Ranking the Dodgers' Rookies of the Year, Part 2

Ranking the Dodgers' Rookies of the Year, Part 2
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Last week, I began the process of ranking the Dodgers’ record 18 Rookie of the Year recipients based solely on the strength of their on-field performances. Today, in anticipation of the Rule 4 draft on Wednesday, I finish the task with the top nine:

9. Joe Black (28), RHP, 1952

2.15 ERA (171 ERA+), 142 1/3 IP, 5.4 K/9, 2.07 K/BB, 1.01 WHIP, 56 G, 2 GS, 41 GF, 15 SV, 3.1 WAR

The synchronization of the birth of the BBWAA’s Rookie of the Year award and Jackie Robinson’s monumental rookie season lends a karmic element to the Dodgers’ dominance of the award. Starting with Robinson, six of the first seven National League Rookie of the Year award winners (including Robinson’s win in 1947, when there was just one award for both leagues) were former Negro League players. Four of those six were Dodgers (joined by the Braves’ Sam Jethroe in 1950 and the Giants’ Willie Mays in 1951). Between 1947 and the team’s final year in Brooklyn in 1957, the Dodgers won those four Rookie of the Year awards, five MVP awards, and, in 1956, the first ever Cy Young award. All of those awards went to former Negro League players. Those players helped the Dodgers win six pennants in ten years and the franchise’s first championship.

Black was the third of Brooklyn’s four Rookies of the Year, and the one who would prove to have the least valuable career. Black was not only the second oldest of all of the Dodgers’ award-winning rookies, just eight days younger than Robinson was in his rookie season, but the Dodgers began toying with his repertoire after his sensational 1952 campaign, and he was never again as effective.

Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen until the final week of the 1952 season, Black averaged 2 1/3 innings per relief appearance, finishing 41 of the 54 games in which he appeared, 35 of them Dodgers wins. His final two regular-season outings were starts, a complete game win (three hits, two unearned runs allowed), and a five-inning loss, that last inflating what had been a 1.90 ERA through 137 1/3 innings.

Black’s closest rival for the Rookie of the Year award that year was fellow Dodgers righty Billy Loes (136 ERA+ in 187 1/3 innings). The choice was as obvious to the writers as it was to the Dodgers themselves, who, with Don Newcombe in the military, used Black as their ace in the World Series, starting him in Games 1, 4, and 7. The first was another complete game win. The second was a hard-luck 2-0 loss that saw Black go seven innings and allow just one run on a Johnny Mize solo homer. The last was a heartbreaking, see-saw Game 7 in which Black allowed a tie-breaking solo home run to Mickey Mantle in the sixth for what would prove to be the Series-winning run.

8. Jim Gilliam (24), 2B, 1953

.278/.383/.415 (105 OPS+), 710 PA, 6 HR, 100 BB, 38 K, 17 3B, 21 SB (60%), 4.1 WAR

Gilliam’s arrival in 1953 pushed Jackie Robinson off second base, and it’s remarkable to note how similar their rookie year performances were. Here’s Robinson’s 1947 line:

.297/.383/.427 (112 OPS+), 701 PA, 12 HR, 74 BB, 36 K, 29 SB (73%), 3.6 WAR

Both had a .383 on-base percentage in more than 700 plate appearances, 20-plus stolen bases, and a tremendous walk-to-strikeout ratio, but were light on power, especially given their home ballpark of Ebbets Field. Both men were also outstanding defensive second baseman. The big difference in their rookie seasons is that the Dodgers moved Robinson to first base in deference to Eddie Stanky, while Gilliam actually got to play second base. That alone made Gilliam more valuable on the field, both because his plate performance played better at the position (the average major league second baseman had a 94 OPS+ in 1953, while the average first baseman had a 118 OPS+ in 1947), and because Gilliam, like Robinson, was a superlative defender at their shared position. It’s ironic, then, that Gilliam’s arrival pushed Robinson off second base (to third base and left field). Jackie had two more great seasons at the plate after moving off the keystone, but, denied his customary position, he was never again as valuable as he was during his 1949-52 peak, when he averaged 8.7 bWAR per season.

