Where Do Seiya Suzuki, Steven Kwan Rank Among Best MLB Rookie Starts Since 2000?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 1, 2022

Where Do Seiya Suzuki, Steven Kwan Rank Among Best MLB Rookie Starts Since 2000?

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    Cleveland's Steven Kwan
    Cleveland's Steven KwanAssociated Press

    Both Seiya Suzuki and Steven Kwan have gotten out to fantastic starts for the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Guardians, respectively.

    But how do those debut months stack up with what we've witnessed since the beginning of the millennium?

    Because both Suzuki and Kwan made their MLB debuts to begin the campaign, we went looking exclusively for players who did the same in March/April of their rookie seasons. In other words, you won't find Prince Fielder, Geovany Soto, Aaron Judge, Trevor Rogers, Yermin Mercedes or others who got a taste of the majors before dominating in the opening month of what was still officially their rookie season.

    We are also focused on March/April as opposed to something like "first 30 games played." One of many examples where that excluded a player who was awesome right away is Yordan Alvarez, who had 11 home runs and a 1.131 OPS through the first 30 games of his career, but who did so in June and July.

    Even with those stipulations in place, however, there have been plenty of quality candidates over the past two-plus decades.

Honorable Mentions

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    Rocco Baldelli (5)
    Rocco Baldelli (5)DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

    Rocco Baldelli, Tampa Bay Rays, 2003
    .364/.385/.509, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 2 SB (27 games)

    There have been a ton of "if he could have just stayed healthy" players over the years, and Baldelli was one of the most tantalizing of the bunch. He did strike out quite a bit, but he had 13 multi-hit performances within his first 26 starts. The Rays were still half a decade away from becoming even remotely relevant, but Baldelli placed third in the AL ROY vote despite playing for a 99-loss squad.


    Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers, 2010
    .364/.422/.495, 1 HR, 20 R, 5 SB (23 games)

    Early in Jackson's career, it looked like the Tigers had found a suitable replacement for Curtis Granderson. Through his first three seasons, he batted .280, stole 61 bases and knocked 146 extra-base hits. Five of those swipes and nine of the extra-base hits (six doubles, two triples and one home run) came in his first month of action. He ended the month with a 5-for-5 (all singles) performance.


    Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners, 2011
    4-1, 2.01 ERA, 30 K (5 starts)

    Pineda opened his career with five consecutive quality starts, winning four games in spite of minimal run support (a common problem for Mariners aces over the past two decades). He logged 31.1 innings without allowing a single home run and without hitting a single batterthe only time in his career that he had at least five consecutive performances of that ilk.


    Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers, 2012
    4-0, 2.18 ERA, 33 K (5 starts)

    Darvish's debut (5.2 IP, 5 ER, 4 BB, 5 K) left much to be desired, but it didn't take long for him to hit midseason form. Over his final two starts of April, Darvish went 15.1 innings with 19 strikeouts and allowed only one run, shutting down solid Yankees and Blue Jays lineups in back-to-back outings.


    Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland A's, 2012
    .250/.333/.476, 5 HR, 19 RBI, 4 SB (23 games)

    His batting average wasn't great, but Cespedes quickly made his presence known in the majors with three home runs in his first four games. The biggest highlight came a little later in the month, though, when he went 3-for-5 at the plate and mashed a game-tying home run in the 14th inning against the White Sox. 


    Steven Kwan, Cleveland Guardians, 2021
    .354/.459/.500, 10 R, 7 RBI (15 games)

    Kwan has gotten out to an impressive start, perhaps most notably in the "rarely swings and misses" department, as he leads the majors with a 94.6 contact percentage. He has also done an excellent job in left field with two assists and no errors. However, with no home runs and no stolen bases, it's hard to put Kwan in the same tier with guys who made a bigger impact.

8. Seiya Suzuki, Chicago Cubs, 2022

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Stats: .279/.405/.529, 4 HR, 14 RBI (21 games)

    Did you know that Seiya Suzuki is leading the majors in intentional walks?

    Sure, that league-leading number is merely two, and both were situational decisions with men on second and third and first base vacant.

    Still, the respect is clearly there for the man who dominated Nippon Professional Baseball over the previous six seasons.

