Making a big splash as a rookie is difficult. Maintaining or even improving upon that production the next season may be an even tougher challenge.
The weight of expectations exerts its force. Opponents adjust, relentlessly, and the counter-adjustments don’t always come easily. (Kyle Lewis and
The ones who are most successful tend to go on to impressive Major League careers, as you can see by this list of the best standout sophomores. To qualify, a player must have received votes in one of the previous season’s Rookie of the Year Award races, dating back to the honor’s debut in 1947.
One note before we begin: While
1) Dwight Gooden, SP, Mets
1984: 2.60 ERA (NL Rookie of the Year Award)
1985: 1.53 ERA (NL Cy Young Award)
Simply put, this is one of the most dominant pitching seasons in baseball history, as Gooden ran away with the NL Cy Young Award. A year after debuting at age 19, Gooden took his performance to another level and became the only pitcher to follow Rookie of the Year Award honors with a Cy Young Award. He led the league in wins (24), ERA (1.53), ERA+ (229), FIP (2.13), complete games (16), innings (276 2/3) and strikeouts (268). Gooden’s 13.3 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement — a figure that also takes into account his value at the plate — is the highest in a single season since Babe Ruth in 1923.
2012: 168 OPS+ (AL ROY)
2013: 179 OPS+ (2nd in AL MVP)
After a modest 40-game debut in 2011, Trout was nothing short of spectacular in ‘12, when his 10.5 WAR set a record for rookie position players. As it turns out, that was just the beginning. A hallmark of Trout’s incredible career has been his ability to continually grow, adjust and eliminate weaknesses. In ‘13, he cut his strikeout rate and sent his walk rate soaring as he led the American League with 110 free passes. Trout batted .323/.432/.557 with 27 homers, 33 steals and 9.0 WAR as a 21-year-old, though Miguel Cabrera beat him out for AL Most Valuable Player Award honors for the second year in a row.
3) Cal Ripken Jr., SS, Orioles
1982: 4.7 WAR (AL ROY)
1983: 8.2 WAR (AL MVP)
In his second full season, Ripken led the AL in runs (121), hits (211), doubles (47) and WAR (8.2), while batting .318/.371/.517. That led to his first of 19 straight All-Star Games and first of two AL MVP Awards, as Ripken contributed to Baltimore’s championship run. For good measure, it was the first full season of Ripken’s record-setting streak of 2,632 consecutive games played, which began the previous May.
4) Eddie Mathews, 3B, Braves
1952: 25 HR (3rd in NL ROY)
1953: 47 HR (2nd in NL MVP)
In 1953, the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee, and Mathews moved from merely good to great. The left-handed slugger went from striking out nearly twice as much as he’d walked as a rookie, to walking more than he struck out. He nearly doubled his homer total (an NL-high 47), edged Stan Musial for the NL lead in OPS+ (171), and racked up 8.3 WAR, finishing as the NL MVP Award runner-up.
2015: 6.1 WAR (NL ROY)
2016: 7.4 WAR (NL MVP)
As you might recall, Bryant’s team snapped a rather infamous championship drought in 2016, as he batted .308/.400/.523 with three home runs in the postseason. Bryant was even more productive during the regular season, slashing his strikeout rate while generating a 146 OPS+ and 39 home runs. The result was an NL-high 7.4 WAR, as Bryant became the fourth player to go from Rookie of the Year Award winner to MVP.
6) Al Kaline, RF, Tigers
1954: 80 OPS+ (3rd in AL ROY)
1955: 162 OPS+ (2nd in AL MVP)
Signed right out of high school in 1953, Kaline was in the Majors as an 18-year-old, but it wasn’t until ‘55 that he became something special. That’s when he made the first of his 18 All-Star teams and claimed the AL batting title at .340, while also finishing first in hits (200) and total bases (321). Only Mickey Mantle topped his 8.2 WAR, and Kaline came up just short in the AL MVP Award race behind another Yankee, Yogi Berra.
