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Tuesday, May 3, 2011
The all-time all-young team

By David Schoenfield

After listing the youngest MVP winners in my previous post, here's a list of the all-time all-young team, the best seasons by players in their age-22 (or younger) seasons*:

C -- Johnny Bench, 1970 Reds (22). The MVP winner led the NL with 45 home runs and 148 RBIs and won the Gold Glove after throwing out 48 percent of basestealers. According to Baseball-Reference's WAR figure, three of the top four 22-and-under catcher seasons belong to Bench (Bill Freehan's 1964 sneaks in). That's why Bench was the most popular baseball player in the early '70s.

1B -- Jimmie Foxx, 1929 A's (21). Only three first basemen accumulated a 5.0 WAR or better at 22 or younger: Foxx (twice), Stuffy McInnis (twice) and Hal Trosky. Foxx hit .354 with 33 home runs and led the AL with a .463 on-base percentage in '29.

2B -- Eddie Collins, 1909 A's (22). I think we'll find that most of the big offensive seasons at these young ages came from outfielders. Based on WAR, Collins is a landslide winner for his sterling .347/.417/.450 line from '09. Tack on 67 steals and great defense and he's an amazing four wins better than the next-best season, Joe Morgan's 1965 campaign for Houston.

3B -- Eddie Mathews, 1953 Braves (21). Mathews' second season in the bigs was so spectacular -- 47 home runs, 135 RBIs, .406 OBP, .627 slugging -- that it put unfair expectations on him the rest of his career. He remained one of the NL's best players throughout his 20s, but his last All-Star appearance came when he was 30.

SS -- Alex Rodriguez, 1996 Mariners (20). Slight edge over Cal Ripken's 1983 or A-Rod's 1998. In '96, in his first full season, he hit line drive after line drive after line drive. He hit .356 with 54 doubles and 36 home runs and didn't turn 21 until late in July.

LF -- Ted Williams, 1941 Red Sox (22). Rickey Henderson was awesome in '80 (100 steals, .420 OBP), but Ted hit .406.

CF -- Cesar Cedeno, 1972 Astros (21). Hit .320/.385/.537 in the Astrodome, with 55 stolen bases. At the time, he looked like a sure bet Hall of Famer. As predicted, many great young center fielders to choose from -- Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Tris Speaker, Andruw Jones ... which tells how good Cedeno was.

RF -- Ty Cobb, 1909 Tigers (22). Won the Triple Crown while also leading the league in runs, hits, stolen bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I'd say that was a pretty good season.

P -- Dwight Gooden, 1985 Mets (20). Went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, 16 complete games and eight shutouts. Should have won the MVP Award, but received just one first-place vote. Strange because Roger Clemens would win the AL MVP the next season with an identical 24-4 record.

P -- Bob Feller, 1940 Indians (21). If you think Gooden was worked hard, Feller went 27-11 with 31 complete games and 320 innings pitched.

P -- Vida Blue, 1971 A's (21). As mentioned earlier, he's the youngest player to win the MVP Award. With a blazing fastball, he went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA and 301 strikeouts in 312 innings. He had a long, successful career, but was never again as dominant.

P --Bert Blyleven, 1973 Twins (22). People forget how good Blyleven was at a young age. He went 20-17, but led the AL in adjusted ERA and threw nine shutouts while pitching 325 innings.

P -- Joe Wood, 1912 Red Sox (22). His 34-5 record was impressive even for 1912. They called him Smoky because of his fastball, and Walter Johnson once said Wood threw harder. Wood led the Red Sox to the World Series title but a broken thumb the next season led to arm problems that eventually ended his pitching career (he made it back to the majors as an outfielder).

*22 as of June 30 of that season.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.