The Top 5 debut seasons in Pirates history

February 1st, 2021

From long-ago legends to more recent stars, who enjoyed the best individual debut seasons in Pirates history?

Here’s a look at five of the best -- three by position players, one starting pitcher and one relief pitcher -- plus a bunch more for further consideration. For these rankings, we tried to stick with true team debuts; so we didn’t consider Jason Bay’s Rookie of the Year Award-winning 2004 because he debuted for the Bucs in ’03, for example, or pitcher Babe Adams’ amazing 1909 because he debuted for Pittsburgh briefly two years before that.

1. , 1900
No surprise here: The best player in Pirates history also made the best first impression.

After spending three seasons with the Louisville Colonels, Wagner joined the Pirates in 1900 and hit .381/.434/.573 with 45 doubles, 22 triples, 100 RBIs and 38 stolen bases in 135 games. At 26 years old, he led the National League in batting average, doubles, triples, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases. Interestingly, the Hall of Fame shortstop didn’t actually play there during his Pittsburgh debut; he spent most of the season in the outfield.

It’s a testament to Wagner’s greatness that his amazing 1900 debut actually grades out as one of his least productive seasons in Pittsburgh. He reached his peak from 1904-09, from ages 30-35, slashing .349/.418/.505 as he averaged 9.5 wins above replacement per season.

But that doesn’t take away anything from Wagner’s grand arrival in Pittsburgh. Right away, it was clear that the club had added a superstar to its lineup.

2. Jimmy Williams, 1899
A year before Wagner’s arrival, Williams put together the best rookie season in the Pirates’ long history.

The 22-year-old third baseman batted .354 with 28 doubles, nine home runs, 116 RBIs, 26 steals and an NL-leading 27 triples over 153 games in 1899. That year, he put together separate hitting streaks of 26 and 27 games.

Williams only spent one more season with Pittsburgh after his incredible debut, bouncing from Baltimore to New York to St. Louis during his 11-year career. He had some good seasons along the way, but he never returned to the level he reached as a Pittsburgh rookie.

3. , 1999
Because this came in the middle of a long losing streak for the Pirates, it may not be fully appreciated that Giles’ first year in black and gold was one of the best non-Wagner/Barry Bonds/Roberto Clemente/Willie Stargell/Ralph Kiner/Arky Vaughan/Dave Parker seasons in the franchise’s long history.

Acquired from Cleveland for Ricardo Rincon on Nov. 18, 1998, Giles slashed .315/.418/.614 with 39 homers, 33 doubles, 115 RBIs and more walks (95) than strikeouts (80) in 141 games. It was the best overall year of his career, by wins above replacement, as he led the team with 6.7 WAR. It was also the beginning of a four-year stretch with the Pirates in which Giles received MVP votes.

Giles enjoyed another 3 1/2 years as a productive, power-hitting outfielder in Pittsburgh, making two All-Star teams, before he was traded to the Padres for Bay, Oliver Perez and Cory Stewart.

4. Vic Willis, 1906
No Major League pitcher in the 20th century lost more games in a single season than Willis did when he finished with a 12-29 record for the Boston Beaneaters in 1905. He finished that year with a 3.21 ERA, only slightly below the league average, and completed 36 of his 41 starts. But he pitched for a team that lost 103 games, which goes a long way toward explaining his record.

Pittsburgh acquired Willis in exchange for three players that winter, and his fortunes changed considerably playing for the 93-win Pirates. He went 23-13 with a 1.73 ERA (153 ERA+) in 322 innings over 41 outings. Of his 36 starts, 32 were complete games and six were shutouts. The 30-year-old right-hander did not allow a home run all season.

Willis spent three more years in Pittsburgh and pitched for the 1909 World Series championship team, although his first season was his best overall with the Bucs. He was elected to the Hall of Fame, voted in by the veteran’s committee, in 1995.

5. ("Goose"), 1977
The reliever’s first and only season with the Pirates was a tour de force of bullpen dominance.

Looking to bolster their bullpen, the Pirates acquired Gossage and Terry Forster from the White Sox in December 1976 for Richie Zisk and Silvio Martinez. The right-hander became a free agent after his year with Pittsburgh, eventually signing with the Yankees to continue what would become a Hall of Fame career.

Gossage’s third straight All-Star campaign saw him post an 11-9 record, 26 saves, a 1.62 ERA (244 ERA+), a 0.96 WHIP and 151 strikeouts in 133 innings over 72 appearances. By wins above replacement, he was the Pirates’ third-most valuable player behind only ace John Candelaria and NL MVP candidate Dave Parker. That team won 96 games but ultimately fell short of its goal, finishing second in the NL East.

Honorable mentions:

Paul Waner, 1926: As a 23-year-old rookie, hit .336/.413/.528 with 79 RBIs, 35 doubles and an MLB-leading 22 triples in 144 games. A year later, “Big Poison” was the NL MVP.

Lloyd Waner, 1927: No first-year Pirates player -- not even Williams in 1899 or Wagner in 1900 -- has ever recorded more hits than his 223 as a rookie. Overall, “Little Poison” hit .355/.396/.410 and scored an NL-best 133 runs.

Johnny Rizzo, 1938: Rookie left fielder finished sixth in the NL MVP voting after hitting .301 with 23 homers, 31 doubles and 111 RBIs. He still ranks third in homers (behind Giles and Reggie Sanders) and second in RBIs (behind Giles) among players in their first season with the Pirates.

Bill Madlock, 1979: Only played in 85 regular-season games after a midseason trade, but you can’t overstate his impact at the plate (.328/.390/.469 in those 85 games, then .333/.442/.444 in the postseason) on the World Series champions.

Andy Van Slyke, 1987: Acquired on April 1, immediately established himself as a part of the core by hitting .293 with an .866 OPS, 68 extra-base hits, 82 RBIs and 34 steals in 157 games.