I just wrote about the National League Rookie of the Year debate and one of the fun things about the players involved is their ages -- Yasiel Puig is 22, Jose Fernandez just turned 21, Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran are 22. These guys are already very good and still very young.
Last week, Joe Posnanski wrote about all the young talent in the majors today and pointed out we could end up with 13 or 14 players in their age 23-or-younger season who could end up with 3.0 WAR or higher. The "record" for this category, according to Posnanski (I assume he was searching on Baseball-Reference.com) was 1978, when 14 players did it. The catch: Joe was writing about position players only.
Topping the list would be Mike Trout, with Manny Machado, Andrelton Simmons, Jean Segura, Freddie Freeman, Puig and Nolan Arenado already above the 3.0 mark. Jason Heyward is at 2.9 and on a hot streak. Eric Hosmer is at 2.7 WAR. That's nine guys who should get there with Anthony Rizzo, Brett Lawrie, Salvador Perez, Jose Iglesias and Bryce Harper between 1.9 and 2.1 WAR. Wil Myers has 1.7 WAR in about two months of play. This list doesn't even include Giancarlo Stanton, still just 23, but having a disappointing season with 1.3 WAR after leading the National League in slugging percentage last season.
So that's a lot of young talent without even talking about the pitchers.
Anyway, Joe didn't mention all the 1978 guys in his piece, so I thought it would be interesting to check out that list and see what happened the rest of their careers. Indulge me as I revisit the players of my youth, when I first started watching baseball and kept baseball cards in shoe boxes, wrapped in rubber bands.
Jack Clark: 5.9 (52.9 career WAR)
Clark finished fifth in the 1978 NL MVP vote and became one of the best hitters of the '80s (sixth in OPS+ for the decade behind Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Pedro Guerrero and Darryl Strawberry). He couldn't stay healthy, however -- during his age 27-to-30 peak years he averaged just 96 games per season. Couldn't keep his mouth shut either. Still can't keep his mouth shut.
Willie Randolph 5.8 (65.6)
Underrated player due to his defense and walks; a borderline Hall of Fame candidate by his career WAR total but fell off the ballot after one year and would appear an unlikely Veterans Committee candidate.
Jason Thompson 5.6 (24.8)
The 23-year-old first baseman for the Tigers hit .287 with 26 home runs and walks and made his second All-Star team. Looked like he'd be a big star for a long time, but it didn't happen. After a slow start in 1980, the Tigers dumped him to the Angels for Al Cowens, and then after hitting .317/.439/.526 the rest of the season for the Angels, he was traded to the Pirates for Ed Ott and Mickey Mahler -- 29-year-old part-time catcher and nobody pitcher. The Pirates were then supposed to trade Thompson to the Yankees -- basically for $500,000 in cash -- but the commissioner vetoed that trade so he was stuck with Pittsburgh. Anyway, not sure why nobody wanted him. Defense? Bad breath? Not sure the story there. Made the All-Star team in 1982 but was done by age 31.
Ellis Valentine 5.5 (16.9)
Hit .289/.330/.489, 25 home runs, 35 doubles, won a Gold Glove thanks to his cannon arm. Part of the young Expos outfield with Andre Dawson and Warren Cromartie. Hit in the face by a pitch on May 30, 1980. They say he was never the same again ... except after returning in July he hit .331 the rest of the season. Injuries and drug and alcohol problems cut his career short after that, although he straightened himself out after his retirement from baseball.
Robin Yount: 5.0 (77.1)
Was just 22, but already in his fifth season in the majors after starting for Milwaukee at age 18. Would of course go on to win two MVP Awards and get elected to the Hall of Fame. Now, looking at his season you probably wouldn't have projected him as a Hall of Famer -- he hit .293 with nine home runs and 147 hits in 123 games. But a 22-year-old with ability can sometimes take a big leap forward and Young did that in 1980.
Chet Lemon 4.9 (55.3)
A superb defender in center, although he never won a Gold Glove Award. He hit .304/.386/.482 with the White Sox from 1978 to 1981, but after a trade to the Tigers for Steve Kemp never hit .300 again, even though he was just 27 at the time of the trade. He ranks eighth among position players in WAR during his 1977-1984 peak. Pretty underrated player.
Andre Dawson 4.7 (64.4)
In his second season, hit .253/.299/.442, but with 25 home runs, 28 steals and good defense. Here's a question: At that moment in time, would you rather have had Dawson or Valentine? Valentine had the better season and both were 23, but Dawson was faster and more athletic. Neither walked much, although Dawson struck out a lot more. I think it would have been a tough call.
Eddie Murray 4.3 (68.2)
Hit .283 with 27 home runs and 70 walks at age 22, good enough to finish eighth in the AL MVP vote.
Lou Whitaker: 3.8 (74.8)
The AL Rookie of the Year in 1978, he's a slam-dunk Hall of Famer if you go strictly by WAR. Hit just 12 home runs his first four seasons but eventually topped 20 four times. Effective enough into his late 30s that even in his final year he posted an .890 OPS in a platoon role with the Tigers.
Terry Puhl: 3.7 (28.4)
He was just 21 and hit .289 for the Astros with 32 steals, a few walks and was solid defensively. Never developed too much beyond that -- hitting home runs in the Astrodome was near impossible in those days anyways -- but he was a prototypical Astros outfielder of that period with good speed and the ability to hit for average.
Lee Mazzilli: 3.3 (15.4)
A pretty good player from 1978 to 1980, when he was the toast of a bad Mets franchise -- hailing from Brooklyn made him even more popular with the Mets' faithful. Hit a big home run in the 1979 All-Star Game. Started suffering back and elbow injuries and was never the same, although the Mets squeezed Ron Darling and Walt Terrell from the Rangers in a steal of a deal.
Steve Kemp: 3.3 (19.5)
Good hitter whose career was eventually derailed by injuries. The 1978 Tigers had Thompson, Whitaker and Kemp, plus 20-year-old Alan Trammell, 22-year-old Lance Parrish and 23-year-old Jack Morris. They won 86 games. It took them only six years from there to win a World Series.
Ozzie Smith 3.2 (76.5)
He hit .258 and swiped 40 bases to finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year vote to Bob Horner (who went straight from Arizona State to the majors). Ozzie's bat stalled for his next three years in San Diego before a trade to St. Louis -- and turf -- helped him become respectable at the plate.
Garry Templeton 3.0 (27.7)
So that's the 14. It doesn't even include Trammell (2.8 WAR), Paul Molitor (2.7) or Carney Lansford (2.6).
You still hear a lot that players are rushed to the majors these days. There's no evidence this is actually true. In 1978, there were 21 players who were 23 or younger and batted at least 500 times and 27 who batted at least 300. In 2012, those figures were 14 and 20. In 1978, 28 pitchers 23 or younger reached 100 innings compared to 12 last year. There are reasons for this -- more guys go to college now (1978 was right before the boom in college baseball), some guys are now held back in the minors to save on service time, innings are limited and so on. But it's also because the talent level is a little higher than it was 35 years ago; there's less room for a 21-year-old kid to play regularly these days.
Not all these kids today will turn into stars ... but four of those 14 from 1978 did turn into Hall of Famers.