SweetSpot: Dwight Gooden
A couple weeks ago, Keith Law unveiled his annual list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 . Keith's list isn't a projection of the best players for 2013, but rather a projection and ordering of players if you were starting a franchise.
I thought it would be fun to do a similar list for all time. Of course, it's a difficult assignment because I was attempting to follow the same line of thinking as in Keith's piece: Whom would you build a team around? In doing this you have to pretend to ignore what happened in a player's career after a certain moment in time and project how he would have been valued at a particular age.
So this isn't just a list of the best players through the age of 24, or a list of the best seasons under the age of 25 -- although many of those players appear here. We're looking at the numbers and considering what the scouting reports would have been. Mark Fidrych, for example, was great at 21, but didn't possess the explosive fastball to make this list.
So here goes. A couple quick points. First, I ignored the 19th century. Second, I think it's important to understand that it was easier for a young player to excel in 1905 or 1929 or even into the 1950s than it is now. In my opinion, a 20-year-old Mike Trout dominating in 2012 is more impressive than a 20-year-old Ty Cobb dominating in 1907. Also, position matters. You build around up-the-middle guys more than corner guys (although there are some of those here). Cobb, for example, spent his early years as a right fielder before moving to center, so I downgraded him because of that.
Here's a way to look at this: If one player is ranked 23rd and another is ranked 14th, I'm saying I wouldn't trade the No. 14 player -- at that point in his career -- for the No. 23 player. Feel free, of course, to disagree.
25. Sam McDowell, LHP, 1965 Indians (age 22)
How dominant was McDowell in 1965? He averaged 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings, a record at the time and one that would last until 1984. In fact, while McDowell's K rate now ranks 25th all time, it's one of only three in the top 25 that came before 1990. He led the American League in ERA that year and the following May Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on McDowell with the billing, "Faster than Koufax?"
As you can see from his walk total, he had the blazing fastball but not Koufax-like command. That SI article perhaps points to some of McDowell's future issues in that it portrays him a pitcher with a fastball, slider, changeup and overhand curve ... and all too willing, apparently, to throw all four pitches. "He has such a good changeup that he wants to use it -- too much, in my opinion," catcher Del Crandall said. "I do not believe he is as impressed with his fastball as the hitters have indicated that they are."
McDowell liked to think out there. You wonder if he had just settled on two pitches -- maybe fastball/slider like Randy Johnson -- if he would have solved some of the control problems that did plague him throughout his career. The article mentions a game where he threw 163 pitches. "About par for me," McDowell said. Back then, nobody cared. "He has a good idea how to pitch," his manager Birdie Tebbetts said, "and he's going to be a real pitcher, one of the truly great ones. He runs three times as much as some pitchers, and he concentrates. He's going to get very tired in the next few years from all those pitches he throws, but he can stand that because he's young and strong, because he has a perfect build for a pitcher and because he doesn't have a sore-arm delivery. He's smooth."
24. Mel Ott, RF, 1929 Giants (age 20)
John McGraw didn't discover Ott so much as Ott found John McGraw. Ott was a 16-year-old playing for a lumber company semi-pro team in Louisiana when the lumber company owner bought Ott a train ticket to New York to try out for McGraw's Giants. A year later, Ott was playing in the Giants' outfield -- McGraw not wanting to farm out his young discovery to the minor leagues and have him fall prey to unknown evils.
Ott hit .322 with 18 home runs at age 19 and then exploded at age 20. Even in the high-scoring season of 1929, Ott's numbers were impressive: 42 home runs, one behind league leader Chuck Klein and the most ever by a 20-year-old; first in walks; fourth in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage; second to Hack Wilson in RBIs. Ott -- helped by the short porch at the Polo Grounds -- never again hit 42 home runs but did lead the National League in homers six times and and in OBP four times.
23. Pete Reiser, CF, 1941 Dodgers (age 22)
Reiser's numbers are more impressive then they may appear at first glance: He led the National League in batting average, doubles, triples, runs, slugging percentage, total bases, runs created, OPS and OPS+, plus he was regarded as one of the fastest players in the league and played a terrific center field. Reiser led the NL in WAR that year, not that WAR existed in 1941, so teammate Dolph Camilli, who drove in 120 runs, won MVP honors.
Reiser would become one of baseball's legendary "what if" players. On July 19, 1942, he crashed head-first into an unpadded concrete wall in St. Louis, knocked unconscious with "blood pouring from his ears." Reiser either fractured his skull or didn't; history is a little murky on the whole incident, according to Steven Goldman. Reiser would miss only a few games and finished sixth in the MVP vote but he suffered from blurred vision the rest of the year. He was hitting .350 at the time, tailing off to .310 by the end of the season.
After that came World War II, and in 1947 Reiser crashed into another wall and was injured severely enough that he was given last rites. He was never the same. Does he deserve a spot in the top 25? While it's true that he may have never developed into a big home run hitter, it seemed clear he was already one of the game's best all-around players. Leo Durocher, who managed Reiser in '41, would say Willie Mays was the greatest player he ever managed, but that Reiser had the same potential.
22. Andruw Jones, CF, 1998 Braves (age 21)
Look where Jones stood at this point in his career: He already was compared to Willie Mays defensively (indeed, Baseball-Reference ranks Jones' 1998 season as the sixth-best since 1901 of any position, with his '99 season even better), hit more home runs than Ken Griffey Jr. did at the same age, stole 27 bases in 31 attempts and hit a respectable .271. There may have been some concern about the ultimate potential with the batting and on-base ability, but if you remember the young Jones, we saw a gifted all-around player with MVP glitter in his future.
Jones would have seasons of 51 home runs, a .302 average and as many as 83 walks -- he just never did all those things at once. He was a great player with his range in center, but eventually he got fat, his 30s were a big zero and a Hall of Fame career wasted away.
21. Bert Blyleven, RHP, 1973 Twins (age 22)
Blyleven ended up pitching so long and then his Hall of Fame debate became so heated that it's easy to forget that he was one of the greatest young pitchers of all time. He made the majors at 19 and the next year won 16 games with a 2.81 ERA. In the early '70s, pitchers were treated about as well as a herd of cattle intended for fast-food hamburgers and Blyleven pitched 278 innings at age 20, 287 at 21 and then 325 at age 22. Somehow his arm remained attached to the shoulder socket.
He threw nine shutouts in 1973 and two one-hitters, leading the AL in adjusted ERA and strikeout/walk ratio. That he finished seventh in the Cy Young vote was a reflection of less-informed times, when writers looked at his 20-17 win-loss record and failed to realize how good he was. While we know about his famous curveball, Bill James also rated Blyleven's fastball the ninth-best between 1970 and 1974. Sure, we would be concerned about Blyleven's workload, but he had the total package.
20. Bryce Harper, OF, 2012 Nationals (age 19)
In terms of WAR, Harper just had the best season ever by a 19-year-old position player. The rest of the top five: Mel Ott, Edgar Renteria, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ty Cobb. And Ott is 1.3 wins behind Harper.
19. Frank Tanana, LHP, 1975 Angels (age 21)
Maybe you remember the old junkballing Tanana instead of the young flamethrower who compiled 22.3 WAR from ages 21 to 23 -- second-best over those three ages since 1901, trailing only Walter Johnson (22.7). Nolan Ryan was a teammate those three years and Tanana was better: He went 50-28 with a 2.53 ERA while Ryan went 50-46, 3.16.
As a 21-year-old, Tanana led the AL in strikeouts and strikeout/walk ratio while finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. Two years later, Sports Illustrated's Ron Fimrite wrote, "They know it exists; they just cannot find it, because the Tanana curve is among the most wicked in all of baseball. But then so are his fastball and his changeup. And all three are thrown with withering accuracy. Unlike Ryan, with whom he forms the most devastating one-two pitching entry in the game, he has complete control." James ranked Tanana's fastball the third-best of that era, behind two famous ones: Ryan's and Goose Gossage's.
Then he hurt his shoulder, and lost his speed. To his credit, he stuck around to win 240 games.
18. Hank Aaron, RF, 1957 Braves (age 23)
Aaron hit .314 at 21, won a batting title with a .328 mark at 22, but at age 23 his power exploded as he hit those 44 home runs and won what would be the only MVP Award of his career. Aaron led the NL in home runs, RBIs and runs and chased the Triple Crown into August (he would finish fourth in batting average). The only thing he didn't do yet was run -- one steal that year (though at his base-stealing peak in 1963 he took 31 bases).
In a profile that year in Sports Illustrated -- titled, appropriately, "Murder With A Blunt Instrument" -- Roy Terrell painted the image of Aaron that would last throughout his career: "Perhaps the most unusual part of the Aaron story is the fact that no one gets very excited about it. Sometimes it is even easy to forget that Henry Aaron is around. Without the physical proportions or explosive speed of a Mickey Mantle, without the breathtaking color of a Willie Mays, without the long and brilliant -- and controversial -- career of a Ted Williams, Aaron seems to be hardly a personality at all. He says practically nothing, stays out of nightclubs, never loses his cap running the bases, and spits only upon the ground."
17. Al Kaline, RF, 1955 Tigers (age 20)
Here's one example of why this list was difficult to put together: Do you take the 20-year-old Kaline over the 23-year-old Aaron? Or the 20-year-old Kaline over the 21-year-old Aaron for that matter? I think you have to go with Kaline, trying to ignore what happened after each age. An 18-year-old bonus baby in 1953, in 1955 Kaline led the AL with his .340 average, 200 hits and 321 total bases. He finished second in the MVP vote to Yogi Berra. He played a terrific right field.
Kaline went on to collect 3,000 hits and become a Hall of Famer, of course, but 1955 remained arguably the best year of his career (in terms of WAR, 1961 edges it out at 8.2). Kaline never hit 30 home runs and never hit .340 again. Looking back at '55, he got off to a great start, hitting over .400 in April and .371 in the first half (.301 in the second). Perhaps the league eventually figured something out; he also tore up the woeful Kansas City A's that year, hitting .451 against them with nine of his 27 home runs.
16. Cesar Cedeno, CF, 1972 Astros (age 21)
The sky was the proverbial limit for Cedeno in 1972 when he finished third in the NL in OPS while playing in the expansive Astrodome. Not shown above: He stole 55 bases and won a Gold Glove. Cedeno was outstanding again the next year, hitting .320 with 25 home runs and 56 steals. What happened from there? I wrote about his cautionary tale last August.
15. Mark Prior, RHP, 2003 Cubs (age 22)
How good was Prior in his first full season in the majors? As good as advertised when he came out of USC. From 1994 to 2004, the only pitchers with a lower ERA in a season were Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, Randy Johnson and Jason Schmidt. In the heart of the steroids era, Prior looked like the next Clemens, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound horse who would lead the Cubs to a World Series championship.
"Chicago Heat" read the Sports Illustrated cover that summer, featuring Prior and Kerry Wood. The article detailed Prior's extensive conditioning program between starts and his fundamentally sound mechanics.
The next year, he got hurt.
14. Eddie Mathews, 3B, 1953 Braves (age 21)
Check those numbers again. Mathews' 47 home runs not only led the NL but remain the most ever for a player 21 or younger -- 20-year-old Mel Ott being the only other player that young to hit at least 40. Ty Cobb had seen Mathews as a minor leaguer and declared, "I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them."
Mathews finished second in the MVP voting to Roy Campanella that year, but in some regards, Mathews spent the rest of his career trying to live up to the unlimited promise of his sophomore campaign. He would finish second again in the 1959 MVP vote and hit over 500 home runs but tailed off in his early 30s. In his autobiography, Mathews mentioned that his drinking caused him to lose several jobs in baseball, including a stint as Braves manager in the early '70s, although it's unclear if that was a problem during his playing days.
13. Cal Ripken, SS, 1983 Orioles (age 22)
On June 22, 1982, Earl Weaver moved a 21-year-old rookie from third base to shortstop in a game against Cleveland. The Orioles lost 8-6 and the kid moved back to third base. On July 1, Weaver started the rookie again at shortstop. He'd spend the next 14 years there -- starting every game.
