Dominant rookies reminiscent of Pujols, Ichiro

November 11th, 2017

We are awaiting the Rookie of the Year Award announcements but not really the results. It is all but a foregone conclusion that on Monday night (6 ET, MLB Network), Yankees outfielder will be named the 2017 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and Dodgers first baseman will win the National League honor.

What's striking, though, about the certainty of these selections is how uncertain they would have seemed back on Opening Day. Judge had a terrible big league break-in toward the end of 2016, batting .179 with 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats. And it would have been hard to guess Bellinger would be in the Majors and impacting the Dodgers by the end of April ("Honestly, I thought I was going to be a September callup," he said last month). These were well-regarded prospects, but not upper-echelon ones in the realm of Angels outfielder and Nationals outfielder , who rocked our rookie world together, as anticipated, in '12.

This combination of unexpected excellence leading to expected accolades harkens back to 2001, when and emerged on the big league scene. Like Bellinger and Judge, the duo unpredictably pushed their teams to the postseason, with Ichiro joining Fred Lynn as the only rookies to win the ROY and Most Valuable Player awards. (Judge, an AL MVP Award finalist, could become the third.)

"People were skeptical of Ichiro coming to play over here," said then-Mariners general manager Pat Gillick, who signed Ichiro. "And the fact that Pujols has gone on for so many years? If anybody can forecast that, they're better than I am."

We couldn't forecast it, but we can look back on it. Here are the stories of 2001's rousing rookies.

Albert's arrival

The Cardinals selected Pujols with the 402nd pick of the 1999 Draft, and that's still an amazing sentence to type. Two hundred and ninety of the players who went before him never played a game in the Majors. Every team passed multiple times on the power-hitting shortstop from Maple Woods Community College (Mo.), the kid who hadn't been drafted after high school.

St. Louis finally picked Pujols and gave him a $30,000 signing bonus, with another $30,000 promised for his college tuition, should baseball not work out.

Spoiler alert: It worked out. But even when Pujols was on the verge of his 2001 breakout, the Cardinals had no idea the full extent of what they had. Coming off a 95-win season in which they fell just short of the World Series, the Cards certainly didn't have Pujols penciled into their roster plans.

Pujols was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training in 2001, wearing jersey No. 68 and having played only three games above Class A. He was on-hand, but off the radar … until he started hitting. He homered and tripled in the Cards' first intrasquad game, and perhaps that should have been the first clue.

"I was just excited to be around the big league club," Pujols said, 16 years later. "I wasn't really expecting to make the team, but I also prepared myself that offseason and got to Spring Training and pretty much took advantage of every opportunity they gave me."

Then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa would update the media on his thoughts about Pujols, which quickly evolved from certainty that he'd head back to the Minors to open-mindedness to the idea of him sticking with the big league ballclub. La Russa has since dismissed as "myth" the idea that it was Bobby Bonilla's pulled hamstring that allowed Pujols a spot on the roster, but it's possible that's a bit of revisionist history.

Whatever the particulars, the 21-year-old Pujols batted sixth and played left field when Opening Day arrived on April 2, 2001, in Colorado.

Pujols didn't know if he'd remain with the club past that first series against the Rockies -- in which he went 1-for-9 -- because Bonilla was coming off the disabled list. But the club kept him for the weekend trip to Arizona.

On that Friday night, Pujols singled off Armando Reynoso in the second inning. Then, Reynoso tried to go up and in on him in the fourth, and Pujols pounded the ball out for the first of his 614 home runs. He later added a double off the wall in the fifth, then finished 7-for-14 with four extra-base hits over that weekend series vs. the D-backs.

"I had a really good series, and I stayed in that lineup a little longer than what everybody thought," Pujols said. "Obviously, as you know, the rest is history."

History was made in Pujols' rookie season. He set an NL rookie record with 130 RBIs and became just the second rookie to hit at least .320 with 35 homers (joining Hal Trosky of the 1934 Indians).

Pujols also compiled what was then the highest rookie OPS (1.013) since Ted Williams' 1.045 mark in 1939 (Judge bested both with a 1.049 OPS this year), while playing both outfield and infield corners. In a year in which Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds and Edgar Renteria all regressed, Pujols was the biggest reason the Cards made it back to October as a Wild Card club.

