As 2019 MLB rookie hitters pile up numbers, a look at past classes
By this point, you’ve heard over and over about this year’s group of outstanding rookie hitters, the ones with the famous last names (Guerrero, Tatis, Bichette, Biggio) and the ones who play in big markets (Pete Alonso with the Mets) and the ones who play for a team desperately chasing a championship (Alex Verdugo with the Dodgers).
And that’s a good thing, because it’s impossible to say too many good things about these kids.
But where do they rank among other recent rookie classes? I thought about that while writing my column on Friday, and more over the weekend. And I’ve come to this conclusion: Before we start ranking them with other years, let’s at least let them finish this one, OK?
Cool. But that doesn’t mean we can’t rank other finished years, which brings us to today.
I’m not going to lie: There were a lot of ways to approach this ranking, and I struggled with that thought. Should I look at only what they did during their rookie seasons? Should I put more weight on their career production? After much hemming and hawing, I leaned toward the latter option. Because, to me, what makes this group special isn’t just what they’ve done in 2019 – though it is incredible – but just how good this group could be next year and in 2021 and on down the road. That’s how history judges rookie classes.
So here’s what I did:
Using the Play Index feature on Baseball-Reference, I sorted by year and pulled out every position player with rookie eligibility who posted a bWAR of at least 1.0 that year. And then I went year by year through the Rookie of the Year voting to make sure I didn’t miss anyone (don’t get me started on the flaws in a three-person RoY ballot; that’s a topic for another time). The guys we’re considering have to have made at least some impact in that year.
The class of 2019, by the way, has 22 rookie hitters with a bWAR of at least 1.0, and another 11 guys with a bWAR of 0.5 to 0.9, meaning they have a chance to get to that 1.0 mark. The year with the most rookie hitters at 1.0? That’s 2015 (35). And 2000 has the least, at 11.
The elite stars: Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, Lorenzo Cain
The All-Stars: Jason Heyward, Carlos Santana, Starlin Castro, Ian Desmond, Mike Leake, Neil Walker
Thoughts: That’s not too shabby, right? Posey won the NL rookie award, but Stanton didn’t even receive a vote, despite 22 homers in 100 games. Cain didn’t get a mention, either, though he did produce a 2.0 bWAR in just 43 games. Lots of excellent seasons compiled by the All-Stars on this list. Over in the AL, Neftali Feliz took home the rookie hardware, but injuries kept him from a mention on this list.
The elite stars: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Grady Sizemore, David Wright
The All-Stars: Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, Jayson Werth, Kevin Youkilis
Thoughts: Can’t help but look at this group and wonder what might have been if only the stars had stayed healthy. Damn shame.
The elite stars: Alex Bregman, Gary Sanchez, Corey Seager
The All-Stars: Tim Anderson, Byron Buxton, Willson Contreras, David Dahl, Max Kepler, Whit Merrifield, Trevor Story, Trea Turner
Thoughts: Bregman’s approaching superstar status. Injuries to Sanchez and Seager – who finished third in the NL MVP race as a rookie – and others keep this group a little lower than they probably could be right now. Kepler’s the sleeper of the group; after a couple of good-not-great seasons, he already has 32 homers and a 3.4 bWAR.
The elite stars: Ronald Acuna, Juan Soto, Gleyber Torres, Shohei Ohtani
The All-Stars: Brian Anderson, Jeff McNeil, Franmil Reyes
Thoughts: When we revisit this list in a couple of years, chances are this group could wind up in the top three. It’s just too early at the moment. But, wow. Acuna is a superstar-in-waiting, and the same can be said for Soto and Torres. And Ohtani? He’s only doing things we’ve never seen in the modern era. And here’s something you probably didn’t know: After compiling 11 homers and a 3.9 bWAR in 156 games as a rookie for the Marlins, Anderson already has 20 homers and a 3.8 bWAR in just 116 games. And, yeah, this rookie class was deep – 25 rookie hitters posted a bWAR of at least 1.0 in 2018.
The elite stars: Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Didi Gregorius
The All-Stars: Khris Davis, Wil Myers, A.J. Pollock, Yasiel Puig, Jedd Gyorko
Thoughts: Arenado just might be the best third baseman in baseball and Yelich is the best outfielder not named Mike Trout right now. That’s a good place to start.
The elite stars: Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, Matt Chapman
The All-Stars: Ozzie Albies, Josh Bell, Andrew Benintendi, Paul DeJong, Rafael Devers, Mitch Haniger, Rhys Hoskins, Trey Mancini, Yoan Moncada, Matt Olson
Thoughts: The talent here is kind of incredible, and a testament to just how stacked the years above 2017 on this list are. Like 2018, it’s still early to get a true feel of just how great this class is, but these guys are going to be Midsummer Classic regulars for a long, lone time.
The elite stars: Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa
The All-Stars: Corey Seager, Michael Conforto, Tommy Pham, J.T. Realmuto, Enrique Hernandez, Odubel Herrera, Ketel Marte, Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber, Eddie Rosario
Thoughts: Lindor and Correa were neck-and-neck for the AL rookie award in 2015, with Correa taking home the hardware (17 first-place votes to 13 for Lindor), but Lindor’s had the better career since. So many other impact players in this class. Really impressive. Oh, and, yep, Seager’s mentioned twice. He only had 113 PAs in 2015, which means he kept his rookie eligibility for 2016, but he HAS to be mentioned for what he did in those 113 PAs – .337, 174 OPS+, 1.8 bWAR. Pretty incredible. And one more thing: It wasn’t just the talent at the top that’s amazing, it’s the depth – 35 rookie hitters had at least a 1.0 bWAR, far and away the most of any year on this list.
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The elite stars: Vladimir Guerrero, Andruw Jones, Scott Rolen, Nomar Garciaparra
The All-Stars: Mike Cameron, Craig Counsell, Brian Giles, Magglio Ordonez, Doug Glanville
Thoughts: With one Hall of Famer (Vlad Sr.), two fringe Hall of Famers (Jones and Rolen) and a guy who probably would have wound up in Cooperstown if not for injuries (Nomar), it’s a top-heavy group, though guys like Cameron, Giles and Ordonez had outstanding careers, too.
The elite stars: Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, Jimmy Rollins
The All-Stars: Adam Dunn, David Eckstein, Juan Uribe, A.J. Pierzynski, Aaron Rowand
Thoughts: This class isn’t deep – only 13 rookie hitters posted a WAR of 1.0 or better – but holy crap, the top of the class is loaded. Pujols and Ichiro are no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famers, and Rollins had better numbers than some of the shortstops in Cooperstown.
The elite stars: Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper
The All-Stars: Anthony Rizzo, Andrelton Simmons, Matt Carpenter, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasmani Grandal, D.J. LeMahieu
Thoughts: The talent here is just amazing. You start with one of the best players in the history of the sport, add two other guys who signed free-agent contracts exceeding $300 million and the 2015 AL MVP, and that’s one hell of a place to start. Add in a bunch of perennial MVP candidates and you have a class that would be No. 1 even if you took off one of those guys on the top line.
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