Rookies of the Year

A while back, I noted that the Mets and Astros were both going to wind up with the Cy Young Award winners and the Rookies of the Year in their respective leagues. This led to a nice (in my opinion) essay on how often that happened in the past. While doing the research for that essay, I naturally had to go over the list of Rookies of the Year. I kept seeing all-time greats, solid players whose names made me go “oh, yeah, that guy!”, and players where I went “Huh?”

I started musing. Whatever happened to the Rookies of the Year?

The award was created in 1947. For the first two years, there was only one award given out to cover both leagues. There have been 118 players to earn the award – who are no longer active. I had to make that cutoff in my analysis; including still active players could skew the numbers I was tabulating.

Of those, seventeen are in the Hall of Fame. Ichiro Suzuki will join them soon enough. Collectively, they earned a total of 29 MVP and Cy Young Awards. The average career lasted thirteen seasons. Of course, most of those weren’t full seasons; at the beginning and end of a career, players are often reduced to a part time role. I figure a Rookie of the Year could expect to have eight to ten “full” seasons where they were on a roster all year.

A Rookie of the Year could also expect to make an All Star team or two (the average is four, but that’s biased by players like Willie Mays, who appeared in 24 ASG’s, Cal Ripken Jr. with 19, and Derek Jeter with 14) and, with luck, a World Series (70 out of the 118 made it to the Fall Classic).

What’s more interesting than the numbers is the many players who had short careers – six or fewer seasons. Whatever happened to them?

Joe Black (1952 NL) was a star pitcher in the Negro Leagues before being picked up by the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a year in the minor leagues, he came up to the big leagues in 1952. Working out of the bullpen, he compiled a 15-4 record with 15 saves and a 2.15 ERA in 142 innings pitched. Though used only twice as a starter in the regular season, manager Charlie Dressen picked him to start Game 1 of the World Series. He won with a six hit complete game over the Yankees’ Allie Reynolds. Tapped for Games 4 and 7, he pitched well both times, but the Dodgers couldn’t score enough runs to win. The next year, he was told to add another pitch to his repetoire. Black went along, but it messed up his mechanics and he never recovered. He bounced around as a spot starter and reliever for a few more years, calling it quits after the 1957 season at the age of 33.

Pat Listach (1992 AL) was drafted by the Brewers in 1988. After respectable performances in the minors, he was called up in April of 1992 and became the Brewers’ full-time shortstop. A .290 batting average and 52 stolen bases for a contending team earned him the RoY honors, but he couldn’t duplicate his success in the next few seasons. He was relegated to part-time status, and was traded to the Astros at the start of the 1997 season. He tried to make it with the Seattle Mariners in spring training in 1998, but he didn’t make the cut and was released. He spent the year in the minors, but gave it up at the end of the year. Since then, he’s worked as a coach and manager for several teams, rarely being out of a uniform.

After a few years kicking around in the minors, Bob Hamelin (1994 AL) was called up by the Royals in the fall of 1993. He did well enough there, and in spring training the next year, to make it onto the roster for the 1994 season as a first baseman and DH. He lived up to his reputation as a power hitter, setting a Royals HR record for rookies with 24 (while hitting a solid .282) in that strike-shortened season. Unfortunately, over that winter the Royals decided to cut costs. They got rid of a lot of their (expensive) stars, and even hired a new manager and coaches. For whatever reason, Hamelin couldn’t get it going in 1995. Less than halfway through the season, he was sent down to Omaha. 1996 wasn’t any better for him, In 1997, he found a spot with the Tigers, where he managed a respectable .270 with 18 home runs. The Tigers let him go after the year, but he was able to find a spot with the Brewers for the 1998 season. He couldn’t get it going there, either. 1999 saw him with the Toledo Mud Hens after failing to find a spot with the Red Sox. In June, after a weak ground out in a game against the Ottowa Lynx, he abruptly called it quits. He’s now a scout for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to his Rookie of the Year honors, he also has what many consider to be the worst baseball card of all time:

The 1996 Pinnacle Foil #289

Butch Metzger (1976 NL) is a typical “flash in the pan”. He was a September call-up for the Giants in 1974. He pitched well enough, but was traded to the Padres in the off-season. He didn’t make the cut for the team in Spring Training, and was assigned to their Triple-A team in Hawaii. He did well there, and was called up to the Padres in September. The next year, he survived Spring Training, and won a spot on the roster – as a closer, even though he greatly preferred being a starter. He kept on being shoved into games – 77 of them, a record at the time for rookies – and wound up with an 11-4 record, and a 2.92 ERA. That was enough to get him co-RoY honors with the Reds’ Pat Zachary. Over the winter, the Padres acquired ace reliever Rollie Fingers. Metzger’s time with the team was running out. On May 17, 1977, after a particularly awful outing, he was traded to the Cardinals. He performed acceptably for St. Louis, but over the winter, the team stocked up on pitching. Metzger was placed on waivers in 1978, and picked up by the Mets. He only lasted haf a season before the Mets sold his contract to the Phillies, who sent him down to the minors. He’d never make it back to the major leagues. He holds the dubious distinction of being the Rookie of the Year with the fewest innings in the major leagues.