In his first full season at shortstop, Cal Ripken's Orioles won the AL East (and went on to win the World Series) and Ripken captured MVP honors with his strong year at the plate -- he led the AL in runs and finished second in total bases -- and surprising defense up the middle. Maybe he didn't have the speed of other shortstops, but his arm strength allowed him to play deep and he had a quick first step.
Ripken's bat never really developed from where it was as a 22-year-old -- he only had two more seasons that compared, offensively, to 1983 (1984 and his second MVP season of 1991) -- and while too much attention was paid to his ironman streak, he remained a power-hitting shortstop with underrated defense.
12. Walter Johnson, RHP, 1910 Senators (age 22)
Johnson's speed was apparent from the day he joined the Senators in 1907, a raw youngster with impossibly long arms. After losing 25 games in 1909 -- the Senators were awful -- Johnson had his breakthrough season at 22, winning 25 games for a team that would limp to a 66-85. Johnson led the AL in games started, complete games, innings pitched and strikeouts, and threw eight shutouts.
That offseason, the Washington Post circulated a rumored trade of Johnson for Ty Cobb. Tigers president Frank Navin denied the rumor, saying the Senators would never trade Johnson, whom Navin called "in my opinion the best young pitcher in the country, and doubly valuable because he is so young."
Was Johnson the hardest thrower of all time? It's possible, although some speculate that Johnson was merely the first pitcher to throw hard all the time (instead of saving his best stuff for key situations, as most pitchers could do during the dead-ball era), thus making his fastball seem faster than it was. Cobb would probably disagree with that. In Henry Thomas' biography of Johnson, he quotes Cobb saying, "The first time I saw him, I watched him take that easy windup -- and then something went past me that made me flinch. I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it. The thing just hissed with danger. Every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark."
11. Vida Blue, LHP, 1971 A's (age 21)
Blue had started only 10 games in the big leagues (those 10 games included a no-hitter and one-hitter) when the 1971 season began. He got knocked out in the second inning of the season opener, but then quickly announced his presence: A six-inning shutout with 13 strikeouts in his next start, followed by a two-hit shutout and then eight complete games in his next nine starts, including three more shutouts. At the All-Star break he was 17-3 with a 1.42 ERA and 17 complete games in 22 starts. He would appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.
"He throws harder than Sandy Koufax did," Orioles first baseman Boog Powell said that season. "He has an effortless motion, a smooth, compact delivery. He goes out for nine innings and doesn't seem to weaken."
Blue relied mainly on his overpowering fastball, which he sometimes "cut" to add sinking movement. He also had a curveball and threw an occasional changeup. Blue was an outstanding athlete -- he threw 35 touchdown passes his senior year in high school, but chose baseball because there wasn't a future in pro football back then for black quarterbacks.
Blue's usage was an issue that summer and manager Dick Williams did cut back in the second half. But the damage may have been done. A holdout in 1972 -- Blue went 6-10 that year -- didn't help matters. But a quote from teammate Sal Bando in 1973 sums up why Blue, while remaining an excellent pitcher, never duplicated his 1971 wonders: "He found out that you can't throw the fastball for 300 innings."
10. Ken Griffey Jr., CF, 1990 Mariners (age 20)
"The Natural," billed the Sports Illustrated cover in May of 1990. Indeed, when told before one game to watch out for Bert Blyleven's curveball, Junior asked, "Is he a righty or lefty?" Griffey hit .300 and slugged .481 in his second year in the bigs with that picture-perfect swing, numbers more impressive in those years before muscles and offense exploded. He ranked seventh in the AL in batting average and ninth in slugging, won a Gold Glove and drew the inevitable comparisons to the next man on our list.
Am I overrating him on the list? After all, Bryce Harper had the same WAR in 2012, at the age of 19, as Griffey had at 20 and is 10 spots lower on the list. I think there was a certain awe about Griffey's potential at the time -- the leaping grabs in center field, the ability to hit for average, the untapped power that would eventually be unleashed. As Bill James wrote then, "He hasn't been overhyped; he's worth it. Griffey is the only major league player who has not yet established reasonable limits for himself. He could be anything -- he could be the greatest player there ever was, or he could be Cesar Cedeno."
I guess you could say the same thing right now about Harper, but let's wait a year on him. Obviously, I think he's going be awesome -- he's on this list after all -- but potential is a tough label to put on one so young.
9. Willie Mays, CF, 1954 Giants (age 23)
Mays missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the Army, but his return to the majors was so spectacular that he cracks my top 10, even if he is a little older than most of the others on this list. This is what the debate is all about: Would you trade 23-year-old Willie Mays for 20-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.? Mays led the NL in batting average and slugging percentage while finishing third in home runs. If there had been a Gold Glove Award back then, Mays would have won that, too. He did capture MVP honors and deservedly so.
I think the difference is this: The 23-year-old Mays was the finished product; the 20-year-old Griffey wasn't. While Griffey did develop into the player everyone projected, Mays was already that player. While Griffey made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1990, Mays made the cover of Time in 1954. In July, Mays appeared on three network TV shows in one weekend. He was a phenomenon, and a Newsweek headline read: "Willie Mays: The Hottest Thing Since Babe Ruth."
8. Bob Feller, RHP, 1939 Indians (age 20)
I could have put the 17-year-old Feller on the list (he made the majors while still a high school junior in Iowa and struck out 17 batters in a game that September), or the 18-year-old Feller (he appeared on the cover of Time that spring and his high school graduation was aired by NBC Radio), or the 19-year-old Feller (went 17-11 with a 4.08 ERA but walked 208 batters), but I think the 20-year-old Feller is the better choice.
It was his breakout season and while he still wasn't quite polished, his control had improved enough for him to make that leap to superstar status. He led the AL in wins, innings and strikeouts. In a league where only eight pitchers struck out 100 batters, Feller had 246. How fast did Feller throw? In the days before radar guns, he challenged a motorcycle in the summer of 1940. The motorcycle was racing at 86 mph as it flew past Feller as he unleashed his pitch. He managed to hit the target on his first try -- three feet ahead of the motorcycle. MLB declared he threw the ball 104 mph.
7. Mickey Mantle, CF, 1956 Yankees (age 24)
The oldest player on my list, you could argue I made the wrong choice: That 20-year-old Mickey Mantle was more valuable than 24-year-old Mantle, in part because in a theoretical trade you would lose the four seasons from ages 20-23. I'm sure Nate Silver or Dan Szymborski could run the numbers through their projection system and give a mathematical answer. Anyway, the 20-year-old Mantle was already one of the best players in the league: He hit .311 with 23 home runs, led the AL in OPS and finished third in the MVP vote. He remained at the level the next two seasons then hit 37 home runs at age 23.
But then ... then came one of the greatest seasons in major league history. Mantle hit .353 with 52 home runs and won the Triple Crown. He slugged .705 and had a 1.169 OPS. At the time, you may have thought: OK, Mantle raised his game to a new level -- the highest level -- and he's just entering his peak years; he may do this for the next seven or eight seasons. We know now that didn't quite happen. He was nearly as good in 1957 when he hit .365 and had an on-base percentage over .500, but those were his two best years.
That Mantle wasn't able to maintain that level of play isn't really a knock against him, although we can debate how much was bad knees and other injuries and how much was off-the-field habits. But he was so good in 1956 that even a 20-year-old Mantle -- even a raw kid with big speed and huge power -- couldn't have been projected to have this kind of season.
6. Joe DiMaggio, CF, 1937 Yankees (age 22)
Picture Joe D at age 22: Second season in the majors, a league-leading 46 home runs, a league-leading 151 runs scored, third in batting average, second in RBIs, first in slugging percentage, graceful in the outfield and on the bases, nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts, the best player on the best team in the world. What kind of future would that player have?
By WAR, it would be DiMaggio's second-best season. One reason I ranked him sixth is that you could easily project a 22-year-old who hit 46 home runs to become a 50-homer guy; but the 46 would be DiMaggio's career high, as he never hit 40 again. (Yankee Stadium, with its mammoth 457 feet to left-center, certainly hurt him; he hit 27 homers on the road in 1937, for example.)
"Name a better right-handed hitter, or a better thrower, or a better fielder, or a better baserunner," Hank Greenberg once said. "That's right, a better baserunner. Did you ever see him slide when he hooked the bag with his toe? Absolutely perfect."
5. Mike Trout, CF, 2012 Angels (age 20)
Wait: I just ran that quote and then ranked Trout ahead of DiMaggio? Well, where do we begin?
1. Trout just played his age-20 season (he turned 21 in August). DiMaggio was still in the Pacific Coast League at 20.
2. DiMaggio may have been a great baserunner, but he did play in an era when there weren't many stolen bases. He stole 30 bases in his career; Trout just stole 49 bases in 54 attempts.
3. Check their adjusted OPS. Trout's is actually a shade higher. The AL hit .281/.355/.415 in 1937; it hit .255/.320/.411 in 2012.
4. Trout drew more walks in fewer plate appearances -- in a league where pitchers averaged nearly a walk less per nine innings.
5. Trout's WAR is the highest of any 20-year-old position player. Or 21-year-old for that matter.
So ... yes, I would rather build around 20-year-old Mike Trout than 22-year-old Joe DiMaggio.
4. Johnny Bench, C, 1970 Reds (age 22)
The only catcher to make the list, Bench's value, in part, lies in that positional scarcity. Who was he in 1970? Only the NL MVP after leading the league in home runs and RBIs while possessing the strongest arm many had ever seen -- he started 130 games at catcher and allowed only 32 steals while throwing out 30. You did not run on Johnny Bench.
3. Ted Williams, LF, 1941 Red Sox (age 22)
OK, maybe he couldn't play center field like DiMaggio or Trout. But the man did hit .400. By the way, the feat is more impressive now than it was at the time. From 1935 to 1940, seven players had hit better than .370, including Luke Appling's .388 mark. So Williams was 18 points higher than the recently established high at the time. The highest average in the past seven years was Joe Mauer's .365 mark in 2009, so in some fashion Williams' .406 would be akin to somebody hitting .383 today. (The AL hit .267 in 2009 and .266 in 1941.)
2. Dwight Gooden, RHP, 1985 Mets (age 20)
All these years later, I'm still trying to figure out how Gooden finished fourth in the MVP vote. "His pitch does everything," Cubs first baseman Leon Durham said that year. "It moves, it sinks, it rises." Gooden threw a hard curve and a slow curve and hitters couldn't touch either one. Batters hit .201 off him and slugged .270. He threw eight shutouts -- and that doesn't count two other games where he pitched nine innings with no runs and got a no-decision. He allowed one run or fewer in 19 of his 35 starts.
It wasn't just the best pitching season ever by a young starter, it may have been the best, period. Baseball-Reference.com rates it fourth-best since 1901, behind two Walter Johnson seasons and one Cy Young year, back in the days when hitters didn't hit home runs and pitchers could spit on the ball.
What happened? Sure, there were the drugs and maybe hitters learned to lay off the high fastball and maybe he lost the feel for his curveball -- as good as Blyleven's they said -- and then pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre instructed him not to go for strikeouts all the time and he hurt his shoulder in 1989 and was definitely never the same after that.
But in 1985, in that glorious summer, Dr. K was as good as any pitcher ever was.
1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, 1996 Mariners (age 20)
"The way he's going, someday he might bat .400 and hit 60 home runs. He's the best young talent I've seen in years." -- Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, summer of 1996.
I think the 20-year-old A-Rod is the pretty easy call for No. 1. He was already a five-tool player, leading the AL in batting average while swatting 36 home runs and a league-leading 54 doubles. He was polished in the field, with range and a strong arm. Like Trout now, he didn't have to get better to become the best player in baseball.
For me, as a Mariners fan, I can't believe that was 17 years ago. As much as I loved the young Griffey or the middle-aged Edgar Martinez or the fireballing Randy Johnson, Rodriguez's year was something special, when a player so young is so good you can only cherish the present and dream of a future with no limits.
* * * *
Honorable mention: Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Smoky Joe Wood, Babe Ruth (the pitcher), Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Arky Vaughan, Herb Score, Frank Robinson, Don Drysdale, Vada Pinson, Rickey Henderson, Roger Clemens, Albert Pujols.
