Ranking the 10 Greatest September Call-Ups in MLB History

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2014

Ranking the 10 Greatest September Call-Ups in MLB History

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    Before Stan Musial became immortalized with a statue, he made his MLB debut in September, 1941.
    Before Stan Musial became immortalized with a statue, he made his MLB debut in September, 1941.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Only in Major League Baseball do the rosters magically multiply during the most important month of the season. While some teams simply let their September call-ups tag along to watch a postseason race unfold in person, others clear the farm system and give their prospects their first taste of MLB action.

    An odd rule, yes, but one that provides fans with an exciting sneak preview of the future. 

    Those fresh September call-ups will often fizzle during their big league inauguration. Some kids can't handle the highest level of competition, and even future All-Stars typically need an adjustment period. Mike Trout hit .182 during his first September.

    Other times, however, a star blossoms before our eyes. A select few All-Stars and Hall of Famers immediately announced their awesomeness upon getting a September showcase.

    Now here's where assembling this list became tricky. Is it best to throw name value aside and solely appraise raw numbers? Or would it be better to highlight the legends who dominated many more Septembers to follow?

    Let's go for both. Utility man Willie Bloomquist missed the cut despite hitting .455 in 2002, and Mike Schmidt's .294 slugging percentage won't allow him admission into the best all-time September call-ups either.

    Not all 10 players are superstars, but some September arrivals from above-average players proved too incredible to ignore. Once those players were chosen, the actual performance matters just as much as what they later became.

    And don't worry, I'm not a biased young whippersnapper who ignored a deep lineage of baseball history. Using Baseball-Reference's MLB Debuts page, I traveled through a century of data to ascertain the most significant September call-ups. Now because of this method, I didn't consider players who were demoted and later brought back up during the final month.

    A widely eclectic list stretching decades apart resulted from the research. Maybe next year we'll have a new name to include on the list.

Honorable Mentions

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    Pedro Martinez needed no time to adapt to major league hitters.
    Pedro Martinez needed no time to adapt to major league hitters.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Greg Maddux, SP, Chicago Cubs (1986)

    It took Greg Maddux a while to find his footing, as he recorded a 5.52 ERA in September for the Chicago Cubs. In retrospect, his debut doesn't look as bad when instead glancing his 3.90 FIP.

    Edgar Martinez, 3B, Seattle Mariners (1987) 

    Making his debut for the Seattle Mariners in 1987, Edgar Martinez hit .372/.413/.581 in 13 games, and that somehow didn't earn him playing time the following year. The under-appreciated designated hitter stuck with the Mariners for 18 years, retiring with a tremendous .312/.418/.515 slash line.

    Pedro Martinez, SP, Montreal Expos (1992)

    Had Pedro Martinez received a full slate during the closing month of 1992, he almost certainly would have made the top 10. Only given the opportunity to pitch eight innings, he made the most of them for the now extinct Montreal Expos, allowing six hits, a walk and two earned runs while collecting eight strikeouts

10. Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds (2013)

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    Billy Hamilton makes a living off his legs, but he also made some noise with his bat last September.
    Billy Hamilton makes a living off his legs, but he also made some noise with his bat last September.Al Behrman/Associated Press

    As a society so caught up in nostalgia, it's tougher to appreciate the present. One of the hottest September debuts occurred this time last year.

    After months of anticipation, speedster Billy Hamilton arrived with considerable fanfare last September to hit .368 with 13 stolen bases in as many games. That gave him 88 total swipes on the year, which was actually a major decrease from the 155 bases he absconded in Single-A and Double-A during 2012.

    Considering how high he set the bar, the 23-year-old could simultaneously win National League Rookie of the Year while critics consider his first full MLB foray a letdown. He's taken an expected dip offensively, hitting .267/.302/.382 with six home runs. 

    While his 54 steals ranks second to Dee Gordon, opponents have also thrown him out more than anybody else. His 20 failed attempts gives him a 73.0 percent success rate, which is acceptable, but not a tremendous asset.

