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Remembering The Rookie Class of 2001

Yesterday the BBWWA announced the winners of the American League and National League Rookies of the Year. Tampa Bay Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson won in the American League; Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel won in the National League. Kimbel’s vote was unanimous: all 32 first place votes. Hellickson’s was not; he garnered 17 first place votes out of total of 28.

Over the last eleven seasons, only two other Rookies of the Year won unanimously: Evan Longoria (Tampa Bay Rays) in 2008 and Albert Pujols (St. Louis Cardinals) in 2001. And, interestingly enough, the other winners in those years were only one vote shy of winning unanimously: Geovany Soto (Chicago Cubs) in 2008 and Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) in 2001.

Pujols and Ichiro stand out for yet another reason related to their rookie seasons, a reason that sets them apart from Longoria and Soto. Pujols accumulated 7.7 WAR in 2001, the highest of any rookie since 1975, when Fred Lynn of the Boston Red Sox recorded a 8.1 WAR. Ichiro accumulated 6.1 WAR in 2001, the second highest for any rookie since Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers posted a 7.6 WAR in his rookie season of 1993.

Not only were Pujols and Ichiro the rookie WAR leaders for nearly two decades, but they headlined a rookie class in 2001 that has sustained unparalleled success over the ensuing ten seasons.

Looking first at the American League, the one first place vote in ROY balloting that didn’t go to Ichiro went to CC Sabathia (Cleveland Indians). Sabathia ended 2001 with 2.9 in WAR and came in second in overall ROY voting. Third in the voting was Alfonso Soriano (New York Yankees). Soriano had a decent year at the plate, with a wOBA of .321 and a wRC+ of 96, but ended the season with only .2 WAR, owing to a -19 WAR for defense. Fourth in voting was David Eckstein (Los Angeles Angels), who had the second-highest WAR for a rookie position player in the American League that year, at 2.2.

In the National League, Roy Oswalt (Houston Astros) led all rookies other than Pujols with 4.4 WAR, followed by Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia Phillies) with 2.6 WAR and Adam Dunn (Cincinnati Reds) with 2.3 WAR. Oswalt, Rollins and Dunn finished second, third and fourth in the ROY voting.

Over their careers, Ichiro, Sabathia, Soriano and Eckstein have accumulated a combined WAR of 164.3.  Over their careers, Pujols, Oswalt, Rollins and Dunn have accumulated a combined WAR of 206.1.  That’s a total of 370.4 WAR for those eight players, all of whom, other than Eckstein, have been active major leaguers from 2001 through 2011. Eckstein finished his career in 2010 with the San Diego Padres.

In other words, Ichiro, Sabathia, Soriano, Eckstein, Pujols, Oswalt, Rollins and Dunn have averaged a combined WAR of  33.7 every season from 2001 to 2011. No other rookie class over the last decade comes close.

Indeed, if we look at the top four vote-getters in the National League and American League ROY voting for each season from 2002-2010, only those from 2008, 2009 and 2010 have all eight players still active in the major leagues. In fact, of the top four vote getters for the 2002 National League ROY, only one is still an active major leaguer: Austin Kearns, now with the Cleveland Indians. Of the top four in the 2003 American League ROY voting, only Hideki Matsui is still active in the majors. For the top four American League rookies from 2004, only Zack Greinke is still playing. And so on.

The 2001 rookie class is special because of the individual accomplishments of Pujols and Ichiro and the depth and longevity of the Rookie of the Year runners-up.  We may not see a rookie class like that again for a very long time.