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Baseball's Most Hyped Rookies

Some exceeded expectations, some fell short, and one changed the game.

After months of anticipation, MLB fans have finally gotten an official look at Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese phenom who’s trying to become the league’s first two-way player since Babe Ruth won 9 games and hit 29 home runs for the Boston Red Sox in 1919. Ohtani had a rocky spring training, but notched a base hit in his first Major League at bat and pitched six solid innings for a win in his first start, three days later.

In honor of Ohtani, who wears the number 17 for the Los Angeles Angels, we’re looking at back at 17 ballyhooed rookies from springs and summers past — from Bob Feller to Bryce Harper.

Bob Feller Photo File/Getty Images Bob Feller Rookie year: 1936
Age: 17
Season stats: 5-3, 3.34 ERA, 76 strikeouts in 62 innings pitched

In his first major-league start, on August 23, 1936, the 17-year old Feller struck out 15 batters. A few weeks later, on September 13, the young fireballer fanned 17. Then “Rapid Robert” went back to Van Meter, Iowa, for his senior year of high school. In April 1937 — a month before he graduated — he made the cover of Time magazine. “Cleveland’s Bob Feller,” the caption read, “His curve cracked his father’s ribs.”
Jackie Robinson Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Jackie Robinson Rookie year: 1947
Age: 28
Season stats: .297, 12 HR, 48 RBI, 29 stolen bases

“Hyped” isn’t really the word for Robinson, the first African-American to play in the majors. The Negro-league star’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers was incontrovertibly historic. Seven years before the Supreme Court declared segregated schools "inherently unequal" and 17 years before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Jackie Robinson integrated the national pastime — with all of America watching, and no small part of it rooting for him to fail. But he succeeded spectacularly, helping the Dodgers to the NL pennant and winning the first-ever Rookie of the Year award. Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.
Mickey Mantle Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Mickey Mantle Rookie year: 1951
Age: 19
Season stats: .267, 13 HR, 65 RBI

After two standout seasons in the minor leagues, where he’d batted a combined .356 and showed tremendous power from both sides of the plate, Mickey Mantle made his big-league, big-city bow in the spring of 1951. Yankees fans — and baseball fans everywhere — expected big things of the young outfielder, Joe DiMaggio’s heir apparent. Compared to the eye-popping statistics Mantle produced in subsequent seasons, his numbers that first year were just respectable, but he hit his first dinger (a 450-foot moonshot), played alongside DiMaggio (in the Yankee Clipper’s final season), and won his first World Series (of 7). Not bad for a rookie.
Jim Rice and Fred Lynn Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Jim Rice and Fred Lynn Rookie year: 1975
Ages: 22 (Rice) and 23 (Lynn)
Season stats: .309, 22 HR, 102 RBI (Rice); .331, 21 HR, 105 RBI (Lynn)

Both of these Red Sox outfielders burned up the minors in the early 1970s, and both seemed poised for big-league success. When they debuted together in the 1975 season, propelling the Red Sox to 95 wins and an American League pennant, they kicked the hype machine into high gear. Lynn took home AL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors that year, while Rice finished second in the ROY race and third in the MVP voting.
Fernando Valenzuela Focus On Sport/Getty Images Fernando Valenzuela Rookie year: 1981
Age: 20
Season stats: 13-7, 2.48 ERA

On Opening Day, 1981, Dodger fans knew their starter, Fernando Valenzuela, as the young lefty with the weird, eyes-to-the-sky windup who’d been added to the roster the previous September and thrown 17 2/3 scoreless innings of relief during the team’s pennant race with the Houston Astros. Soon they'd know him as one of the best pitchers in the National League. Valenzuela not only pitched an Opening Day shutout, he went on to win his next seven starts, four of them shutouts, while posting a stunning 0.50 ERA. “Fernandomania” swept the country, and Valenzuela became the only pitcher ever to win a Cy Young Award and ROY in the same season.
Darryl Strawberry Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images Darryl Strawberry Rookie year: 1983
Age: 21
Season stats: .257, 26 HR, 74 RBI

With the first overall pick in the 1980 MLB draft, the New York Mets selected Darryl Strawberry, a lanky left-handed slugger from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. After batting .269 with 52 home runs across three minor-league seasons, Straw was brought up to the bigs. Mets fans didn’t have to wait long for him to have an impact: He was named ROY in 1983; played seven consecutive All-Star Games, from 1984 to 1990, in a Mets uniform; and helped the Mets to a World Series win in 1986.
Dwight Gooden Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images Dwight Gooden Rookie year: 1984
Age: 19
Season stats: 17-9, 2.60 ERA, 276 strikeouts

Gooden, whom the Mets drafted directly out of high school with their first pick in the 1982 draft, announced his presence with authority in the spring of 1984. The 19-year-old’s blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve humiliated opposing hitters, exhilarated Mets fans, and earned Gooden the nickname Dr. K. He pitched seven complete games and three shutouts that season, leading the majors in strikeouts and giving the Mets their second ROY in a row.
Bo Jackson Lonnie Major/Getty Images Bo Jackson Rookie year: 1987
Age: 24
Season stats: .235, 22 HR, 53 RBI

One of the greatest athletes ever to play in the Major Leagues, Bo Jackson starred on the baseball and football teams at McAdory High School in Alabama, and won two state championships in the decathlon. The Yankees selected him in the second round of the 1982 MLB draft, but he turned them down to play college baseball and football at Auburn, where he won a Heisman Trophy in 1985. Two years later, having signed with the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Raiders, Jackson became the first person since the 1960s to play baseball and football professionally, with well-deserved fanfare. The rest is Nike-commercial and video-game history.
Ken Griffey, Jr. Focus On Sport/Getty Images Ken Griffey, Jr. Rookie year: 1989
Age: 19
Season stats: .264, 16 HR, 61 RBI

