By Baseball Reference WAR, the best rookie season in St. Louis Cardinals history belonged to Albert Pujols in 2001. To those of you who remember that season, this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise: while most of baseball was (rightfully) transfixed with the historic season Barry Bonds was producing for the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis was treated to a 21 year-old wunderkind producing 6.6 WAR while finishing 4th in MVP voting.
Side note: because the 2001 season was played on the Moon, the three men who finished ahead of him in MVP voting had 73, 64, and 57 home runs. For those of you who were too young to remember it first-hand, turn-of-the-last-century baseball was weird.
A 6.6 WAR season when you’re barely old enough to drink is a good predictor of future success. Sixteen other position players have produced as many WAR at age 21 or younger: 11 are in the Hall of Fame, another two are not yet eligible (Alex Rodriguez and Andruw Jones), and another two are still active (Mike Trout, who did it twice, and Manny Machado), with only Cesar Cedeno firmly omitted from Cooperstown. This is exciting. Fans are right to be excited.
The second-best rookie season in Cardinals history belonged to Harvey Haddix, who in 1953 went 20-9 with a 3.06 ERA in 253 innings pitched. But unlike Pujols, who was noted for his exceptional performance at a freakishly young age, Haddix began the 1953 season at the age of 27 and ended it at the age of 28. During his rookie season, Harvey Haddix was older than Madison Bumgarner, Jose Quintana, or Chris Sale is now.
Baseball has a long and storied history of exceptional rookie campaigns from players older than is typically associated with rookie status. Ichiro Suzuki won the AL MVP in 2001 in his age-27 rookie season, following a successful career playing professionally in Japan. Jackie Robinson, as an unfortunate effect of baseball’s color barrier, was unable to debut until his age 28 season. In 1998, Orlando Hernandez received Rookie of the Year consideration at age 32 following his defection from Cuba.
Per FanGraphs, the Cardinals have had 12 players play this season who currently have rookie eligibility. On Opening Day, Alex Reyes was 21, Luke Weaver was 22, Sam Tuivailala was 23, Matt Bowman and Mike Mayers were 24, Aledmys Diaz was 25, Dean Kiekhefer and Greg Garcia (who doesn’t seem like a rookie, but is) were 26, Jeremy Hazelbaker was 28, Alberto Rosario and Miguel Socolovich were 29, and Seung Hwan Oh was 33.
Reyes, Weaver, and to a lesser degree Tuivailala fit into the phenom camp: all were hyped fairly early on as being potentially significant big leaguers. The next five in age were a somewhat mixed bag: Diaz was perhaps slightly late to the majors as an international free agent but was hardly ancient; Garcia has been a part of the Cardinals’ big-league club in spurts in the previous two seasons; Bowman was a Rule 5 pick; and Kiekhefer and Mayers were brought up as somewhat last-ditch roster moves.
Among the other four, Seung Hwan Oh is easily the oldest of the lot and has clearly been the best. Following Trevor Rosenthal’s mighty struggles, Oh, who is older than Miguel Cabrera or David Wright, has stepped into the closer’s role and pitched admirably and has a chance to receive down-ballot NL Rookie of the Year votes (barring something unfathomable, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager will, and should, win the award).
And Oh, who was old enough to legally drive in the state of Missouri when 2016 top draft pick Delvin Perez was born, could be the 3rd player in the 21st century to win Rookie of the Year votes in his age-33 or beyond season. In each of the previous two cases, it was a relief pitching import from Japan: in 2004, White Sox reliever Shingo Takatsu finished in 2nd at age 35, and in 2006, Dodger Takashi Saito tied for 7th (which sounds more impressive if you consider that he tied with Prince Fielder) at 36.
That a veteran from Japan would hit the ground running in the United States is not too far-fetched—it is so routine that in 2001, when Ichiro Suzuki won MVP as a rookie, he was not a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection, seemingly as a reflection of his previous experience in what is considered a high level of competition.
More surprising than the rookie efficacy of Seung Hwan Oh is that of Jeremy Hazelbaker, who entering the current series against the New York Mets was just 0.4 WAR from surpassing Kiko Calero as the best age-28 or beyond season this century from a Cardinal...other than Seung Hwan Oh. And unlike Oh, who has consistently played at high levels of competition, if not the highest level of competition, since he was 22, Hazelbaker had spent 6 1⁄2 years in the minors. He spent nearly half of his age-27 season playing in AA.
And what makes old rookies so joyous is that they persevered. In the case of Seung Hwan Oh, he had a full-fledged professional baseball career completely independent of the Major League Baseball umbrella; it’s almost as though he joined the Cardinals by accident. One of baseball’s legendary old rookies, 35 year-old Jim Morris (this guy), quit baseball and became a high school teacher; Oh’s boundary to MLB success was not so much doubters as it was the Pacific Ocean.
Hazelbaker had doubters. And even if he never becomes an All-Star (for what it’s worth, the oldest debut for a future All-Star this century, exempting players coming directly from major international leagues, was former Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly at 30; the oldest end of the list mostly comprises of Alfredo Simon types who really only had one shot at an all-star bid and stumbled into it), he provides a hopeful example. There is a class of ball player well below the level of phenom and while most men in their late 20s or beyond who have not yet played in the big leagues never will, nothing is impossible.