    Ten games into his MLB career, the Chicago Cubs rookie was batting .429 with four home runs and an OPS of 1.493. Most impressive was the April 12 game against the Pirates in which his two solo home runs provided all of the offense for a 2-1 Cubs win. It felt like he was doing something newsworthy every day.

    The batting average and OPS have already come plummeting back to earth, but Suzuki was still leading the National League in on-base percentage as recently as Wednesday morning. There have already been six games in which he reached base at least three times, including last week's blowout victory over the Pirates in which he had three hits and his first stolen base.

7. Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox, 2014

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Stats: .270/.336/.617, 10 HR, 32 RBI (29 games)

    For the first 17 games of his MLB career, Jose Abreu had no business appearing on this list. He had a pair of multi-homer games, but those were his only four blasts during a nearly three-week stretch in which he batted .200 with a .764 OPS.

    Over the subsequent 12 games, however, Abreu was a wrecking ball in the middle of the Chicago White Sox batting order. He swatted six home runs, batted .360 and had an OPS of 1.205.

    But most noteworthy were the 32 RBI.

    This is one of those silly, "Yeah, but" baseball stats, as in "yeah, but the number of games played in March/April isn't the same in every season" or "yeah, but a player has no control over whether players get on base in front of him."

    Still, there have only been a half dozen players in the past two decades with at least 32 RBI before May 1: Cody Bellinger (37 in 2019), Christian Yelich (34 in 2019), Alex Rodriguez (34 in 2007), Albert Pujols (32 in 2006), Josh Hamilton (32 in 2008) and Abreu as a rookie in 2014.

    Abreu led the majors in slugging (.581) that season and finished fourth in the AL MVP vote, though it wasn't until six years later that Chicago finally started winning more games than it lost with this star at first base.

6. Pete Alonso, New York Mets, 2019

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Stats: .292/.382/.642, 9 HR, 26 RBI (29 games)

    After slugging .573 in Double-A and .585 in Triple-A in 2018, Pete Alonso batted .352 with four home runs during spring training and pretty much forced the New York Mets to give him a spot in the starting lineup on Opening Day.

    The dividends quickly followed.

    The Polar Bear didn't homer in that first game, but it only took a dozen contests for him to reach a half dozen round-trippers. By the end of that 12th game, he had a 1.362 OPS and was well on his way to a spot in the All-Star Game.

    The next 17 contests before the end of April were considerably less productive, as he batted .230 with three home runs, but it was still an overall impressive first month in the big leagues.

    Alonso's start may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle with both Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich ending that month with 14 home runs to jump-start a competitive race for NL MVP. But Alonso went on to surpass both of those guys (and everyone else) for an MLB-best 53 home runsnot counting the 57 that he hit to win the Home Run Derby.

5. Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies, 2016

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Stats: .261/.324/.696, 19 R, 10 HR, 20 RBI (22 games)

    A torn UCL in his thumb kept Trevor Story from playing in August or September 2016, robbing him of an NL ROY award and robbing us of what was shaping up to be one of the greatest rookie campaigns in MLB history. (In 60 fewer games played, Story still finished with one more home run and the same number of RBI as unanimous 2016 NL ROY Corey Seager.)

    But while the ending was disappointing, goodness gracious was the beginning ever entertaining.

    Story homered off Zack Greinke in both the second and third at-bats of his career. He also hit one home run in each of his second and third games and added another two-HR performance in game No. 4. All told, it was six home runs and 11 RBI in his first 19 trips to the plate for the Colorado Rockies.

    There have been better debuts as far as all of April is concerned, but best of luck trying to find a better first four games of a player's career.

    Colorado only played 23 games that April, but that was enough time for Story to add another four dingers, finishing the month in a tie with teammate Nolan Arenado for the most home runs in the majors. Story also had four doubles and three triples (including the rarely-seen two three-baggers in a single game), ending up with an impressive 1.019 OPS for the month.

4. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners, 2001

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    JOHN FROSCHAUER/Associated Press

    Stats: .336/.358/.431, 17 R, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 5 SB (25 games)

    Before doing any of the research for this, I fully expected Ichiro Suzuki to land in the No. 1 spot. After all, he and Fred Lynn were the only players in MLB history to be named both ROY and MVP in the same season, and Ichiro was a 27-year-old who already had plenty of experience as a professional baseball player in Japan.

