Aaron Judge led the American League in home runs, runs, walks, All-Star voting and jersey sales. He has his own cheering section at Yankee Stadium: 18 seats in the back of Section 104, just behind where he plays right field. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon in May, disguised in glasses, asking Yankees fans what they thought of him. He was charming and affable.
Judge is a no-doubt rookie sensation, but rookie sensations have always been a lot like pornography. Hard to define, “but I know when I see it.”
A Google search for “rookie sensation” returns 4 million results but not one definition. The first entry: “What does rookie sensation mean?”
Indeed. The phrase is a sports writing trope used to connote excitement about a first-year athlete, particularly by headline writers. Sports Illustrated has employed it often.
This is an attempt to sort through the cliché and quantify the unquantifiable. To define the intangible excitement. What does rookie sensation mean?
There are five (or so) levels of rookie sensation status, each represented by various achievements. Some are clear like All-Star selections, MVP and Cy Young awards and playoff success. Others are completely unmeasurable like being one of the game’s eccentric characters. Then there’s my favorite — appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It is both in and out of the rookie’s control, a combination of excellent play, hype and the news judgement of what used to be the sports publication of record in pre-Internet America.
Clint Hurdle’s rookie season wasn’t anything special — seven home runs and 56 RBIs in 133 games — but he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated on March 20, 1978, because he was “This Year’s Phenom.” Deserved or not, Hurdle was a rookie sensation. It happens.
There are four perfect rookie sensations, those who checked all the first-year boxes. Or almost all of them. Aaron Judge didn’t make the final cut, but he was darn close.
A couple disclaimers:
1. The Rookie of the Year award does not matter. It’s not that special. Two players win it every season. Buster Posey, Jeremy Hellickson, Will Myers, Jacob deGrom, Carlos Correa and Michael Fulmer all won the award this decade, but they were not rookie sensations. On the other hand, Wally Joyner was not the Rookie of the Year in 1986, but he was voted to start the All-Star Game. He was a rookie sensation.
2. The Rookie of the Year award matters. Jackie Robinson won the first rookie award in 1947. That’s when rookies were first honored, so that’s when our study begins.
ONE-STAR rookie sensations
Rookies who were selected as All-Star Game reserves:
1940s | Spec Shea (1947) and Don Newcombe (1949)
1950s | Jim Busy (1951), Minnie Minoso (1951), Billy Hunter (1953), Harvey Kuenn (1953), Dean Stone (1954), Luis Arroyo (1955) and Jack Sanford (1957)
1960s | Chuck Estrada (1960), Dick Howser (1961), Don Schwall (1961), Rich Rollins (1962), Tom Tresh (1962), Tommy Agee (1966), Tom Seaver (1967), Ron Reed (1968) and Carlos May (1969)
1970s | Billy Grabarkewitz (1970), Dave Chalk (1974), Gary Carter (1975), Willie Randolph (1976), Butch Wynegar (1976), Ruppert Jones (1977), Matt Keough (1978) and Mark Clear (1979)
1980s | Tim Raines (1981), Steve Sax (1982), Bill Dawley (1983), Ron Kittle (1983), Matt Young (1983), Alvin Davis (1984), Jose Canseco (1986), Matt Nokes (1987) and Kevin Seitzer (1987)
1990s | Gregg Olson (1990), John Hudek (1994), Carlos Garcia (1994), Tyler Green (1995), Carlos Perez (1995), Jason Kendall (1996), Jason Dickson (1997), Rolando Arrojo (1998), Ben Grieve (1998), Scott Williamson (1999) and Jeff Zimmerman (1999)
2000s | Jimmy Rollins (2001), Ben Sheets (2001), Francisco Liriano (2006), Jonathan Paplebon (2006), Dan Uggla (2006), Hideki Okajima (2007), Evan Longoria (2008) and Andrew Bailey (2009)
2010s | Jason Heyward (2010), Aaron Crow (2011), Craig Kimbrel (2011), Michael Pineda (2011), Jordan Walden (2011), Ryan Cook (2012), Yu Darvish (2012), Bryce Harper (2012), Lance Lynn (2012), Wade Miley (2012), Jose Fernandez (2013), Jose Abreu (2014), Dellin Betances (2014) and Kris Bryant (2015)
More than 100 rookies have been selected to play in the All-Star Game. Rookies have been selected more frequently over the years, because there are twice as many teams as there were in 1947 and every team is required to have at least one All-Star representative.
