Gary Sanchez may or may not be named American League Rookie of the Year tonight. Either way, the New York Yankees catcher made a huge splash in his truncated campaign. In 53 games, he slashed .299/.376/.657 and clubbed a whopping 20 home runs.
Sanchez’s season has drawn comparisons to 1959, when San Francisco’s Willie McCovey copped National League honors. The erstwhile Giants slugger played in just 52 games, but he was every bit as brilliant in that short time. After being called up on July 30, McCovey slashed .354/.429/.656 and hit 13 round-trippers. With no other strong candidates on the ballot, he was a unanimous selection as top rookie.
He wouldn’t have won the award under today’s rules. The accolades almost certainly would have gone to Vada Pinson.
Since 1971, rookie status has been defined as having had fewer than 130 at-bats, or fewer than 50 innings pitched, in previous seasons. A player must also not have been on an active roster for more than 45 days prior to September 1.
When McCovey won the award, the rules stipulated 75 at-bats or 45 innings, and no time on the active roster between May 15 and September 1. Pinson didn’t meet that criteria. The previous year, he’d logged 96 at-bats after debuting with the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 19.
Pinson’s 1959 season — what would now be considered his rookie season — was All-Star worthy. His slash line was .316/.371/.509, and he had 47 doubles, nine triples, 20 home runs, and 21 stolen bases. Pinson played all 154 games, and led National League center fielders with 420 putouts.
Outside of McCovey, no rookie-eligible player in the National League had an especially notable season. But there were a couple of notable rookies. Bob Gibson debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals. So did teammate Ernie Broglio, who was infamously traded to the Chicago Cubs five years later for an up-and-coming outfielder named Lou Brock. Philadelphia Phillies infielder Sparky Anderson had the most plate appearances of any NL rookie in 1959.
Sanchez’s competition is more formidable, albeit not insurmountable. Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin had an .886 OPS over 116 games. It’s hard to imagine him garnering any first-place votes. Detroit’s Michael Fulmer — a 3.06 ERA over 159 innings — has a much stronger resume. Is it more impressive than the McCovey-like exploits we saw from Sanchez? That’s a question on which many voters may have gone back and forth before making their final decision. Fifty-seven years ago, McCovey waltzed into his award. Sanchez’s chances look like a coin flip.