7) Ernie Banks, SS, Cubs
1954: 2.4 WAR (3rd in NL ROY)
1955: 8.2 WAR (3rd in NL MVP)
Kaline, Banks and Hank Aaron all were part of the 1954 rookie class, and all excelled again as sophomores, paving their way toward Cooperstown. Banks truly came into his power in that second full season, going from 19 home runs the year before to 44, which set a single-season record for shortstops. (Banks went on to top that number twice, and to this day, only Alex Rodriguez has done better.) The 24-year-old earned the first of his 14 All-Star selections, posting a 144 OPS+ while playing shortstop every day.
8) Vladimir Guerrero, RF, Expos
1997: 117 OPS+ (6th in NL ROY)
1998: 150 OPS+ (13th in NL MVP)
Vlad shined in 1997, but due to injuries only played 90 games, as part of a stellar rookie class that also included Nomar Garciaparra, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones. All four were even better in ‘98. While it was a 97-loss season in Montreal, Guerrero’s career took off. The 23-year-old with the aggressive approach batted .324/.371/.589, ripped 38 home runs, and tied for fourth among NL position players with 7.4 WAR.
9) Mark Prior, SP, Cubs
2002: 3.32 ERA (7th in NL ROY)
2003: 2.43 ERA (3rd in NL Cy Young)
Less than a year after Chicago drafted him second overall in 2001, Prior gave big league hitters fits over 19 starts. The imposing right-hander was even better in ‘03, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, NL-best 2.47 FIP, and a 28.4 percent strikeout rate that ranked third. Prior also finished third in the NL Cy Young Award race and won his first two postseason starts before the ill-fated Game 6 of the NL Championship Series against the Marlins. Unfortunately for Prior and the Cubs, injuries limited him to just 57 more starts.
10) Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies
2005: 22 HR (NL ROY)
2006: 58 HR (NL MVP)
An injury to Jim Thome in 2005 created an opportunity for Howard, who took advantage, slamming 22 home runs to take NL Rookie of the Year Award honors despite playing in just 88 games. Philly then traded Thome and handed the job to Howard. The lefty slugger responded by batting .313/.425/.659 while leading the Majors in homers (58) and RBIs (149) in ’06, and beating out Albert Pujols for the NL MVP Award.
2018: 26 HR (NL ROY)
2019: 41 HR (5th in NL MVP)
A spectacular debut as a 20-year-old in 2018 earned Acuña the NL Rookie of the Year Award, and he continued to establish himself as one of the game’s most exciting players the next season. An All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner, Acuña topped 40 homers and 100 RBIs while leading the NL in runs (127) and steals (37) — making a spirited push for a rare 40-40 campaign.
12) Kyle Freeland, SP, Rockies
2017: 123 ERA+ (7th in NL ROY)
2018: 164 ERA+ (4th in NL Cy Young Award)
Colorado made the Denver native its first-round Draft pick in 2014, and his rookie year suggested he was not intimidated by Coors Field. Freeland’s second year confirmed it. The 25-year-old left-hander posted a 2.40 ERA there, the lowest ever produced in a season at Coors, with at least 10 starts. Freeland took the ball 33 times and topped 200 innings, then fired 6 2/3 scoreless innings in an NL Wild Card Game victory at Wrigley Field to get Colorado into the Division Series for the first time since 2009.
2007: 3.9 WAR (AL ROY)
2008: 6.9 WAR (AL MVP)
Pedroia struggled mightily during a 31-game debut in 2006 but shook that off to quickly become an integral piece on a championship team. He was even better the next year, slashing .326/.376/.493 while leading the AL in runs (118), hits (213) and doubles (54). It was a season of significant hardware for Pedroia, who took home the AL Gold Glove Award, a Silver Slugger and the AL MVP Award.
14) Juan Soto, OF, Nationals
2018: 142 OPS+ (2nd in NL ROY)
2019: 138 OPS+ (9th in NL MVP)
Along with Acuña, Soto was part of a talented 2018 rookie class that also included the Cardinals’
2011: 2.10 ERA (NL ROY)
2012: 1.01 ERA (5th in NL Cy Young)
The flame-throwing right-hander stepped into Atlanta’s closer role in 2011 and led the NL with 46 saves. Yet he took his dominance to another level the next year, when he captured another NL saves title (42) and finished fifth in the NL Cy Young Award race. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, Kimbrel set records with a 50.2 percent strikeout rate (passed by Aroldis Chapman in ‘14) and a 0.78 FIP.