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As good as Gilliam was in 1953, the NL’s Rookie of the Year should have been Cardinals righty Harvey Haddix, who posted a 139 ERA+ over 253 innings, leading the league in shutouts with six, a performance worth an average WAR of 5.3. Perhaps benefitting from the Dodgers’ first-place finish, Gilliam got 11 of 24 first-place votes. Despite a 20-9 record, Haddix finished second with four.

7. Jim Lefebvre (23), 2B, 1965

.250/.337/.369 (106 OPS+), 631 PA, 12 HR, 71 BB, 92 K, 4.1 WAR

Lefebvre’s 1965 batting line may appear feeble at first glance, but it exceeded the plate performance of the average major league second baseman in 1965 by almost exactly as much as Gilliam’s did in 1953. Both seasons, the average second baseman had a 94 OPS+. Gilliam’s rookie mark was 105; Lefebvre’s was 106 OPS+. The reason their raw batting lines look so different is that Lefebvre and Gilliam were playing in wildly different hitting environments. Gilliam played his home games at hitter-friendly Ebbets Field in a season in which the average NL team scored 4.56 runs per game. Lefebvre’s home park was pitcher-friendly Dodger stadium in a season in which the average NL team scored just 4.03 runs per game. Thus, while Lefebvre’s on-base percentage was 46 points lower than Gilliam’s, it was still 26 points above the major-league average in 1965 (.311). Lefebvre was also an elite defensive second baseman as a rookie, better, even, than Gilliam per modern metrics.

What Lefebvre was not, however, was a deserving Rookie of the Year. That’s because the 1965 Astros had a 21-year-old second baseman named Joe Morgan who posted a 131 OPS+ in 708 plate appearances with 20 stolen bases and a major-league best 97 walks. Morgan wasn’t anything special in the field that year, but his bat and his legs made him easily more valuable than Lefebvre. Lefebvre received 10 more votes than Morgan in that year’s Rookie of the Year voting, but Morgan’s 1966 Topps card was the one with the All-Star Rookie trophy.

I want to pause here a moment to calling attention to the Dodger’s remarkable history of rookie second basemen. Jackie Robinson won the Rookie of the Year as a second baseman playing out of position in 1947. He moved back to the keystone in 1948 but was pushed off again for Gilliam, who won the award as a second baseman in 1953. Gilliam played multiple positions in his 14 years with the Dodgers, but was still a regular infielder for the team when Lefebvre won the award at second base in 1965. Four years later, after injuries began to wear away at Lefebvre, the Dodgers had another Rookie of the Year second baseman in Ted Sizemore. Sizemore was traded for Dick Allen after his sophomore season, ultimately clearing the way for Davey Lopes’ participation in the Longest Running Infield (Lopes finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1973, but should have placed higher). The Longest Running Infield came to an end in 1982, when Steve Sax took over at second base and . . . won Rookie of the Year. Second base has been a revolving door for the Dodgers since Sax left as a free agent after the 1988 World Series, but, in Gavin Lux, the Dodgers have what could be their fifth (sixth if you count Robinson) Rookie of the Year second baseman and, they hope, a player who can, at long last, put a long-term claim to the position.

More from Cliff Corcoran:

Ranking the Dodgers' Rookies of the Year, Part 1

Will There Be a 2020 MLB Season? Should There Be?

6. Cody Bellinger (21), 1B/LF, 2017

.267/.352/.581 (143 OPS+), 548 PA, 39 HR, 64 BB, 146 K, 10 (77%), 3.6 WAR

It seems impossible that there have been just two MLB seasons since Cody Bellinger set the National League rookie home run record in 2017. Not only has the chaos of the outside world made every week since then feel like a month, but Bellinger, in just those two seasons, has evolved into a far more accomplished player, easily one of the five best everyday players in the majors. Meanwhile, his rookie home run record, which broke (by one) a mark set by Frank Robinson that stood for 61 years, has already fallen to a player who bested it by a whopping 14 homers, the Mets’ 2019 Rookie of the Year, Pete Alonso.

