SweetSpot: Frank Tanana

Alex RodriguezUS PresswireAt age 20 in 1996, Alex Rodriguez boasted a 9.2 WAR for the Seattle Mariners.

A couple weeks ago, Keith Law unveiled his annual list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 Insider. 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.

Jack Morris' big gain and bigger problems

January, 9, 2012
1/09/12
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Jack MorrisRonald C. Modra/Getty ImagesJack Morris made significant gains in his 13th year of voting, but will he ultimately get enough?
The subject of Jack Morris and the Hall of Fame seems to be the bright burning flame before the fireworks for Barry Larkin have finished going off. Morris' clock may have been running out, but after he reached 66.7 percent of the vote in the 13th year on the ballot, he might just slip into the Hall on his next-to-last or last chance.

There are too many layers to this onion to sort it out entirely and explain the sudden jump in votes. But in broad strokes, some of my fellow statheads seem to be looking for a new Cooperstown cause to champion now that Bert Blyleven has been given his belated due, while some of my fellow BBWAA members are looking to honor a “pitcher of the '80s.” Sticking with the broad strokes, those are both worthy goals. There have been too many mistakes already as far as the Hall has been concerned -- with Blyleven, Ron Santo and Lou Whitaker representing the worst cases -- while the '80s are a big chunk of recent history that deserves to be remembered.

But in this case these two parties wind up diametrically opposed about Morris. You’ve got mainstream commentators inventing, and then deriding, statheads’ supposed “joyless” worldview about Morris, while the blogosphere burns down any cobbled-together case made for him. I’ve always counted myself among the latter where Morris is concerned. Nevertheless, is there something to his case?

Now if we went with a definition of the “Big '80s” as 1980-1990, Morris handily leads the field with 177 wins, innings pitched (2,693 1/3) and starts (368). These numbers represent the pitcher that he was: a durable workhorse, usually pitching with support of good-to-great lineups and good-to-great defenses. At least this was the case up the middle when he had Whitaker and Alan Trammell plus Lance Parrish behind the plate and Chet Lemon in center. There’s no shame in that -- Morris was a critical component for the Tigers because of his durability. That shouldn't be the standard for best pitcher of a decade, though.

So the question is whether Morris was anywhere close to being the best pitcher of the decade? He clearly was not. Among the 68 guys who made 200 or more starts from 1980-90, Morris is tied for 22nd in ERA+, behind guys like Charlie Leibrandt or Bryn Smith. So let’s raise the bar to 300 starts -- Morris winds up tied for seventh out of 12 men, behind Dave Stieb, Bob Welch, Frank Viola, Nolan Ryan, Charlie Hough and Blyleven. Morris' “pitcher of the '80s” tag owes everything to his durability, not the quality of his work. If you want a pitcher of the '80s, it was Stieb, because he was almost every bit as durable as Morris (364 starts, 2537 1/3 IP), and significantly better (128 ERA+). And nobody’s firing up a Stieb-for-Cooperstown campaign.

None of this is to meant to diminish the value of Morris’ durability, though, and perhaps we take that for granted. In rushing to discredit arguments for and against Morris, perhaps neither side is doing a very good job of wrestling with a more fundamental issue: There is simply a shortage of "pitchers of the '80s" for which cases can be made.

That 11-year span of 1980-90 generated just a dozen men capable of pitching 300 or more turns. In contrast, 1970-80 produced 21 guys making 300 or more starts. The strike season of 1981 is responsible for a small fraction of the drop off, but even allowing for that fact only brings the ’80s close to the standards set since. During the “steroids era”: 1990-2000 gives another 16 300-game starters, and 2000-2010 just 15. So the number of guys we might broadly define as “workhorses” was lower in the '80s than in the period immediately before, and is also lower than what came after. That might speak well of Morris overall as a survivor in a generation that didn’t have many.

This hints at a broader historical problem. The '70s put all sorts of things out of whack for subsequent interpretation and analysis, where two key factors come into play. First, there’s the introduction of the DH in the AL in 1973. Second, immediately before 1973 you have a generation of young starting pitchers coming up at the end of the high-mound era -- perhaps the best time ever to be a young pitcher making his way to the majors because of low scores and short games.

Nolan Ryan might be the most famous member of that generation, but he was far from the only one who lasted forever. Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Jerry Reuss, Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver comprise a short list of all-time greats who made it to the majors long before Morris debuted in 1977, and who then wound up being his contemporaries. (You can also add Vida Blue, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman, Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough … the list goes on.) Morris barely outlasted this older cadre by the time his career ended in 1994, but he didn’t start off with the same advantages they did.

So on the one hand, with the addition of the DH you have something that makes pitching in the American League harder, and on the other, you have a new standard set for the kind of workloads that starters are supposed to be able to maintain. Morris faced this new combined challenge and survived, which makes him relatively rare among the first generation of starting pitchers who pitched during what we might call “the early DH era.”