TWO-STAR rookie sensations
Rookies who were selected to start the All-Star Game:
Richie Ashburn (1948)
Eddie Kazak (1949)
Walt Dropo (1950)
Frank Robinson (1956)
Ron Hansen (1960)
Rich Rollins (1962)
Dave Stenhouse (1962)
George Scott (1966)
Rod Carew (1967)
Wally Joyner (1986)
Sandy Alomar Jr. (1990)
Hideki Matsui (2003)
Kosuke Fukudome (2008)
Geovany Soto (2008)
Joc Pederson (2015)
All-Star fan voting is a good measure of a player’s popularity, and popularity is a chief characteristic of rookie sensations.
However, fans did not vote for the All-Star starters from 1958 to 1969, so Ron Hansen, Rich Rollins, Dave Stenhouse, George Scott and Rod Carew were selected by each league’s manager to start the game. Still impressive for a rookie.
There were two All-Star Games a year from 1959 to 62, when Hansen, Rollins and Stenhouse started, which waters down the achievement a little.
Cardinals third baseman Eddie Kazak was an unlikely All-Star selection. After suffering serious injuries in World War II and being told he would never play baseball again, the 28-year-old rookie hit .304 in the first half of 1949 and was 2-for-2 in the All-Star Game. A couple weeks later, he injured his ankle and lost his starting job. He was out of the game by 1952.
Kazak, Hansen, Rollins, Stenhouse, Walt Dropo, Wally Joyner, Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto were one-hit wonders. They made just one All-Star team. The idea of a rookie sensation never repeating his first-year greatness was once called “The Dropo Drop-off.”
Fukudome and Soto of the Cubs are the only rookie teammates to start the All-Star Game.
Tony Oliva, Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki also started the All-Star Game, but they achieved higher rookie sensation status.
THREE-STAR rookie sensations
Rookies who were on the cover of Sports Illustrated:
Johnny Bench (1968)
Clint Hurdle (1978)
Kirk Gibson (1980)
Kent Hrbek (1982)
Bo Jackson (1986)
Hideo Nomo (1995)
Derek Jeter (1996)
Jeff Francoeur (2005)
Bryce Harper (2009)
George Springer (2014)
Most of these players were called “rookie sensations” on the cover or some variation on the theme. Ichiro was “Japanese sensation,” Jeff Francoeur “The Natural” and Mike Trout “The Supernatural.”
Bo Jackson, who graced the cover in a Memphis Chicks uniform, became a rookie sensation when he chose baseball over football. Bryce Harper made the cover in high school — a rookie sensation three years before his rookie season. “The most exciting prodigy since LeBron,” the magazine said.
Rookies who were compelling characters, either on the field or off:
John Montefusco (1975)
Joe Charboneau (1980)
Chris Sabo (1988)
Orlando Hernandez (1998)
Dontrelle Willis (2003)
The Count of Montefusco said he would shut out Atlanta, the Phillies and the Dodgers — and he did. He said he would record his 200th strikeout against Johnny Bench — and he did.
The legend of Joe Charboneau is (supposedly) true. He was 6-2, 200 pounds and impervious to pain. He bare-knuckled boxed on boxcars. He was stabbed three times by migrant workers. He pulled out his own sore tooth with a vise grip. One more thing: Charboneau was a direct descendant of Toussaint Charbonneau, who, along with his Native American wife, Sacagawea, guided Lewis and Clark on the second leg of their expedition. Joe, of course, played left field for the Indians.
Reds third baseman Chris Sabo wore a crewcut and Rec Specs goggles and hustled just like his manager Pete Rose, another Reds third baseman. Sabomania ensued.
Orlando Hernandez and Dontrelle Willis had those wild, wacky, old-school deliveries.
3.5-STAR rookie sensations
Rookies who were named World Series MVP:
Larry Sherry (1959)
Rookies who were named NLCS and World Series MVP:
Livan Hernandez (1997)
Rookies who had a 34-game hitting streak:
Benito Santiago (1987)
Rookies who struck out 20 batters in one game:
Kerry Wood (1998)
FOUR-STAR rookie sensations
Rookies who won the MVP or Cy Young award or were strong candidates for either one:
Dick Allen (1964)
Tony Olivia (1964)
Carlton Fisk (1972)
Fred Lynn (1975)
Dwight Gooden (1984)
Mark McGwire (1987)
Mike Piazza (1993)
Nomar Garciaparra (1997)
Albert Pujols (2001)
Mike Trout (2012)
Corey Seager (2016)
Aaron Judge (2017)
Fred Lynn is one of just two rookies who have won the MVP award. Mike Trout should have been the third.
