Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is finally in the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays. Just how high can his fantasy baseball impact go, based on former stars who were in-season call-ups?
Funny how that word “history” tends to set an outrageously high bar for a rookie’s expectations. Often, it’s set far too high.
As Guerrero begins his quest for a rookie year for the ages — not to mention a predicted Hall of Fame career — we asked: Just what might an all-time-great Guerrero rookie season look like? What if he does scrape the true ceiling of his statistical potential?
For this, we dove into the history books to see which other in-season prospect call-ups did as far as making memorable first impressions. Just how great, and how valuable, can a player’s debut season be if he makes a late start to the campaign? We used only the 39 already completed seasons in the rotisserie baseball era, 1980-2018, and only prospects who made their major league debuts after Opening Day had passed. Prospects who made their respective teams’ Opening Day rosters were excluded.
This means you won’t find Albert Pujols‘ 2001 on this list, because Pujols made the St. Louis Cardinals out of spring training that season, meaning that fantasy managers knew they could safely draft him at the time knowing he already had a full-time role.
It also means you won’t find Mike Trout‘s 2012 on this list, because while his rookie season was one of the greatest in baseball history, it also wasn’t his big league debut season. If you recall, Trout debuted in the summer before that, on July 8, but he wasn’t yet the star we now know: He hit only .220/.281/.390 in 40 games in 2011. Sometimes the sure-thing prospects don’t hit right out of the gate.
To reiterate: This top-10 list of rotisserie-era (1980-2018) seasons highlights only players in Guerrero’s shoes — debut seasons in the big leagues that began only with a promotion that occurred after Opening Day. Guerrero, incidentally, will be 20 years, 41 days on Friday as he prepares to make his big league debut, and he began the season as Keith Law’s No. 2 overall prospect behind only Fernando Tatis Jr.
Here we go:
1. Ryan Braun, 2007: .324 AVG, 34 HR, 97 RBI, 15 SB, 91 R
Date of call-up: May 25 (54th day)
Age at time of his debut: 23 years, 189 days
One of the most memorable in-season debuts in baseball history, let alone the rotisserie era, Braun’s 2007 was memorable in that he was one of only 12 rookies — meaning those who debuted in said season as well as those who were playing a subsequent season but still rookie-eligible — who managed at least a .300 batting average and 30 home runs. Of those, he was one of only three to also have at least 15 stolen bases. Guerrero might not possess that kind of speed, but Braun’s performance shows that top-shelf batting average and power isn’t unattainable for an in-season debut.
Perhaps most remarkable: Braun accomplished this despite having to wait until the season’s 54th day and the Milwaukee Brewers‘ 48th team game, after the team had suffered through combined .214/.320/.273 slash rates from their third-base platoon of Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino. Braun’s was the highest-placing rookie debut for any of the 19 years for which we have Player Rater data available, finishing 20th overall, and he fetched National League Rookie of the Year honors for his effort.
2. Alvin Davis, 1984: .284 AVG, 27 HR, 116 RBI, 5 SB, 80 R
Date: April 11 (10th day)
Age: 23 years, 215 days
His was a debut that happened early in the rotisserie era, but that shouldn’t make it any less memorable. Consider the impact of Davis’ power output during that era. The average major league team averaged 0.77 home runs per game in 1984, while last season’s average was 1.15. His 116 RBIs were also the most by any rookie — debut or eligible subsequent year — in 34 seasons, which propelled him to American League Rookie of the Year honors.
Davis’ 502 fantasy points, using ESPN’s current standard scoring system, were 10th-most amongst all players in 1984. That’s not bad for a player who was recalled only 10 days into the season because Opening Day first baseman Ken Phelps suffered a fractured little finger on his right hand on April 6, the result of a hit-by-pitch by Milwaukee’s Jerry Augustine. To note: Guerrero’s contact ability does raise comparisons to Davis’, as his pro-career contact rate is 87.1 percent, compared to Davis’ 85.2 percent in the minors at the time of his debut. Tuck that away, if you’re evaluating Guerrero’s points-league potential impact.
3. Kris Bryant, 2015: .275 AVG, 26 HR, 99 RBI, 13 SB, 87 R
Date: April 17 (13th day)
Age: 23 years, 103 days
The hoopla surrounding Bryant’s ascent to the majors in 2015 probably did the most to elevate the “service time manipulation” debate to the forefront, an oft-discussed topic surrounding Guerrero before his spring training injury. By all rights, Bryant should’ve been the Chicago Cubs’ Opening Day third baseman in 2015, having batted .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs combined between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa the year before, then slashed .425/.477/1.175 with a major league-leading nine home runs in his 14 Cactus League games that spring.