    Yet due to his excellent defense—FanGraphs credits him for eight Defensive Runs Saved and a 15.5 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)—Hamilton should still win due to an unappealing batch of neophytes roaming the National League.

9. Jose Canseco, OF, Oakland Athletics (1985)

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    Jose Canseco has become one of baseball's most controversial figures.
    Jose Canseco has become one of baseball's most controversial figures.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    He cheated. It's tarnished. It shouldn't count. Say what you will about Jose Canseco for exposing MLB's wide-ranging steroid problem. I'm just here to play with numbers.

    The Oakland Athletics had just lost Rickey Henderson to the New York Yankees. Mark McGwire had not yet blessed cursed us with his barrage of power we all adored abhorred, and Moneyball did not yet exist in a world where few households owned a computer. 

    For better or worse, things changed upon Canseco's arrival.

    Getting the entire month to play regulary, the then 21-year-old hit .302 with five homers. His youth showed in his four walks and 31 strikeouts, but his plate patience improved with more seasoning. Go ahead and jump in with your "Is that what the kids are calling PEDs these days?" joke.

    In 2005, he shattered our pristine perception of the game by exposing the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs by himself and many other players. That year, he admitted to CBS' Mike Wallace in a 60 Minutes interview that he wouldn't have amassed 462 career home runs without steroids.

    "I don't recommend steroids for everyone and I don't recommend growth hormones for everyone," Canseco said. "But for certain individuals, I truly believe, because I've experimented with it for so many years, that it can make an average athlete a super athlete. It can make a super athlete incredible. Just legendary."

    It’s easy to remember Canseco as a tattletale who wouldn’t let us enjoy our dingers in blissful ignorance. Let’s instead think about the kind soul who spent an entire day in Springfield salvaging everything from a stranger’s burning house. Mr. Burns probably would have pulled him for a lefty had he showed up for the softball game anyway.

8. David Price, P, Tampa Bay Rays (2008)

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    David Price helped send the Tampa Bay Rays to their first World Series as a rookie.
    David Price helped send the Tampa Bay Rays to their first World Series as a rookie.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Let's rewind six years to when the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Rays harnessed No. 1 pick David Price under team control. Before he morphed into Tampa Bay's ace, and before that success meant the Rays had no chance of retaining him past his arbitration years, Price debuted in the bullpen.

    In terms of his September numbers, there's nothing overly special to analyze. He tossed 14 innings and recorded a 1.93 ERA, but a .205 BABIP fueled his early success. If it ended there, he's not receiving any recognition on this slideshow.

    But the Rays made the playoffs for the first time in their franchise's history, and they needed their prized prospect to help. Price pitched 5.2 innings and allowed one run as Tampa Bay reached its first and only World Series. Sure, he also walked four guys, but let's give the rookie a break and focus on his eight punchouts.

    Price especially proved pivotal in knocking off the Red Sox during the ALCS. With the series on the line in a winner-take-all Game 7, Joe Maddon inserted his rookie onto the mound for a four-out save, the first and last one of his career.

7. Randy Johnson, SP, Montreal Expos (1988)

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    In his MLB debut with the Expos, Randy Johnson teased the ace-upside he later realized with the Seattle Mariners.
    In his MLB debut with the Expos, Randy Johnson teased the ace-upside he later realized with the Seattle Mariners.ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press

    Randy Johnson is now rightfully regarded as one of the game's best hurlers ever, but it didn't always come that easy for the Big Unit.

    The 6'10" lefty did not make his MLB debut until the month he turned 25. In the Montreal Expos' defense, the dude couldn't throw a strike; he walked 7.14 batters per nine innings over his minor league career before receiving the promotion.

    Once upon a time, Randy Johnson was essentially Oliver Perez or Edison Volquez. Then for a brief four starts with the Expos, everything clicked.