Tony Olivia hit .323 to win the battling title.
Dwight Gooden was 19 years old, the youngest All-Star in history. He had 276 strikeouts in 218 innings — plus three straight in the All-Star Game.
Mike Piazza was selected in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft as a favor from Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to Piazza’s father.
Mark McGwire hit 49 home runs, the rookie record before Aaron Judge.
Judge hit 52 home runs with 114 RBIs, 128 runs, 127 walks and a .627 slugging percentage. He was the second-best player in the league behind Jose Altuve, according to WAR.
FIVE-STAR rookie sensations
The Fab Four of superstar Mach Five rookie sensations. The Mount Rushmore of phenoms.
Jackie Robinson (1947)
Mark Fidrych (1976)
Fernando Valenzuela (1981)
Ichiro Suzuki (2001)
Jackie Robinson was 28 years old, a black man from Cairo, Ga., a four-sport athlete from UCLA, a second baseman from the Negro Leagues, playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947.
Fernando Valenzuela was 20 years old, a round, left-handed pitcher from Mexico, the Opening Day starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He shut out the Astros on five hits and two walks. He won his first eight starts, five by shutout.
Ichiro was 27 years old, a reed-thin right fielder from Japan, playing for the Seattle Mariners. On April 11, he made “The Throw,” throwing out Terrence Long, who had tried to advance from first to third on a single.
Mark Fidrych was 21 years old, mostly limbs and curly hair, a right-handed pitcher from Worcester, Mass. He entered the Detroit Tigers rotation on May 15 and won nine of his first 10 starts, including a 5-1 victory over the New York Yankees on Monday Night Baseball that made him a national story.
Fidrych and Valenzuela are still the two biggest single-season attendance pitching draws since 1955. They both started the All-Star Game, and Ichiro was the first rookie to lead all players in All-Star voting. Valenzuela and Ichiro were on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Fidrych made the cover of Sports Illustrated (with Big Bird) and Rolling Stone.
Robinson hit .297 with 12 home runs and 125 runs, leading the league in stolen bases and sacrifice hits. He was fifth in the MVP voting and helped lead the Dodgers to the World Series. He won the first Rookie of the Year award, which is now named after him.
Ichiro hit .350 with 242 hits, 127 runs and 56 stolen bases, the first player to lead his league in batting and stolen bases since Robinson. The Mariners won 116 games, tying the all-time record, and Ichiro became the second rookie win the MVP award.
Valenzuela finished 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA, leading the league in strikeouts, innings, complete games and shutouts. He was 3-1 with a 2.24 ERA in the postseason, leading the Dodgers to their first World Series title since 1965. He is the only rookie to win the Cy Young Award.
Fidrych was 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA in 250.1 innings. He led the league with 24 complete games and should have won the Cy Young Award instead of Jim Palmer. He was also one of the game’s all-time best characters.
Dave Marsh came closest to capturing Fidrych’s mound idiosyncrasies in Rolling Stone:
He is a bundle of twitches and tics. He runs — never walks — to the mound and back after each half inning. To landscape the mound, he will get down on his hands and knees, digging a bit here, filling in a bit there. After any better than average defensive play, he rushes around shaking his infielders’ hands. After a strikeout, rather than turning his back and rubbing the ball, gloatingly, he’ll leap from the mound, shaking his fist in triumph. When a ball is hit, he rejects it, as if to punish it: “It’s got a hit in it,” he explains. He jogs the 60 feet 6 inches to home plate to deliver the offending missile to the umpire: “Let it get back in the bag and goof around with the other balls.” And of course, when the ball is satisfactory or unproven, he chatters to it, convincing the sphere to work his will.
That’s the best thing about rookie sensations. You had to be there. You look up in the middle of summer and see Valenzuela looking skyward in mid-delivery, Fidrych talking to the baseball, Ichiro beating out an infield hit or the 6-foot-7, 282-pound Aaron Judge with 30 home runs at the All-Star break.
What does rookie sensation mean?
It’s something you’ve never seen before. Or didn’t think you would ever see again.