    However, it wasn't until mid-May that the Seattle Mariners legend really hit his stride.

    To be sure, Ichiro was great right away. He had two hits (including a bunt single) in the first game of his MLB career and had four multi-hit performances in his first five games. That includes one outing in which he went 4-for-6 with a game-winning two-run home run in the 10th inning.

    Ichiro had at least one hit in 39 of his first 41 contests and struck out just three times in his first 92 plate appearances.

    He also had two outfield assists within his first 10 games, immediately establishing himself as a Gold Glove right fielder.

    All good stuff.

    Per FanGraphs, however, Ichiro's April was merely worth 0.7 wins above replacement, good for 53rd among batters that season. And while a .336 average is great for a full season, it's not that special for a single month. Perhaps if he had racked up more than five of his MLB-best 56 stolen bases, he would've had a better case for No. 1.

3. Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees, 2014

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    Stats: 35.2 IP, 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 46 K

    I'm unsure if this is officially Major League Baseball's record, but the fact that Masahiro Tanaka opened his career with 16 consecutive quality starts (at least 6.0 IP allowing 3 ER or fewer) was certainly an uncommon occurrence.

    The funny thing about that is Tanaka got out to quite the ominous start for the New York Yankees. The first batter he faced, Melky Cabrera, homered off him. But he settled down in a hurry, finishing that game with a line of 7.0 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K.

    In the third start of his MLB career, Tanaka pitched eight scoreless innings and posted 10 strikeouts against the Cubs. He only allowed two hits, both of which were bunt singles.

    During his seven seasons in the majors, Tanaka had 14 starts with at least 10 strikeouts, or roughly one for every 12 games in which he took the mound. But three of those performances took place in his debut month, as he ended April 2014 averaging 11.6 K/9.

    The occasional home run was just about the only way opponents could generate any sort of offense against him.

2. Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels, 2018

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Stats: .341/.383/.682, 4 HR, 12 RBI (12 games); 20.1 IP, 4.43 ERA, 26 K (four starts)

    It wasn't until April 2021 that the Los Angeles Angels finally let Shohei Ohtani serve as both the designated hitter and the starting pitcher on the same day, resulting in ridiculous nights like April 20, 2022, when he pitched six innings, struck out 12 batters and got more hits at the plate (two) than he allowed on the mound (one).

    Heck, for that first month of his rookie season, they didn't even let Ohtani bat the game before or the game after taking the mound, let alone the day of. That limited him to 16 games played out of the team's first 28.

    But part-time work did not stop Ohtani from becoming an immediate dual-threat sensation.

    In his first 15 plate appearances, he went 7-for-15 with three home runs. In his first 13 innings on the mound, he allowed four hits, three runs and two walks and struck out 18. Coupled with the Angels getting out to a 13-3 start, Ohtani was all anyone could talk about that April.

    Both Ohtani and the Angels eventually tapered off, partially due to a UCL injury that sidelined him for a month and effectively ended the pitching portion of his career for nearly three years. (From June 7, 2018 through April 3, 2021, Ohtani pitched a grand total of four innings.) But that .341 batting average, the moonshot home runs and the strikeout-inducing filth on the mound from his first month in the majors will never be forgotten.

1. Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals, 2001

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Stats: .370/.431/.739, 8 HR, 27 RBI (24 games)

    Remember 2001 when Albert Pujols was one of the greatest utility men of all time?

    During his first season in the majors, Pujols made at least 30 starts at each of first base, third base, left field and right field. All that bouncing around resulted in 20 errors committed, but it was a small price to pay for the St. Louis Cardinals to get his electric bat into the lineup as often as possible.

    For the season, the 2001 NL ROY batted .329 with a 1.013 OPS. But he was particularly potent during that first month in the big leagues with a 1.171 OPS. Pujols had multi-hit performances in nine of his first 21 starts. He also had a streak of 30 consecutive games reaching base, which began in the fourth game of his career.

    Even with Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds and J.D. Drew at the Cardinals' disposal, it took all of two weeks before the 21-year-old became the primary cleanup hitter. And he filled that role admirably with 27 RBI in April and 130 overall as a rookie. (Not quite matching Ted Williams' rookie record of 145 in 1939, but it's still the most for any rookie in the past seven decades.)

    Pujols is the standard against which all other April rookies must be judged.