TORONTO -- From homegrown talent to free-agent splashes and late-blooming stars, the Blue Jays have seen some exceptional debut seasons over the past four-plus decades.
Blue Jays teams from the early 1990s saw many of these, as then-general manager Pat Gillick upgraded his roster with established veterans prior to the World Series runs of '92-93. The recent postseason runs of 2015-16 saw more big-name additions, and star outfielder George Springer, who signed a six-year, $150 million deal this offseason, could soon challenge some of these great debut campaigns.
There are still some impressive performances sitting on the outside looking in at the top five, including Eric Hinske’s great rookie campaign in 2002 (4.8 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs), Joe Carter’s 1991 season (4.6 WAR) and B.J. Ryan’s 2006 season (2.7 WAR), when the left-hander posted a 1.37 ERA with 38 saves. Even Hyun Jin Ryu deserves some consideration after compiling a 2.69 ERA in his 2020 debut, but the shortened season holds him back.
Here’s a look at the five best debut seasons in Blue Jays history:
1. Josh Donaldson, 3B (2015)
The Blue Jays pulled off a blockbuster for Josh Donaldson, who immediately went on to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award after leading the club to its first postseason appearance in over two decades. Even before we saw how the young prospects sent to the A’s panned out, Toronto had won this deal.
Valued at 8.7 WAR, Donaldson’s 2015 season was the best by a position player in Blue Jays history, topping José Bautista’s incredible '11 season. Donaldson hit .297 with a .939 OPS, including 41 home runs and 123 RBIs, all while playing excellent defense at third base. He was the engine of that team and, given his ability to impact the game in every possible way, his debut season will be difficult to beat.
2. Roger Clemens, RHP (1997)
Donaldson took the top spot for being an everyday position player, but Roger Clemens’ 1997 season is just as worthy. This wasn’t just one of the great seasons in Blue Jays history; it was one of the greatest seasons we’ve seen from any pitcher in Major League Baseball.
Joining the Blue Jays after 13 seasons with the Red Sox, the Clemens signing was a significant moment for the franchise and The Rocket delivered, going 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA over 264 innings. Add in 10 strikeouts per nine innings with a low walk rate and just nine home runs allowed all season, and Clemens was the easy choice for the 1997 American League Cy Young Award. He’d win it the next year, too.
Clemens’ two seasons with Toronto hold an odd place in the club’s history. Despite his greatness in 1997, the Blue Jays finished at the bottom of the AL East. But we may never see another Blue Jays pitcher do what Clemens did.
3. Devon White, OF (1991)
It’s fascinating to look back at the Blue Jays’ roster-building in the years leading up to their World Series runs. So much focus is paid to the blockbuster deal that brought Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter to Toronto in exchange for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez -- and rightfully so -- but the Devon White deal that happened just a few days prior in December 1990 was a major move itself.
Coming over from the Angels at 28, White was stepping into his prime as one of the game’s elite defenders in center field, but his bat came to life in Toronto, too, which is what makes his 1991 season stand above the rest. White hit .282 with a .797 OPS, 17 home runs and 33 stolen bases that year, and when you factor in his glove, he was impacting the game at all times.
That season was valued at 6.4 WAR, the highest of White’s Blue Jays career and 12th all-time among position players in franchise history. Today, tomorrow and years from now, all center-field play in Toronto will be compared to White.
4. Paul Molitor, DH (1993)
Paul Molitor was primarily used as a designated hitter by the Blue Jays, so the value of his 1993 season leaned almost entirely on his bat, but that wasn’t a problem for the Hall of Famer, who was coming off 15 seasons with the Brewers.
Joining the Blue Jays after their 1992 World Series run to help them chase a second, Molitor hit .332 with a .911 OPS, 22 home runs, 111 RBIs and 22 stolen bases. It’s one of the great all-around offensive seasons from a Toronto hitter, and was worth 4.8 WAR.
There’s a direct correlation between Molitor’s arrival and the Blue Jays repeating as World Series champions. After going 9-for-23 in the AL Championship Series against the White Sox, Molitor went 12-for-24 with two home runs in the Fall Classic, earning him MVP honors. Molitor was the perfect addition at the perfect time.
5. Roberto Alomar, 2B (1991)
Few lists of great Blue Jays seasons are complete without Roberto Alomar, the Hall of Fame second baseman who spent five years with the club. Still just 23 in his debut season with the Blue Jays in 1991 after coming over in a trade with San Diego, he hit the ground running.
Alomar hit .295 that year with a .791 OPS and stole 53 bases, one of just two 50-plus steal seasons in his career. Pair that with a Gold Glove Award, and Alomar finished sixth in AL MVP voting that season. Joe Carter, who also came over in that deal from the Padres, finished right ahead of him in the balloting.
At 4.3 WAR, this wasn’t Alomar’s best season with Toronto by any stretch, but he set the bar so high that it still ranks among the best debut seasons in the history of the club.