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The 20 best rookie playoff performances ever

October 28, 2020

The Rays weren't quite able to pull off the first World Series championship in franchise history, but their efforts won't soon be forgotten. That's especially true of Randy Arozarena, who homered three times in the Fall Classic and set a record with 10 homers in a single postseason. A rookie

The Rays weren't quite able to pull off the first World Series championship in franchise history, but their efforts won't soon be forgotten. That's especially true of Randy Arozarena, who homered three times in the Fall Classic and set a record with 10 homers in a single postseason.

A rookie acquired in a January trade with the Cardinals, Arozarena didn't join Tampa Bay's roster until Aug. 30 because he had to recover from COVID-19. He smashed seven homers and posted a 1.022 OPS in 23 regular-season games and then obliterated those numbers during the playoffs, winning the American League Championship Series MVP Award along the way.

Where does Arozarena's performance rank among the best ever by rookies in the postseason? Well, that depends on how you look at it.

When we put the initial version of this story together early in the 2020 playoffs, we focused on players who starred and led their teams to World Series titles. Arozarena helped the Rays get within two victories of a championship and accumulated counting numbers that will be tough to surpass, but he ultimately didn't win, and his rate statistics were terrific but not unprecedented (his 1.273 OPS ranks seventh all-time among rookies with at least 15 at-bats).

Ultimately, we decided to place Arozarena 11th on this list, behind 10 players who earned World Series rings. Eight of those 10 players are pitchers, who have a greater opportunity to impact individual postseasons, and eight of them played in an era when the only playoff games were World Series contests.

1. Charlie Keller, OF, 1939 Yankees
If the award had existed at the time, Keller would have been the World Series MVP in 1939. He batted .438/.471/1.118, setting a still-standing rookie Fall Classic record with a 1.658 OPS as the Yankees swept the Reds in four games. He tripled and scored the winning run in Game 1, homered twice in Game 3 and homered and later knocked out catcher Ernie Lombardi on the decisive play in Game 4. A career .286/.410/.518 hitter, he was on a Hall of Fame path before World War II and a congenital back issue shortened his career.

2. Pepper Martin, OF, 1931 Cardinals
Nicknamed "The Wild Horse of the Osage" as a tribute to his hard-charging style of play, Martin led the Cardinals to a seven-game World Series win over the Athletics after St. Louis had lost to Philadelphia in six games the year before. He batted .500/.538/.792 with five extra-base hits and five steals, tying a then-Fall Classic record with 12 hits. He scored the only two runs in Game 2 to even the Series, scored twice more in a Game 3 win, homered and drove in four of the Cardinals' five runs in a Game 5 victory and snared a sinking liner in center to halt a ninth-inning rally in Game 7. His performance electrified the nation and he parlayed it into an offseason vaudeville tour that paid him $1,500 a week.

3. Mike Boddicker, RHP, 1983 Orioles
Boddicker debuted with the Orioles in 1980 but didn't crack their rotation on a full-time basis until 1983. After finishing second in the American League with a 2.77 ERA during the regular season, he was untouchable in two October starts. In the Championship Series, he became the first AL rookie to throw a playoff shutout and tied an LCS record with 14 strikeouts while five-hitting the White Sox. As an encore, he permitted just an unearned run in a win over the Phillies in the World Series, becoming the first rookie to allow three hits or fewer in a Fall Classic complete game since Dickey Kerr in 1919.

4. Babe Adams, RHP, 1909 Pirates
Reputedly the first player nicknamed "Babe," Adams posted a modern rookie-record 1.11 ERA (minimum 100 innings) but ranked just sixth in starts and innings on a loaded Pirates staff. Legend has it that National League president John Heydler advised Pittsburgh player-manager Fred Clarke to lean on Adams in the World Series against the Tigers because he had similar stuff to Senators lefty Dolly Gray, who had pitched well against Detroit. Clarke shocked the public by starting Adams in Game 1, when he delivered a complete-game 4-1 victory. Adams went the distance in three consecutive six-hitters, gutting out an 8-4 win in Game 5 and coming through with an 8-0 shutout in Game 7.

