The majority of major league players, including eventual Hall of Famers, take several seasons to reach their peak in the big leagues. All time greats Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson struggled with their control for years before becoming dominant. Good position players sometimes have to accept partial playing time because they have to wait for an established star to retire before getting a chance. And others never get much better, and fade into the background as the years go by.
Yet every year there are a few newcomers who make the adjustment to the big leagues with such impressive ease that they get nominated for rookie awards. Their talent, maturity and nerves have developed enough that they hit the ground running. This doesn’t mean that they will be able to sustain the impressive play. (Just take a look at the long list of previous Rookie of the Year award winners that nobody ever heard from again.) Nonetheless, a strong start to a promising career is worth recognizing.
In 2001, Albert Pujols burst into the major leagues. With 37 homers, 47 doubles and a solid glove in the outfield and at first base, Pujols was an obvious natural. He had an OBP of.403, a SLG of .610 and a wOBA (one of my favorite stats) of .421. In his honor, I will name the award for best rookie hitter after him.
In 1984, pitcher Dwight Gooden of the NY Mets had one of the great seasons of the decade, and not just for rookies. His ERA was a solid 2.60, his FIP an astounding 1.69, and he K’d 276 batters in just 218 innings. Perhaps even more remarkable was that he only walked 73 batters. Rookies with power sometimes rack up strikeouts, but seldom have the control to match. The award for best rookie pitcher will be named after him.
This year’s Albert Pujols Award goes to Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. While a far cry from Pujols’ amazing rookie season, Freeman still had a memorable first year. He hit 21 homers and lead all rookies with 32 doubles, a .345 wOBA and 118 wRC+. He struck out far too often and didn’t walk very often, but those are the kind of things that can be fixed from experience. But his power and talent are already apparent.
The Dwight Gooden Award for best rookie pitcher also goes to a Braves’ player, reliever Craig Kimbrel. While hard throwing relievers can be found on pretty much every team these days, Kimbrel’s numbers indicate particularly overwhelming dominance. Besides his 46 Saves, Kimbrel had 127 strikeouts in only 77 innings. That is an amazing 14.84/9 innings rate. His ERA was 2.10, his FIP 1.52 and his SIERA 1.62. Now the Dodgers’ young middle reliever Kenley Jansen had a higher K/9 rate and a lower SIERA (1.59) than Kimbrel, but he threw just 53 innings this year, meaning that Kimbrel’s SIERA, virtually the same as Jansen’s, was maintained over 30% more innings. Kimbrel also had a lower Walk and Home Run Rate. I also maintain that closing a game involves more pressure than pitching in the 8th inning, which cannot be quantified in stats but gives Kimbrel another big edge over Jansen. There were several decent rookie starting pitchers this year, but none displayed the dominance of Kimbrel.