Rookie races real tight

From Hideki Matsui to Rocco Baldelli to Brandon Webb, rookies are playing leading roles this season.

Originally Published: September 5, 2003
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

If the 2003 season were a movie, it would be The Rookie. Major league baseball is filled with rookies, including key contributors for pennant contenders. Three rookies made the All-Star team, one is headed for 100 RBI, another for 30 saves, another for 40 steals and 100 runs scored, two for 25 homers, at least one for 15 wins and one who might replace the greatest hitting catcher of all time. And we haven't even mentioned the middle relievers.

The Rookie of the Year voting should be close. Here are some of the top rookies in each league.

Matsui
Matsui

American League
Hideki Matsui, Yankees: He's on a pace to drive in 110 runs; should he get to 115, he'd be the 14th rookie to do that. He has a chance to become the first Yankees rookie to lead the club in RBI since RBI became an official statistic in 1920. He is tied with Toronto's Carlos Delgado for the most lead-assuming RBI (28) in the league. Matsui is hitting .284 with 38 doubles (only six rookies have hit as many as 45). He has done this while playing decent defensively, even in center field. He's a self-made player who has worked his way to all he has.

Angel Berroa, Royals: After appearing overmatched at the plate early this season, he has become a good hitter: .288, 15 homers, 28 doubles, 63 RBI (he is very strong. He not only can walk on his hands, he can do push-ups out of a handstand). After an erratic start defensively, he has become a reliable shortstop: he had a 49-game errorless streak this season. He has done this at a premium defensive position for a team in a pennant race. And he's barely the best rookie on his team: closer Mike MacDougal, an All-Star, has 27 saves.

Frankie Rodriguez, Angels: A stumbling start, and a down season by his team, took him from rookie to watch, to one who has been overlooked. His numbers are terrific: 6-2 record, 2.75 ERA, 75.1 innings, 44 hits (.173 batting average against), 29 walks and 81 strikeouts.

Baldelli
Baldelli

Rocco Baldelli, Devil Rays: He should have made the All-Star team. He's hitting .298, has 22 steals, has an outside chance to score 100 runs, he has hit in the middle of the order and played in the middle of the diamond for a developing team. He has done this despite great inexperience, and being tossed into the lineup because there was no one else. Cleveland's Jody Gerut (19 home runs, .498 slugging percentage) is another top rookie outfielder.

Mark Teixeira, Rangers: Someday, he might end up being the best of the 2003 rookie class, partly because he's a switch-hitter with power from each side, and because he has great makeup. He, too, got off to a rocky start, but is now hitting .262 with 22 homers and 72 RBI. Impressive numbers, indeed.

National League
Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks: He became the first pitcher since Bert Blyleven in 1970 to record a quality start in each of his first 13 major-league starts. His 2.57 ERA is fourth best in the NL, the lowest by a rookie since Hideo Nomo in 1995, the second lowest since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. His .213 batting average against is third best in the NL.

Webb
Webb

In only one start this season has he allowed more than three earned runs. He has 152 strikeouts in 150.2 innings; one scout says Webb's ball moves "more than any pitcher I've ever seen.'' When Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling went down, Webb became the staff ace, and helped keep the D-Backs in the race. His record is 8-7, but he has had little run support lately.

Dontrelle Willis, Marlins: One of the best stories of the season, he, as much as anyone else, has turned the Marlins from a fading club into a playoff contender. Only July 8, he had a 1.98 ERA, putting himself briefly into Cy Young contention. But in the second half, he has gone 2-5 with a 5.66 ERA, dropping him to 11-6 with a 3.39 ERA. He has lost his big lead in the Rookie of the Year race, but still has plenty of time to win it back. He and Webb join San Francisco's Jerome Williams, Houston's Jeriome Robertson and Atlanta's Horacio Ramirez among rookie starters who have played critical roles for playoff contenders.

Scott Podsednik, Brewers: A terrific spring training won him a spot on the club. Now, at age 27, he has gone from minor league journeyman to the possible Rookie of the Year. Podsednik is hitting .316 with 35 stolen bases, and has a chance to score 100 runs. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since 1900, only three rookies have ever hit .300 with 100 runs and 40 steals -- Ichiro Suzuki (2001), Shoeless Joe Jackson (1911; he hit over .400) and Tommy Barrett (1900).

Phillips
Phillips

Jason Phillips, Mets: He has done what he did most of his minor-league career: hit. His .315 batting average leads the team, and he has 21 doubles and 11 homers in less than 350 at-bats. Plus, he nearly has as many walks (33) as strikeouts (38). He has been at least adequate defensively. Chances are, he will be the Mets' catcher next year, moving Mike Piazza to first base.

Brad Lidge, Astros: His recent struggles aside, he is still having a marvelous season helping set up for Billy Wagner. The league is hitting .195 off Lidge, he has 85 strikeouts in 75 innings and has pitched in 67 games. He and Arizona's Oscar Villarreal (2.64 ERA in 85.1 innings) have been instrumental pitching in middle relief for teams in the middle of pennant races.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.

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