In Pete Rose’s first season, 1963, he hit .273 on 170 hits, while driving in 41 runs and hitting six home runs. It was good enough to win the National League Rookie of the Year award.
Not a bad start for the all-time hits leader, but it doesn’t match up to a number of more impressive rookie seasons of other players. Some of them went on to superstardom, others had solid careers, and a few never reached their full potential. Here’s a look at some of the best rookie seasons by Major League Baseball players over the past 100 years.
Plenty of Pizzazz. Mike Piazza, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1993
35 home runs, 112 RBIs, 174 hits, .318 average, NL Rookie of the Year
Some baseball analysts consider Mike Piazza the best offensive-performing catcher of all time. Funny thing is, he moved behind the plate only on the advice of Tommy Lasorda, Dodgers coach and manager. The Dodgers drafted Piazza on a suggestion by Lasorda, who did it as a favor to Vince Piazza, a childhood friend and Mike’s father. Mike Piazza returned the favor by having a tremendous rookie season, topped by his 35 home runs. Piazza will be enshrined in the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this year.
Hot Berger. Wally Berger, Boston Braves, 1930
38 home runs, 119 RBIs, 172 hits, .310 average
He played long ago on an average Boston Braves team, but Wally Berger broke into the Majors with a bang. His record of 38 home runs by a rookie was tied by Frank Robinson, but it wasn’t broken until 1989 by Mark McGwire (49). He also reached 20 home runs in his first 51 games, faster than any other player, rookie or otherwise. And it would take another 70 years to break Berger’s rookie tally for RBIs. That player? Albert Pujols.
2001: A Rookie Odyssey. Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals, 2001
37 home runs, 130 RBIs, 194 hits, .329 average, NL Rookie of the Year
The player who broke Wally Berger’s NL RBI rookie record is on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats and a future Hall of Famer. Albert Pujols, who is now a three-time MVP, was Rookie of the Year in 2001, coming out of the gate with power stats. He made the All-Star roster, won the Silver Slugger Award and finished fourth in MVP balloting! He led the Cards in homers, beating out Mark McGwire (29) and Jim Edmonds (30). The story goes that it was McGwire who told Manager Tony LaRussa to make sure the young Pujols made the team roster in 2001.
Bird Watching. Mark Fidrych, Detroit Tigers, 1976
19-9, 2.34 ERA, 250 innings, American League Rookie of the Year
There hasn’t been a baseball player quite like Mark Fidrych since he first took the mound in 1976. He was 6'3", gangly and energetic, with the energy, quirkiness and seeming innocence of a Little Leaguer. A Minor League manager once said he looked like Sesame Street’s Big Bird—the nickname was shortened and it stuck like no other. But it was his pitching prowess, not just his antics, that made him famous. In mid-May of the ’76 season, he got his first start—and he took full advantage of it. He won seven straight and went into the All-Star Game with an 8-1 record. He talked to the ball, talked to himself, manicured the mound on his hands and knees…and wound up one game shy of a 20-win rookie season. But shoulder problems hampered him the very next year and he never regained his form.
The Good Doctor. Dwight Gooden, New York Mets, 1984
17-9, 276 strikeouts, 2.60 ERA, 214 innings, NL Rookie of the Year
At just 19 years old, Dwight Gooden had an amazing first year as a starting pitcher for the Mets. He led the National League in ERA and strikeouts and came in second to Rick Sutcliffe for the Cy Young Award. He had an amazing 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Gooden won his first game in April and then chalked up 18 more wins. He also led in strikeouts, earning him the nickname “Doctor K”—which not long afterward turned into his well-known nickname, “Doc.” Gooden pitched for 16 years and was on a World Series championship team three times in his career.
Boston Pops. Fred Lynn, Boston Red Sox, 1975
.331, 175 hits, 21 home runs, 47 doubles, 105 RBIs, MVP, AL Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove
On a 1975 Red Sox lineup that included Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk, 23-year old Fred Lynn compiled numbers that were good enough to earn him both the Rookie of the Year and the MVP award. He was also a great centerfielder, which earned him a Gold Glove Award for the 1975 season. His stellar play helped lead the Red Sox to the World Series against Cincinnati, where they lost in a classic seven-game series against Rose, Bench, Perez and the Big Red Machine. Who was runner-up Rookie of the Year to Lynn? Teammate Jim Rice, whose numbers were just as impressive.
Out of the Mouth of Babe. Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox, 1939
.327, 185 hits, 31 home runs, 145 RBIs
Ted Williams’ rookie season was nothing less than a sign of things to come. “The Kid” led the league with 145 runs batted in while collecting 185 hits. He also led the American League in walks, total bases and on-base percentage. He made his debut on April 20th against the Yankees, the only time Williams and Lou Gehrig would face each other in a series. There wasn’t a rookie award yet, but Babe Ruth reportedly said that Ted was the best rookie that year. Williams was quoted as saying, “That’s good enough for me.”
Off the Hook! Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim), 2012
.326, 182 hits, 30 home runs, 83 RBIs, 49 stolen bases
The primary reason Mike Trout didn’t win the MVP award in 2012 is that Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers won the Triple Crown (most hits, home runs and RBIs). You can’t argue with that. Despite that, Trout did take Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger Award over a season that some baseball people (mostly stat-minded “Sabermetricians”) say is the best rookie season of all time. He didn’t even play in April, having started the 2012 season in the Minors. In June he had three four-hit games. He also was famous for making some incredible highlight catches in centerfield. As a rookie, he became the youngest player ever to produce 20 home runs and 40 stolen bases. It was a monster start to an amazing career…and he hasn’t let up since. Trout was the American League Most Valuable Player in 2014…and has finished second in each of the other seasons!
Other Notable Rookie Seasons
These six players share the double honor of being selected as All-Stars their first year and then going on to win Rookie of the Year:
• Don Newcombe, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1949
With a 17-8 record, Newcombe was one reason the Dodgers won the National League pennant. He had five shutouts—leading the league—and a 32-inning scoreless streak.
• Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins, 1964
Oliva batted .323 and became the first rookie to win a batting title. He hit 32 home runs, had 94 RBIs and 217 hits.
• Fernando Valenzuela, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1981
The 20-year-old screwballer from Mexico won his first eight starts, five of them shutouts. He’s the only player in MLB history to have won Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same year.
• Nomar Garciaparra, Boston Red Sox, 1997
Nomar batted .306 with 30 home runs, 209 hits and 98 RBIs.
• Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners, 2001
He hit .350 with 242 hits and 56 stolen bases in his first season and was named AL MVP, all after after playing nine seasons in the Japanese Professional Baseball league!
• Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox, 2014
Abreu belted 36 home runs, hit .317 and drove in 107 runs off 176 hits.