Power Ranking the Top 10 NL Rookie of the Year Seasons in MLB History
The MLB Rookie of the Year award can be somewhat hit or miss.
Sometimes the phenoms of a given baseball season are the real deal. They go on to have long careers full of glory and accolades. They live up to their potential.
And sometimes they are flashes in the proverbial pan. Sometimes they can't sustain their momentum, or the league catches up with them, and they burn out instead of fading away.
But in terms of ranking the greatest seasons in the history of the NL Rookie of the Year award, one type of season is not greater than another.
The members of this list have sometimes gone on to continued greatness—and sometimes have not. Some can be found immortalized in the Hall of Fame, and some will be forgotten much more quickly.
But for one year, during their rookie seasons, these players were among the best in the game. They impacted baseball in major ways and changed the game, regardless of lasting impact.
10. Dontrelle Willis, 2003
For those who didn’t get a chance to see Fernando Valenzuela, Dontrelle Willis’ rookie year was the next best thing.
Although Willis burned out of baseball relatively quickly, he was an absolute phenom in 2003. His delivery was a twisting, disorienting combination of moving parts and pure excitement. His pitches had life and movement, and NL hitters simply didn’t know what to do with him.
Looking back at Willis’ stats will lead you to believe that he was merely an above-average pitcher who appeared to be a once-in-a-generation force-of-nature.
Although he couldn’t sustain his play, Willis’ 2003 season was truly magical.
9. Willie Mays, 1951
So, this guy was pretty good.
Although his rookie campaign was far from the most impressive on this list, Mays earned his place, immediately establishing himself as a game-changing athlete. He took the Giants to the World Series in 1951, and earned his ROY award. Two seasons later he was an All-Star and an MVP.
He liked being an All-Star so much that he decided to do it again...for the next 19 years.
These days, we see rookies every year come to the bigs with elite speed, athleticism and talent. But back in 1951, Mays was unlike anyone who had come before him.
8. Tom Seaver, 1967
In 1967, the Mets were terrible—a tradition that they continue even today.
When you look at how bad the Mets were during Seaver’s rookie year, his 16-13 record and 2.76 ERA are even more impressive.
Seaver immediately established himself not only as a top-of-the-rotation talent, but as an absolute horse, pitching over 250 innings—a feat he would repeat 11 more times in his career.
7. Fernando Valenzuela, 1981
In 1981, Valenzuela went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA. Not bad.
He recorded 180 K’s as well. Pretty decent.
He also won the NL Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Silver Slugger awards and was named to the All-Star team. Very impressive.
But Valenzuela ranks so high on this list because he was a phenomenon. An absolute force of nature. The guy took the country by storm with his unorthodox delivery and larger-than-life personality, and Fernandomania was born.
It's safe to say that anyone who has a “mania” named after them made an impact on the game.
6. Mike Piazza, 1993
Anyone who follows baseball knows that Mike Piazza is probably the greatest offensive catcher of all time.
What is so impressive about Piazza, however, is the fact that he was the best offensive catcher in the game pretty much immediately.
In 1993, as Piazza learned about major league pitching and adapted to a new level of the game, he hit .318/.370/.561. He recorded 174 hits and belted 35 home runs. Not only was he the best offensive catcher in baseball, it wasn’t even close. He was one of the best offensive players in the game, regardless of position.
5. Willie McCovey, 1959
Although McCovey didn’t have the jaw-dropping, game-changing, larger social-type impact that teammate Willie Mays did, statistically speaking he was actually much better.
His .354/.429/.656 was Pujols-esque before Pujols had ever picked up a bat. The only reason McCovey isn’t higher on this list is that he only played in 59 games during his rookie year, compared to the full-season production of some of his contemporaries.
McCovey and Mays are true icons in San Francisco, and both made impacts that were felt immediately.
4. Buster Posey, 2010
Some players earned their spot on this list through elite statistical production. Buster Posey earned his with a World Series ring.
Sure, his .305/.357/.505 was impressive, but it was absolutely remarkable considering its context.
Before Posey was called up, the San Francisco Giants were one of the worst offensive groups in the league. They lacked any semblance of a middle-of-the-order threat and consistently relied on their pitching to pick up wins.
Posey changed all that. He hit for average and power. He provided lineup protection for Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and the rest of the Giants lineup. He changed the culture in San Francisco and led the Giants to a World Series win.
That is a truly special rookie year.
3. Dwight Gooden, 1984
In 1984, Doc Gooden struck out 276 batters.
He won 17 games with a 2.60 ERA, and joined a list that would eventually include Fernando Valenzuela and Dontrelle Willis—young pitchers who took the word “phenom” to the next level.
Gooden created a sense of excitement in baseball that is exceedingly rare. He wasn’t just a player—he was a phenomenon. And although the rest of his career would eventually be derailed by drugs and alcohol, the legend of his rookie year lives on in baseball history.
2. Albert Pujols, 2001
I’m always amazed when a player has a great rookie year and just keeps on going. Albert Pujols had a great first season in 2011, but his place on this list comes from the fact that he still hasn’t stopped.
Sure, his .329/.403/.610 is crazy impressive. But what’s more impressive is that 2001 was basically a standard season for Pujols. He came into the league, was one of the best offensive players in the game right off the bat, and hasn’t looked back since.
Pujols would have made this list regardless of how he produced for the rest of his career. The fact that he has gone on to become “the Machine” is what puts him so high.
1. Jackie Robinson, 1947
Everyone knows about the struggles that Robinson faced in his career—there is no need to recount them here.
But think about how difficult it is to win a Major League Baseball award when everyone in Major League Baseball is against you. Think about how hard it would be to hit .297/.393/.427 with 125 hits and 29 stolen bases when every pitcher is thinking about hitting you and everyone on the basepaths wants to injure you. The degree of difficulty here is off the charts.
It truly is remarkable.
Robinson changed the game of baseball for the better—and for all time. If he had hit .200 and led the league in strikeouts, his rookie year still would have been a success. Instead he won the ROY award and established himself as one of the best athletes in the world.
Robinson would have better statistical seasons in his career, but for reasons that aren’t translated through statistics, he changed the world in 1947.