In 2016, when Ken Griffey, Jr. became eligible for the Hall of Fame, he received 437 of a possible 440 votes for induction, the highest percentage ever. This, admittedly, is more than was expected of him when played his first big-league game, in the spring of 1989 — but not by much. Junior had it all: the pedigree (his father was a three-time MLB All-Star), the talent (he’d batted .320 with 31 HR in 129 minor-league games), and the baseball card (for fans of a certain age, the pursuit of Griffey’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card took on the grandeur and solemnity of a religious quest). The Kid was a natural.
Hideo Nomo Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Hideo Nomo Rookie year: 1995
Age: 26
Season stats: 13-6, 2.54 ERA

Nomo’s long, twisting windup, zippy fastball, and vexing forkball made him one of the top pitchers in Nippon Professional Baseball before he signed with the Dodgers in 1995. As the first Japanese-born player to make the leap to the Major Leagues since the 1960s, Nomo made headlines in the U.S. and Japan, and fans in both countries watched closely to see how he would perform (answer: extremely well). In his first season with the Dodgers, Nomo led the NL in strikeouts and shutouts, made the All-Star Game, and won the Rookie of the Year award.
Andruw Jones TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images Andruw Jones Rookie year: 1996
Age: 19
Season stats: .231, 18 HR, 70 RBI

Signed by the Braves at 16, the Curaçaoan Jones made his big-league debut in 1995, but was played sparingly enough to retain his rookie status through 1996. By the time that season started, he’d already done some pretty amazing things: In addition to homering in his first professional at bat, in August 1995, Jones went deep in his first World Series at bat two months later, becoming the youngest player ever to homer in the Fall Classic. (He took the title from Mickey Mantle.) Then, for anyone who’d tuned in late to that nationally televised game, he homered again in his very next at bat. It would be hard for any rookie season to measure up to that.
Kerry Wood Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images Kerry Wood Rookie year: 1998
Age: 20
Stats: 13-6, 3.40 ERA, 233 strikeouts

The fourth overall pick in the 1995 draft, Wood spent three seasons in the minors before joining the Chicago Cubs in spring of 1998. In his fifth start, the young power pitcher laid waste to the Houston Astros lineup, pitching a one-hit shutout and striking out 20 batters to tie Roger Clemens’s single-game record for Ks. The reaction was swift and superlative: “[T]here has been no pitching performance more dominant than Wood’s,” Sports Illustrated wrote. Wood took ROY honors in 1998, but missed the 1999 season with an elbow injury — the first of many that would limit his career. Despite the injuries, Wood played in the bigs for 14 seasons, racking up 1582 strikeouts in 1380 innings pitched.
Ichiro Suzuki The Sporting News/Sporting News via Getty Images Ichiro Suzuki Rookie year: 2001
Age: 27
Season stats: .350, 8 HR, 69 RBI, 242 hits, 56 stolen bases

The Seattle Mariners had high hopes for Nippon Professional Baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki, a seven-time All-Star and three-time MVP, when they signed him the fall of 2000. When he debuted in the spring of 2001, becoming the the first Japanese-born position player to appear in the major leagues, he didn’t disappoint. The rangy outfielder with the unorthodox, slapping swing thrilled baseball fans around the world with his relentless hitting and base running and his spectacular defense. Less than two months into his rookie season, Ichiro landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he received more votes for the All-Star game than any other player. He finished the season with a major-league leading 242 hits and 56 stolen bases, and was named Rookie of the Year and MVP. (Ichiro and Fred Lynn are still the only players to win both awards in the same season.)
Daisuke Matsuzaka Elsa/Getty Images Daisuke Matsuzaka Rookie year: 2007
Age: 26
Season stats: 15-12, 4.40 ERA

A massive bidding war and a mysterious pitch fueled the Dice-K hype of 2006 and 2007. At least five MLB teams battled over Matsuzaka, and innumerable fans speculated about the “gyroball” — what it was, exactly, and whether he could throw it. The pitcher ultimately signed with the Red Sox, but the gyroball never really materialized. Still, Dice-K became a mostly reliable and occasionally brilliant part of the starting rotation, helping the Red Sox to their second World Series win in four years in 2007.
Stephen Strasburg Greg Fiume/Getty Images Stephen Strasburg Rookie year: 2010
Age: 21
Season stats: 5-3, 2.91, 92 strikeouts in 68 innings pitched

Undrafted out of high school, Strasburg started to make a name for himself at San Diego State University, where he posted an 8-3 record and a 1.58 ERA as a sophomore starter and became the only college player selected for the 2008 U.S. Olympic baseball team. In 2009, the Washington Nationals picked him first overall in the MLB draft, and signed him to a record-setting $15-million contract, still the largest ever for an amateur player. On June 8, 2010, when he struck out 14 batters in his first major-league start, he looked to be worth every penny.
Bryce Harper Jim Rogash/Getty Images Bryce Harper Rookie year: 2012
Age: 19
Season stats: .270, 22 HR, 59 RBI

With all due respect to Mike Trout, who undoubtedly put up better rookie numbers than Bryce Harper in 2012, Harper was more hyped. In the summer of 2009, the 16-year-old Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, billed as “Baseball’s Chosen One” and “the most exciting prodigy since LeBron James.” He left high school early, enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada, and became eligible for the MLB draft a year head of schedule. After hitting 29 home runs in 62 college games, Harper won the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the best amateur baseball player in the U.S., and the Washington Nationals selected him first overall in the 2010 draft. Trout went 25th, to the Los Angeles Angels. Two years later, Harper won Rookie of the Year in the NL, and Trout won it in the AL. Since then, they've both been pretty good.