    Through his first 26 innings, he registered a 2.42 ERA with 25 strikeouts. More importantly, he only issued seven walks. The future ace had seemingly finally located his command.

    I say seemingly because that success didn't last. He struggled mightily with control for four seasons before breaking out in 1993. Johnson owns the fourth-highest fWAR among all starting pitchers behind Roger Clemens, Walter Johnson and Greg Maddux, yet he didn't contribute like an ace until he turned 30.

6. Ernie Banks, SS, Chicago Cubs (1953)

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    Ernie Banks did all he could to lead the Chicago Cubs out of their century-long slump.
    Ernie Banks did all he could to lead the Chicago Cubs out of their century-long slump.Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

    Ernie Banks never played October baseball throughout his illustrious career, but the Chicago Cubs' lackluster cast couldn't block him from September success.

    The all-time home run leader among shortstops not named Alex Rodriguez pulled off the rare feat of winning back-to-back MVP trophies on losing squads. Years before the superstar saw his MVP seasons wasted in Chicago, he debuted in fashion admid another uneventful September.

    Playing 10 games, Banks hit .314/.385/.571, crushing the first two of 512 career home runs. Two years later, he collected 44 more deep flies with a .596 slugging percentage and a 7.8 fWAR.

    No rings are necessary to appreciate Banks as one of the game's premier shortstops. His hulking power adorned Chicago's lineup for 18 seasons after receiving his first chance in 1953.

5. Fred Lynn, OF, Boston Red Sox (1974)

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    Fred Lynn played his penultimate season with the Detroit Tigers.
    Fred Lynn played his penultimate season with the Detroit Tigers.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Before Fred Lynn ran away with American League Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in 1975, he jumped out to a sensational head start to conclude the 1974 campaign.

    In 51 plate appearances, the lefty hit a sensational .419/.490/.698 with two homers and 10 RBI. Polished beyond his years at age 22, he elicited just as many walks as strikeouts (six). He maintained that discipline throughout his 17-year career with a 10.8 walk percentage.

    Since he didn’t log enough at-bats to qualify as a rookie, he played under the title for a full slate the following season. Resuming right where he left off, Lynn became the first player to receive both Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season by hitting .331/.401/.566 with 21 homers and a 7.1 fWAR.

    Upon returning to normalcy for a few years, Lynn produced the best season of his career in 1979, boasting a .333/.423/.637 slash line with 39 home runs, crushing his second-best total of 25 long balls. While he served as a steady source of power late in his career, he peaked during his six-year tenure with the Boston Red Sox.

4. Fernando Valenzuela, P, Los Angeles Dodgers (1980)

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    Fernando Valenzuela stole the spotlight in Hollywood with his incredible MLB debut.
    Fernando Valenzuela stole the spotlight in Hollywood with his incredible MLB debut.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Fernandomania swept Los Angeles in 1980 when the 19-year-old hurled 17.2 scoreless innings for the Dodgers to close out the season. With that September dominance, the hype around Fernando Valenzuela reached epic proportions.

    At 5'11", Valenzuela hardly met the physical prototype of a typical ace. He instead possessed the physique of a regular guy, or one hidden at first base to protect his powerful bat. Yet nobody could hit him, and his career began with a 31.2-inning scoreless streak.

    Just like Price, he showed that taking a detour to the bullpen doesn't always deter future starters. Trusted with a rotation spot during a strike-shortened 1981 season, the rookie won Rookie of the Year and Cy Young honors with a 2.48 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.

    He devoured innings as a workhorse throughout his career, and he nearly stole the 1986 Cy Young award from Mike Scott because of his 21 wins. Yet given his grand entrance, his career 3.54 career ERA and 6.37 K/9 ratio fell short of the colossal hoopla.

3. J.D. Drew, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (1998)

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    J.D. Drew enjoyed one of the most outstanding debuts in MLB history.
    J.D. Drew enjoyed one of the most outstanding debuts in MLB history.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Had J.D. Drew's body not betrayed him, we'd currently be discussing his Hall of Fame candidacy. 