"He never gave in to anything at the plate," said McGwire, now the Padres' bench coach. "The intensity he had from when he walked in the door right away was off the charts. He was just one of those guys that you knew has 'it.' The bottom line is, it wasn't hard to see. He came into Spring Training that year playing third base, first base, outfield. He did anything he could to make the ballclub. He ends up making the club, and he was playing everywhere. Then, I end up retiring, and he takes over at first base."

Pujols was a unanimous NL Rookie of the Year Award pick in 2001. But out in Seattle, there was a Japanese import who flew right past the rookie honor and into MVP terrain.

Ichiro's instant impact

People were surprised when a wiry 27-year-old import from the Orix BlueWave in the Japan Pacific League arrived in the big leagues and immediately became a 242-hit force for a Mariners team that tied an MLB record with 116 wins.

Those people were not named Ichiro.

"The year that I had in 2001, I wasn't surprised by it," Ichiro said through an interpreter. "I do remember that a lot of people were surprised by the kind of year that I had. So I was kind of surprised at people being surprised by the year that I had."

Another guy who wasn't surprised was Jim Colborn, the Pacific Rim scout for the Mariners who had formerly served as a pitching coach for the BlueWave. When Orix made Ichiro available to MLB teams via the posting system, it was Colborn who strongly advocated that the Mariners go hard after him.

"And," Gillick said, "I think he's the one who convinced Ichiro that Seattle was the place for him. Jimmy was bilingual, spoke Japanese, and it was pretty useful to be able to speak in Ichiro's native tongue. It was a baseball move, but at the same time, our owner at the time, Mr. [Hiroshi] Yamauchi, was a controlling shareholder in Nintendo, and Ichiro was his favorite player. So he didn't hesitate to get the posting on him."

It was a $13 million posting fee to the BlueWave, then a three-year, $14 million deal with Ichiro. Quite quickly, the Mariners' new right fielder proved to be worth every penny, destroying all doubt about his hit tool translating to the Major Leagues.

"In the winter time, before Spring Training, he came to Seattle to work out for the media and meet the media," Gillick recalled. "He took 150 swings without stepping out of the batter's box. Then, when we got into the season, there were a number of hits that people thought, 'Well, he's just lucky.' But he had amazing bat control and after a while, you realized it wasn't luck that was getting the base hits. It's almost like he guided the ball to the open parts of the field, as opposed to just swinging."

With his unorthodox pre-pitch routine -- body slightly crouched, knees together and black Mizuno bat waved over the ground like a weed wacker before it is held aloft, parallel to his upper body -- and his nightly stretching ritual, Ichiro became a marvel for fans and teammates alike.

And opponents learned quickly to not run on him.

Related

"From the beginning of the season, you could tell he was going to be in the league for a long time," former Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez said. "He's a smart guy, very disciplined on everything with his routine. He knows his swing really well, he knows his position really well. And he has an idea and approach with what he wants to do every at-bat."

That 2001 season was the first of an incredible 10 straight in which Ichiro reached the 200-hit mark. Yes, 192 of his hits in his rookie year were singles, but he also led the Majors with 56 stolen bases, turning many of those singles into doubles with his fleet feet. With a .350 average, Ichiro became the first rookie to win a batting title since Tony Oliva in 1964, and his 242 hits were not only a rookie record, but the most by any player in 71 years.

A Mariners team that had lost Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in successive offseasons set the AL wins record. At year's end, Ichiro was a near-unanimous pick for the Rookie of the Year Award (just one first-place vote went to the Indians' ). The MVP ballot was a lot tighter, but Ichiro got the edge over Oakland's Jason Giambi, with 289 voting points (11 first-place votes) to Giambi's 281 (eight first-place votes).

Only the beginning

Taken in tandem, Ichiro and Pujols were as prominent a pair of rookies as the game had seen in a single season.

"Those are two years that people are going to talk about forever," Pujols said.

But in the 16 seasons that have passed since 2001, Pujols and Ichiro, both of whom are locks for the Hall of Fame, have assured that they'll be remembered for far more than their first-year efforts.

"Many guys can have good numbers for a short period of time," Ichiro said. "But to do something for 10 years, he and I both know, that isn't easy. Even though we're different types of guys, I think that's what we have in common. It's a special bond that we have. Doing something for so many years of that caliber is what makes us special."

Only time can tell us if Judge and Bellinger will one day be viewed similarly.

"Every year, somebody wins Rookie of the Year," Ichiro said. "Some years, there are not good candidates. You look at somebody's numbers and say, 'That guy got Rookie of the Year?' But this year, you can know that they are worthy of that title. But to continue the work that they did this year is what's going to be important."