There were a lot of reasons for the baseball card boom of the 1980s, but I submit to you that nothing was more responsible than the overwhelming quantity of badass rookie cards available to a kid in 1987. Maaaaybe these are just the ramblings of an old man who’s had one too many nips from the nostalgia flask, but there was nothing like cracking open a pack of wood-paneled 1987 Topps and watching the rookie cards fall out: Will Clark, Ruben Sierra, Cory Snyder, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla, Benito Santiago, Kal Daniels, Andres Galarraga, Kevin Seitzer, Kelly Gruber, Wally Joyner, Danny Tartabull, Pete Incaviglia, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds ... my god, it’s beautiful. I want a pack right now.
ANYWAY, the point is that there a lot of fine hitting rookies back in 1986. Some of them flamed out, and some of them got better and better, but it’s not out of place to suggest that there was something of a youth movement that year. Of the 3,813 home runs hit in ‘86, nearly 12 percent were hit by rookies.
Is that a lot? I wanted to find out. Not because of 1986, but because of 2017. This was the year of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, sure, but it was also the year of Rhys Hoskins, Matt Olson, and Paul DeJong. It felt like with every roster I looked at, there was at least one rookie in double-digit homers*, and it got me wondering about the homer-happy rookie seasons from the last 50 years.
Which seasons from the past 50 years have featured a higher percentage of home runs hit by rookies? Here are the top five:
5. 1982 — 3,379 total home runs, 427 by rookies (12.64 percent)
Oh, there are some names here, but this is partly a function of the low-power ‘70s bleeding through into the next decade. There were nearly half as many home runs hit in 1982, and while some of that had to do with there being 26 teams instead of 30, it was still the anthesis of 2017. If you brought someone from ‘82 immediately to Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, well, he or she would suffer the same fate as the panelist from Scanners.
There are names you recognize, of course, like Cal Ripken, Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Chili Davis. But there were still only 12 rookies to hit double digits in home runs, and a third of those were Twins (including the other Randy Johnson).
The ‘82 season doesn’t show up because it was a harbinger of homer doom, but because it was a sad skeleton of a dinger golem.
4. 2017 — 6,105 total home runs, 798 by rookies (13.07 percent)
I really thought this would be the winner. It was the inspiration for the Play Index rummaging that consumed hours, and it’s always fun when those searches don’t bear fruit. I thought this would be a sign, a trend.
Extra, Extra (pronounced “Ex-tree”): Kids are swinging harder and getting bigger, and what with the computer modeling and travel ball, this trend is here to stay, boy, howdy!
Of course, we’re talking percentages. When it comes to raw totals, there were more rookie home runs in 2017 than ever, and second place is more than 100 homers away. If you’re looking for the greatest rookie dinger season in history, regardless of context, this is it. Ten different rookies had 20 homers or more, which broke the previous record by four.
3. 1972 — 2,534 total home runs, 341 by rookies (13.46 percent)
A question I get a lot is if I’m ever going to write a baseball book. It’s a tricky question, because when I’m not watching baseball or writing about baseball for my day job, I retreat into a bunker that was developed by NASA scientists to keep baseball from coming in. There is not a single neutrino of baseball that can penetrate this fortress of solitude. I love baseball, but I have my limits.
But if I were to write a baseball book, it would be about baseball in the ‘70s. It’s so gnarly. Attendance is awful. There’s Astroturf all over the place. There’s baseball in strange, new places that haven’t quite taken to it yet. There are riots because of both cheap beers and disco records. And the game is pretty boring, at least by home run standards. There were more home runs hit through the middle of June this year than were hit in the entirety of 1972.
That written, the rookies had a chunk of them. There were just 11 rookies in double digits, but they were led by Dave Kingman, followed by 29-year-old rookie Bobby Darwin, who sure looks like a player who got hosed by the high-strikeout stigma of years past. After that, there were Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, and Ben Ogilvie, all future thumpers.
Mostly, though, it was just a down year for home runs because the ‘70s was an unspeakably dumb baseball decade.
2. 2015 — 4,909 total home runs, 691 by rookies (14.08 percent)
Even with Bellinger and Judge, this is the real recent champion. Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson led the way with 26, which means they didn’t even combine to hit as many homers as Judge in his rookie season, but it was a deep roster of rookies. There were 26 of them who hit double-digit home runs, from the 30-year-old Clint Robinson to Mark Canha to Alex Guerrero to Preston Tucker.
Note that this was before the juiced/slippery/low-seamed baseballs, too. This rookie surge didn’t have a lot to do with a general spike in the home run rate. There were just a lot of hard-swinging rookies compared to normal.
Just four rookies had 20 homers or more, which isn’t a big deal. That was the case in 1977 (Wayne Gross, Ruppert Jones, Mitchell Page, and Eddie Murray), so the good showing in these rankings wasn’t concentrated at the top. It was in the middle. There were 26 rookies with 10 homers or more, which is more than any other season, including 2017.
If you’re looking for a larger trend, here are the top three seasons in baseball history when it comes to rookies with 10 home runs or more: 2015, 2016, 2017. That probably means something more than “there sure are a lot of home runs these days,” but I’m not smart enough to figure out what.
1. 1969 — 3,119 total home runs, 446 by rookies (14.3 percent)
Surprised? I was! There are a couple of things going on here:
- There were two new expansion teams, which meant a lot more at-bats for rookies
- The mound was lowered after The Great Offense Suffocation of 1968
I’m not sure why that second one would help rookies specifically. Work with me here.
It’s not like there was a bumper crop of rookies that year, either. Bobby Murcer and Nate Colbert had long, productive careers, but it’s not like Bill Melton, Larry Hisle, and Coco Laboy set the world on fire after their strong starts. I’m willing to file this under “just one of those things.”
My original question was if more home runs were hit by rookies in 2017 by percentage than any other year. The answer was no, but it was close. I’m pretty sure I asked the wrong question, but the research was done, so, here, have whatever this article is.
When it comes to rookies hitting 20 homers or more? There’s never been an era like this one. Even though there aren’t kids today who are experiencing the thrill of the rookie dinger boom through the wonder of jaw-exploding gum, maybe they’re just as exciting about all these rookies while playing MLB: The Show, and it’s basically the same feeling.
I still love those 1987 cards, even though I’m still mad at Topps for making it so that it wasn’t Mark McGwire’s real rookie card. If they’re going to do that, where is the Will Clark Olympic card? I have a lot of thoughts about this, and it’s a long offseason, so buckle in, pal.