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Yankees’ best rookie seasons

The 2016 season saw an influx of stellar young players around Major League Baseball. The Chicago Cubs snapped a 108-year World Series dry spell with a number of kids who were under 25-years of age. In fact, rookies became an essential part of many teams throughout all of the Majors, including teams in playoff contention. For the first time in decades, the Yankees were among the teams that took a look at rookies prior to the September roster expansion.

Gary Sanchez stood out the most, finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting to Detroit’s Michael Fulmer. It remains to be seen if Sanchez becomes an annual All-Star, but he certainly left a great first-year impression. The Yankees are hoping players like Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and Gleyber Torres can follow suit. With that in mind, here are the best rookie seasons by a Yankees player:

Derek Jeter: There’s no better place to start than with the Yankees’ best rookie of the last 20 years.  Derek Jeter wanted to be the Yankees shortstop from the time he was a kid and with some luck, it came true. By the time he graduated Central High School (Kalamazoo, MI) in 1992, he was one of the top players in the country. However, the Yankees had the sixth pick in that year’s amateur draft, a major impediment to making Jeter their pick.

One by one, teams made their selections and lo and behold Jeter was still available when the Yankees’ turn came up. Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser was a scout for the Houston Astros at the time. He highly recommended Jeter to the Astros, who held the first pick. When Houston selected Phil Nevin instead, Newhouser quit his job.

Jeter’s 1996 rookie campaign nearly didn’t get off the ground. Some in the Yankees’ front office wanted to deal Mariano Rivera and others to Seattle for shortstop Felix Fermin. Gene Michael convinced George Steinbrenner to stick with the plan, which was to start Jeter. That one decision saved the future of the team.

At first hitting primarily out of the 9th spot in the order, Jeter eventually made his way up to the top of the lineup. Manager Joe Torre brought Jeter along slowly and his patience paid off. Jeter’s best three months of the season were the last three.

Jeter produced splits of .378/.402/.510 (July), .325/.373/.450 (Aug) and .356/.389/.495 (Sept/Oct) and hit seven of his 10 home runs in the season’s stretch drive. He finished the season with 183 hits, 104 runs scored, 78 RBI, and 14 stolen bases.  His ability to move on from a bad game impressed teammates like Paul O’Neill. Despite his 22 errors, Jeter easily outdistanced White Sox pitcher James Baldwin by 76 points for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Stan Bahnsen: Rookie pitchers that make an impact are few and far between. But, in 1968 the Yankees’ Stan Bahnsen was one of those pitchers. Unfortunately, Bahnsen is mainly known for being part of one of the Yankees’ worst trades of the early 1970’s.

Though there was no DH and 1968 was a pitcher’s year – the AL batting leader, Carl Yastrzemski hit just .301 – Bahnsen’s season was outstanding nonetheless. He had an impressive 2.05 ERA (6th in AL) and 140 ERA+ (ERA adjusted for pitcher’s ballpark; the higher above 100, the better). Bahnsen tossed 267.1 innings, limiting opponents to 216 hits and 14 home runs. He won 17 games and captured the AL Rookie of the Year Award, over Washington’s Del Unser, with 17 of 20 first place votes.

After the 1971 season, Bahnsen was traded to the Chicago White Sox for third baseman Rich McKinney. The 24-year old McKinney was coming off a promising campaign (.271 – 8 HR – 46 RBI). The deal was a disaster. McKinney lasted only one season in the Bronx, where he produced a .514 OPS. He ended up with a seven-year career in which he appeared in 341 games. Meanwhile, Bahnsen won 21 games his first year in Chicago and pitched for 16 seasons.

Hideki Matsui: “Godzilla” faced a huge adjustment to MLB and the most famous baseball team in the world. A superstar in Japan, Matsui took it all in stride, despite predictions that he would hit 40-50 home runs.  Matsui’s offensive game wasn’t just about the long ball.

Though his home run total (16) in his first year was less than hyped, Matsui picked up 179 hits including 42 doubles. Matsui played in all 163 games (one game was an unfinished tie) and drove in 106 runs. He also had to adjust to playing left field, the toughest of the outfield positions in Yankee Stadium.

Not too many rookies get a curtain call in their very first home game, but that’s exactly what happened to Matsui. The 28-year old launched his first Major League home run, a grand slam, in the bottom of the 5th inning. Matsui quickly established himself as a fan favorite. With the help Japanese fans, both here and abroad, Matsui received the necessary votes to start the 2003 All-Star game.

Matsui played center field and lined a single to left in his first at-bat. He finished the game 1-2. That Fall, he helped lead the Yankees to the World Series with an outstanding ALCS against Boston. Though the Yankees lost the Series in six games, Matsui hit his first World Series home run.

Godzilla was expected to win the Rookie of the Year Award, but some members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) had other ideas. They decided that players who had established careers in other countries were not “true rookies”. The BBWAA’s philosophy was a result of three awards going to former Japanese players – the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo (1995) and Seattle’s Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001). The decision enabled Angel Berroa, who had a very good rookie year as well, to capture the trophy by a mere four points.

Thurman Munson: Of all the positions in baseball, catcher is the toughest to play full-time as a rookie. Forget about hitting, your prime directive is to play defense, bond with the pitching staff, and call a good game. Thurman Munson was up to the challenge.

