Four rookies hit 20 home runs in 2011, yet only the Braves’ Freddie Freeman made our rookie all-star team. Second-half surges by Eric Hosmer and Dustin Ackley, two of the top prospects in the game, knocked Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo and Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa out of the picture.
Trumbo and Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia led all rookies with 29 and 23 home runs, respectively, but that power came at a cost. They finished with two of the lowest on-base percentages in the American League at .291 and .282.
Diamondbacks righthander Josh Collmenter went 10-10, 3.38 in 24 starts (plus seven relief appearances) to narrowly miss cracking a stout rookie rotation. He showed supreme control, leading all rookies with at least 100 innings in WHIP (1.07) and walk rate (1.6 per nine innings), while confounded opponents with his straight-over-the-top delivery. In three starts versus the Brewers, including one in the NL Division Series, Collmenter limited them to one run on eight hits over 23 innings.
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C Wilson Ramos • Nationals
Batting seventh or eighth in the order most nights, Ramos pushed his walk rate to new heights in 2011 as opposing pitchers worked around him. That uptick enabled him to belt 15 home runs, more than he ever managed in a minor league season. In fact, few rookie catchers this century (min. 250 plate appearances) have out-hit Ramos, at least as measured by Baseball-Reference’s league- and park-adjusted OPS metric. Only Buster Posey in 2010 (129 OPS+) and Geovany Soto in 2008 (118) out-performed Ramos (113) this season. He also joined eight other rookies in that time to make 100 or more starts at catcher, a group that also includes Arencibia this year. Ramos showed arm strength in nailing 32 percent of basestealers and solid blocking skills by allowing three passed balls (and 32 wild pitches) in 952 innings—a well above-average rate for a rookie receiver.
1B Eric Hosmer • Royals
Hosmer batted .439/.525/.582 with eight extra-base hits in 26 games with Triple-A Omaha when the Royals decreed on May 6 that he’d be better served by completing his education in the big leagues. The decision looked wise when Hosmer homered in back-to-back games in Yankee Stadium in early May, but through 50 games he had added just three additional homers while hitting .262. A light went on at that point, and Hosmer batted .312/.350/.511 with 14 homers in 317 at-bats the rest of the way. By the time July rolled around, Kansas City had all its first-round picks from 2004 through 2009 on display with Billy Butler at DH, Alex Gordon in left field, Luke Hochevar in the rotation, Mike Moustakas at third base, Hosmer at first and Aaron Crow in the bullpen.
2B Dustin Ackley • Mariners
The second pick in the 2009 draft, Ackley shot to Triple-A a year later and to Seattle on June 17, roughly two years after being drafted. A mere three weeks after his debut, Ackley established himself as the Mariners’ top offensive player and permanent three-hole hitter. He wound up leading the Mariners in average (.273), OBP (.348) and slugging (.417). Ackley wore down in September, but through his first 70 big league games he batted .304/.378/.477 with 26 extra-base hits. He needed every ounce of that production to surpass fellow keystone rookies such as the Nationals’ Danny Espinosa, who offered power in the form of 21 homers, and the Athletics’ Jemile Weeks, who hit .303 and stole 22 bases.
3B Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
Lawrie missed about six weeks at midseason with a hand injury, but he performed well enough with Triple-A Las Vegas—batting .353/.415/.661 with 18 homers in 69 games—to rank as the Pacific Coast League’s No. 1 prospect and make the overall Minor League All-Star Team at third base. He added nine homers in 43 games while with Toronto, while batting .293 and putting up a .953 OPS to earn his place on the all-rookie team. Lawrie edged out fellow top prospects such as the Royals’ Mike Moustakas (.675 OPS in 89 games) and the Indians’ Lonnie Chisenhall (.699 OPS in 66 games) at the hot corner.
SS Dee Gordon • Dodgers
After serving as occasional injury replacement at mid-summer, Gordon’s path to playing time in Los Angeles cleared when the Dodgers traded Rafael Furcal to the Cardinals at the July 31 deadline. Gordon went 49-for-142 (.345) with 15 steals in 19 attempts from that point forward, making him the favorite to win the job outright in 2012. Despite plus-plus speed, he struck just 11 extra-base hits in 56 games and slugged .362, but then few rookie shortstops of recent vintage have provided excessive amounts of offensive value. The list includes Furcal in 2000, Khalil Greene in 2004, Hanley Ramirez in 2006, Troy Tulowitzki and Yunel Escobar in 2007, Mike Aviles in 2008 and Starlin Castro a year ago.