To give Morris the benefit of the doubt, let’s stretch the scope to include 1973 to 1992 -- or the end of Morris’ career as an effective big-league starter. Put him in that context, and a stat like WAR still has little love for Morris. According to Baseball-Reference, he ranks just 17th overall among big league starters during the first two decades of the DH era. However, half of those 16 men ahead of Morris were his predecessors, older men who benefited from the high-mound and/or no DH.

Fair enough. Let’s look at him in the context of guys who, like Morris, arrived in big league rotations to stay in 1973 or later. Among the leaders in starts over those 20 years there are five guys we might call near-peers, starting pitchers who established themselves and endured at time when the DH was in play: Frank Tanana, Rick Reuschel, Doyle Alexander, Dennis Martinez and Morris. In that group, Morris and Martinez are the youngest, born just two days apart in May of 1955. Let’s switch to a table to spotlight the full careers of those five guys:



None of them ever finished higher than third on a Cy Young ballot during his career -- Morris and Reuschel both managed that twice. That’s symptomatic of the challenges they faced, following in the wake of that tremendous group of aces, and then combating the faster-fizzling or more fragile aces of the ’80s: briefly great starters such as Ron Guidry, Mario Soto or Steve Rogers.

Morris got the best run support within this small peer group, with 4.9 R/G. That goes a long way toward explaining why he gets the most wins, and why this conversation even exists. Contentions that Morris “pitched to the score” were refuted almost 15 years ago by the late Greg Spira, before it was easy to do the research. Meanwhile, Reuschel got the worst support with just 4.1 R/G, which is essentially why he ends up being the great forgotten workhorse while Morris gets kudos. Of course, Big Daddy Reuschel was also the one of these five who was in the NL for almost the entirety of his career -- and a Cub for most of it, the poor soul -- where everyone else on this list spent most of his career in the AL, with the benefit as well as the hazard of the DH.

Which leaves us where? Even with this much special pleading, Morris wasn’t even that remarkable among these few that make up this first cadre of the most durable starters who had to come up after the high-mound generation and having to face designated hitters. Being better than Doyle Alexander is really, really good, but is that really Hall of Fame-level good?

Putting someone in the Hall of Fame because this generation of pitchers risks being overlooked in Cooperstown represents a reasonable enough goal. But why Morris instead of Martinez, or Reuschel? Because he was fortunate in the teammates his teams put around him, where Reuschel obviously was not? Because he barely won more games than Martinez? Because he’s the one left on the ballot and still eligible? If that’s what we’re left with, that’s pretty weak. If the instinct is to be fair to an era as well as a good pitcher, does it make sense to reward this one but not the other, better pitchers who were his peers?

Of course Morris was one of the most durable pitchers of his generation -- he was, and you can love him for it, as we did watching him muscle through one outing after another back then. If you’re a believer in the virtues of a big Hall you might even almost talk yourself into voting for him. Going through this exercise brought me a lot closer to “maybe” than I initially thought possible. But even then, with as many allowances as you might make for Morris, he wasn’t exactly the most durable any more than he was anywhere close to the most effective. Which leaves us with a likely Hall of Famer who is going to wind up as an idiosyncratic generational selection as Jim Rice, Andre Dawson or Bruce Sutter were in recent years. And he is someone we’re just as likely to argue about after he gets elected as we have beforehand.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Clayton KershawJeff Gross/Getty ImagesJust 23 years old, Clayton Kershaw is pitching like a Cy Young contender so far in 2011.
Clayton Kershaw was the seventh player selected in the 2006 draft, the first high school pitcher taken following five college pitchers, and it's safe to say that those five teams regret passing on the hard-throwing lefty from Dallas. Those five pitchers -- Luke Hochevar (Royals), Greg Reynolds (Rockies), Brad Lincoln (Pirates), Brandon Morrow (Mariners) and Andrew Miller (Tigers) -- have combined for a 62-98 record and only Morrow has a career ERA under 5.00.

Kershaw, meanwhile, has developed into the best young lefty in the game. Since his arrival in the big leagues in 2008 at age 20, he ranks 10th among starting pitchers in ERA (3.15), third in strikeouts per nine innings (9.4) and first in opponents' batting average (.221). The Dodgers have handled him carefully in his career, he's remained healthy and he's increased his dominance in 2011, putting up career bests in strikeouts per nine innings (10.1) while lowering his walk rate from 3.6 per nine innings in 2010 to 2.7, and down from 4.8 in 2009. He's an electrifying presence on the mound, a guy who can bring no-hit stuff any start. As Tim Kurkjian writes, he's added a slider to his fastball/curveball repertoire and improved his changeup. He topped 200 innings in 2010 for the first time and his final step to greatness is to prove he can handle a 230-inning workload, although he may be another season away from the Dodgers pushing him to that level. (He's on pace for 208 innings over 32 starts.)

