Cardinals' best debut seasons

You know their names: Pujols, Musial, Brock, Gibson. The Cardinals’ list of legends rivals any in Major League Baseball based on their years of consistent excellence on and off the field. But first impressions are important, able to make or break a relationship between player and city. So, how did some of these stars start their tenures?

Here’s a look at the top debut seasons in Cardinals history, whether by rookies, trade acquisitions or free-agent signings.

This isn’t just the finest debut season in Cardinals history -- it’s one of the most impressive debut seasons in baseball history. Making the team as a 21-year-old out of Spring Training, Pujols hit .370 through his first month and never looked back en route to unanimously winning National League Rookie of the Year honors, finishing fourth in balloting for NL MVP, making his first of 10 All-Star teams and locking up his first of six Silver Slugger Awards.

Four rookies in Major League history have hit at least .300 with more than 100 runs scored, 100 RBIs and 30 homers. One is Ted Williams, and another is Pujols. That’s quite the first impression.

2. Lou Brock, 1964
Key stats: .348/.387/.527 slash line, 33 stolen bases, nine triples, 5.7 bWAR (in just 103 games)

Coming over in one of the most lopsided trades in Major League history, Brock teased in 1964 what he’d bring over the next 15 years in St. Louis. He burst onto the scene, slashing .348/.387/.527 with a 146 OPS+ -- all career highs when compared to other full-season totals -- across 103 games after joining the Cards from the Cubs in June 1964. His 5.7 bWAR after the trade is second only to his 5.8 mark in '68 -- and that took him 56 more games to amass.

And Brock was integral in the 1964 World Series triumph over the Yankees -- his first postseason experience -- batting .300 and hitting a homer in the decisive Game 7 at Busch Stadium I. Brock, who passed away in 2020, etched his name in Cardinals lore with excellence and defiant speed on the bases over 16 seasons, but it all started in 1964.

3. Bruce Sutter, 1981
Key stats: 2.62 ERA, NL-leading 25 saves, 1.07 WHIP, 1.6 bWAR

Before he threw the final pitch of the 1982 World Series, Sutter, the centerpiece of that December '80 trade with the Cubs, lived up to the billing in his first action with the Cards. The right-hander, off four consecutive All-Star campaigns, took over the closer role in 1981 en route to a fifth-place finish in NL Cy Young voting and eighth for NL MVP. Counting stats don’t do Sutter any favors due to a players’ strike shortening his debut season, but he was just about as good in 1981 as any season in his Hall of Fame career.

4. , 1942
Key stats: .315/.397/.490 slash line, 62 walks vs. 25 strikeouts, 151 OPS+, 5.3 bWAR

Musial won his first of three MVP Awards in his sophomore campaign in 1943 -- something that shouldn’t have been a surprise given how his rookie tenure unfolded. The Man debuted in September 1941, hitting .426 in 12 games down the stretch before slashing .315/.397/.490 in his first full season (140 games) in '42. If you combine those two rookie-eligible campaigns, he slashed .325/.402/.498 with a 153 OPS+ and 6.0 bWAR. Musial just missed Top-10 MVP voting in his debut season, but he would land within that parameter in 13 of his next 14 seasons thanks to the groundwork laid out in 1942.

5. , 2000
Key stats: .295/.411/.583 slash line, 42 HRs, 108 RBIs, 6.3 bWAR (with Gold Glove defense)

Before -- and even while -- he was saving runs in center field, Edmonds was absolutely raking in his first season in St. Louis. Acquired from the Angels during Spring Training 2000 for right-hander Kent Bottenfield and utility man Adam Kennedy, Edmonds hit .341/.452/.655 with a 1.107 OPS through the All-Star break before tapering off a bit in the second half. All told, his 42 homers were tied for the highest of his career while winning the first of six consecutive Gold Gloves and finishing fourth for NL MVP -- the highest finish in his career.

Honorable mentions
Only two rookies in the Live Ball Era (since 1920) have thrown more innings than Dizzy Dean did in his debut 1932 campaign. … Harvey Haddix was a 20-game winner -- the only time of his career -- thanks to a 3.06 ERA for the 1953 Cardinals. … Scott Rolen was a key cog after joining the NL Central champion Cards late in the 2002 season before four consecutive All-Star nods. … Matt Holliday and Mark McGwire are complicated candidates for this list, since their first Cards seasons were cut in half due to joining the club just before the Trade Deadline. But if you include their first full seasons the following year, they are more than deserving entries. Holliday tallied 158 RBIs with 61 doubles and 41 homers over his first 221 Cardinals games from 2009-10, while McGwire’s legendary home run race in 1998 came after hitting 24 long balls with 42 RBIs in 51 games down the stretch in ’97.

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