CF Desmond Jennings • Rays
Jennings started just seven games in center field for the Rays this season, but then not many organizations have an incumbent with as much range as Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton. Jennings spent 434 games in center in the minors, including 182 at the Triple-A level, so his roots are firmly planted. After belting a career-high 12 home runs for Triple-A Durham through late July, he added 10 more down the stretch for the Rays. Jennings sparked the club’s offense up through Sept. 18, batting .295/.387/.507 through his first 53 games. After slumping to the finish line, he belted a pair of solo homers against the Rangers in Game Two of the AL Division Series while reaching base eight times in four games.
OF Mike Carp • Mariners
Carp failed to make an impression with the run-starved Mariners during brief trials in 2009 or 2010, but he began to find his power stroke with Triple-A Tacoma last year. From the start of the 2010 season until his June 8 callup, he belted 49 homers for the Rainiers and learned to play a passable left field. Incumbent Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak missed most of August while recovering from myriad injuries, briefly opening the door for Carp to return to his natural position. He proceeded to hit .313/.353/.545 with six homers and 25 RBIs in 27 August games, winning the AL’s rookie of the month distinction. Something to keep in mind: Carp earned a shot at an everyday gig this season only after the Mariners tired of the antics Milton Bradley and Carlos Peguero in left and Jack Cust at DH.
OF Lucas Duda • Mets
After three so-so pro seasons, Duda broke through in 2010 by reaching Triple-A for the first time while batting .304/.398/.569 with 23 homers and earning a September callup. This season he handily led all rookies with at least 300 plate appearances with an .852 OPS—and that despite going 6-for-42 (.143) through June 21. From that point forward, he batted .317/.394/.529 with 10 homers in 259 at-bats, as season-ending injuries to Ike Davis and Dan Murphy opened the door at first base. Duda shifted to right field when Carlos Beltran headed to the Giants in July. Incidentally, both rookie-team corner outfielders entered pro ball as Mets. New York scored Duda in the seventh round of the 2007 draft and Carp in the ninth round three years earlier, and both 25-year-old natural first basemen broke through this season in tough home hitting environments. [Note: A reader points out that both Carp and Duda were signed by former Mets Southern California area scout Steve Leavitt.]
DH Freddie Freeman • Braves
Along with Wilson Ramos, Freeman was the only rookie position player to make his club’s Opening Day roster and remain there all season. As such, he led all rookies with 161 hits and a .346 OBP. Freeman built to a mid-summer peak, batting .336/.392/.549 with 11 homers in 244 at-bats from May 28-Aug. 8, but he closed with a .679 OPS and six homers the rest of the way as the Braves ceded the NL wild card to the Cardinals. Still, what Freeman (who turned 22 on Sept. 12) and Eric Hosmer accomplished this season is historic in the post-1961 Expansion Era, when teams almost never turn over first base to a 21-year-old. The only others to rack up 300 plate appearances in the past 50 years have been Jason Thompson with 1976 Tigers and Ed Kranepool (three times) with the 1964-66 Mets.
SP Brandon Beachy • Braves
Beachy won the minor league ERA title in 2010 after transitioning from reliever to starter at midseason. Then he made his big league debut for Atlanta that September, pitching well enough to make the playoff roster. Then he edged out Mike Minor for the Braves’ final rotation spot this spring. What further tricks could Beachy have up his sleeve? First and foremost, he led all rookies this year with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a rate that ranks him fourth among rookies with at least 20 starts in the post-1961 era. Only 1998 Kerry Wood (12.6), 1984 Dwight Gooden (11.4) and 1995 Hideo Nomo (11.1) topped Beachy this season.