Bryant, Law’s No. 1 prospect in baseball entering 2015, was forced to wait until Friday, April 17, for his debut, that being the first possible day the Cubs could have promoted him to the majors while retaining an additional year of team control. Despite the delay, he finished 37th overall on the Player Rater, scored the 100th-most fantasy points in the majors, and captured National League Rookie of the Year honors.
4. Cody Bellinger, 2017: .267 AVG, 39 HR, 97 RBI, 10 SB, 87 R
Date: April 25 (23rd day)
Age: 21 years, 286 days
To think, it was the presence of Adrian Gonzalez, a 34-year-old first baseman who would slash just .242/.287/.355 in 71 games that season, that caused such angst about Bellinger’s eventual big league debut entering 2017. The Los Angeles Dodgers nevertheless promoted Bellinger — who was Law’s No. 6 prospect overall entering the campaign and slashed .343/.429/.627 with five home runs in his first 18 games for Triple-A Oklahoma City, — on the season’s 23rd day, initially slotting him into the lineup as their left fielder.
He rewarded them handsomely, as his 39 home runs set a major league record for a player in his big league debut campaign as well as a National League rookie record. He captured National League Rookie of the Year honors and finished 56th overall on the Player Rater with the majors’ 63rd-most fantasy points. Bellinger’s example is a shining one of ignoring the “no path to playing time” crutch prospects face, as well as that prospects like Guerrero can break through by changing positions if necessary — although Brandon Drury isn’t even the obstacle that Gonzalez seemed.
5. Vince Coleman, 1985: .267 AVG, 1 HR, 40 RBI, 110 SB, 107 R
Date: April 18 (11th day)
Age: 23 years, 208 days
One hundred ten stolen bases can go a long way towards fueling a rookie’s rotisserie value, but Coleman’s debut year had tremendous weight in points-based leagues as well; he scored 405 points using ESPN’s current standard scoring system, which ranked 69th-most in 1985.
That’s not bad for a player who entered the season ranked as Baseball America’s No. 3 St. Louis Cardinals prospect, but who was summoned 11 days into the year due to injuries to fellow outfielders Willie McGee and Tito Landrum. Coleman ran wild on the base paths, setting a rookie record for stolen bases (a total that still ranks ninth-most among all players in history), in the process also running away with National League Rookie of the Year honors.
6. Ronald Acuna Jr., 2018: .293 AVG, 26 HR, 64 RBI, 16 SB, 78 R
Date: April 25 (28th day)
Age: 20 years, 128 days
His season is fresh in most fantasy managers’ memories, as Acuna concluded 2018 ranked 57th on the final Player Rater with the 132nd-most fantasy points. Acuna’s debut waited until the season’s 28th day, and in most peculiar fashion, he was promoted despite batting only .211/.297/.267 with one home run in his first 23 games in 2018 for Triple-A Gwinnett.
No matter, as he entered the season as Law’s No. 1 overall prospect with nearly as much prospect buzz as Guerrero’s this year and finished with only the sixth rookie campaign in baseball history with at least a .290 batting average, 25 home runs and 15 stolen bases. Acuna captured National League Rookie of the Year honors in a race that was expected to be close between him and …
7. Juan Soto, 2018: .292 AVG, 22 HR, 70
Date: May 20 (53rd day) – Note: There was a completion of a suspended game assigned to an earlier date on the calendar, but this was his true debut date.
Age: 19 years, 207 days
His was the rookie year that only the most attentive of fantasy managers saw coming, as Soto caught the eye of Washington Nationals brass with an impressive, albeit brief, spring training, then tore through three competitive minor league levels with combined .362/.462/.757 slash rates, 14 home runs and 52 RBIs in 39 games to begin the season.
Despite being 158 days shy of his 20th birthday, Soto was summoned to the majors on the season’s 53rd day, after the Nationals had lost Howie Kendrick for the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon the day before. Soto, who ranked only 42nd on Law’s preseason prospects list, only kept on hitting, setting single-season records for a teenaged player with his .406 on-base percentage, 79 walks and .923 OPS.