If there were ever a case that called for sighing over What Might Have Been, it’s that of Mark Fidrych (AL, 1976). Making his first start for the Tigers in May, he instantly took the country by storm. It wasn’t just the big head of curly blonde hair and ever-present smile (which earned him the nickname “The Bird” due to a resemblance to Sesame Street’s “Big Bird”), but the sheer fun he brought to the game. He’d congratulate the infielders when they made a great play behind him, smooth out the pitcher’s mound with is bare hands, and talk to the baseball. It was no suprise then when he was picked to start the All-Star Game. Everyone wanted to see him (this was in the days before the Internet or even 24/7 cable TV sports coverage) – he even wound up on the cover of Rolling Stone! He had the talent to back it up – he finished the season with a record of 19-9, a Major League leading ERA of 2.34, and 24(!) complete games. But in Spring Training the next year, he tore cartilage in his knee. Six weeks after returning from that injury, he tore his rotator cuff. That injury was never properly diagnosed, and he was never the same. He kicked around the Tigers’ organization for a while, making his last MLB start on October 1, 1980. He was released at the end of the 1981 season. He signed as a free agent with the Red Sox, but after a while in their minor league system – and his injury still undiagnosed – he decided to call it quits.

Like Joe Black, Sam Jethroe (1950 NL) was a star in the Negro Leagues who made it to the majors after integration. He broke in with the Boston Braves as their centerfielder and lived up to his nickname – “The Jet” – by leading the league in stolen bases with 35. Decent hitting as well earned him the RoY honors. A hit with the fans, the next year he basically repeated his performance. But in 1952, age caught up with him (he was at least 35) and his production plummeted. When the Braves moved to Milwaukee for the 1953 season, Jethroe wasn’t among them – he was optioned to their Toledo minor league team. He did well enough there, hitting .307, and was traded to the Pirates in a multiplayer deal going into the 1954 season. He had one at bat in two games for them that April, and then went down to the minors. He’d hang around there for a few more years before retiring.

Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000 AL) started his career in his native Japan, where he excelled as a relief pitcher. The Seattle Mariners signed him after the 1999 season to shore up their disaster of a bullpen. He rewarded them with what was then a rookie record for saves with 37. He made the All-Star team the next two years, but his numbers dropped noticeably in 2003. Injuries were largely to blame, but there were a lot of rumors about how he acquired those injuries. He decided to quit his contract with the Mariners and go back to Japan for the 2004 season. The official reason was that he wanted to be with his family (who stayed there while he played for Seattle), but since the Mariners didn’t put up much of a fight, it’s been suggested that they were tired of his “playboy lifestyle” and were glad to see him go.

Joe Charboneau (1980 AL) shuffled around in the minor leagues for a while, eventually landing with the Indians’ AA team in Chattanooga. In 1979, he clubbed 21 home runs and led the Southern League with a .352 average. It looked like a promotion to AAA was in the offing for 1980 – but the Indian’s Andre Thornton went down for the season with a knee injury at the end of Spring Training, and Charboneau was called up to replace him. He quickly became a fan favorite. Stories were told how he opened a beer bottle with his eye socket, fixed his broken nose with a pair of pliers and a shot of whiskey, and drank beer through his nose. Most of the stories were exaggerations. What wasn’t an exaggeration was his sheer power. When the season was over, he had hit .289 with a team-leading 23 home runs and 87 RBIs. That was more than enough to earn him RoY honors. He injured his back in Spring Training next year. Coupled with a bunch of other suspected and lingering injuries, he couldn’t recover the magic. He ended 1981 with a .210 average, and a mere 4 home runs. The next year, his woes continued. After hitting only .214 in 22 games, he was sent down to the minors in June. He bounced around from team to team, never again finding success. He hung his spikes up for good in 1984.

Rookies of the Year fail to earn long-term success for various reasons. They get really lucky in their award-winning season and that luck doesn’t follow them into the next year. Injuries can derail their careers. It’s sad, sometimes (see Mark Fidrych), but such is life. The case of Ken Hubbs (NL 1962), however, is a true tragedy. A multi-sport star in high school, he really wanted to be a baseball player. He signed with the Cubs immediately after graduating. He moved up quickly in their farm system, impressing everyone with his defensive skill at second base. After a September call-up in 1961, he made the team in 1962. He finished the season hitting .260, and led all NL rookies in games, hits, doubles, triples, runs and batting average. It was his defense that really caught people’s attention, setting major league records with 78 straight games and 418 total chances without an error. He became the first rookie to win a Gold Glove Award. His production (both offense and defense) fell off in 1963, but everyone was still predicting greatness for him. In Spring Training in 1963 he decided to overcome his fear of flying by taking flying lessons. He’d later earn his license and purchase his own airplane. In February, 1964, he flew to Utah with his friend Denny Doyle to visit Doyle’s wife, who was in Provo visiting family. While flying back, trying to beat a storm, they were near Utah Lake – an area known for atmospheric disturbances – when the plane crashed into the lake. Both Hubbs and Doyle were killed. Hubbs was 22 years old.

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