It’s easy to forget that Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger are rookies.
Judge just recently eclipsed the 40-home run mark, making him just the second rookie in Major League Baseball history to do so. Bellinger, too, has a chance to hit 40, as he is just two shy with about two weeks to play. Those two players already feel like established veterans, as they’ve practically waltzed their way to the AL and NL Rookie of the Year awards, respectively.
And behind Judge and Bellinger sits a tier of other solid rookies. Some — like Matt Olson and Rhys Hoskins — have hit like Judge and Bellinger but do not have the plate appearances to pad their counting stats and consistency as Major League batters.
Others — like Paul DeJong and Manuel Margot — have played nearly an entire Major League season; despite their less flashy batting lines, they have played excellent defense and have accumulated a lot of fWAR.
I will admit: the pitching class isn’t great. Rockies pitcher German Marquez leads rookie pitchers in fWAR, yet that’s mainly due to workload rather than performance (88 ERA-, 91 FIP-). The same can be said about Yankees pitcher Jordan Montgomery.
With all this in mind, can we call the 2017 season the “Year of the Rookie?” Judge, Bellinger, Hoskins and Olson all have been historical anomalies in an obviously positive way — breaking both short- and long-term rookie records. But after them, what do we have? And does that hurt the overall rookie class looking back?
How do we even judge (pun not intended (although it is a good one)) what would make a year into the “Year of the Rookie?”
Is the “Year of the Rookie...”
By fWAR, no season in baseball history saw as good of an overall rookie class as the 2015 rookie class. This year put up a total of 84.3 fWAR. The next closest? The 1987 season, with 49.3 fWAR. Collectively, that’s how good these rookies were. Kris Bryant broke out in 2015, and he immediately left his mark on baseball, slashing .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and a 6.5 fWAR; Bryant was playing at an MVP-caliber level in his first full season. Matt Duffy also made his debut, ranking 2nd among rookies in fWAR that year, but he’s struggled to produce since.
Other notable rookies to appear in MLB that year included Francisco Lindor, Odubel Herrera, Jung Ho Kang, Carlos Correa, Randal Grichuk, Addison Russell, Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber.
fWAR for 10 best rookies: 38.0.
fWAR for all rookies: 84.3
Beware stat lovers: this isn’t a stat. This is just pure opinion. While the 2015 rookies produced well that individual year, perhaps only Bryant and Lindor would be in a discussion about the best players in baseball. Correa and Herrera continue to be valuable, but neither of them have left a lasting impact on the league. Yes, it’s hard to measure this, and plenty of more variables go into it, but I don’t think that we thought we were witnessing the “Year of the Rookie” while it was happening. I do remember Lindor, Bryant and Correa making a stir following their promotions, but it hasn’t even been close to the buzz that we’ve heard regarding Judge and Bellinger. Perhaps it has to do with their markets; maybe it is something more.
This was Mark McGwire’s rookie year. This was the .289/.370/.618, 49 home runs, 5.1 fWAR season that is regarded by some as the greatest rookie season of all time. That alone puts 1987 in consideration for this title, but strong seasons from Kevin Sietzer, Devon White and Matt Nokes help its case. Sietzer slashed .323/.399/.470 that year, White began his career with his hallmark defense and Nokes was the Bellinger to McGwire’s Judge with 32 home runs of his own. It’s a good season all around for these rookies, but McGwire’s record-setting year certainly props it up.
I wasn’t alive in 1987, so I couldn’t tell you about the impact that these rookies had on the rest of the league. I will say that it doesn’t help that I’ve never heard of Sietzer nor Nokes, and the two players combined for just three All-Star appearances in their careers. (They were both named All-Stars in 1987.) White had a fine, but not great career, although he did win seven Gold Gloves. And, McGwire went on to have a Hall of Fame-worthy career, PEDs aside. The impact doesn’t help the cause.
fWAR for 10 best rookies: 35.8
fWAR for all rookies: 49.3
The 2017 rookie season doesn’t have the same fWAR totals as 2015 or 1987, but the narrative has been great. Judge and Bellinger have been fantastic, and Hoskins and Olson have set home run records that I didn’t think were possible. The 2017 rookie class could also have totaled more fWAR had Hoskins and Olson played an entire season; between them, they only have a combined 368 plate appearances. Is it realistic to give this year the title because of the narrative? I don’t think so.
We don’t know the impact. We don’t know whether Judge, Bellinger, Hoskins, Olson or any other rookie will actually pan out. I don’t think it’s fair to call 2017 the “Year of the Rookie” until we know whether these rookies truly do become long-term Major League stars. It certainly looks like Judge and Bellinger will, but they could end up having their best seasons be their first seasons, like Nokes and Sietzer. I’m going to hold off on calling 2017 the “Year of the Rookie” until we actually know what they end up doing; performance alone isn’t enough to warrant this title.
fWAR for 10 best rookies: 28.7
fWAR for all rookies: 44.6
Which season is the actual “Year of the Rookie?”
I’m going to go with 2015. I have a hard time deciding against the year with the absolute most fWAR, let alone mention the fact that it nearly doubles the next closest year. Bryant and Lindor, at a minimum, have become perennial stars, and they actually faced off against each other in the World Series just a year later.
While it might seem like 2017 has been a historic year in terms of rookies, it doesn’t even compare.
We’ll check back in five years from now.
All stats are updated through games played on Tuesday, September 19.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.