The Kent State University product broke in with the Yankees in 1969/1970, at a time when the team was still in its rebuilding phase. Gone were the glory days of Mantle and Maris. The team had stumbled in the mid-1960’s and was on its way back from the brink with guys like “Tugboat”.

Munson’s manager at Binghamton in 1968, former Yankees standout Clete Boyer, told him he would be in the Majors “next year”. Munson appeared in 26 Major League games in 1969 and did a decent job. His .363 batting average and .529 slugging % at Triple-A Syracuse didn’t hurt either.

A slow start to his 1970 season had some in the Yankees front office wondering if Munson was ready. They debated about sending him back to Triple-A.  A four-month stint in the Army Reserve had limited his time at Syracuse to just 28 games in ’69. But, Munson began to hit and hit, and the defensive part of his game was just what the Yankees had anticipated.

Munson quickly ingratiated himself with his teammates and the Yankees’ fans. He finished the year with a .302/386/.416 split and topped the 50-mark in both RBI and runs scored. He threw out 52% of would-be base stealers, well above the league average of 39%. Munson won the Rookie of the Year Award in a landslide over Cleveland’s Roy Foster and finished 19th in the AL MVP vote. The Yankees and Munson were well on their way to restoring the team’s legacy.

Joe DiMaggio: What would it be like if you were a rookie on the same team as a future Hall of Fame member like Lou Gehrig? Joe DiMaggio had the opportunity to find out when he joined the Yankees in 1936. One of the greatest center fielders of all time, DiMaggio actually played more games in left field (64) than he played in center field (55) during his first year.

DiMaggio had been a standout for the American Association’s San Francisco Seals. The Yankees acquired his contract after four seasons on the west coast, and Joe McCarthy plugged him into their ’36 lineup. DiMaggio hit third the entire year, right in front of Gehrig. The move paid off for both players. DiMaggio had three hits, an RBI, and three runs scored in his first game as a Yankee. After a month, he was hitting .381 with a 1.509 OPS.

Foot speed was about the only thing DiMaggio lacked, but he caught anything hit to his right or left in the outfield. He was an aggressive base runner and always hustled. And man, could he hit. His first year produced 29 home runs, 125 RBI, 206 hits, 44 doubles, 15 triples, and even four steals in as many attempts. He hit .323 and slugged .576.

Though the top rookie wasn’t recognized until 1947, DiMaggio finished eighth in the AL MVP voting. (Gehrig captured the MVP Award with a monster season –  49 HR, 152 RBI, 167 runs, 206 hits, .354 average and 130 walks.) Joe D made his first All-Star team and won his first World Series title. The Yankees beat the NY Giants in six games, with DiMaggio hitting .346. It was the first outstanding year for a player that decades later was called “the greatest living hitter”.

Gil McDougald: When you think about the 1951 Yankees, the first thing you probably remember is that it was DiMaggio’s last year and Mickey Mantle’s first. And, I guarantee you if you asked fans which Yankee was the 1951 AL Rookie of the Year, most people would guess Mantle. The top rookie honor is one of the few things Mantle never accomplished. But, it’s something that Gil McDougald did.

The versatile infielder broke into the Yankees lineup in that special ’51 season. McDougald could play second base, shortstop, and third base. The 23-year old split his rookie season with second baseman Joe Coleman and third baseman Bobby Brown. He also got the opportunity to watch Phil Rizzuto play shortstop every day. It paid off when McDougald became the primary shortstop in 1956-1957.

McDougald had spent three seasons in the minors and batted better than .330 in all of them. Though his numbers wouldn’t match his minor league prowess, McDougald was a solid Major League ballplayer. He joined a team that had won the World Series in the prior two years, but if he felt any pressure he didn’t show it.

The rookie hit .306 with 14 HR and 63 RBI. He had 23 doubles, a .488 slugging %, 72 runs scored and stole 14 bases. Bunting is a lost art now, but it was vital back then. McDougald had 11 sacrifices. (The Scooter led the team, of course, with 26 sacrifices.) In a tight Rookie of the Year race, McDougald beat Minnie Minoso (CLE, CHW) 13 votes to 11. He also finished ninth in the AL MVP voting.

Like Jeter and DiMaggio, McDougald was part of a World Series winner in his rookie season. He hit one home run and drove in seven runs in the Yankees six-game victory over the NY Giants.

Gary Sanchez: The Yankees rookie catcher put on a remarkable display of power in 2016. Called up from the minors in August, Sanchez slugged 20 home runs in 53 games. He added 12 doubles and slugged .657. Beyond his power, the Yankees and their opponents were impressed by Sanchez’ play behind the plate.

Sanchez quickly developed a good rapport with the team’s pitching staff. It helped that the Yankees had former catchers in manager Joe Girardi and coach Tony Pena, and teammate Brian McCann around to help mentor him. Sanchez’ caught stealing mark of 41% stands out immediately. The league average of nabbing would-be base stealers was 29%. His future looks bright, to say the least.

Will there be a standout rookie for the 2017 Yankees? Pitchers and Catchers report on February 13 to begin the process of finding out.