For me, Mike Trout has been the most exciting player in baseball in 2012. It's completely subjective opinion, of course, but if you think of some of the factors that would be considered for such a description, Trout fits (as do Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Kemp and others):
1. Power. Check.
2. Speed. Check.
3. Spectacular plays on defense. Check.
4. Young. Check. This is kind of like how we get excited over a new restaurant or new girlfriend or new TV show.
5. Looks good in a baseball uniform. Check.
6. Has the It Factor. Hard to define, but you know what it is when you see it.
7. Cool name. Mickey Mantle wouldn't quite be Mickey Mantle if his name had been "Andy Stankiewicz."
8. He's good. Duh. Although I suppose there's a different kind of excitement for players who aren't good.
Pitchers have a slightly different list of criteria, much of which boils down to "He's one bad dude."
The first year I remember following baseball was 1976, the year before the Mariners arrived in my hometown. Leaving out the fact that most of us probably prefer a guy on our favorite team, here's my own list of Most Exciting Player in Baseball since that year.
1976: Mark Fidrych, P, Tigers
There hasn't been anybody like Fidrych since he became a national phenomenon as a 21-year-old rookie. For all the attention given to Trout or Harper this year, imagine if ESPN and 24-hour sports coverage had been around in 1976, when Fidrych was talking to baseballs and shaking hands with infielders after a good play -- in the middle of innings. I remember watching the famous June "Monday Night Baseball" game against the Yankees, that's how big it seemed at the time. Fidrych would start the All-Star Game, complete 24 of his 29 starts and boost attendance whenever he pitched (he accounted for nearly half of the Tigers' attendance that year while making just 18 starts at Tiger Stadium). In Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," a history of baseball in the '70s, he writes that other teams begged the Tigers to pitch Fidrych in their parks.
How exciting was he? Here's a clip of that Yankees game; fast-forward to the 2:30 mark and not just for the awesome '70s clothes and fans smoking in the stands. Detroit fans hung out after the game, chanting "We want The Bird! We want The Bird!" When he finally appears from the clubhouse, the place explodes. One of a kind.
1977: George Foster, LF, Reds
Maybe a bit of a one-dimensional slugger, but his 52 home runs that year seemed otherworldly. And maybe they were. It was the only 50-homer season between Willie Mays in 1965 and Cecil Fielder in 1990, Foster waved that menacing black bat and was awesome.
1978: Dave Parker, RF, Pirates
Built like a linebacker, for a few years there Parker was arguably the best all-around player in baseball. He was the MVP in 1978 as he led the majors in batting average and OPS and owned a howitzer for an arm. Plus, this was the year he fractured his jaw and cheekbone in a home-plate collision and returned two weeks later wearing a hockey mask at the plate (quickly replaced by a football-like face mask).
That sweet Charlie Lau swing. The dirty uniform even though he played his home games on turf. And then the chase for .400 in 1980. But how about this line in 1979: .329, 212 hits, 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 home runs.
1981-1983: Rickey Henderson, LF, A's
Actually, you could probably give him the whole decade if you want.
1984-1985: Dwight Gooden, P, Mets
In 1984, he was Kid K, the 19-year-old phenom who finished second in the Cy Young vote, helping turn around a moribund Mets franchise. In 1985, he was Dr. K, the best pitcher on the planet -- 24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 strikeouts. He pitched eight shutouts that year with his blistering high fastball and knee-buckling curveball, plus he had two more nine-inning scoreless outings where he got a no-decision. The four games he "lost" he allowed two, two, two and three runs. With a little luck, he could have gone unbeaten. You couldn't watch all the games back then, of course, unless you lived in the New York area, but I'd stay up late to watch the news to see how Gooden fared or devour the box score in the morning paper.
1986: Roger Clemens, P, Red Sox
Twenty strikeouts in a game. Twenty-four wins. Nothing then about needles in the butt.
1987: Eric Davis, CF, Reds
Skinny as a golf club, Davis somehow generated big power from his slight frame and combined that with blazing speed and acrobatic outfield play. In 1986, he hit 27 home runs and stole 80 bases; in 1987 he hit 37 home runs and stole 50 bases (in just 129 games). In a Sports Illustrated story, Reds manager Pete Rose said, "It's like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout." Teammate Dave Parker said, "Eric is blessed with world-class speed, great leaping ability, the body to play until he's 42, tremendous bat speed and power, and a throwing arm you wouldn't believe. There's an aura to everything he does." In the long run, he couldn't stay healthy, although he did last until he was 39. If you missed seeing the young Davis, you missed something special.
1988: Jose Canseco, RF, A's
Don't laugh. When he went 40-40 it was a very big deal. But, no, I never called the Jose Canseco hotline.
1989-1994: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners
OK, Barry Bonds was better. He was faster. When you break it down, he was a little better hitter and that was even before Big Barry broke out. But Griffey had the It Factor from the time he reached the majors at age 19 and Bonds never really did.
Power and might, adrenaline at 100 miles per hour with his long hair flapping behind him, as intimidating a pitcher the game has ever seen. And if you were a Mariners fan in those days, a Johnson game was a treat to be savored. And when he trudged in from the bullpen in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series, the Kingdome exploded in pandemonium. Without Johnson's spectacular '95 season (remember, Griffey was hurt part of that year), there may not be baseball in Seattle.
1996: Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners
The common theory is that A-Rod -- like Bonds -- never managed to connect with the fans on a national scale like Griffey, but that's a little rewriting of history, especially after he left Seattle for his first megabucks contract. In 1996, when he was 20 years old (turned 21 in July), he was, like Mike Trout, a young guy putting up bizzaro offensive numbers -- he'd hit .358 with 36 home runs and 54 doubles. It's too easy to forget now but there was a moment when Rodriguez was a player of our affection instead of a player of derision.
1997: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners
Griffey's MVP season when he led the AL with 56 home runs and 147 RBIs.
1998: Mark McGwire, 1B, Cardinals ... and Sammy Sosa, RF, Cubs
You have to put them together, no? And, no, you can't rewrite history: The home run chase was exhilarating, thrilling and astonishing.
1999-2000: Pedro Martinez, P, Red Sox
In the midst of the barrage of home runs, Pedro was putting up numbers we'd never seen before from a pitcher. In 1999, he struck out 313 batters in 213.1 innings, an average of 13.2 K's per nine innings ... and he walked just 37. He was Nolan Ryan with command and one unhittable changeup. In 2000, opponents hit .167 off him. This wasn't some reliever throwing one inning at a time. Attending a Pedro game at Fenway during this peak was like going to a religious revival, 35,000 fans believing fervently in the gifts of Pedro. He wasn't a god, but he sure pitched like one.
2001: Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners
I think this list is just making Mariners fans sad.
2002-2004: Barry Bonds, LF, Giants
Are walks exciting? Bonds somehow made them so. Love him or hate him, a Bonds at-bat in this era was must-see TV.
2005: Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals
A weird season. Bartolo Colon won a Cy Young Award. Roger Clemens had a 1.87 ERA at age 42. Scott Eyre picked up 10th-place MVP vote. No, seriously, he did. We'll give the nod to Pujols, if only for that 9,000-foot home run off Brad Lidge in the NLCS.
2006-2008: Jose Reyes, SS, Mets
Over those three seasons he hit .292 while averaging 16 home runs, 16 triples and 66 stolen bases per season. Admit it: He was fun.
2009: Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins
Maybe should have mentioned him during the Reyes seasons. This was the year he hit .342 with power and speed.
2010: Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers
He was so good he won the MVP Award despite missing the final month.
2011: Justin Verlander, P, Tigers
With apologies to Matt Kemp.
So that's my list, no slights intended to those I left off. What about your most exciting players? Discuss below ... and enjoy baseball.
Leave the kudos for later: He’ll be an All-Star, he’s a Cy Young contender, he’s all that. If you’re a Nats fan, this is exactly what you signed up for in 2009 (when he was drafted) or even sooner, if you understood that your guys were going to pick this generation’s one-and-only out of San Diego State with the top choice in the draft.
But in a nutshell, those numbers also capture the agonizing logistical challenge the Nationals have in front of them, because Strasburg traveled past another not-so-little number: His halfway point to 160, the innings total that he’s “supposed” to pitch if plans are set in stone and circumstances aren’t allowed to change and if we want to pretend that general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson are actuarial obsessives instead of men charged with players and possibilities. Strasburg’s 14th start of the season put him at 84 frames so far.
How good is Strasburg? As J.R.R. Tolkien might have said, his stuff pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh. But it’s the last of those things that might make you wonder, because even after a night like tonight, Strasburg is mortal. He’s had to go under the knife before, and the nightmare is that by pushing too hard too soon, he might have to again.
One old theory on pitcher workloads was that you wanted to be careful with guys younger than 24; before then, they were in “the injury nexus,” as I think my old colleague Jonah Keri (now of Grantland fame) liked to put it. Strasburg is 23, a month away from his 24th birthday.
Johnson has been entrusted with generational greats before, of course. He was the man in the Mets’ dugout when Dwight Gooden came up as teenage phenom in 1984. You can’t place the provenance of Gooden’s eventual breakdowns to any one thing -- overwork at such a young age? Being a kid on that team of good-time charlies? Getting coached to throw more breaking stuff early on? If you want to plead any of those for why Gooden will merely be well-remembered as a treasure, and not as a guy you’ll see in Cooperstown, you’d have a case.
But as distant as 1988 is to the present in terms of workloads or offensive environment, it puts the concerns about Strasburg into some perspective when you notice that at this time of year in Gooden’s season, he had made 15 starts to Strasburg’s 14, thrown 112 1/3 innings to Strasburg’s 84 and delivered 1,571 pitches to Strasburg’s 1,332. Gooden was also in his fifth full season in the majors. And as history records, Gooden needed shoulder surgery in 1989, the first in a series of injuries.
So, as far as Strasburg and the Nats are concerned, that sounds reasonable, right? Strasburg’s working less and has had considerably less mileage on his arm now than Gooden did by then. Well … maybe. This was also Strasburg’s second start of the season with more than 110 pitches, which will alarm some folks, especially since they’ve come in two of his past three turns. That’s the development I find more troubling than his innings or his starts or even his cumulative pitch count.
Even if you’re generous and want to note that 120 pitches is the standard we ought to be using for the hard line between OK and overworked for most pitchers, it’s worth noting that even that reliable defier of pitch-count paranoids, Justin Verlander, threw only three such starts in his age-23 season back in 2006, and his last one (on September 2) pretty much gassed the rookie for the remainder of the season -- and the postseason, when Verlander The Invincible would have made a big difference in the World Series against the victorious Cardinals.
And that’s the other nightmare scenario: They pile even more work on Strasburg to no happy ending, not unlike what the Cubs asked of Kerry Wood in the National League Division Series in 1998, only to find that they had asked too much of their wunderkind top gun.
None of this is guaranteed bad news for Strasburg, of course. Every pitcher is a unique talent. Every pitcher creates his own possibilities. Verlander didn’t break, even if he did wear down in 2006. Despite years of confident assertions that Livan Hernandez’s arm was going to fall off throwing the workloads he was tasked with, it never did. (Livan could probably still throw 230 innings if you asked him. They wouldn’t be good innings, mind you.)
And there is no talent like Strasburg’s. Now that we’re beyond the theory of what might have been the case, now that Strasburg is beyond the halfway point, you can bet that he’s not going to throw “just” 160 innings -- not pitching like this. Not even if the Nats try to give him additional rest around the All-Star Game by kicking him to the fifth turn post-break, and not even if they give him a two-week trip to the disabled list due to “tired arm” or some other malady general enough to be plausible. At this point, his trajectory’s going to take him past all of that.
To some extent, the cap has become so much nonsense, but that’s because Strasburg has made it so at the same time that the team’s bid to win is making it so. In the broad strokes, the Nationals have been as moderate as you could wish for in managing his workload up to this point, even as they tried to temper expectations by having tossed out that “160-inning cap” notion in the first place. You can fidget -- as I do -- over the pitch counts accumulated over multiple starts, but if Strasburg keeps upsetting all these good intentions, it’s because he’s the real deal.