5. Hugh Bedient, RHP, 1912 Red Sox
Famed for striking out 42 batters in a 23-inning semipro game in 1908, Bedient became the first Red Sox rookie to win 20 games when he did so four years later. He allowed one unearned run while outdueling Christy Mathewson in a complete-game 2-1 victory over the New York Giants in Game 5 of the World Series, then battled the Hall of Famer to a 1-1 tie through seven innings in Game 8. Bedient departed with a no-decision before Boston won the championship with two runs in the bottom of the 10th. A crowd of nearly 25,000 gave him a hero's welcome when he returned home to Falconer, N.Y., after the Series.

6. Fernando Valenzuela, LHP, 1981 Dodgers
Valenzuela debuted in 1980 with 17 2/3 scoreless innings as a September callup, and then "Fernandomania" took the nation by storm when he opened 1981 by winning his first eight starts -- all complete games, five of them shutouts. The first player to win the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in the same year, he worked a rookie-record 40 2/3 innings with a 2.21 ERA in five postseason starts. Each of his three October wins was huge: a complete-game four-hitter to stave off elimination in Game 4 of the Division Series, 8 2/3 innings of one run ball in the Championship Series finale and a 147-pitch complete game in Game 3 of the World Series after the Dodgers had dropped the first two contests to the Yankees.

7. Paul Dean, RHP, 1934 Cardinals
Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean was so delighted that his younger brother joined him on the Cardinals that he first predicted they'd combine for 45 victories in the regular season -- they totaled 49, 30 by Dizzy -- and then four more in the World Series against the Tigers. That proved accurate, as Dizzy won Games 1 and 7 and Paul won Games 3 and 6. The latter allowed just two earned runs (four total runs) in a pair of complete games and singled in the game-winning run in Game 6.

8. Gene Bearden, LHP, 1948 Indians
The knuckleballing Bearden won the regular-season tiebreaker against the Red Sox that put the Indians in the 1948 World Series, helping lead Cleveland to its most recent championship. He tossed a five-hit shutout to win Game 3 against the Boston Braves and recorded the final five outs to earn the save in the Game 6 clincher.

9. Larry Sherry, RHP, 1959 Dodgers
Sherry overcame being born with clubfeet and languished for six years in the Minors before coming up with a slider and making the Dodgers in July 1959. He delivered 7 2/3 innings of scoreless relief to win the first game of a regular-season tiebreaking series against the Braves, then became the first player ever to earn a win or a save in all four of his club's wins in a World Series. He won World Series MVP honors after allowing just one run in 12 2/3 innings against the White Sox, including 5 2/3 scoreless frames in Game 6 to wrap up the franchise's first title in Los Angeles.

10. Duster Mails, LHP, 1920 Indians
After the Indians purchased Mails from the Pacific Coast League's Sacramento Senators in late August 1920, he went 7-0 with a 1.85 ERA and six complete games in eight starts down the stretch as they won the AL by two games. That set up a World Series against the Brooklyn Robins, with whom he had failed to stick in brief stints in 1915 and 1916. After blanking Brooklyn for 6 2/3 innings in relief in Game 3, he guaranteed a shutout before his Game 6 start and delivered a 1-0, three-hit victory.

11. Randy Arozarena, OF, 2020 Rays
Comparing postseasons in the Wild Card era to those where the World Series was the only October action is extremely subjective, but this much can be said: Arozarena had the greatest sustained playoff performance by any rookie hitter ever. He not only obliterated Evan Longoria's rookie postseason record of six home runs but also eclipsed Barry Bonds, Carlos Beltrán and Nelson Cruz (eight each) for the overall mark. Arozarena also tied Keller's rookie record with three homers in a World Series and set or matched playoff standards for overall hits (29), extra-base hits (14) and total bases (64). He batted .377/.442/.831 in 20 games.