8. Darryl Strawberry, 1983: .257 AVG, 26 HR, 74 RBI, 19 SB, 63 R
Date: May 6 (33rd day)
Age: 21 years, 55 days
His story has the appearance of one of old-school service time manipulation, although player salaries at the time made that less of a concern for teams.
Strawberry — the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 amateur draft; the 1982 Double-A Texas League Player of the Year; coming off a 34-homer, 45-steal season for Jackson; Baseball America’s No. 1 overall New York Mets prospect and a reported standout during the 1983 Grapefruit League season — nevertheless began his rookie year in Triple-A Tidewater, where his .333/.465/.596 rates in 16 games made it impossible for the Mets to wait any longer on his promotion.
Strawberry’s 26 home runs were a top-20 total that year, and he was one of only five players with at least 25 homers and 15 steals, easily capturing National League Rookie of the Year honors.
9. Bryce Harper, 2012: .270 AVG, 22 HR, 59 RBI, 18 SB, 98 R
Date: April 28 (24th day)
Age: 19 years, 195 days
Perhaps the most memorable major league debut of the rotisserie era and the closest comparable to Guerrero’s arrival today, Harper’s 2012 ascent to the majors is also notable in that it occurred on the same day as another historic promotion: The aforementioned Trout’s recall by the Los Angeles Angels, kick-starting his own epic 2012 rookie campaign (again, in what was his second year in the majors rather than a true debut like Harper’s) which culminated in him joining Harper as the two leagues’ respective Rookies of the Year.
Harper’s 2012 began with him ranked second on Law’s preseason prospects list behind only Trout, and although Harper’s .243/.325/.365 rates and one home run in 21 games for Triple-A Syracuse didn’t seem to earn him the promotion he got on the season’s 24th day, the Nationals were at the time desperate to add some thump to an outfield which at the time had the majors’ worst batting average (.190) and second-worst wOBA (.253). Harper hit immediately in the bigs, and no teenager in baseball history has ever had more than his 5.2 wins above replacement or 254 total bases in a single year.
10. Carlos Correa‘s 2015: .279 AVG, 22 HR, 68 RBI, 14 SB, 52 R
Date: June 8 (64th day)
Age: 20 years, 259 days
The 10th spot on the list is the most debatable, with as many as eight players staking legitimate claims, but Correa’s makes the cut because of the sheer impact of his performance relative to how little time he actually spent in the majors in the given debut year. He wasn’t promoted until the 64th day of the 2015 season in the Astros’ 59th game.
Despite appearing in only 99 games, Correa became only the seventh player aged 20 or younger to have at least 22 homers and 14 stolen bases in a season, he finished 108th overall on our Player Rater and scored the 173rd-most fantasy points, and he earned American League Rookie of the Year honors.
Other big debut campaigns that missed the cut:
Roberto Alomar’s 1988: .266 AVG, 9 HR, 41 RBI, 24 SB, 84 R.
Barry Bonds’ 1986: .223 AVG, 16 HR, 48 RBI, 36 SB, 72 R.
Ellis Burks’ 1987: .272 AVG, 20 HR, 59 RBI, 27 SB, 94 R.
Robinson Cano’s 2005: .297 AVG, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 1 SB, 78 R.
Chris Coghlan’s 2009: .321 AVG, 9 HR, 47 RBI, 8 SB, 84 R.
Aledmys Diaz’s 2016: .300 AVG, 17 HR, 65 RBI, 4 SB, 71 R.
Eric Hosmer’s 2011: .293 AVG, 19 HR, 78 RBI, 11 SB, 66 R.
Francisco Lindor’s 2015: .313 AVG, 12 HR, 51 RBI, 12 SB, 50 R.
Evan Longoria’s 2008: .272 AVG, 27 HR, 85 RBI, 7 SB, 67 R.
Russell Martin’s 2006: .282 AVG, 10 HR, 65 RBI, 10 SB, 65 R.
Andrew McCutchen’s 2009: .286 AVG, 12 HR, 54 RBI, 22 SB, 74 R.
Hunter Pence’s 2007: .322 AVG, 17 HR, 69 RBI, 11 SB, 57 R.
Yasiel Puig’s 2013: .319 AVG, 19 HR, 42 RBI, 11 SB, 66 R.
Danny Santana’s 2014: .319 AVG, 7 HR, 40 RBI, 20 SB, 70 R.
Gleyber Torres’ 2018: .271 AVG, 24 HR, 77 RBI, 6 SB, 54 R.