On Monday, pitchers Jeremy Hellickson of the Tampa Bay Rays and Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves were named rookies of the year in the American and National League, respectively. It’s the first time pitchers have won the award in both leagues in the same season since 1981, when Dave Righetti (New York Yankees) and Fernando Valenzuela (Los Angeles Dodgers) turned the trick.
The Detroit Tigers best rookie in 2011 was reliever Al Albuerquerque, who was especially effective in the first half of the season out of the bullpen for Jim Leyland.
In recent seasons, the Tigers have had several young rookie pitchers put up good numbers. Rick Porcello finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 when he won 14 games as a 20-year old.
There have been players who’ve won the ROY and then failed to live up to their promise. Pat Listach, Jerome Walton, Joe Charboneau, and recently Chris Coghlan, come to mind. But for the large part, ROY winners have went on to have good or sometimes, great careers. 14 players who won the award have went on to be elected to the Hall of Fame. A look at the roster of winners just in the last decade shows a slew of stars: Ryan Howard, Buster Posey, Evan Longoria, Duston Pedroia, Huston Street, Ryan Braun. Winners in the 1980s alone include Valenzuela, Righetti, Cal Ripken Jr., Darryl Strawberry, Ozzie Guillen, Dwight Gooden, Todd Worrell, Steve Sax, Mark McGwire, and Benito Santiago. All had long, successful careers.
Let’s take a look at the four Tigers who’ve won the Rookie of the Year Award since it was instituted in 1947 (at that time just one winner was awarded in all of baseball), and how they fared after winning the hardware.
Harvey Kuenn, 1953
As a rookie, Kuenn was called “a perfectly balanced hitter with as sweet a swing as we’ve seen in the American League in some time.” That from The Sporting News, which was once known as “The Bible of Baseball” back when people still read weekly magazines. Kuenn hit .300 in his rookie season, which greatly assists in winning the award, voters like a .300 hitter. Little Harvey made a habit out of hitting .300 – he hit .300 in each of his first four seasons, and had a career mark of .303 in 15 seasons. Just prior to the 1960 season, Kuenn was famously traded by the Tigers to Cleveland straight-up for Rocky Colavito in the only deal involving the reigning batting and home run champs. That deal worked out well for the Tigers. Kuenn is one of the ROY winners who had a long, successful career. A baseball lifer, he later managed the Milwaukee Brewers to their only (as of yet) pennant, in 1982. If you want to know what Harvey Kuenn looked like, just throw some chewing tobacco in your mouth, slide it into one cheek, squint a little, and tip your cap up. He was like Popeye with stirrups on.
Mark Fidrych, 1976
The only Tiger to win ROY and not follow it up with a great career. Almost everyone knows that 1976 was “The Year of the Bird” in Detroit. The floppy-haired Fidrych won 19 games and led the AL in earned run average. He started the All-Star Game, and he put fannies in the seats, which made Tiger brass happy. He was probably the most loved Tiger (albeit briefly) of the last 50 years, with apologies to Norm Cash, Alan Trammell, and Magglio Ordonez. Then, in 1977 in spring training, Fidrych leaped into the air to catch a ball during batting practice as he was shagging flies in the outfield. When he came down, he hurt his knee. As a result of that freak injury, The Bird altered his delivery and damaged his arm. After years if trying to make comebacks, by this time with the Boston Red Sox, arthroscopic surgery revealed that Fidrych had nearly torn his rotator cuff clean through. After that brilliant rookie season, the right-hander posted a 10-10 record. He would have been 29 years old in 1984 – a veteran starter in Sparky’s rotation, but instead he was back in Massachusetts driving a truck for a living.
Lou Whitaker, 1978
There were a lot of great ballplayers who came into the big leagues in the late 1970s, as many as at any other time in baseball history. Just in 1978, Whitaker, Trammell, Ozzie Smith, Lance Parrish, Paul Molitor, Carney Lansford, and Bob Horner were rookies. Add Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Jack Clark, Fred Lynn, and Jim Rice in years around there, and you have some great talents. Jack Morris also came up in 1977 for good. Many of those players are in the Hall of Fame, and several others still get strong consideration. Yet, it as Whitaker who won the AL ROY in 1978, beating out Molitor and his teammate (and DP partner) Trammell. Of the two, Whitaker looked like he’d win more acclaim than Trammell in the future. In the first 5-6 years of his career, there were people who bandied about Sweet Lou’s name as a batting champ. He never put together a monster season, but he played for nearly two decades and was a very valuable leadoff man on the ’84 team. Of the names listed above who came into the majors in the mid to late 1970s, Whitaker was the player who relied most on his raw talent. he remained the last Tiger to win the Rookie of the Year Award until…
Justin Verlander, 2006
At every level he’s played, since he was 10 years old, Verlander has been a can’t miss player. He proved that in 2006 when he stepped right into the Detroit rotation and won 17 games as a rookie. That fall, he became one of the only rookies to start Game One of a World Series. If you don’t know what he’s done since, you probably don’t deserve to be reading this blog. All he’s done is go 90-46 with two no-hitters after his stellar rookie campaign. This week he’ll win his first Cy Young Award and he should win the Most Valuable Player Award, though the BBWAA writers are too curmudgeonly to get that one right, probably.