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Winning a Rookie of the Year Award is great, but it's no guarantee of future success in baseball
Here’s an interesting list of Major League baseball players: Sam Jethroe, Harry Byrd, Don Schwall, Jack Sanford, Curt Blefary, Carl Morton, Butch Metzger, John Castino, Alvin Davis, Pat Listach, Bob Hamelin, Marty Cordova and Kazahiro Sasaki.
What do they all have in common? They all won the Rookie of the Year Award, the same award that Mike Trout and Bryce Harper picked up on Monday. Chances are you’ve never heard of any of them.
ROY not a predictor of success
I bring this up because we tend to think of the Rookie of the Year Award as some predictor of future success. We look at Trout and Harper and think about the wonderful careers they’ll have and how in another 25 years or so we’ll see them inducted into the Hall of Fame.
That could happen. Or it could not. The ROY Award, as the list in the first paragraph illustrates, is hardly an indicator of greatness.
The problem is that the award isn’t designed to predict the future. It only celebrates who had the best season in his first year as a major leaguer in that particular season. Some years hardly have any rookies playing at all, other years – like 2012, for example – are chock full of them.
Jackie Robinson was first ROY
The Rookie of the Year Award started in 1947 and initially only one award was given for both leagues. That changed in 1949 when each league began awarding its own ROY Award.
The first ROY was Jackie Robinson in his color barrier-breaking season (interestingly, the first five ROY in the National League, and six of the first seven if you go back to 1947, were African-American. Also, the first five, or the first seven if you go back to 1947, all played for the Dodgers or Giants).
Some great players won ROY, others didn't
Robinson, of course, is in the Hall of Fame, and many HOF players did receive a Rookie of the Year Award: Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Luis Aparicio, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, Rod Carew, Carlton Fisk, Andre Dawson, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken.
Some other great players who probably will be in the Hall of Fame who won ROY are Jeff Bagwell, Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols. Other stars who may end up there eventually are Justin Verlander, Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, Buster Posey and, of course, Trout and Harper.
(And then you have the cases like Pete Rose, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire who, despite putting up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, will probably never get close because of scandals.)
But many Hall of Famers didn’t win the ROY. Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, George Brett, Dave Winfield, Nolan Ryan, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Stargell, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline and Eddie Mathews are some of the notables who began their careers after 1947.
Many ROY have solid if unspectacular careers
Rookies of the Year often go on to have good, even solid careers, sometimes with an outstanding season or two. Among these would be Don Newcombe, Gil McDougald, Tony Kubek, Harvey Kuenn, Jim Gilliam, Bob Allison, Frank Howard, Tommie Agee, Dick Allen, Tony Oliva, Lou Piniella, Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss, Jon Matlack, Gary Matthews, Fred Lynn, Lou Whitaker, Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Sax, Dave Righetti, Ozzie Guillen, Vince Coleman, Todd Worrell, Benito Santiago, Chris Sabo, David Justice, Sandy Alomar Jr., Chuck Knoblach, Raul Mondesi, Tim Salmon and Nomar Garciaparra.
Some current players who will probably fall in that category are Scott Rolen, Carlos Beltran, Ryan Howard, Hanley Ramirez, Huston Street and Dustin Pedroia.
Outside factors sometimes change careers
Sadly, two ROY winners had their careers cut short by plane crashes: Ken Hubbs, the 1962 winner with the Cubs who died in a plane crash in 1964; and Thurman Munson, the 1970 winner with the Yankees, who died in a plane crash in 1979.
Others had their promising careers hampered by injuries, such as Herb Score, Tony Oliva, Mark Fidrych, Kerry Wood and Jason Bay.
Some players have their career year first
Every major leaguer seems to have, at some point, a career season. Some of them, it seems, did so in their very first one. Ron Kittle, for example, hit 35 homers with 100 RBIs for the White Sox in 1983, earning him ROY honors. The next year he hit 32 homers with 74 RBIs and went downhill from there.
Super Joe Charoneau had a nice ROY season in 1980 for Cleveland (.289, 23, 87 – much better numbers in 1980 than today) and over the next two seasons couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper sack and was gone from baseball.
In 1971 Earl Williams looked like another Johnny Bench when he belted 33 homers (tied for fourth in the NL) with 87 RBIs in his rookie campaign. But that was his best season and he’d played himself out of baseball by 1977.
Don Schwall burst onto the scene in 1961 for the Red Sox with a 15-7 record and a 3.22 ERA (11th best in the AL and impressive in the Year of the Hitter). He made the All-Star team and even garnered a couple of low votes for MVP. The next season his ERA ballooned to 4.94, he was traded to the Pirates and pitched the next five years primarily in middle relief in an era when middle relief ranked just behind garbage collector in popular career choices.
Too early to tell on Trout, Harper
I hope Mike Trout and Bryce Harper continue to put up great numbers (especially since I have them both on my fantasy team). I hope they do have Hall of Fame careers.
But as we can see from past experience, winning the Rookie of the Year Award isn’t the best indicator. It’ll take a few years before we can really tell if they’ll be the next Willie Mays or the next Ron Kittle.