Don't feel sorry for the Nats, that they have this call to make. There are 29 other teams that would kill for the chance to be making the tough choices Rizzo and Johnson will have to make. Simply as an observer, I say enjoy it while it lasts, because like Gooden 25 years later, we'll still be talking about Stephen Strasburg 25 years from now.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
The awesome Baseball-Reference.com lists something called "similarity scores" for each player. Originally introduced by Bill James, similarity scores takes a player and compares his basic statistics to other players, starting with 1000 points and subtracting points for degrees in difference in various categories. It doesn't adjust for era or ballparks so isn't necessarily meant to be serious sabermetric analysis, but it is a fun tool.
Anyway, here are Clayton Kershaw's top 10 most similar pitchers through age 23:
1. Vida Blue
2. Dontrelle Willis
3. Hal Schumacher
4. Ramon Martinez
5. Jimmy Dygert
6. Dean Chance
7. Dave Boswell
8. Ismael Valdez
9. Al Mamaux
10. Ken Holtzman
Some of these guys had excellent, long careers like Blue and Holtzman. Others developed arm problems and never matched their early dominance (Martinez, Chance, Boswell). Two were pitches from the first two decades of the 20th century (Dygert, Mamaux).
Anyway, none became Hall of Famers. Which I promptly tweeted.
Does this mean we should be worried about Kershaw's future? There's an old axiom that too many innings on a young pitcher's arm may not bold well for a long career. Of course, teams are more careful about the workloads they give to young pitchers now than even 20 years ago. Martinez, another young Dodgers ace, pitched 234 innings at age 22 -- not much different than the 233 Kershaw just threw at age 23. However, Martinez had at least eight games of 130-plus pitches (we're missing pitch counts for a few other starts as well). Kershaw's high game at age 22 was 118 pitches and he exceeded 120 just twice in 2011.
Kershaw is a pretty unique talent, so I didn't necessarily like that list of comps. Here's another list. Most strikeouts through age 23 since 1947:
1. Bert Blyleven
2. Dwight Gooden
3. Frank Tanana
4. Larry Dierker
5. Sam McDowell
6. Fernando Valenzuela
7. Don Drysdale
8. Felix Hernandez
9. Clayton Kershaw
10. Gary Nolan
11. Dennis Eckersley
12. Catfish Hunter
Now, I think Dodgers fans will agree that's a little better list, with four Hall of Famers. Not incuding Kershaw and Hernandez, Nolan had the fewest wins on the list at 110. He was a dynamic talent who battled shoulder injuries after dominating in the majors at age 19.
Gooden, of course, also dominated at age 19 and won his Cy Young at age 20. We don't have pitch totals for those early years, but we do have them from 1988, Gooden's age-23 season. He had eight games of 120-plus pitches, including one with 138 and another with 131. Actually, not too bad. But who knows how many pitches he had thrown from 19 to 21, when he averaged 248 innings per season.
Stating the obvious: the Dodgers have done a terrific job handling Kershaw's workload, slowly ramping up his innings from 171 to 204 to 233. That's no guarantee he'll have a long and healthy career -- and he'll have to prove he can handle the 230-plus innings year after year like Hernandez has shown the past three seasons -- but the Dodgers have done everything possible to protect their prized left-hander. There's no reason not to expect Kershaw to contend for a few more Cy Young trophies.
The Dodgers open the season April 5 in San Diego. Their home opener is five days later against the Pirates, so Kershaw should start that one as well.
I know it's been a rough year for Dodgers fans, but let's hope they show up en masse to support their Cy Young winner. I know I'll be watching.
1. Did the Yankees really hit three grand slams in one game? That was awesome. But Phil Hughes wasn't.
2. Adrian Gonzalez has regained his power stroke but another Boston player has gone unnoticed this year.
3. Jim Thome heads back home to Cleveland.
4. Steve goads Mark into telling his story about meeting Dwight Gooden.
5. Speaking of Gooden, maybe we need a "five-year Hall of Fame," for guys who were awesome for five years.
Plus: The Giants, Kirk Gibson, Stephen Strasburg, why the Reds are great in WAR but possess a lousy record, plus much more!
Angels starter Jered Weaver continued his remarkable season pitching in spacious Anaheim, lowering his ERA there to 1.38 after a win on Wednesday. (Good luck guessing who the last pitcher was to finish a season with at least 70 innings and a home ERA that low.) And Brewers ace Zack Greinke has not disappointed at Miller Park this season, where he puts a perfect 9-0 mark on the line on Sunday against the Cubs.
Those are impressive numbers for the statistical traditionalists, but it is Roy Halladay’s performance at Citizens Bank Park that may rank among the most amazing in the history of the sport. He’ll be pitching there again against the Marlins on Saturday.
Why is Doc’s performance so remarkable? Because of these three numbers in his 104 2/3 innings pitched: 102 strikeouts, eight walks and two home runs allowed. In the world of Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a statistic that estimates ERA based on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, this translates to a 1.56 FIP. That’s stratospherically good.
Granted, the 2011 version of Citizen’s Bank Park is not playing as the hitter’s ballpark that it’s usually made out to be (check out ESPN.com’s Ballpark Factor page for more), but that troika of dominance still strikes us as a remarkable combination of numbers.
It got us to thinking about other sorts of home-field domination by pitchers. We circled back to the first full season after World War II ended (1946) and with the help of a few resources (including avid Baseball Today podcast listener Naveen) we came up with a few other examples.
How do you think Halladay, Greinke and Weaver compares to these?
Satchel Paige, 1952 St. Louis Browns
Paige had among the most divergent home-road splits of any pitcher ever. He pitched 70 1/3 innings at home, 67 1/3 on the road, and this is what he netted:
Home: 9-0, 1.27 ERA, 8 saves (though saves weren’t "official" stats then)
Road: 3-10, 4.95 ERA, 2 saves
These issues mirrored those of his Browns teammates. The team finished 42-35 at home, 22-55 on the road.
George "Red" Witt, 1958 Pirates
There have only been two seasons since World War II in which a pitcher threw at least 75 innings at home and posted a home ERA below 1.00. Witt’s 1958 season is one of them. It remains as a statistical memory of one of baseball’s forgotten all-time great prospects.
In 1958, Witt was recalled from the minors and was awesome, 9-2 in 18 games (15 starts) with a 1.61 ERA. He put on an amazing show in 10 appearances at Forbes Field, allowing seven runs (five earned) in 75 2/3 innings pitched (an 0.59 ERA), not allowing a home run.
Witt hurt his arm the next spring and the injury proved to be a career-wrecker. He went 2-13 with a 6.29 ERA over the next four seasons, though he did earn a World Series ring with the 1960 Pirates.
Sandy Koufax, 1964 Dodgers
We didn’t want to make this a list of pitchers who were overwhelmingly dominant regardless of venue, but felt we had to include Koufax. He’s the other of the two pitchers to post a sub-1.00 ERA at home, finishing 1964 at 0.85.
There’s a good debate over which Koufax home season was better. This one, or 1965. Here are the numbers; you be the judge:
1964: 12-2, 0.85 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 8.7 K per 9, 6.9 K per BB
1965: 14-3, 1.38 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 11.0 K per 9, 6.7 K per BB
Roger Nelson, 1972 Royals
Four of the five best seasons for home-ballpark WHIP since World War II were thrown by Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal. The fifth was by Nelson (nickname "Spider") who allowed just 45 hits and 15 walks in 76 2/3 innings pitched in at Royals Stadium in 1972.
Nelson appears to have been the beneficiary of the ballpark’s spacious outfield. He allowed just three home runs (one every 25 innings) in Kansas City, yielding 10 (one every 9.6 innings) in other venues.
Nolan Ryan, 1972 Angels
There has been talk about how no one benefits more from his home ballpark than Weaver. But Weaver’s home-road statistical differentials pale in comparison to those for Ryan in Anaheim in 1972:
Home: 13-8, 1.07 ERA, .438 opp OPS, 220 K, 89 BB, 22 starts
Away: 6-8, 4.26 ERA, .694 opp OPS, 109 K, 68 BB, 17 starts
These splits raise about 15 different questions, most notably: How the heck do you lose eight games at home, pitching to a 1.07 ERA? Easy, actually, because he lost 1-0 twice, 2-0 twice, and 2-1 twice (his other losses were 3-0 and 4-3).
One last Ryan note from that season: From July 5 to August 9, Ryan made five home starts. In 42 innings, he allowed two runs (one earned) and 11(!) hits, striking out 58 and walking 21. He went 3-2 in those five starts, as this stretch included both of his 1-0 losses.
Steve Stone, 1979 Orioles
The Elias Sports Bureau directed us Stone’s way because of the odd form of his home dominance and a disparity in home-road split for which there may be no equal. Stone was 8-1 with a 1.97 ERA at Memorial Stadium, averaging just 4.6 K/9. Stone paid the price for the inability to overpower on the road, where he had a 6.66 ERA in the same number of starts he made at home (16).
Dwight Gooden, 1984 Mets
That’s not a typo. We’re listing the 1984 version of Gooden and not the 1985 version, partly at Naveen’s suggestion, because Gooden was amazing wherever he was pitching in 1985. In 1984, Gooden was a baseball phenomenon, akin to Fernando Valenzuela three years prior. He built a home-field advantage in the form of the K Corner fan base in Shea Stadium’s upper deck.
“It helped because if I got two strikes, on anything close, the hitter was going to swing, or the umpire was going to ring him up,” said Gooden, who averaged nearly 12 strikeouts-per-nine innings at home (and gave up only three home runs in 118 1/3 innings pitched) during an appearance at ESPN Thursday.
Orel Hershiser, 1985 Dodgers
Few outside Los Angeles may remember that Hershiser was 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA in 1985, partly because of Gooden’s 24-4, 1.53 ERA and partly because of what Hershiser did three seasons later. But Hershiser had one heck of a home run that 1985 season. He was 11-0 with a 1.08 ERA, allowing 16 earned runs and just four home runs in 133 1/3 innings pitched. That included one-hit shutouts of both the Padres and Pirates.
And yes, we’re listing a bunch of Dodger Stadium examples. Because we want to spread the wealth, we limited it to those two, which means omitting the great Valenzuela season in 1981.
Johan Santana, 2006 Twins
Santana was basically perfect in his home ballpark. He finished with a 12-0 mark and a 2.19 ERA. Santana was the first pitcher to finish a season 12-0 or better at home since Billy Pierce went 12-0 at Candlestick Park for the 1962 Giants, the first AL pitcher to do so since Boo Ferriss was 13-0 (with a 3.85 ERA) for the 1946 Red Sox.
Santana’s home winning streak ended up at 17 games, but it is not the longest in modern major league history. Ray Kremer won 23 in a row for the Pirates in 1926-1927.
Josh Johnson, 2010 Marlins
To find a pitcher with comparable home ballpark dominance to Halladay, you have to go back to … last season. In 103 1/3 innings at Sun Life Stadium, Johnson struck out 127, walked 21, and yielded just two home runs. At 1.54, his FIP actually comes out slightly better than Halladay’s. But there’s a big difference between doing that sort of thing in the soon-to-be-abandoned Marlins home ballpark, which usually doesn’t rate homer-friendly and doing it in Citizens Bank Park.
Honorable Mentions: Courtesy of Naveen, a few others of a ridiculously good home-field advantage nature: Juan Marichal (1966, 1969 Giants), Bert Blyleven (1974 Twins), Jon Matlack (1978 Rangers), Bob Tewksbury (1992 Cardinals), Roger Clemens (1997 Blue Jays), Kevin Brown (1999, 2000 Dodgers), Jake Peavy (2008 Padres) and Tim Lincecum (2009 Giants).
Lastly our trivia answer: Mike Morgan was the last pitcher to finish a season with a home ERA that matched or bettered where Weaver is now. Morgan must have gotten the benefit of Wrigley Field a few times. He finished with a home ERA of 1.38 for the 1992 Cubs.
Mark Simon is the Baseball Research Specialist for ESPN Stats and Information. He thinks 1986 is the best baseball season ever. Follow Mark on Twitter @msimonespn and the Mets blog at ESPNNewYork.