SP Jeremy Hellickson • Rays
The BA Minor League Player of the Year in 2010 turned major league Rookie of the Year this season, Hellickson led all rookies in innings (189) and ERA (2.95) and even ranked second among AL starters with a .210 opponent average. That he did so while making 10 of 29 starts against the beasts of the AL East speaks to the quality of his season. The Red Sox led baseball in runs scored, the Yankees finished second and even the Blue Jays ranked sixth. Hellickson’s ERA ballooned to 3.84 over 61 innings versus the big three, compared with 2.53 over 128 innings against the other 12 opponents he faced this season. A similar split exists in the strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.2 vs. 2.0) and WHIP (1.31 vs. 1.08) departments. Regardless of opponent, Hellickson’s changeup was his key to success. He averaged 11 mph of separation between his fastball and 80 mph changeup, which he threw nearly 32 percent of the time, tops among qualified starters this year.
SP Ivan Nova • Yankees
Viewed as rotation insurance at the outset of the season, Nova ascended to No. 2 starter status behind C.C. Sabathia by the time the playoffs rolled around. Nova earned that distinction by going 12-0, 3.25 over his final 16 starts—the Yankees went 13-3 in those games—while striking out 69 and walking 31 over 105 1/3 innings. He led all rookies with 16 wins during the regular season—New York supported him with 6.7 runs per nine innings—then added one more against the Tigers in the AL Division Series.
SP Michael Pineda • Mariners
Pineda threw his fastball with higher average velocity (94.7 mph) than any rookie with at least 100 innings, and he went 8-6, 3.03 in 18 first-half starts to make the AL all-star team—along with fellow rookies Aaron Crow of the Royals and Jordan Walden of the Angels. Pineda also mixed in a mid-80s slider frequently enough to lead all rookies with 173 strikeouts, while ranking second among AL starters with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He topped out at 139 innings in the minors, prompting Seattle to space out his starts in August and September. But despite stumbling near the all-star break—he allowed 19 runs in 14 2/3 innings over three successive mid-July starts—Pineda pulled through to strike out a batter per inning and log a 3.99 ERA over his final eight turns.
SP Vance Worley • Phillies
Worley lacks a plus offering but throws strikes with four pitches and works ahead of batters, and that’s a good recipe for success when your teammates play sound defense and support you with a tick more than six runs per nine innings. The Phillies first turned to Worley when they needed a starter to cover for injuries to Joe Blanton and then Roy Oswalt in the first half, but the rookie quickly became a rotation fixture by going 9-2, 2.83 with 95 strikeouts and 33 walks in 105 innings as a starter from June 18 to the end of the season.
RP Chris Sale • White Sox
A first-round pick in 2010, Sale made the White Sox’s Opening Day roster but stumbled initially, allowing nine runs in 11 appearances through May 2. Eventually, he found his place in Chicago’s hard-throwing bullpen, where he, Matt Thornton and Sergio Santos all averaged 95 mph or more on their fastballs—and Jesse Crain wasn’t far behind at 94.5. Sale returned to prominence by allowing 13 runs in 47 games (1.96 ERA) the rest of the way, while striking out 66, walking 22 and allowing three homers over 59 2â„3 innings.
RP Jordan Walden • Angels
Among pitchers with at least 50 innings this season, only the Nationals’ Henry Rodriguez (98 mph) threw a faster average fastball than Walden (97.6). If that seems like splitting hairs, then there’s this: According to Baseball-Reference’s adjusted leverage index metric, no first- or second-year reliever (min. 50 innings) ever has been thrust into more tight spots than Walden this year. The Cardinals’ Todd Worrell (1986) and the Dodgers’ Steve Howe (1980), a pair of rookie-of-the-year closers, finished runners up.
CL Craig Kimbrel • Braves
Kimbrel improved on Neftali Feliz’s one-year-old rookie record for saves, notching 46 (in 54 chances) to tie for the NL lead. Had Kimbrel converted his save opportunity in game No. 162, then he would have led the league outright . . . and the Braves would have earned a share of the NL wild card with the Cardinals. Manager Fredi Gonzalez leaned hard on his relief ace as Atlanta’s offensive output dwindled in September, and Kimbrel logged 79 games to rank third in the league. The heavy workload might have cost him effectiveness. The Braves won 35 of the 39 games Kimbrel appeared in from June through August, during which time he allowed three runs and a meager .214 on-base percentage. But the script turned in September, when Kimbrel allowed six runs and a comparatively robust .327 OBP. Atlanta lost six of the 12 games he pitched, including three of the last four.