Did we mention he's only 23?

Here's a comparison of Kershaw's numbers to some of other recent left-handers and what they accomplished through their age-23 seasons:


The most interesting comparison is obviously Scott Kazmir, as Kershaw is at the exact point in his career where Kazmir was at the end of the 2007 season. Kershaw was a little tougher to hit, but some of that is pitching in the NL West versus the AL East. Their career strikeouts, walks and ERA (once adjusted for park and league) are eerily similar. In 2007, Kazmir had gone 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA for Tampa Bay, leading the AL with 239 strikeouts (10.4 per nine innings).

There was one big difference: Kazmir was still walking four batters per nine innings. He still had a solid 2008, but spent time on the DL and he hasn't been the same pitcher since. Could this happen to Kershaw? Kazmir was pushed a little harder, but not too much harder. Through his first 97 starts, Kazmir averaged 102.1 pitches per start; through 96 starts, Kershaw has averaged 99.4. In 2007, Kazmir averaged 106.1 pitchers per start; Kershaw has averaged 101.1 this season. Kazmir threw at least 90 pitches in all 34 starts that year, with a season high of 118. Kershaw's season high is 122, but he's been under 90 five times. Don Mattingly is still being careful with his prized ace.

The other difference: Kazmir is 6-foot, 195 pounds. Kershaw is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. If you believe the old adage that big pitchers are more durable, that may be another positive for Kershaw's long-term outlook.

That's always the big question with any young pitcher: Can he stay healthy? CC Sabathia had 54 wins through his age-23 season, the eighth-most ever for a left-handed pitcher and fourth-most since 1969. (Babe Ruth has the most, with 80.) He's been durable and became a better pitcher in his late 20s, but that's not always the case, as we learned with Kazmir. Oakland's talented young lefty Brett Anderson just landed on the DL with elbow soreness. Those two serve as a warning that the only thing keeping Kershaw from winning a Cy Young Award in the future (or heck, in 2011) is the health of all those gifted tendons and ligaments.

We're in a golden age of young pitching, and Kershaw is just one of many outstanding 25-and-younger left-handed starters in the game: Anderson, David Price, Jaime Garcia, Madison Bumgarner, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Gio Gonzalez and Derek Holland, to name the best. Check out some of their numbers so far:

  • Kershaw (23): 6-3, 3.05 ERA, 85.2 IP, 69 H, 26 BB, 96 SO, 7 HR
  • Price (25): 7-5, 3.35 ERA, 91.1 IP, 78 H, 14 BB, 83 SO, 7 HR
  • Garcia (24): 6-2, 3.20 ERA, 81.2 IP, 76 H, 20 BB, 72 SO, 4 HR
  • Bumgarner (21): 2-7, 3.42 ERA, 71 IP, 71 H, 23 BB, 52 SO, 2 HR
  • Gonzalez (25): 5-4, 2.62 ERA, 75.2 IP, 65 H, 33 BB, 70 SO, 5 HR
  • Britton (23): 6-4, 3.18 ERA, 82 IP, 72 H, 29 BB, 47 SO, 7 HR

Which would young lefty would you want for the next five years?

I'd give the slight edge to Price (I'd like to see the numbers he could post in the NL West) over Kershaw, with the others somewhere behind those two, but what do you think? Vote in the poll (we could only list five!).

Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield and check out the SweetSpot Facebook page.
Tim Lincecum starts Monday night for the Giants. In his fifth season, he already has 995 strikeouts and can become just the eighth pitcher since 1900 to record 1,000 strikeouts in his first five seasons. (UPDATE: He struck out five Nationals to reach 1,000.) The list:

Tom Seaver, 1155
Bert Blyleven, 1094
Dwight Gooden, 1067
Kerry Wood, 1065
Pete Alexander, 1036
Hideo Nomo, 1031
Mark Langston, 1018
Tim Lincecum, 995

Pretty good company: Three Hall of Famers, a 194-game winner (Gooden), a 179-game winner (Langston) and a 123-game winner (Nomo). Only Wood failed to win 100 games. Four of the next five guys on the list are Hall of Famers as well: Roger Clemens, Bob Feller, Don Sutton, Frank Tanana and Fergie Jenkins.

You probably can't read too much into this, but for all those who worry that Lincecum will get injured ... well, all these guys except Wood had long careers as starting pitchers. Tanana did suffer a major arm injury but managed to hang on as a soft-tosser for a long time and he won 240 games. Gooden did later develop some shoulder problems. Basically, if Lincecum hasn't been hurt by now, there's a pretty good chance he'll be around for a long time.