In many ways the formula works perfectly -- it rewards pitchers with low ERAs and those who don't allow many baserunners. It has a couple primary flaws in assessing overall value: There are no park effects and it doesn't factor in innings pitched, so a 170-inning season can have the same "dominance factor" as a 250-inning season.
There's another flaw: All of Schilling's highest-rated seasons since 1960 came during the so-called steroid era. His top 13 seasons included five from Pedro Martinez; two apiece from Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Kevin Brown; and one each from Roger Clemens and Johan Santana. Now, maybe those are the best seasons since 1960, as those guys dominated in a high-scoring era.
Of course, there are other metrics out there as well to measure the best pitcher seasons.
Wins: I think we all agree by now that wins aren't the best way to measure a pitcher. By this method, in 1990 Bob Welch had the second-best season since 1960 with 27 wins -- despite ranking just sixth in his own league in ERA and posting a mediocre 127/77 SO/BB ratio.
ERA: Better than wins, but doesn't adjust for home ballpark, era (a 2.05 ERA in 1968, when the American League ERA was 2.98 is not as valuable as a 2.05 ERA in 1996, when the AL ERA was 5.00) or innings pitched.
ERA+: The Baseball-Reference stat adjusts a pitcher's ERA for his park and era to a scale where 100 is average. Much better than regular ERA, although it still doesn't factor in innings pitched, unearned runs, or the quality of a pitcher's defense. It actually ends up generating a list similar to Schilling's as 15 of the top 25 ERA+ seasons since 1960 occurred between 1994 and 2005. ERA+ also doesn't factor in "dominance" in the sense of what Schilling was looking for, as it's possible to post a low ERA without dominating peripherals.
WAR (wins above replacement): WAR establishes a value to a pitcher's season. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have different versions of WAR, and both arguably have a problem in generating a list of the best pitching seasons since 1960.
Under the Baseball-Reference formula, the more innings you pitch, the more value you accumulate. While completely logical (you're more valuable if you pitch more innings), its list ends up skewed towards the late '60s and early '70s, when starters routinely racked up 300-plus innings. Fourteen of its top 25 seasons reached 300 innings (and only four have fewer than 275), so modern pitchers struggle to make the top of the list since they don't pitch as many innings.
FanGraphs' version of WAR doesn't factor a pitcher's ERA or runs allowed. Instead, it extrapolates a pitcher's innings, strikeouts, walks allowed and home runs allowed (adjusted for park and era). It also only has pitcher WAR dating back to 1974. As it turns out, nine of its top 10 seasons occurred between 1995 and 2004, and you also end up with seasons like Schilling's 2002 in the top 10, when he had a great strikeout-to-walk ratio, but finished just 10th in the NL in ERA.
Both the B-R and FanGraphs lists are a terrific guide to greatness. I'm not knocking their lists. I'm just not sure either should be considered the definitive list of the "best" seasons. So here's my subjective 15 best since 1960, trying to account for the changing patterns of the game ... with apologies to the many great pitchers who finished 16th in my personal tally.
15. Steve Carlton, 1980 Phillies
24-9, 2.34 ERA, 304 IP, 243 H, 90 BB, 286 SO, 15 HR
The last pitcher to throw 300 innings, Carlton led the NL in wins, innings, strikeouts and SO/BB ratio. He held opponents to a .218 average -- and this despite Greg Luzinski usually behind him in left field.
14. Gaylord Perry, 1972 Indians
24-16, 1.92 ERA, 342.2 IP, 253 H, 82 BB, 234 SO, 17 HR
A great season that nobody remembers, although Perry did win the Cy Young Award. While 1972 didn't see much hitting -- there was a reason the AL instituted the DH rule for the 1973 -- Perry's workload was amazing as he had 29 complete games and averaged 8.5 innings per start. That's a lot of spit. From May 6 through Aug. 5, he started 22 games and averaged more than nine innings per start, all while compiling a 1.55 ERA.
13. Randy Johnson 2002 Diamondbacks
24-5, 2.32 ERA, 260 IP, 197 H, 71 BB, 334 SO, 26 HR
Johnson captured his fourth straight Cy Young Award with one of his many dominant seasons. He allowed two runs or fewer in 22 of his 35 starts and struck out 15 or more four times. He also tightened up when it most counted, holding batters to a .174 average in "high-leverage" situations, with just one home run allowed in 154 at-bats.
12. Zack Greinke, 2009 Royals
16-8, 2.16 ERA, 229.1 IP, 195 H, 51 BB, 242 SO, 11 HR
Greinke hasn't been able to replicate the consistency, focus or, yes, the little bit of magic he had in 2009. He allowed one run or less in more than half of his starts -- 18 of 33 -- but due to lack of run support won just 12 of those 18 games. (Thank you, Royals teammates.) His relative lack of stamina prevents him from ranking higher as he pitched fewer than seven innings in 13 of his starts.
11. Greg Maddux, 1995 Braves
19-2, 1.63 ERA, 209.2 IP, 147 H, 23 BB, 181 SO, 8 HR
The shortened season cost Maddux a few starts, otherwise he'd rank even higher with the additional innings pitched. He allowed 39 runs (38 earned) in 28 starts and had a remarkable 0.81 WHIP. His .224 OBP allowed is the second-best since 1960 and his ERA+ is third-best (he ranked even better in 1994, although he did allow nine unearned runs that year.) Maddux allowed more than two runs just four times and more than three runs just twice. He painted the corners, got grounders, didn't give up home runs and dominated without just blowing batters away. Some say he also had a few extra innings off the plate to work with thanks to the kindness of the umpires.
10. Tom Seaver, 1971 Mets
20-10, 1.76 ERA, 286.1 IP, 210 H, 61 BB, 289 SO, 18 HR
The only season on our list not to result in a Cy Young trophy, as Seaver lost out to Fergie Jenkins, who went 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA for the Cubs. The vote actually wasn't a travesty; once you adjust for Shea Stadium and Jenkins' 39 more innings pitched, the seasons are close in value. However, Seaver did outpitch Jenkins by quite a bit on the road: 1.63 ERA versus 2.70 ERA, so I rate Seaver's season as better. Seaver's 9.1 K's per nine led the league, at a time when the league average was 5.4, a ratio of +69 percent. In 2011, the NL average is 7.2 K's per nine; a rate of +69 percent would equate to 12.2 K's per nine.
9. Ron Guidry, 1978 Yankees
25-3, 1.74 ERA, 273.2 IP, 187 H, 72 BB, 248 SO, 13 HR
My buddy Bish is going to punish me for not ranking Louisiana Lightning her, but this is a tough field. Guidry, all 160 pounds of him, threw 16 complete games and tossed nine shutouts. Guidry didn't lose until July, and in September, with the Yankees battling the Red Sox for the AL East title, he went 6-1 with a 1.19 ERA. He went 3-0 in four starts against the Red Sox. Can we have a re-do on that AL MVP vote?
8. Pedro Martinez, 1999 Red Sox
23-4, 2.07 ERA, 213.1 IP, 160 H, 37 BB, 313 SO, 9 HR
Pedro's second of three Cy Young reasons resulted in an opponents' batting line of .205/.248/.288, as he allowed just nine home runs while fanning 13.2 per nine, the second-highest total ever for a starter. He fanned 15 batters four times, 16 once and 17 once. He allowed more than four runs just once, a nine-run disaster after his All-Star start that landed him on the DL. In fact, that's the only strike against this season: He made just 29 starts. Well, that and these gloves he wore during the playoffs.
7. Randy Johnson, 2001 Diamondbacks
21-6, 2.49 ERA, 249.2 IP, 181 H, 71 BB, 372 SO, 19 HR
And if you want to give him extra credit for winning three games in the World Series, please do so. Johnson struck out 10 or more in 23 starts, including a record-tying 20 on May 8 against the Reds. His 13.4 K's per nine is the best ever for a starter, left-handed batters hit one home run off him all season and you didn't dare dig him against him: he also hit 18 batters. Yes
6. Sandy Koufax, 1966 Dodgers
27-9, 1.73 ERA, 323 IP, 241 H, 77 BB, 317 SO, 19 HR
You could flip a coin between any of Koufax's three Cy Young seasons (1963, '64, '66). His strikeout and hit rates were better in 1965 than 1966, but he also allowed 14 more runs in the same number of starts. He threw 11 shutouts in 1963, but had a big home park advantage that year. In 1966, he had 1.52 ERA at home and 1.96 on the road, his most even split, so I give '66 the nod. This was his final season, as he pitched in so much pain doctors were injecting steroids directly into the elbow joint, according to Jane Leavy's "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy." Down the stretch, with the Dodgers battling for the pennant, he started seven times over the final 26 days, posting a 1.20 ERA.
5. Steve Carlton, 1972 Phillies
27-10, 1.97 ERA, 346.1 IP, 257 H, 87 BB, 310 SO, 17 HR
If you want to argue that Carlton's season was the best ever, I won't mount much of a disagreement. Carlton famously won nearly half of his team's 59 wins as he completed 30 of his 41 starts and threw eight shutouts. He held batters to a .207/.257/.291 line while making 31 starts on three days' rest. He allowed one home run to a cleanup hitter all season. And did you check the innings pitched total? The National League OPS that year was .680, not far below the .704 so far this season. Carlton's 12.2 WAR ranks No. 1 on Baseball-Reference's list since 1960.
4. Roger Clemens, 1997 Blue Jays
21-7, 2.05 ERA, 264 IP, 204 H, 68 BB, 292 SO, 9 HR
While the AL was batting .271/.340/.428 in 1997, Clemens dominated with a .213/.273/.290 line. He won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts while allowing zero runs or one run in 20 of his 33 starts. Clemens had many great seasons -- seven Cy Young Awards, seven ERA titles -- but 1997 stands out as his best. Red Sox fans just punched the wall in disgust.
3. Dwight Gooden, 1985 Mets
24-4, 1.53 ERA, 276.2 IP, 198 H, 69 BB, 268 SO, 13 HR
He allowed just a .201 average and .270 slugging percentage. Left-handed batters had a lower OPS off him than right-handers. In September, with the Mets fighting the Cardinals for a division title, he went 4-0 in six starts with a 0.34 ERA. His strikeout rate of 8.7 per nine may not appear to stand out now, but that's 58 percent better than the NL average. He even hit .226. And he did all this at 20 years of age while partying with Darryl Strawberry.
2. Bob Gibson, 1968 Cardinals
22-9, 1.12 ERA, 304.2 IP, 198 H, 62 BB, 268 SO, 11 HR
Yes, 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher, but even in a league where the league ERA was 2.99, Gibson's 1.12 ERA ranks as fourth-best ERA+ since 1968. He threw 13 shutouts (meaning he was just 9-9 if he didn't throw up a zero). You can find areas to nitpick: He allowed nine unearned runs, he averaged just 7.9 K's per nine (although that was second-best mark in the NL). But this is what stands out most to me: He pitched seven innings his first two starts of the season ... and then at least eight every start after that. The man literally didn't have a bad game all season.
1. Pedro Martinez, 2000 Red Sox
18-6, 1.74 ERA, 217 IP, 128 H, 32 BB, 284 SO, 17 HR
Can a guy who pitched 87 fewer innings than Gibson have had a better season? (Vote in the poll!) Pedro's opponent batting line is just sick: .167/.213/.259. Absolutely incredible. He was throwing 95-mph Wiffle balls that year, unhittable heaters and changeups and curveballs with precise location. The AL ERA in 2000 was 4.92, giving Pedro the best adjusted ERA since 1960. I think I answer it this way: If I wanted one of these guys pitching at his peak in a game to save the future of mankind, I'd take 2000 Pedro Martinez.
(Statistics from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.)
Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield and the SweetSpot blog on Facebook.
The next spring, the Mets decided to change Gooden's approach. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre directed him to not go for so many strikeouts. Later that season, with Gooden going through a rough patch, Stottlemyre told The New York Times, ''I have downplayed the strikeouts with him for the simple reason he doesn't need to strike out 10 batters to have a strong game. The important thing is put zeros on the scoreboard. I probably made too great an emphasis with him on getting ground balls, and not enough on getting pop-ups."
It should be mentioned that Stottlemyre was a ground ball pitcher during his own pitching days. He averaged 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, far less than the league average during his time. He undoubtedly was coming from a good place; Gooden was just 21 years old, and he wanted to preserve his arm and make him more durable over the long haul.