As a rookie, Bellinger didn’t hit for much average, didn’t have very good plate discipline, and didn’t grade out terribly well in the field despite his obvious athletic gifts. What he did do was crush baseballs and run really fast. That was enough. His 143 OPS+ was seventh in the league among all players, just ahead of established stars Kris Bryant and Paul Goldschmidt. His record 39 home runs ranked second. At the time, that performance seemed like a best-case-scenario for a former fourth-round pick out of an Arizona High School who had only just begun to dent top-100 prospect lists the previous year. That he would so far surpass that deserving Rookie of the Year performance just two years later was unfathomable, until he did it.

5. Fernando Valenzuela (20), LHP, 1981

2.48 ERA (135 ERA+), 192 1/3 IP, 8.4 K/9 (180 K), 2.95 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP, 25 GS, 11 CG, 8 SHO, 5.5 WAR

No pitcher has had a more sensational start to his career than Fernando Valenzuela. The twelfth child of a Mexican farmer, Valenzuela joined the Mexican league at the age of 17 and, on the advice of scout Mike Brito, the Dodgers purchased his rights the following July. In September 1980, at the age of 19, he was called up to the majors directly from Double-A and proceeded to throw 17 2/3 innings of relief without allowing a run. The following spring, he drew the Dodgers’ Opening Day start as an emergency replacement for the injured Jerry Reuss and shut the Astros out on five hits and a pair of walks. Five days later, he held the Giants to one run while striking out 10 in another complete-game win. Valenzuela then proceeded to complete each of his next six starts, all of them Dodgers wins. By May 15, he had gone 8-0 in eight starts, all of them complete games, five of them shutouts, four of them with double-digit strikeouts, compiling an absurd 0.50 ERA. That performance ignited “Fernandomania,” both among the Dodgers faithful and throughout baseball, though it was especially strong among L.A.’s significant Mexican-American population.

What we often forget about Valenzuela’s remarkable rookie season, however, is that, after that streak of complete game wins, Fernando hit a rough patch. The Phillies handed him his first loss on May 18, and from that game through June 11, his last start prior to the two-month players’ strike, Valenzuela went 1-4 with a 6.16 ERA (though he did mix in one more complete game win, against the Braves on June 1).

One could argue that the strike saved Valenzuela’s season. Today, we would considered it abuse for a 20-year-old rookie to average nearly eight innings per start over the first two and a half months of the season. Not only did Valenzuela complete nine of his first 14 starts, he made four of those starts (three of them complete games) on three-day’s rest. Fernando’s first two starts after the strike weren’t much better, but he bounced back in a big way in late August, sandwiching two more shutouts around a 10-inning outing against the Pirates in which he allowed just one run. In all, he pitched to a 2.51 ERA with three more shutouts in 11 starts after play resumed, then posted to a 2.21 ERA while averaging better than eight innings across five postseason starts (two of them complete game wins), helping the Dodgers to their first championship in 16 years. The Rookie of the Year voting preceded the postseason, but Valenzuela was the easy choice, even if Montréal’s Tim Raines stole a few first-place votes. The vote for the Cy Young was much closer, with Valenzuela and Cincinnati’s Tom Seaver both receiving eight first-place votes, and third- and fourth-place finishers Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan having comparable claims to the title of 1981’s best NL hurler. Valenzuela eked out the award with 70 points to Seaver’s 67, becoming the first, and still only, pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the same season.

