Major League baseball has seen their fair share of incredible rookies, but is New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge the best we’ve seen, yet?
New York Yankees rookie outfielder Aaron Judge hit his 49th and 50th home runs Monday, setting an new rookie record. Does that make him the greatest rookie of all time? Those home run numbers certainly make a great case for him. However, baseball is about more than home runs.
That’s why it’s difficult to compare a power-hitting outfielder like Willie Mays to a defensive stalwart like Ozzie Smith. Then there’s the comparison of position players to pitchers, which can create an even bigger challenge. But this is baseball, so why don’t we try anyway? Let’s start with some of the best offensive performances.
The greatest rookie hitters
We can go all the way back to 1911 to see what Shoeless Joe Jackson did for the Cleveland Naps. He batted a breathtaking .408 that season in 571 at bats. What’s wild is that he didn’t even lead the league that year. Ty Cobb bested Jackson by 12 points. Throw in Jackson’s 45 doubles, 19 triples and 233 total hits and you get his impressive .468 OBP. That number, like his average that year, stands as a rookie record.
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Ted Williams would begin his career 28 seasons later with the Boston Red Sox. Sure, his .327 average paled in comparison to Jackson’s average, but it was still a great rookie campaign. “The Splendid Splinter” also drove in 145 runs in 1939, which still stands as a rookie record after almost 80 years.
Although Williams became known during and after his career for his ability to get base hits, he also had some power. He smacked 31 homers as a rookie, which placed him third in the league. All considered, you see that Williams put together a fantastic first year.
In the 1956 season, Cincinnati Reds rookie Frank Robinson set a record that would stand for 30 years by hitting 38 home runs. He also batted .290 and scored 122 runs with a .558 slugging percentage. He would achieve better numbers across the board later in his career, but that season definitely foreshadowed the type of hitter he would become.
Offense shouldn’t define everything for position players, though. Look at Fred Lynn, who busted into baseball in 1975 with the Boston Red Sox. Not only did he showcase a great bat with a slash of .331/.401/.566, but he also won the Gold Glove and the Most Valuable Player award. Not to mention, he did it from a position known historically as a defense-first position, playing center field. Then 26 years later, Ichiro Suzuki duplicated the feat as a right fielder, but with a robust .350 average.
Then of course, we have some honorable mentions of memorable rookies. Oakland first baseman Mark McGwire blasted 49 homers in 1987 to lead the league and break Robinson’s rookie record. Albert Pujols cranked 37 home runs in 2001 for St. Louis, but wasn’t just a power guy. He also batted .329 for one of the better all-around offensive seasons by a rookie. And of course, we can’t forget Mike Trout and his .326 average, 30 homers, 129 runs, and 49 stolen bases with the Angels in 2012. Yet, what about the pitchers? Where do they sit within baseball history?
The greatest rookie pitchers
In the case of starting pitchers, there haven’t been many great performances since Dwight Gooden‘s 1984 rookie year with the Mets. He struck out an unimaginable 276 hitters as a 19-year-old rookie and pitched a mind-blowing 218 innings. His 11.4 K/9 set a rookie record that would stand until Kerry Wood pitched his first season in 1998. Gooden went on to lead the league in WHIP (1.073), FIP (169), fewest H/9 (6.6), fewest HR/9 (0.3) and a 17-9 record. Not to mention, he finished second in lowest ERA with a 2.60.
Yet even better than Gooden’s rookie performance, was that of Mark Fidrych. In 1976, Fidrych began his career with the Detroit Tigers in absolutely dominant fashion. He finished the year with a 19-9 record, leading the league in ERA (2.34), complete games (24) and averaged nearly 8 2/3 innings per start. It’s tough to get past those 24 complete games, which would never happen in this era for a rookie starter. In fact, there’s likely not a veteran that would even come close to that number.
As far as relievers, there’s Mark Eichhorn. In 1986, he logged 156 innings and posted a 14-7 record with a 1.72 ERA. Based on the win-loss record and number of innings, you’d think the guy started that year. But no, he did not. In fact, he didn’t start a single game that year. Instead, Eichhorn closed out 38 games, posting 10 saves and seven holds.
If you want to look for a pure closer, then look at Craig Kimbrel from the Atlanta Braves. In 2011, Kimbrel saved 46 games, setting a rookie record with an ERA of 2.10 and a K/9 rate of 14.8. His 46 saves currently stand as the top mark in MLB history by a rookie pitcher.
Where does this leave Judge?
What Aaron Judge has accomplished so far deserves a lot of credit. He’s smashed the ball and has made pitchers think really hard about how they pitch to him. He strikes out a lot, but then again, he has a BABIP of .358 and leads the league in walks with 124.
For a right fielder, he’s played slightly above average, so he doesn’t get too much credit for his glove. However, it doesn’t discredit him either. Therefore, it’s his bat that speaks the most for him.
But looking at the overall package, Judge is set to lead the American League or at least be near the top in WAR, OBP, slugging, OPS, runs, total bases, home runs, runs batted in, walks, runs created and overall times on base. Across the board, he has lit the league on fire with his bat.
He’s one of those special types of players that only comes around every few years. The New York Yankees are lucky to have him. Granted, it’s not so much luck as it is good scouting and farm work by the organization, but still.
He’s a special player and has potential to make himself the next Yankees great. But historically, where does he rank with the other great rookies? Well, at the risk of making a bad pun, you be the judge. Let us know in your comments what you think.