12. Jorge Soler, OF, 2015 Cubs
The Cubs wouldn't end their 108-year World Series drought until the next year, but their 2015 club featured two of the best rookie playoff performers ever in Soler (.474/.600/1.105) and Kyle Schwarber (see below). Soler posted a 2.341 OPS in the Division Series, socking key home runs in Game 2 and 3 victories, and a 1.250 mark during a Championship Series sweep at the hands of the Mets. His overall 1.705 OPS is a rookie postseason record.

13. Kyle Schwarber, OF, 2015 Cubs
Schwarber was nearly as productive as his teammate, batting .333/.419/.889 for a playoff OPS of 1.308, the sixth-best ever for a rookie. He homered and drove in the Cubs' first three runs in a 4-0 defeat of the Pirates in the Wild Card Game, hit a pair of crucial homers and produced a 1.683 OPS in the Division Series, then went deep twice more in the Championship Series sweep. His five long balls are the third-most in rookie postseason history.

14. Joe Gordon, 2B, 1938 Yankees
A year before Keller's heroics, another rookie was the team's best player in a World Series sweep. Gordon batted .400/.438/.733 as New York blitzed the Cubs to become the first team ever to win three consecutive Fall Classics. He singled in the eventual winning run in Game 1, provided a go-ahead two-run double in Game 2 and homered to tie Game 3 before blowing it open with a two-run double.

15. Wally Schang, C, 1913 Philadelphia Athletics
A key member of three World Series champions and six pennant winners, Schang won his first title while batting .357/.438/.714 in a five-game defeat of the New York Giants. He tripled in two runs to provide the winning hit in Game 1, homered in a Game 3 blowout and drove in four of the A's six runs in a one-run victory in Game 4.

16. Andruw Jones, OF, 1996 Braves
Jones won back-to-back Minor League Player of the Year Awards in 1995 and 1996, joining the Braves as a mid-August callup in the latter season. He was mostly a defensive replacement in the first two rounds of the playoffs, though he did homer and drive in three runs in a 15-0 rout of the Cardinals in Game 7 of the Championship Series. He homered in his first two World Series at-bats, becoming the youngest player (age 19) to go deep in a Fall Classic, and posted the best numbers on either club (.400/.500/.750) as the Yankees won in six games. Overall, he batted .345/.486/.690 with three homers in 29 postseason at-bats.

17. Trevor Rosenthal, RHP, 2013 Cardinals
Rosenthal tossed 8 2/3 scoreless playoff innings with 15 strikeouts in 2012, and still qualified as a rookie a year later -- when he was even better in October. He worked 11 2/3 shutout frames with 18 whiffs, earning a victory and four saves. He saved Game 2 and won Game 3 in the World Series to give the Cardinals a 2-1 lead over the Red Sox, who rallied to win the next three contests.

18. Orlando Hernández, RHP, 1998 Yankees
A longtime star in Cuba and international play, Hernández defected in 1997 and signed a $6.6 million contract with the Yankees a year later at age 32. He paid immediate dividends, going 12-4 with a team-best 3.13 ERA in the regular season and dominating in both his playoff starts. He threw seven shutout innings in Game 4 to even the Championship Series with the Indians, then permitted just one run in seven frames against the Padres in Game 2 of the World Series.

19. Bruce Kison, RHP, 1971 Pirates
A swingman on the 1971 Pirates, Kison picked up a pair of playoff victories with stellar long-relief outings. He won the Championship Series clincher against the Giants with 4 2/3 scoreless frames and entered Game 4 of the Fall Classic in the top of the first with the Orioles leading 3-0 in the game and 2-1 in the series. He responded with 6 1/3 shutout frames and allowed just one hit as Pittsburgh rallied. After the Bucs won Game 7 in Baltimore, he caught a helicopter to the airport and a private jet to Pittsburgh, where he got married that evening.

20. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, 2007 Red Sox
Though he played well as a September callup, the Red Sox deployed Ellsbury as just a pinch-runner and defensive replacement during their first eight playoff contests. They won all six of their games after inserting him in the starting lineup, including a four-game World Series sweep of the Rockies in which he batted .438/.500/.688 with four doubles (three in Game 3). He doubled and scored to lead off Game 4, giving Boston a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

Jim Callis is a reporter for Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly MLB Pipeline Podcast.