But Stottlemyre's advice was bad advice. As Bill James wrote in the "1987 Baseball Abstract" about Stottlemyre's thinking, "That's a common belief among baseball men, but it is dead wrong. Among all of the hundreds of issues that I have studied in the ten years I have been doing this, the most definitive evidence I have ever found on any issue is the evidence that the career expectation for a strikeout pitcher is dramatically longer than it is for a control pitcher."
Gooden, who had struck out 11.4 batters per nine innings as a rookie in 1984 and 8.7 in 1985, dropped to 7.2 in 1986. His ERA rose to 2.84. Obviously, Gooden faced extenuating circumstances later in his career -- he entered drug rehab in the spring of 1987 and later injured his shoulder -- but in the summer of 1986, he claimed velocity wasn't an issue.
"'I'm throwing harder than at any time in my career,'' he said, ''but the ball has been going straight and it's been getting hit, and that's been part of the problem." The magic of 1985? Gooden never regained it.
* * * *
After Justin Verlander no-hit the Blue Jays on May 7, I watched his postgame interview, and he said he and Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp had been working on slowing down his delivery, trying to make it more methodical to improve his consistency and location. He said he even dialed down his fastball early in the game, throwing 92 to 94 mph instead of his customary 96-plus. He didn't exactly say it, but in the back of my mind, I thought, "Uh-oh, that sounds like he could be saying that he's trying to pitch to contact."
Verlander struck out only four Blue Jays that day. On May 24, after he gave up six runs to Tampa Bay, his ERA stood at 3.42. It was looking like another typical Verlander year -- while that's a solid ERA, in 2011 it hardly makes you one of baseball's elite pitchers. (Currently, that would rank only 48th among starting pitchers.) And as good as Verlander has been, he's never had a season ERA less than 3.25 or a top-five finish in ERA in the American League.
But in the six starts since May 24, Verlander is 6-0 with a 0.72 ERA, allowing just four runs in 49 2/3 innings. He's also struck out 51 batters.
Yes, strikeouts matter. As he continues to blow away hitters, it appears to me now that Verlander wasn't working on inducing more contact. He was working on becoming a more dominant pitcher, refining his control and mixing up his repertoire. But he's shown over the past month that he's still trying to strike guys out. And now he's become perhaps the best starter in the game.
* * * *
Fans will invariably say, "Yes, but what about Tom Glavine? Or Greg Maddux. Or Jamie Moyer!"
In Glavine's first Cy Young season, in 1991, he struck out 7.0 batters per nine innings, well more than the National League average of 5.9. In 1998, when he won his second Cy Young, he was still striking out 6.2 per nine, a tick less than the NL average of 6.8. The point is, he had room to work with: He started out above the league average strikeout rate before slowly dipping through the years.
Maddux was even more of a strikeout pitcher than Glavine. During his 1992-98 peak, when he went 127-53 with a 2.15 ERA, his K rate was 6.9 per nine, peaking at 7.8.
Even Moyer will surprise you. He certainly didn't throw hard, but he struck out just enough hitters -- 5.4 per nine over his career -- to pitch forever. Last season he was still averaging 5.1 K's per nine, not a great total, but enough to get by, which is what he did.
And those pitchers, of course, are extreme examples, masters of location, control and changing speeds. Maybe they didn't blow 100 mph fastballs past hitters like Verlander can do, but they still got their swings and misses.
* * * *
I checked the pitchers with the best ERAs since 2008 (at least 500 innings pitched). Among the top 25 pitchers, only Tim Hudson has averaged less than 6.3 K's per nine. Thirteen of the 25 have averaged more than 8.0. For the most part, the best pitchers are strikeout pitchers. Yes, there is an occasional Tim Hudson or Mark Buehrle, who has thrived for years without a high K rate. They are a rare breed.
This is why it's important to check out a pitcher's strikeout rate -- no matter how often your local broadcaster says it's a good thing that Pitcher X isn't trying to strike everybody out anymore. Bottom line: It's difficult to maintain a high level of success without a K rate at least close to the league average (currently about 7.0 per nine innings). Here are some starters to monitor closely:
- Jair Jurrjens, Braves: 2.07 ERA, 5.2 SO/9.
- Jeff Karstens, Pirates: 2.66 ERA, 5.6 SO/9.
- Josh Collmenter, Diamondbacks: 2.71 ERA, 5.8 SO/9.
- Phil Humber, White Sox: 2.89 ERA, 5.5 SO/9.
- Kyle Lohse, Cardinals: 2.91 ERA, 4.8 SO/9.
- Dustin Moseley, Padres: 3.03 ERA, 4.4 SO/9.
- Jeremy Hellickson, Rays: 3.09 ERA, 5.7 SO/9.
As I write this, I'm watching Brandon Beachy of the Braves pitch. Most analysts projected him as a fifth-starter type heading into the season. Heading into Monday's start, he had a 3.22 ERA while averaging more than 10 K's per nine. I'm beginning to think he might be better than initially advertised.
Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Nick (editor): Verlander alert!
Dave (blogger): Crap! At the grocery store after going to the gym.
Nick: He’s thru 6, with 10 K’s.
Dave: On way home.
Nick: Thru 7 and making the Indians look stupid.
Justin Verlander, of course, didn’t get his second no-hitter of 2011 on Tuesday night, but he did throw what might have been the most dominant game of the season: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 12 SO. Using the Bill James Game Score method, which grades a start on a 0 to 100 scale, Verlander scores a 94, the best of the season, edging James Shields’ 13-strikeout, three-hit shutout over Florida on May 22.
What’s frightening to opponents -- and in particular to American League Central rivals such as, say, the Cleveland Indians -- is that Verlander seems to have turned it up a notch since that May 7 no-no in Toronto. That day, Verlander struck out just four and after the game talked about his maturation as a pitcher, not always going for the strikeout and conserving his energy early in the game. Indeed, he was clocked at 100 mph in the ninth inning.
Well, as of five days ago, he had yet to strike out 10 batters in a game this season. Now he’s done it in back-to-games. He’s 8-3, his ERA is 2.66 (more than a run below his career average), and he’s walking fewer hitters than ever and allowing fewer hits. Opponents are batting .185 off him. I’m pretty sure most observers would agree he’s the best pitcher in the AL right now.
* * * *
As I drove home, I started thinking of this question: Since I’ve been a baseball fan (1976), which starting pitchers have had the most dominating stuff? By that, I guess I mean something like from a scouting perspective -- velocity, command, pitch variety, stamina, stature and so on. Here’s the list I came up with:
1. Randy Johnson. Once he developed control of his 100 mph heater and wipeout slider, he just destroyed hitters. Lefties would come up with colds, sore backs and pink eye when he pitched. To put his dominance in perspective: Verlander has 18 10-strikeout games in his career; Johnson twice had 23 10-strikeout games in one season. Good lord.
2. Pedro Martinez. As former ESPN analyst (and former major infielder) Dave Campbell once told me, “The thing that makes Pedro so unhittable is he has four pitches. Guys like Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton were basically fastball-slider guys. You could feel comfortable against them. You’d go 0-for-4, but it would be a comfortable 0-for-4. Against Pedro, you have no chance.” At his peak, he had an explosive fastball and the best changeup in the game, plus a slider, curve and cut fastball, all thrown with impeccable control -- and an occasional one high and tight, just to make sure you didn’t dig in a little too much.
3. Nolan Ryan. He’d be downgraded for lack of command, but there’s a reason he threw seven no-hitters, throwing his fastball and curve (and adding a changeup late in his career), never giving in to a hitter and knocking you on your rear end if he felt a little mean that day.
4. Stephen Strasburg. Yes, he was that electrifying. Even if he comes back at 90 percent, he’ll be great.
5. Justin Verlander. The most impressive thing is his ability to maintain his velocity into the ninth inning. The command hasn’t always been there and at times the fastball can be too straight, which has made him a little more hittable at times than you would expect.
6. Dwight Gooden. The young Doc had a high fastball that he blew by hitters, and a big curve that made girls swoon and grown men cry.
7. Kevin Brown. Threw a hard, two-seam sinking fastball that would dive in on right-handed batters. The pitch was so dominant it was both a strikeout pitch and a ground ball pitch.
8. Kerry Wood. Oh, that rookie season ...
9. Roger Clemens. Primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher early in his career; added that unhittable splitter later on.
10. John Smoltz. On pure stuff, he would grade higher than Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Anyway, that’s my list -- many others I could have included, such as CC Sabathia, Bret Saberhagen, David Cone, the young Bartolo Colon, Curt Schilling, Mario Soto, Mark Prior, Johan Santana ...
* * * *
Back to Justin Verlander. Is this the year he puts it all together? By that, I mean keeping his ERA to less than 3.00 (his career best is 3.37), maintaining his health (never an issue with him during his career) and keeping his focus for 30-plus starts?
I think it is. Maybe that May 24 start against Tampa Bay, in which he allowed six runs with only two strikeouts, was a bit of a wake-up call. As talented as he is, the great pitchers still have to pitch and think and work hitters. Verlander has the stuff. But there is no cruise control in baseball. His foot is on the pedal, and right now -- like Dwight Gooden in 1985 or Pedro Martinez in 2000 or Randy Johnson in 2001 -- he’s become appointment viewing.
Because I suspect I’ll be getting a couple more “Verlander alert!” emails this season.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bryce Harper is drawing comparisons to some of the greatest prospects we've ever seen. Still just 18, he's hitting .340 and slugging .615 for the Nationals' Class A team in Hagerstown, Md. His potential at the plate, combined with good speed and strong throwing arm, make him, in scouting lexicon, a five-tool athlete.
Where would he rank on a mythical all-time prospect list? I'm going to go back to 1965 and the advent of the draft, and come up with my list of the top 50 prospects. What does this mean? I'm not thinking of where guys stood when drafted, but where they were at any time before they reached the majors. We know the hype around Harper, and Stephen Strasburg before him, but I tried to imagine how players from 40 years ago would have been evaluated and hyped if we'd had prospect lists and the Internet.
I'm not a scout. I didn't see these guys play. But I've been following this stuff for over two decades and can remember the hype around guys like Ben McDonald or Brien Taylor. Baseball America has been around 30 years and has been running its annual top 100 prospect list since 1990, so that was a great resource. For players before then, I scoured minor league statistics, looked at where players were originally drafted to get a better idea on their tools, factored in age and performance and came up with the following.
Needless to say, our judgment is probably influenced somewhat by future performance, but not all these players became superstars.
50. Greg Luzinski, 1B/LF, Phillies
OK, he was slower than dirt and didn’t have the magazine-cover baseball body, but his bat was so good the Phillies made him the 11th pick in 1968. He was arguably the most dominant teenage hitter of the draft era. He led the Carolina League with 31 home runs as an 18-year-old, hitting for average and drawing walks. The next season, he hit .325 with 33 home runs in Double-A. The next year, he belted 36 home runs in Triple-A. He moved from first base to left field in the majors and let's just say he always tried hard out there. He got fat and became a DH, but he did twice finish second in the NL MVP voting.
49. Shawon Dunston, SS, Cubs
The first overall pick in 1982, Dunston had an absolute cannon for an arm, good speed and range, and hitting potential -- in other words, everything you want in a shortstop. He hit .321 in rookie ball and .310 in Class A and reached the majors in 1985. While he had a long career, his free-swinging ways prevented him from ever being a valuable player.
48. Kevin McReynolds, CF, Padres
A college product out of Arkansas, McReynolds fell to sixth in the 1981 draft over concerns about a knee injury. A five-tool talent, he abated those concerns by hitting .368 with 33 home runs in 1982 and .377 with 33 home runs at Triple-A Reno in 1983. His major league career was more solid than spectacular, although he did finish third in the 1988 NL MVP vote while with the Mets.
47. Jose Rijo, RHP, Yankees
While Dwight Gooden was burning up the Carolina League in 1983, Rijo was doing the same for the Yankees in the Florida State League that year at the same age. He went 18-7 with a 1.88 ERA and 184 strikeouts in 200 innings (including a few starts in Double-A). When Gooden made the majors the following season, George Steinbrenner wanted his own teenage sensation and rushed Rijo to the majors, and then later included him in a trade with the A's for Rickey Henderson. He had his best years for the Reds, winning World Series MVP honors in 1990.