4. Hideo Nomo (26), RHP, 1995

2.54 ERA (149 ERA+), 191 1/3 IP, 11.1 K/9 (236 K), 3.03 K/BB, 1.06 WHIP, 28 GS, 4 CG, 3 SHO, 5.9 WAR

Jackie Robinson wasn’t the only Dodgers Rookie of the Year whose importance as a pioneer overshadowed his performance on the field. The history of Asian players in major league baseball is longer and more complex than is widely understood, but it is nonetheless true that the flow of talent between the majors and the next highest league in the world, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, was unidirectional prior to Nomo’s arrival in 1995. NPB had employed its (explicitly limited) share of veteran MLB gaigin for decades prior to Nomo’s arrival in the majors, but only one player had traveled the other way. That was lefty reliever Masanori Murakami, whom the Nankai Hawks of NPB’s Japanese Pacific League loaned to the San Francisco Giants for the 1964 and, reluctantly, ’65 seasons. Murakami returned to the Hawks in 1966, at the age of 22, and pitched the remainder of his long career in his native Japan.

Thirty years later, Nomo, the 25-year-old ace of the Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes, found himself in a contract dispute with his team following an injury-shortened season. Searching for a solution, Nomo reached out to Japanese-American agent Don Nomura, who discovered that the NPB’s uniform player contract had no provision preventing a player from retiring then signing outside of Japan. That is exactly what Nomo did, signing a minor-league deal with the Dodgers just before the start of Spring Training in 1995. After a proof-of-concept start for High-A Bakersfield, Nomo was called up to the majors and proceeded to have the best season of his career on either side of the Pacific Ocean. Deploying his unique, elongated windup, mid-90s heat, and nasty forkball, Nomo led the National League in strikeouts (236), strikeouts per nine innings (11.1), and shutouts (3). He was also second in the league only to a peaking Greg Maddux with a spectacular 2.54 ERA and 149 ERA+ in 191 1/3 innings. That performance not only ignited “Nomomania” and helped lead the Dodgers team to the franchise’s first postseason berth since its World Series win in 1988, it proved that NPB players could hold their own in the major leagues, opening the door for a steady stream of East Asian major leaguers in the ensuing decades.

3. Corey Seager (22), SS, 2016

.308/.365/.512 (687 PA), 134 OPS+, 26 HR, 54 BB, 133 K, 5.5 bWAR

Its remarkable how quickly Cody Bellinger eclipsed Corey Seager as the face of the Dodgers’ future. Seager, the younger brother of Mariners third baseman Kyle, was the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft and the consensus top prospect in baseball entering his rookie season of 2016. It didn’t hurt that he had posted a 174 OPS+ in 113 plate appearances in his first major-league exposure in September 2015 without losing his rookie (and thus prospect) status. Still, after cautioning readers not to overvalue that small-sample success, Baseball Prospectus 2016 remarked that Seager “may very well be the best [shortstop] in the National League from the moment he sets foot on the field on Opening Day.”

Per BP’s WARP, Seager was exactly that, posting a 134 OPS+ against the average major league shortstop’s 96 OPS+. Mind you, this was the year that Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor battled for the AL Rookie of the Year, Trevor Story debuted with the Rockies, and Aledmys Díaz had his out-of-no-where All-Star debut for the Cardinals. The previous year, shortstops had average a 91 OPS+. Seager was nothing special with the glove, but he was the most productive shortstop in the majors at the plate in 2016, the top hitter in an impressive class of young shortstops, an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and a close third-place finisher in that year’s NL MVP voting.

Then came Bellinger and his rookie home-run record in 2017, Seager’s Tommy John surgery in 2018, a comeback season in 2019 in which Seager was still quite good, but no better than the Dodgers’ fifth-best player, and now the potential cancellation of the entire 2020 season. Seager is still a very valuable 26-year-old shortstop, but he’ll be entering his walk year in 2021, leaving wide open the question of just how significant his Dodgers’ legacy will be and just how fondly he’ll be remembered by the L.A. faithful.

