The best rookies of the ‘90s

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the best rookie seasons since Y2K or, as I like to call it, the Newmanium. Let’s step back in time to the 1990s, shall we?

The ’90s were a less complicated era. The Reds stunned the Athletics to begin the decade, then everyone began bulking up, obviously disgusted by Eric Davis’ lean frame. The internet became popular, but was quickly ruined by nerds who claimed RBI was an overrated statistic. Bill Simmons was understandably becoming obsessed with a zip code (90210). The sporting world was rocked by the brilliance of the MTV Rock ‘n Jock concept. Clarissa explained it all.

In the second installment of this series, I want to take a stab at putting together the 10 best rookie seasons of the nineties. We’re looking only at seasons from 1990 to 1999, because I made the rules, okay? A quick glance will show that this list may not be as top-heavy as that of the top rookies from the Newmanium, but it’s a pretty deep group. Though this decade is destined to become marked with an asterisk, there were certainly some outstanding performances.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Mike Piazza, Dodgers (1993). Piazza pretty clearly had the best rookie season of any newcomer in the ’90s. Tommy Lasorda’s godson hit .318/.370/.561, with 35 homers and 112 RBI, posting 7.0 wins above replacement. While his 1993 doesn’t compare with Mike Trout’s brilliant 2012, Piazza did win Rookie of the Year and made the first of 12 All-Star teams.

More importantly, Piazza won a coveted silver medal, finishing a close second to Jules Winnfield in the contest for the decade’s best mustache.

2. Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox (1997). It may be easy to forget now, but No-mah was a legitimate bolt of lightning when he burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old rookie. Garciaparra hit .306/.342/.534, led the league in hits (209) and triples (11), blasted 30 homers and drove in 98 runs. He won Rookie of the Year, then finished second in the MVP voting the following season. Like Arsenio Hall, however, Nomar’s career wasn’t built to last. Ten years later, Garciaparra was mostly finished as an everyday player. He ended up with 1,747 hits as a big leaguer.

Though he didn’t become the Hall of Famer many expected, we’ll all remember fondly the never-ending debates about who was better, Garciaparra or Derek Jeter. Good times.

3. Hideo Nomo, Dodgers (1995). Remember the Spice Girls? They were an international phenomenon in the mid-’90s, immediately rising to the top of the charts, selling out arenas before fans all around the world. Now imagine Hideo Nomo. A right-hander who became the first Japanese-born player to make a move to major league baseball, Nomo and his crazy windup became an American sensation from the moment he arrived.

In his rookie season, Nomo went 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA, an adjusted ERA+ of 149 and 4.7 WAR, and he led the league in strikeouts with 236. He won Rookie of the Year, made the only All-Star team of his career, and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. Though he never quite reached those heights again, Nomo did go on to marry the most famous soccer player in the world.

Or wait…maybe that was one of the Spice Girls.

4. Tim Salmon, Angels (1993). Mike Trout topped the list of rookies from the 2000s. Tim Salmon is near the top of this group. Are we quite sure that Kevin Bass wasn’t an Angels rookie in the ’80s? I guess we’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

Salmon hit 31 homers and drove in 95 runs for the 1993 Angels, compiling 5.2 WAR and a slash line of .283/.382/.536. He was a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year honors, defeating such immortals as Jason Bere, Aaron Sele, Wayne Kirby, Rich Amaral and Troy Neel. Over the course of a 14-year career in Anaheim, Salmon hit 299 homers and was a steady, and often spectacular, presence in the middle of the Angels lineup.

5. Kenny Lofton, Indians (1992). When The Shawshank Redemption was released in 1994, the film was widely acclaimed by critics, but it took the public a while to catch on. Similarly, the further we get from Lofton’s career, the more he looks like a Hall of Famer (though you may have to squint when you look).

As a rookie in 1992, Lofton was known more for the fact that he played in the 1988 basketball Final Four as a point guard with the University of Arizona. He quickly received rave reviews for his baseball, as well. Newly-acquired from the Astros (in exchange for Eddie Taubensee and Willie Blair), Lofton hit .285, put up an on-base percentage of .362, and led the league in stolen bases, with 66. Somehow, Lofton finished second to Pat Listach in Rookie of the Year voting, and that vote makes less sense now than it did at the time. At any rate, Lofton finished with the best career of the AL rookie class of 1992, collecting 2,428 hits over a 17-year span.

6. Cal Eldred, Brewers (1992). Did you know that Cal Eldred pitched in the big leagues until he was 37 years old? Whenever I think of him, I think of that great rookie season. It was the MMMBop of the baseball world, a short (14 games pitched) yet meteoric rise: 11-2, 1.79 ERA, 217 ERA+, 4.2 wins above replacement. And yeah, he finished fourth in the Listach Rookie of the Year balloting.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Much like the brothers Hanson, after that fantastic success early in his career, Eldred returned to earth but put together a solid career as a starter for the Brewers and White Sox, before morphing into a short stretch as an effective reliever in St. Louis.

7. Carlos Beltran, Royals (1999). I suppose Piazza fans may want to argue this point, but for my money, Beltran ended up with the best career of any rookie on this list. As a rookie center fielder for Kansas City, Beltran won top rookie honors by hitting .293/.337/.454 with 22 homers and 108 RBI; his WAR was 4.7.