He didn't come with a high-pick pedigree as a 13th-round selection, but his 1983 season in the Carolina League was one of the best minor league seasons in the past 30 years. As a 20-year-old, he hit .358/.472/.503, with an incredible 107/35 BB/K ratio plus 105 stolen bases. His size and questions about his power potential may have been raised, but he profiled as a classic leadoff hitter and center fielder.
45. Ted Simmons, C, Cardinals
A first-round pick out of a Michigan high school in 1967, the switch-hitting catcher made a major league cameo the next season after hitting .331 with 28 home runs in Class A. He'd go on to become one of the best-hitting catchers in major league history.
44. Keith Hernandez, 1B, Cardinals
Hernandez fell to the 42nd round of the 1971 draft after sitting out his senior season following a dispute with his coach. By 1974, he was in Triple-A at age 20, displaying a sweet stroke to the tune of a .351 average and 14 home runs, and showing off the slick glove that would make him one of the best defensive first basemen of all time.
43. Clint Hurdle, OF, Royals
"This Year's Phenom" screamed the 1978 Sports Illustrated spring training cover story. The ninth pick in 1975, Hurdle shot through the minors and hit .329/.449/.529 at Triple-A in 1977, a year in which he turned 20 years old. He didn't have much speed but he had everything else -- including the attitude. The SI story tells how he had asked for a single room on the road as a rookie -- not exactly a request that won over the veterans (back then, you had to earn a single room with a few years in the majors). Hurdle hit a decent .264 that year and .294 with 10 home runs in 1980, but the Royals traded him 1981 and he never escaped the phenom label.
42. Mike Ivie, C, Padres
The Padres made Ivie the first player selected in the 1970 draft, a power-hitting catcher with a strong arm from a Georgia high school. In 1971, he hit .305 with 15 home runs at Class A, playing most of the season as an 18-year-old, and getting a cup of coffee in the majors. Trouble is, he soon had to move to first base. After getting drafted, the Padres brought Ivie to San Diego and he caught batting practice for the big league team. One of his throws back to the pitcher hit the protective screen and veteran Chris Cannizzaro reportedly said, “That, rook, is why they’re sending you to Tri-Cities.” Ivie developed a block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher (although the Cannizzaro incident may be more apocryphal than anything) and had to move to first base. As Rick Monday once said, "Mike Ivie is a $40 million airport with a $30 control tower."
41. Jack Clark, 3B, Giants
You have an 18-year-old third baseman hitting .315 with 19 home runs in the California League? Yes, that’s a top prospect. Clark had a strong arm (he actually pitched some his first season as a pro) but never did master the intricacies of playing third base and moved to right field (and later first base), but he became one of the most feared hitters in the majors in the '80s.
40. Dwight Evans, RF, Red Sox
He wasn’t drafted until the fifth round in 1969, but was already in Triple-A at age 20 in 1972, winning International League MVP honors by hitting .300 with a .409 OBP and 17 home runs. Add in his legendary throwing arm (he’d win eight Gold Gloves with the Red Sox) and prospect mavens would have been drooling over Dewey.
Five teams passed over Bonds in the 1985 draft, even though he was a power-speed threat at Arizona State (it was a loaded draft, with B.J. Surhoff, Will Clark, Bobby Witt and Barry Larkin going ahead of him). In the minors, he quickly showed it wouldn't be long before he reached the majors, although it seems there were some doubts about his home run potential ... including from Bonds himself. I dug up a fun quote from a 1985 newspaper article: “I’ve never thought of myself as a home run hitter," Bonds said. "But I have the ability to put the ball in play and hit it to all fields. I like getting on base better than going around the bases."
38. Corey Patterson, CF, Cubs
Prospect analysts drooled over his package of tools, a mesmerizing mix of athleticism and baseball skills. Baseball America rated him its No. 2 prospect in 2001, behind only Josh Hamilton. Patterson lacked one thing, however: strike-zone judgment. It derailed his career. And while he's hung around, it's mostly been as a backup outfielder/Triple-A call-up.
37. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers
Just 17 years old in 1996, he hit .284 with 26 home runs between the South Atlantic League and the California League (somehow, that made him only the 30th-best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America). The next year, he hit .327 with 26 home runs in the Florida State League and jumped to the No 3 prospect.
36. Vida Blue, LHP, A's
A second-round pick out of a Louisiana high school in 1967, Blue had an electrifying fastball. In 1970, he dominated at Triple-A Iowa, with a 2.17 ERA, 88 hits and 165 strikeouts in 130 innings. That September he pitched a one-hitter for the A's ... and then followed that up with a no-hitter later in the month.
35. Tim Raines, 2B, Expos
He may have fallen to the fifth round of the 1977 draft due to his short (5-foot-8) stature, but by 1980 the Expos had a super prospect on their hands. Playing second base for Triple-A Denver, Raines -- just 20 years old -- hit .354 with 77 stolen bases and more walks than strikeouts. His fielding numbers actually looked pretty good, but the Expos moved him to the outfield and he became one of the best leadoff men in the game’s history.
34. Jim Rice, OF, Red Sox
Rice and Fred Lynn shared the Pawtucket outfield in 1974 … and the team finished 57-87. Rice was named International League MVP after hitting .337 and slugging .579. Just 21 and powerfully built, Rice ran well as a young player as well. The next year, Lynn and Rice led the Red Sox to the AL pennant and finished first and third, respectively, in the MVP vote.
33. Don Baylor, OF, Orioles
While many of us may remember him only as a barrel-chested designated hitter and manager, Baylor was a superior athlete coming up through the minors, having all the tools other than a strong throwing arm. A second-round pick in 1967, he tore up Triple-A Rochester as a 21-year-old, hitting .327/.429/.583 with 26 steals.
The Orioles took Ripken in the second round of the 1978 draft -- their first-rounder was actually another high school third baseman named Robert Boyce. Ripken had excelled as a pitcher in high school (100 strikeouts in 60 innings with a 0.70 ERA) but the Orioles liked his bat. Of course, they had an inside track -- his father was the team’s third-base coach. Junior took BP once at Memorial Stadium. "He was 15 and he was hitting them into the concrete seats,” Earl Weaver said later, in 1982. Ripken may have lacked foot speed, but he had everything else and rose quickly through the system. At Triple-A, spending most of the season at 20 years old, he hit .288 with 23 home runs, playing mostly third base -- but also some shortstop. "He's very intelligent, too, like a young [Ken] Singleton,” Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said before Ripken’s rookie season. “He's a low-key guy whose voice doesn't carry, unlike his father, but he'll make people notice him. I just wish he were my kid."
31. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rays
Tampa Bay made the five-tool talent the first overall pick in 1999. We know the detours he took along the way, but the talent did, indeed, prove to be special.
30. David Clyde, LHP, Rangers
His story is pretty well known: The Rangers made the Houston high schooler the first pick in 1973 and put him immediately in the big leagues as a gate attraction. While he won his first start, he wasn't ready for the majors, his career fizzled and he became a famous "what-if."
29. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
As Baseball America wrote after he dominated the minors at age 18 in 2004: "It's difficult to project Hernandez's ceiling because his ability seems limitless." The Mariners prevented him from throwing his slider for several years to help prevent injury. I'd say that worked out and his ceiling turned out to be pretty high.
28. Gary Sheffield, SS, Brewers
Scouts weren't sure if he'd be able to stay at shortstop, but there was no denying his bat: He hit .327 with 28 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 1988, earning a late-season call to the majors while still at teenager.
27. Ben McDonald, RHP, Orioles
Before Stephen Strasburg and Mark Prior, there was McDonald, the 6-foot-7 hurler from LSU who moonlighted on the basketball team. At the time, I remember there being more pre-draft hype about McDonald -- stuff like how he wrestled alligators -- than previous No. 1 picks. The negotiations with the Orioles were a bit contentious and there was talk of a new baseball league starting, with McDonald being the big name. That never happened, he signed with Baltimore and had a solid career before getting injured.
26. Steve Avery, LHP, Braves
Smooth, efficient and hard-throwing, Avery was your classic lefty pitching prospect. The No. 3 overall pick in 1988, he was the No. 1 prospect in the game before the 1990 season (ahead of McDonald). By 1991, he was winning playoff games for the Braves at 21. While you wouldn't say he was abused or overworked, the heavy workload at a young age took its toll and he lost his fastball by the mid-'90s.
25. Brad Komminsk, CF, Braves
The fourth overall pick in 1979, Komminsk was an outfielder with all the tools. He hit .322 with 33 home runs and 35 steals in the Carolina League in 1981, leading Braves farm director Hank Aaron to say, “He will do things Dale Murphy never dreamed of.” In 1983, he still looked like a future star after hitting .334 with 24 home runs in Triple-A. The Braves reportedly turned down an offer of Jim Rice from the Red Sox. For whatever reason -- maybe a victim of great expectations, maybe a stiff swing, maybe never getting a full season in the bigs -- he hit just .218 in his major league career.
24. J.R. Richard, RHP, Astros
Outside of Randy Johnson, maybe the most intimidating pitcher who ever lived. The 6-foot-8 righty threw about 100 miles per hour and didn't always know where it was going. The second pick in 1969 (after Jeff Burroughs), he took a few seasons to refine his control but became a durable, 300-strikeout pitcher in the late '70s, before a stroke sadly ended his career in 1980, in the middle of his best season.
23. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
He doesn't turn 20 until August, but is already putting up big numbers in Double-A, showing tools across the board, including plate discipline and a flair that few possess.
22. Todd Van Poppel, RHP, A's
The top prize in the 1990 draft, the Texas high school sensation was threatening to attend college, so he fell to the A's with the 14th pick. The A's signed him to a major league contract, and while he pitched well that first year in the minors -- earning him Baseball America's No. 1 prospect status before 1991 -- he never again dominated. The Braves' consolation choice as the No. 1 pick? Chipper Jones.
"Mauer combines a picture-perfect left-handed stroke with impeccable strike-zone judgment to generate high batting averages and on-base percentage," wrote Baseball America before the 2004 season, when it made Mauer its No. 1 prospect. The Twins had taken a chance in drafting the hometown kid over Mark Prior in 2001, but their homework paid off.
20. J.D. Drew, RF, Cardinals
As John Sickels recently wrote in a career retrospective about Drew, "A superstar outfielder at Florida State University, J.D. Drew was rated as the best position player available in the 1997 draft class. He was the first 30-30 player in college baseball history, and many scouts felt he was a once-a-decade talent." The Phillies drafted Drew second in 1997, but he didn't sign in a famously contentious Scott Boras negotiation and the Cardinals drafted him the next year.
19. Bobby Grich, SS, Orioles
He hit .383 (with a .503 OBP!) as a 21-year-old slick-fielding shortstop in Triple-A in 1970 and then won league MVP honors the following season after leading the International League with 32 home runs and a .336 average. Mark Belanger’s presence in Baltimore forced him to second base in the majors, where he’d make six All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves as one of the most underrated players of the past 40 years.
18. Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins
Baseball America's No. 1 prospect before the 2002 season, it's easy to understand why: In 2001, Beckett pitched 140 innings in the minors, allowed just 82 hits and delivered a strikeout/walk ratio of 203/34. He was big, he threw hard and he was a cocky Texan. They compared him to Roger Clemens with good reason.
17. Delmon Young, RF, Rays
Baseball America ranked him as one of baseball's top three prospects four years running, including No. 1 in 2006. Scouts loved his bat and -- oddly, considering his major league reputation on defense -- his range and arm in right field. He hasn't been a bust, but he hasn't lived up to the hype.
16. Darryl Strawberry, RF, Mets
Before he became the first pick in the 1980 draft, Sports Illustrated ran a short feature on Strawberry that included this quote from scout Phil Pote: "He's got a [Ted] Williams-type physical makeup -- tall, rangy, good leverage. He's got bat quickness, he can drive the ball. The ball jumps off his bat. He's got what we call 'bat presence' -- an intangible, a something. Any swing of his can hurt you. He's just a natural hitter. He could make a lot of money in baseball."
15. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles
After hitting .355/.454/.600 between Class A and Double-A in 2008, Wieters became everyone’s No. 1 prospect before the 2009 season. As Kevin Goldstein wrote at Baseball Prospectus: “A monster on offense, Wieters is a switch-hitter with plus to plus-plus power from both sides of the plate, an excellent batting eye, and a fantastic feel for contact. He walked more times (82) than he struck out (76) in '08, hits to all fields, rarely chases a bad pitch, and punishes mistakes. Defensively, he's incredibly agile behind the plate, and his plus-plus arm can shut down an opponents' running game.” Wieters is hitting better this season, but his not turning into an elite hitter is one of the biggest prospect disappointments in years.
14. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves
His .323/.408/.555 line in the minors as a 19-year-old brought comparisons to other tall right fielders like Dave Winfield and Dave Parker, only with a little more speed and a more precocious understanding of the strike zone.
13. Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs
Coming out of USC, many scouts called him the best college pitcher they'd ever seen, and the hype around him was similar to what Stephen Strasburg would experience nearly a decade later. He was the consensus best player in the 2001 draft but went No. 2 to the Cubs as the Twins took Mauer. The minor leagues were no problem and he was dominating major leaguers by 2002.
12. Gregg Jefferies, SS, Mets
Was he overhyped because he was a Mets prospect? I don't think so. A first-round pick in 1985, Jefferies was a pure hitter and won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award in 1986 after hitting .353 with 16 home runs and 53 steals, and then again in 1987 after hitting .367 with 48 doubles and 20 home runs. He was a switch-hitter who rarely struck out and reached the majors a few weeks after his 20th birthday. Turned out he wasn't a shortstop (or a second baseman, for that matter) and he did end up having a decent career after leaving the Mets.
11. Bobby Valentine, SS, Dodgers
The fifth pick in the 1968 draft by the Dodgers, Valentine was a football and baseball star from Stamford, Conn., owner of blazing speed and a good bat. By 1970, just 20 years old, he was the Pacific League MVP after hitting .340 with 69 extra-base hits and 29 steals as a shortstop. He was a little raw in the field (54 errors), but he was penciled in as the Dodgers’ starting shortstop in 1971. But that offseason he tore up his knee playing touch football, an injury that caused his leg to knit with an 18-degree bend between the knee and ankle. "The doctors said the condition would restrict my running," Valentine said in a 1974 Sports Illustrated article, "and to really correct it would require a 13-to-16-month project with surgery, plates and screws and another cast, and that after two years my leg would be good as new." The speed was gone. He later broke his leg in two places running into an outfield fence.
10. Reggie Jackson, OF, A's
A high school catcher named Steve Chilcott was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 draft by the Mets -- the only team that apparently didn’t have Jackson as the top player on its board. A star at Arizona State, Jackson was a center fielder with power, speed and a strong throwing arm. The A’s gladly took him with the second pick and he was in the majors by 1967.
He was the sixth overall pick in 1982 and the next season he struck out 300 batters in 191 innings in the Carolina League ... at age 18. He then pitched for Tidewater in the Triple-A playoffs. (Can you imagine that kind of workload today?) At 19, he was the best pitcher in the National League.
8. Brien Taylor, LHP, Yankees
To this day, many scouts still say Taylor was the best left-handed pitching prospect they've ever seen, throwing in the upper 90s with a smooth, easy delivery. The first pick in 1991 and signed to a then-record $1.5 million deal (shattering the previous mark by nearly $1 million), Taylor was on his way to stardom when he injured his shoulder in a bar fight after the 1993 season.
7. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals
Too high? Dave Cameron recently asked: "Best prospect ever?"
6. Andruw Jones, CF, Braves
Baseball America's two-time Minor League Player of the Year and No. 1 overall prospect, Jones was a precocious talent with more speed and range than Ken Griffey Jr. After hitting two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series at age 19, the potential seemed unlimited. Some may view his career as a disappointment, but that's a little harsh for a guy who won 10 Gold Gloves and hit more than 400 home runs.
5. Bo Jackson, OF, Royals
Jackson’s tools made scouts drool. Monster 500-foot home runs. Electrifying speed. A laser-beam arm. Considering there have been few athletes like Bo in any sport, his tools were off the charts. He fell to the Royals in the fourth round of the 1986 draft only because everyone thought the Heisman Trophy winner would play football (the Angels had five of the first 28 picks and passed). Jackson did sign with Kansas City ("Now it's time for what I love to do," he said then) and was in the majors that September. In this Sports Illustrated article after he signed, Royals owner Ewing Kaufman compared him to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, saying he had more power and speed then George Brett. The Royals' scouting director said he had a better arm then Roberto Clemente. Reggie Jackson said he could become ... the next Reggie Jackson.
Truth be told, Jackson’s tools never translated to great baseball results. He had raw power but struck out too much, wasn’t a great outfielder (despite his speed and strong arm, he played left field), and didn’t steal many bases because he didn't get on base enough. Before he injured his hip in the NFL, he had become a good player -- but not a great one.
4. Johnny Bench, C, Reds
How did Bench fall to the second round in the 1965 draft? Scout Jim McLaughlin tells the story in Kevin Kerrane’s classic book, “Dollar Sign on the Muscle”: “A friend of mine with another club said, ‘You better send someone down to Binger, Oklahoma, to look at this kid Bench. We’re not gonna draft him, because the general manager’s seen another catcher he likes up in New England.’ … Nobody else knew much about him; his team hadn’t played many games, and our scout was usually the only one there, so we could wait.”
The story may or may not be true -- the Orioles did draft a catcher from Dartmouth one spot ahead of Bench -- but Bench’s legendary throwing arm and power quickly asserted itself. At 18, he hit .294 with 22 home runs in the Carolina League and the next season he was The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year after hitting 23 home runs at Triple-A Buffalo. By the time he reached the Reds at 19, he was already a big name.
3. Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners
The Mariners nearly took a college pitcher named Mike Harkey instead of Griffey with the first pick in the 1987 draft. If they’d done that, Seattle may not have a major league baseball team right now. Griffey tore up the Northwest League as a 17-year-old, and as an 18-year-old hit .325 with 13 home runs in 280 at-bats in the California League. With power, defense, speed and the prettiest swing you'll ever see, Griffey broke camp with the Mariners in 1989 at age 19 and never looked back.
2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
We seem to hear "best pitching prospect" ever more often than "best position player prospect," and maybe Strasburg was a product of getting drafted in the Internet age, but everyone agreed: This kid was one of a kind. Before blowing out his elbow, he was everything the scouts had promised, blowing 100-mph fastballs by minor leaguers for a few weeks then striking out 12.2 hitters per nine innings in the majors.
1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners
"The next Cal Ripken," a scout said before the 1993 draft. "He's not just a field-and-throw guy, he's got all of the tools." Interestingly, Baseball America actually rated Trot Nixon as the best pure high school hitter before that draft, and Derrek Lee as the best power hitter. It did rate Rodriguez as being closest to the majors. "I originally wanted us to go for the college relief pitcher," Mariners manager Lou Piniella told the Seattle Times in 1993, referring to Darren Dreifort. "Then I saw films of the shortstop [Rodriguez]. He's a man among boys out there. Wow! No way we could pass on him." Baseball America was correct: Just 18, Rodriguez made his major league debut the next year, and hit .312 with 21 home runs between three levels in the minors. With power, speed, work ethic and an excellent glove at a premium position, he was the perfect prospect.
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.
OK, here we go: At 22 years, 191 days, Rose will become the youngest NBA MVP ever, edging out Wes Unseld at 23 years, 9 days. Now, the fact that Wes Unseld once won an MVP Award (as a rookie, no less) is another story. So, who are baseball's youngest MVP winners? Here are those who won at 23 or younger:
Vida Blue, 1971 A's: Turned 22 on July 28.
Johnny Bench, 1970 Reds: Didn't turn 23 until Dec. 7.
Stan Musial, 1943 Cardinals: Didn't turn 23 until Nov. 21.
Cal Ripken, 1983 Orioles: Turned 23 on Aug. 24.
Willie Mays, 1954 Giants: Turned 23 on May 6.
Jeff Burroughs, 1974 Rangers: Turned 23 on March 7.
Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox: Turned 23 on Feb. 3.
Several players have won an MVP at 24, including Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg, Denny McLain, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig.
Not on the above list: Ty Cobb, because there wasn't an MVP Award for much of his career. He arguably was the AL's best player in 1907, when he was 20 years old.
Dwight Gooden remains the youngest to win a Cy Young Award, just 20 years old when he won in 1985.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
I don’t know that the following players can claim as much as one of the best boxers we’ve ever seen, but they at least have something they can hang their hat on as being the best at. Take a look at three notable performances in non-traditional situations.
Greatest Hitter Performance on their Birthday
Nomar Garciaparra (7/23/2002) -- A year shy of 30, Nomar explodes to go 3-for-5 with three homers, eight RBIs, three runs and a walk in a game that saw his Red Sox rout the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 22-4. Nomar would only play one more full season from that point on, moving to Chicago, Los Angeles and finally ending things in Oakland.
Greatest Pitching Performance on their Birthday
Warren Spahn (4/23/1951) -- This one flat out amazed me. Sure, it’s a different era, but Spahn’s game stood out head and shoulders above the rest on the list. Spahn is most notably remembered for the poem about him and fellow teammate Johnny Sain.
“First we'll use Spahn
then we'll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
by two days of rain.”
On his 30th birthday, Spahn would pitch 15 2/3 innings, complete the game in which he faced 56 batters, threw 184 pitches, struck out eight and walked just two. Unfortunately, he would allow two runs (one unearned) and get tagged with the loss.
Greatest Pitching Performance by a Teenager
When you think of this one, your mind instantly is drawn to a guy like Sandy Koufax, who retired from the game too soon. However, there was a certain other kid that pitched like a star before he left his teen years that did it not once, but twice, and within consecutive starts no less.
Dwight Gooden (9/7/1984 & 9/12/1984) -- After being selected fifth overall in the 1982 amateur draft, Gooden made his major league debut for the Mets in 1984. It was a debut that saw him win 17 games for the Mets. In September, Gooden would put up two starts for the ages, throwing back to back shutouts. Final line for both starts: 18 innings pitched, six hits, four walks, 27 strikeouts. Sheer dominance was how he’d close out the year as well, going 4-1 in the month with an ERA 1.29 and 62 strikeouts in just 42 innings pitched. If only he would have stayed clean. It would have been great to see what he was capable of over the long haul.
Joe Aiello writes for The View From the Bleachers blog, which is part of the SweetSpot network.
- With a win over the Red Sox last night, Zack Greinke should have just about locked up the AL Cy Young award. Other pitchers are having good years, but no one has dominated like Greinke has. He's been the best pitcher in the league by a pretty good margin. His 2.34 FIP looks like something right out of Pedro Martinez's prime. But that thought process led me to look up Pedro's page, and as always, that led to my eyes popping out of my head when I saw his 1999 line. It's just not possible to look at his numbers from a decade ago and not be utterly amazed.
213 innings. 160 hits. 9 home runs. 37 walks. 313 strikeouts. 1.39 FIP.
1.39 FIP in a season where league average was 4.71. Pedro was 3.3 runs per nine innings better than a league average pitcher. Over 213 innings, that's 80 runs better than average, or about 100 runs better than replacement. A hundred runs. Pedro was worth something like +10 wins over the 1999 season. If it's not the greatest pitcher season of all time, it's in the discussion.
As did Martinez, whose name was the first that came to mind as I read my friend's e-mail. Pedro's 1.74 ERA ranks just fourth on my list -- behind Gooden and the two Maddux seasons -- but of course that's apples to oranges, as Pedro's 2000 season came in the American League and squarely during the Power era.
If we look instead at ERA+, Pedro comes out on top, with his 2000 and 1999 seasons bracketing Maddux's 1994 and '95. And what of Greinke? His ERA (so far) ranks just 21st since '69, but his ERA+ jumps to the 11th spot. To join the Hall of Famers up there, though, he'll have to do it twice.