Now, strikeouts are just one statistic, and Lincecum has the advantage of playing in a high-strikeout era and in a good pitcher's park. Has he been one of the best pitchers through five seasons? (Obviously, he has four months left in the season.) From Baseball-Reference, here is the list of top-10 pitchers by WAR (wins above replacement level) through their first five seasons:

1. Pete Alexander, 36.8
2. Tom Seaver, 36.7
3. Bert Blyleven, 29.3
4. Dwight Gooden, 28.6
5. Nap Rucker, 28.3
6. Bob Feller, 28.1
7. Frank Tanana, 28.1
8. Eddie Plank, 28.0
9. Robin Roberts, 27.9
10. Teddy Higuera, 27.3

Not surprisingly, some of the same names. It's a reminder of how of good Tanana was from 1973 to 1977: 66-49, 2.69 ERA, 73 complete games and 19 shutouts. (And, really, it was only four seasons, as he made just four starts in '73.) Teddy Higuera is the surprise name on the list. If you don't know about him, maybe he is a precautionary tale for Lincecum: He was a little 5-10 lefty for the Brewers and went 78-44 with a 3.28 ERA from 1985 to 1989. But he began suffering back problems in 1989 and later tore his rotator cuff.

As for Lincecum, his Baseball-Reference career WAR is 20.8, which currently puts him at 44th. If we extrapolate his 2011 numbers (2.0 WAR so far) we get four additional WAR, which pushes him up to 24.8 and into the top 20.

How does Lincecum fare among active pitchers? Only four actives are currently ahead of him on the WAR chart for their first five seasons: Tim Hudson (24.9), Brandon Webb (24.4), Roy Oswalt (22.4) and Barry Zito (21.0). Let's see what happened to those after their first five seasons.

Tim Hudson
First five (1999-2003): 80-33, 1052 IP, 3.26 ERA, 137 ERA+, 796 SO, 338 BB, 24.9 WAR
Next five: (2004-2008): 66-44, 965 IP, 3.73 ERA, 117 ERA+, 576 SO, 281 BB, 15.2 WAR

Like Lincecum, Hudson is a small right-hander. He never threw as hard as Lincecum although he had lows 90s heat when he first came up. He's never had the strikeout rates of The Freak, but turned into a supreme ground-ball pitcher and has overcome Tommy John surgery in the 2008 season.

Brandon Webb
First five (2003-2007): 65-55, 1089 IP, 3.22 ERA, 144 ERA+, 880 SO, 368 BB, 24.4 WAR
Next five: (2008-): 22-7, 230 IP, 3.47 ERA, 134 ERA+, 185 SO, 67 BB, 4.8 WAR

Webb went 22-7 in 2008 and finished second to Lincecum in the Cy Young voting, but hurt his shoulder in his first start of 2009 and has yet to make it back to the majors.

Roy Oswalt
First five (2001-2005): 83-39, 980 IP, 3.07 ERA, 142 ERA+, 850 SO, 225 BB, 22.4 WAR
Next five (2006-2010): 67-44, 1034 IP, 3.29 ERA, 129 ERA+, 816 SO, 242 BB, 17.1 WAR

Oswalt hasn't suffered much of a decline through the years. His strikeout rate has dipped a bit, but some of his decline could be attributable to a bad team behind him in Houston in his latter years. By the way, take note of all the big, hulking right-handers just selected in the draft: Lincecum, Hudson and Oswalt are all 6-foot or shorter.

Barry Zito
First five (2000-2004): 72-40, 981 IP, 3.41 ERA, 130 ERA+, 774 SO, 332 BB, 21.0 WAR
Next five (2005-2009): 61-66, 1018 IP, 4.24 ERA, 104 ERA+, 727 SO, 454 BB, 10.7 WAR

Zito always lived a fine line, walking 80-plus guys a year without having a monster strikeout rate. It worked for several seasons, including a Cy Young season, but he was just a slightly better than league average pitcher his second five seasons (although at least a durable one, making 32-plus starts every season).

One final list. Leaders in Baseball-Reference WAR since 2007:

1. Roy Halladay, 27.6
2. CC Sabathia, 25.4
3. Felix Hernandez, 21.9
4. Dan Haren, 21.6
5. Tim Lincecum, 20.8

Because he had just a partial season in 2007, Lincecum has fewer starts than the other guys. Lincecum's ERA+ is better than Haren's and Hernandez's, the same as Sabathia's, and a bit lower than Halladay's.

So the question: Which pitcher would you most want for the NEXT five seasons? Discuss below or on our SweetSpot Facebook page.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Josh HamiltonMatthew Emmons/US PresswireListen, Josh, it's OK, you can look. It's over. The Rangers lost 13-7 against the Tigers. It's one game.

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