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November 9, 2007
A First for the Ages
The Rookie of the Year Awards will be announced on Monday, and whether he wins or merely places, Troy Tulowitzki's 2007 campaign deserves to be looked at in historical context. Overshadowed for most of the season by the hitting of Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, it really wasn't until Colorado went on its wild ride that people began to notice that Double-T was putting together one of the better rookie years in modern memory. Taking into account his outstanding defense (46/24 FRAR/FRAA), the quality of his rookie season goes way beyond mere modern comparisons. In fact, his WARP3 of 10.8 is the 15th-best rookie showing since 1876. Today we'll look at the 14 men who preceded Tulowitzki, with better inaugural campaigns to discover the sort of company he's now keeping.
While Nichols never again attained the heights of 1890 again, he did crack double figures in WARP3 seven times, and came close once. He also lived long enough to be enshrined in Cooperstown at the age of 79. He's probably never before been referred to as "The Greatest Rookie Sensation Ever," so let's do it now.
Allen's defense did a lot to keep him from ever again repeating his rookie success--his career FRAA of -97 detracted greatly from that mighty career BRAA mark of 587. One can't help but wonder if his whole career would have turned out differently if the Phillies hadn't collapsed down the stretch that year.
Two of Matty's three most-comparable players at baseball-reference.com are also on this list: Nichols and Pete Alexander.
Did Ford really create the emery ball? Whether he originated it or not, he got some mileage out of it, and receives credit for the invention to this day. He was one of the better pitchers in the first year of the Federal League, and one of the worst in the second. His career lasted just five seasons past his rookie splash, because being a scuffer didn't save his arm from going south on him.
Williams finished fourth in the MVP voting behind Joe DiMaggio, teammate Jimmie Foxx, and Bob Feller. DiMaggio got 15 first-place votes, Williams none; inexplicably, Mike Kreevich of the White Sox got one. In hindsight, we see that DiMaggio's WARP3 of 11.9 barely topped Williams' debut, but Feller was better than both of them at 12.5.
The Blues improved from 27-55 in 1879 to 47-37 in 1880, and Dunlap was one of the big reasons why. Looking at the average team age of the Blues, it seems like a young bunch at 23.7 years old; that's, what, a Double-A team nowadays? However, in the National League of 1880, there were even younger teams than that. The oldest club on average was the Boston Red Caps (we know them now as our Braves) at 26.7. It stands to reason that there weren't a lot of ancient ballplayers at this time, because the sport as a profession was simply not that old.
Jackson's Equivalent Runs his first three full seasons (1911-1913) were 149, 147, and 141. Not even Dick Allen or Albert Pujols did that.
Davis was in the Pacific Coast League when the Phillies got him in the Rule 5 Draft. It was easily one of their smartest moves during the franchise's woeful 1918-1948 period, a stretch in which they only finished above .500 once. Davis accounted for 25 percent of their WARP3 in 1934, and 20 percent in 1935 before they used him to get Chuck Klein back from the Cubs in 1936. Davis is a fellow in the Dazzy Vance Late-Start Career Consortium, and one wonders if he'd be more well-known today if he had gotten into the majors at 23 or 24 and racked up 220 wins or so.
They don't make relief seasons like this anymore--157 innings very nearly qualified him for the ERA title. Another five, and he would have beaten Roger Clemens for the league's ERA and WHIP lows. As it was, he finished sixth in the Cy Young voting and third in the Rookie of the Year. His WARP3 dwarfed that of the two men ahead of him, Jose Canseco (5.4) and Wally Joyner (7.4).
If the third league hadn't formed in 1890, would Rhines have even gotten a chance in the National League, or even the American Association? I suppose we can ask the same question about newly-anointed Greatest Rookie Sensation Ever, Kid Nichols. Rhines was suspended for fighting in 1892, and he never looked as good as he did in '90, but he did manage to win an ERA title in 1896. Granted, an ERA title wasn't the greatest indicator of quality in the 1890s, but, in the context of Rhines' career, it says something.
If not for Bush, Tulowitzki could have laid claim to the greatest rookie shortstop season of all time. Bush made a nice pairing with wily veteran Ty Cobb (who was actually only eight months older)--they batted second and third, and combined to steal 129 bases as the Tigers won their third consecutive pennant. This time around, they made a go of it in the World Series, lasting seven games against Pittsburgh before bowing out, an improvement on the 1-8-1 record they had run up in the two previous years. Bush walked five times in the Series and reached base in almost half his plate appearances. While always a solid fielder, he would never again reach his 1909 single-season EqA peak of .294.
How many more times will Pujols outdo his rookie year? Now that he's settled into one position and is playing it quite well, his added defensive component should guarantee him a continued run of betterments, regardless of the fluctuations in his offense. Following this awesome debut, Pujols became the eleventh unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year. He was preceded by Frank Robinson, 1956; Willie McCovey, 1959; Carlton Fisk, 1972; Vince Coleman, 1985; Benito Santiago, 1987; Mike Piazza, 1993; Raul Mondesi, 1994; Derek Jeter, 1996; and Nomar Garciaparra and Scott Rolen, 1997.
Here's a bit of a trivia quiz for you. Thirteen players have missed Rookie of the Year unanimity by one vote. For each of these Rookies of the Year, can you name the player who got the lone first-place vote that deprived them of a clean sweep?
2004 Bobby Crosby
Bonus question: which one of these players missed unanimity by only half of a vote?
Submit your answers to me at the email address below by 9:00 PM Eastern Time on Tuesday, November 13. I'll then give the correct answers in an Unfiltered post, and name the winner or winners of the contest. Please, go by memory or educated guess-work! No looksies…
Here's the deal: The Fates offer you a rookie year during which you become the darling of the sport. This is followed by pain, frustration, and years and years of trying to get the greatness back, only you never will, and you know this going in. How many of us would take that deal in a second? I'm guessing an incredibly high percentage.
I hope Alexander's historical star isn't fading too much. When we think about him at all, it's usually as the aged Cardinal of the late 1920s, when the cumulative effects of an early beaning, epilepsy, shellshock, and alcohol were helping define his legacy. But long before, there was a young Grover, too, and few before or since pitched better in their freshman seasons. Perhaps a more realistic remake of The Winning Team is in order to enlighten the new generations.
By and large, this is a pretty nice list with which to be associated. It's got four Hall of Famers, one sure-fire bet to make it, and another who would have been had he not let temptation poke him in the greed bone.
While I think Tulowitzki had the better overall season than Braun (who posted a 4.8 WARP3), the Brewers' freshman third baseman was not without his historical charms. For one thing, his VORPr of .498 is the best by any rookie (350 PA minimum) since 1959. Braun's EqA of .326 ranks 21st among rookies since 1876--which, of course, means everybody who ever played the game; Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas, and Pujols are the only other rookies of the last quarter-century to do better. So, between Braun and Tulowitzki, these were both special seasons in their own ways, so whichever man wins the award will have the weight of history behind him.
Clay Davenport contributed invaluable research to this column.