Though injuries have slowed him down, Beltran continues to mash the baseball at the plate. At ages 35 and 36, Beltran’s last two years have been nearly as good as any season earlier in his career. He’s not done yet. When his career finally ends, I imagine most will remember his postseason heroics (.363/.470/.782 with 14 homers and 25 RBI in just 34 postseason games), but I prefer to remember the dynamic young slugger in blue and white, sporting a sweet pencil-thin mustache.

8. Kevin Appier, Royals (1990). Appier finished third in the balloting for 1990 Rookie of the Year (behind Sandy Alomar and everyone’s hero, Kevin Maas), but if you look at the candidates by WAR, Appier’s 5.2 wins above replacement is more than twice as many as everyone else who received votes (nine guys) except Ben McDonald. Appier was legitimately good as a freshman, going 12-8 with a 2.76 ERA and an adjusted ERA+ of 139.

He went on to some very good seasons in the Royals rotation, but remained an under-the-radar guy in some respects. I don’t have a goofy ’90s comp for him. He’s Kevin Appier. Kinda boring, you know? But the guy could pitch.

9. Troy Percival, Angels (1995). There are two things I don’t understand. Only two. One of those is how The English Patient won the Academy Award for best picture in 1996. Why is that movie so well-regarded? It’s almost unwatchable today.

Similarly, I simply don’t understand why, in this day and age of baseball analysis, closers continue to be regarded as more important than they actually are. Of course, that doesn’t mean that closers can’t be great at what they do, just that they aren’t as valuable as Joe Fan wants to believe. I know, Sabermetrics 101, right?

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the closer I am putting on this list! There were actually four other relief pitchers who had great rookie seasons in the ’90s, and all have an argument for inclusion (Jeff Zimmerman (1999), Kerry Ligtenberg’s sideburns (1998), Billy Koch (1999), and Scott Williamson (1999)), but I’m just picking one, and I choose Troy Percival. Percival actually wasn’t really a regular closer until the following season, but as a rookie, he was awfully good: 3.2 WAR, 1.95 ERA, and a colossal 241 ERA+ in 74 innings pitched.

10. Bob Hamelin, Royals (1994). Hamelin is the third Royal to make this list, but admit it: he’s number one in your hearts. The guy with the oversized glasses, subject of the worst baseball card of all time, Hamelin is the sentimental choice for inclusion here, but his 101-game stretch as a rookie was genuinely superb: .282/.388/.599 with 24 homers and 65 RBI.

Rookie of the Year in 1994, Hamelin was out of baseball after the 1998 season. Seems like a perfect way to end this (admittedly unscientific) exercise.

So there you go, the top 10 rookie campaigns of the 1990s. There wasn’t room for every great rookie year. Honorable mentions go to a bunch of guys: Dave Justice (1990), Dave Fleming (1992), Chris Singleton (1999), Jeff Bagwell (1991), Mike Harkey (1990), Rolando Arrojo (1998), Tim Hudson (1999), Kerry Wood (1998), Todd Helton (1998), Derek Jeter (1996), and a bunch of other guys.

Finally, I’d like to offer my apologies to you, dear reader, for my inability to work in a Color Me Badd reference. I certainly tried, just like I made an effort to squeeze John Rocker on the list so I could talk about Forrest Gump. I’ll make it up to you next time, when we examine the best rookies of the ’80s.

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10 years ago

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10 years ago

Cal Eldred. I remember that 1992 season fondly. David Cone costing the Brewers the pennant. Eldred pitching amazingly. A star was born… until Phil Garner decided to break his new toy the next season by throwing him more than 140 pitches 8 times in 1993, including a 4 start stretch where he AVERAGED 142 pitches per start.

10 years ago

What, no love for Scott Rolen ROY-winning season?

10 years ago

“Though he never quite reached those heights again, Nomo did go on to marry the most famous soccer player in the world. Or wait…maybe that was one of the Spice Girls.”

Or maybe that was Nomar?

10 years ago

You either have tough or weird standards when you put those people before Jeter, Helton, Schmidt, and Bagwell.  I do not understand your thinking on this column.  However it is your column and we don’t have to understand it at all or agree.  But I think it’s time for the end of this series.

10 years ago

Nomar married the most famous female soccer player in the world.

Bob Rittner
10 years ago

Jim, if you mean Mike Schmidt, he never played a game in the 1990s. His career spanned 1972-89, and in his first full season he batted .196.

As for the other 3, you could make an argument they belong in the article, but it is not as if they are clearly better than anyone on the list. Jeter had a terrific rookie year and won the award as did Bagwell, and Helton came in second after an excellent season, but they do not clearly outrank those of Hamelin or Piazza et al.

I don’t see anything weird about the choices. I would probably put Rolen or Bagwell before Beltran and probably before Garciaparra and Lofton as well. But Lofton’s 66 steals at a near 85% rate is pretty special as are Garciaparra’s 30 HRs.

If we consider WAR according to BB-Ref (I don’t say it is the be-all and end-all stat, just that it provides another perspective), the top performers of those mentioned were Piazza (7), Garciaparra (6.6), Lofton (6.5), Salmon (5.2), Bagwell (4.8), Beltran (4.7) and Rolen (4.5). The last three were Jeter (3.3), Helton (3.2) and Hamelin (2.6)

10 years ago

Nomo was the second Japanese native to play in the majors.  Masonori (sp?) Murakami of the ‘64/65 Giants was the first.