), doubles (33), runs (104), total bases (292), walks (57), and rbi (99). His 99 rbis set the single season rookie record for a shortstop. Despite his impressive season voters selected Ryan Braun as Rookie of the Year despite his WAR of 2.0.
8. Mike Piazza, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1993, 7.0 WAR
The story behind Piazza being drafted is well known. Yes, his father asked LaSorda to draft the Miami-Dade Community College student as a favor and LaSorda obliged in the 62nd round with the 1,390th pick. The favors stopped with the use of an otherwise worthless pick. He suggested Piazza switch from first base to catcher in order to create a quicker path to the majors for Piazza and his bat. He won the 1993 NL Rookie of the Year by leading all rookies with 35 homers, 112 rbi, and batting .318. He also won the Silver Slugger Award and was selected to the All-Star game.
7. Carlton Fisk, Boston Red Sox, 1972, 7.3 WAR
Ole “Pudge” won AL Rookie of the Year by batting .293 with 22 homers and 63 rbi. Fisk also tied Joe Rudi for the league lead with 9 triples. He is the last catcher to lead the league in triples. Fisk proved to be just as valuable behind the plate by throwing out 39% of potential base stealers and winning the AL Gold Glove at catcher. He also named to the All-Star team.
6. Fred Lynn, Boston Red Sox, 1975, 7.4 WAR
Lynn didn’t just have a great year for a rookie he had a great year period. So great, in fact, he became the first player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. He accomplished the feat by leading the AL in runs (103), doubles (47), slugging percentage (.566), OPS (.967), and finishing second in batting (.331). On June 18th he hit 3 homers, drove in 10 runs and accumulated 16 total bases, all in one game. Defensively he added a Gold Glove while also making his first All-Star game.
5. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners, 2001, 7.7 WAR
Known by his first name Ichiro was the first Japanese position player to play Major League Baseball. Ichiro became only the second player ever to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same year. He did so by leading the AL in plate appearances (738), at bats (692), hits (242), stolen bases (56), and batting average (.350). His 242 hits set the record for most hits by a rookie and were the most hits by any player since 1930. He was the first player to lead the league in both batting average and stolen bases since Jackie Robinson did so in 1949. Ichiro was also the first rookie to lead the league in All-Star voting. He also earned his first Gold Glove. Finally, Ichiro is the only player to win the MVP, Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger while starting in the All-Star game.
4. Benny Kauff, Indianapolis Hoosiers, 1914, 7.8 WAR
Kauff is the only non AL/NL player to make this list. His phenomenal rookie season is often forgotten because he played in the short lived Federal League. Forgotten but no less accomplished than the others. Kauff lead the league in plate appearances (669), runs (120), hits (211), doubles (44), stolen bases (75), batting average (.370), on-base percentage (.447), OPS (.981), and total bases (305). His 75 stolen bases was the record for most by a rookie until 1985 when Vince Coleman broke it by swiping 110.
3. Dick Allen, Philadelphia Phillies, 1964, 8.8 WAR
Allen’s inaugural year in the big leagues saw him lead the NL in runs (125), triples (13), extra base hits (80), and total bases (352). He also finished in the top five in batting average (.318), slugging percentage (.557), hits (201), and doubles (38). Despite his league leading 41 errors, due in large part because he had never played third base before he made it to the show, he won the NL Rookie of the Year by a landslide. Somehow, despite all that he accomplished, he was not selected to the All-Star game.
2. Joe Jackson “Shoeless Joe”, Cleveland Naps, 1911, 9.2 WAR
Unfortunately Shoeless Joe’s play is often overlooked because of his involvement in the “Black Sox” scandal and the resulting banishment handed down by the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Although the Rookie of the Year, MVP, Gold Gloves, Silver Slugger awards or the All-Star game did not exist in 1911 Jackson’s almost unequaled first season can be measured by the number of rookie records he still holds. Because of a player named Ty Cobb the only category he lead the AL in during his first season was on-base percentage (.468), which is still the rookie record. Other rookie records he held or still holds are batting average (.408, 1st), OPS (1.058, 1st), hits (233, 2nd), and triples (19, 2nd).
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 2012, 10.8 WAR
Mike Trout had the single greatest all around baseball season by a rookie ever. His unprecedented season sparked an intense debate over the AL MVP as Miguel Cabrera was the first player to win the Triple Crown since 1967. Even though Trout was not awarded the MVP trophy he did more than make his mark. For starters he lead the AL in runs (129) and stolen bases (49). He set an AL rookie record by scoring a run in 14 consecutive games. He is the youngest player ever to hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 30 and 40 bases in a season. Trout also became the only player in Major League Baseball history to hit 30 homers, steal 45 bases, and score 125 runs in a season. Plus he’s the only rookie to ever hit 30 home runs and steal 40 bases. Trout was unanimously selected as the AL Rookie of the Year receiving 28 of 28 first place votes. He also won a Silver Slugger award and was selected to the AL All-Star team. Although he did not win a Gold Glove he did accumulate a defensive WAR of 2.1. Trout did this all in only 139 games as he spent almost all of April in triple-A. Oh, and he was only 20 years old for a majority of the year. Anyway you cut the cake, Trout had the best rookie season ever.
Bryant has the potential to crack this list but it will require him to hit the ground running and tap most of that potential from his first plate appearance. If Cubs fans are finally proven right and this year is “next year” they will need Bryant to play to his potential and bump Oliva from this list. It’s spring, isn’t eternal optimism what spring is all about?