2. Don Newcombe (23), RHP, 1949

3.17 ERA (130 ERA+), 244 1/3 IP, 5.5 K/9, 2.04 K/BB, 1.21 WHIP, 38 G, 31 GS, 19 CG, 5 SHO, 5.6 WAR*

Already a massive 6-foot-4 and a two-year veteran of the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, New Jersey righty Don Newcombe signed with the Dodgers at the age of 19 in early 1946, prior to Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Triple-A Montréal Royals. Newcombe spent two years with the B-League Nashua Dodgers in New Hampshire, then one more in Montréal before joining Robinson and his former Nashua catcher Roy Campanella in the majors. Newcombe was ineffective in his debut, a brief relief outing on May 20, but, two days later, he made his first start and shut out the Reds on five singles and no walks. He would continue to make relief appearances throughout the season, as was the wont of Brooklyn manager Burt Shotton, who used nearly all of his pitchers in both roles to one degree or another. Yet, Newcombe soon rivaled veteran lefty Preacher Roe, ten years his senior, for the title of staff ace and would ultimately pace the team, and NL rookies, in wins (17), innings (244 1/3), starts (31), complete games (19), and strikeouts (149), and the National League in shutouts (5). The BBWAA handed out a Rookie of the Year award in each league for the first time in 1949, but, had they not, Newcombe would have won the combined award, as Robinson had two years earlier. Newcombe’s outstanding rookie season helped the Dodgers return to the World Series, where Newk drew the Game 1 start at Yankee Stadium and turned in his best big-game performance, suffering a hard-luck 1-0 loss when Tommy Henrich broke a scoreless tie with a walkoff home run leading off the bottom of the ninth.

*Baseball Prospectus has not figured WARP for pitchers prior to 1951, so this is an average of bWAR and fWAR only.

1. Mike Piazza (24), C, 1993

.318/.370/.561 (602 PA), 153 OPS+, 35 HR, 46 BB, 86 K, 7.2 WAR

The greatest late-round draft pick in major league history, Mike Piazza was taken in the 62nd round in 1988, after 1,389 other players, on the advice of manager Tommy Lasorda, who had been a friend of Piazza’s father, Vince, since the late ’60s. In college, Mike had been a lousy first baseman with power, but Lasorda convinced Piazza and the Dodgers to make him a catcher, and the result was nothing less than the most productive catching career in major-league history.

Piazza wasn’t an instant smash in the minors. He didn’t really hit until his third minor league season in 1991, with High-A Bakerfield. He raked so much in 1992 that he forced his way all the way up to the majors, but he didn’t hit much in his initial September cup-of-coffee, either. Still, longtime Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia departed as a free agent that winter (he signed with the Padres, but never played for them due to a rotator cuff injury), handing Piazza the Opening Day catching job in 1993. Piazza hit safely in his first 11 games in ’93 and, for all practical purposes, didn’t stop hitting until the Mets tried to put him back at first base 11 years later. Piazza finished his rookie campaign with a 12-game hitting streak during which he went 22-for-47 with five home runs. At year’s end, his National League batting ranks included seventh in batting average (.318), sixth in home runs (35), fourth in slugging (.561), OPS (932), total bases (307), and RBI (112), and second in OPS+ (153). That kind of production coming from an above-average catcher (by modern metrics, Piazza had his best year behind the plate as a rookie) translated to a seven-win season, according to all three wins above replacement formula, good for the third-most-valuable season in NL in 1993, per Baseball-Reference’s calculations (though he finished a distant ninth in the MVP voting, largely due to the Dodgers’ fourth-place finish).

Per bWAR, Piazza’s rookie season was the most valuable season of any kind by a catcher since Gary Carter compiled 7.5 wins above replacement for the Expos in 1984 (though the Phillies’ Darren Daulton, in 1992, and the Orioles’ Chris Hoiles, in ’93, came within a few roundable tenths of seven wins). Other than Daulton and Hoiles, the last full-time catchers to post a higher OPS+ than Piazza in ’93 were Johnny Bench and AL Rookie of the Year Carlton Fisk in 1972. By average WAR, Piazza’s 1993 is the greatest Rookie season by a catcher in major-league history, and it is inarguably the greatest rookie season in Dodgers history, before or since the creation of the Rookie of the Year award.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.