    Since he never played more than 150 games in a season, Drew gets lost in the fold as a solid player who struggled to stay healthy. When on the field, however, he was far more than just solid.

    The talented outfielder brandished a .278/.384/.489 slash line before retiring at age 36. He holds a 44.9 fWAR, a mark replicated by Matt Williams, Jorge Posada and Kirby Puckett. For a reminder of how high his ceiling stood before a leaky foundation caused the room to deteriorate, look no further than the September of 1998.

    The best statistical September performance from a September call-up, Drew hit .417/.463/.972 with five home runs through 14 games. He was more than twice as good as the average hitter during that stretch, posting an unfathomable 260 Weighted Runs Created Plus (WRC+).

    In just a few weeks worth of work, Drew amassed a 1.1 fWAR. This season, Matt Kemp, Torii Hunter, Derek Jeter, Wily Peralta, Rafael Soriano and Tim Lincecum have all each accumulated a value of less than one win above replacement level.

    When Drew burst on the scene for the St. Louis Cardinals 16 years ago, everyone thought he'd be St. Louis' next superstar that Albert Pujols later became.

2. Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Anaheim Angels (2002)

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    Francisco Rodriguez became the Anaheim Angels' set-up man during the 2002 postseason.
    Francisco Rodriguez became the Anaheim Angels' set-up man during the 2002 postseason.Al Bello/Getty Images

    If the Anaheim Angels decided to wait another year before unleashing Francisco Rodriguez from their bullpen, they don't win the World Series in 2002. How's that for an important September call-up?

    The rally monkey gets all the credit for their championship run, but no mascot could have matched the impact made by Rodriguez, who pitched so well that he promptly earned a nickname based on the best possible outcome a pitcher can generate.

    K-Rod only pitched five games during the regular season, but he dominated them. Through 5.2 scoreless innings, he allowed five baserunners while striking out 13 batters. That annihilation earned him a minus-0.4 FIP. Who even know a negative FIP was possible?

    It's his playoff heroics, however, that places him so prominently on this list. Immediately trusted to work high-leverage situations, Rodriguez registered a 1.93 ERA during 18.2 postseason frames. He continued to earn his nickname with another 28 punchouts.

    During Game 7 of the World Series, manager Mike Scioscia sent out his rookie phenom in the eighth inning. Rodriguez responded by striking out the side. So yeah, a solid debut.

1. Stan Musial, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (1941)

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    The late Stan Musial (1920-2013) attended the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony in 2005.
    The late Stan Musial (1920-2013) attended the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony in 2005.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The late, great Stan Musial's wonderful debut holds up wonderfully as a masterful prologue to one of the most majestic careers ever written.

    At age 20, when most prospects are still boys, Stan immediately proved to be the man. Through 12 games and 47 at-bats, Musial amassed 20 hits, good for a .426 batting average. He hit his first of 475 home runs while tallying a 1.023 OPS.

    You may write off that incredible OPS, and everything else, as a product of a small sample size. Don't. He brandished a .976 OPS during a time where nobody even knew what that meant. All they cared about was his .331 batting average through 22 seasons, and even the crankiest of sabermetric analysts can appreciate that sterling clip.

    Another facet of Musial's game that's doubly impressive viewed through the lens of a modern baseball observer: He didn't strike out. During that foreboding September of 1941, he was sent packing on strikes once in 49 plate appearances. Never striking out more than 46 times in a single season, he retired with a 5.5 strikeout percentage. 

    No other batter with 375 or more career homers has a strikeout percentage lower than seven percent. Just in case any of us have forgotten already, he finished with 475. We may never see another slugger so smoothly juggle contact and power to such resounding success.

    In his 21st season, he continued to resound, hitting .330 at age 41. One of the greatest players in the history of baseball, Stan Musial got his first chance closing out the season in September, and he never stopped hitting to the very end.

    Note: All advanced statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs.