SweetSpot: Joe DiMaggio

From ESPN Stats & Information, most total bases through 19 career games (live-ball era):

Mandy Brooks, 1925 Cubs, 64
Joe DiMaggio, 1936 Yankees, 59
George Scott, 1966 Red Sox, 59
Willie McCovey, 1959 Giants, 56
Alvin Davis, 1984 Mariners, 54
Jeff Francoeur, 2005 Braves, 53
Chris Dickerson, 2008 Reds, 53
Josh Rutledge, 2012 Rockies, 52
Yasiel Puig, 2013 Dodgers, 52

The Dodgers host the Giants tonight on ESPN at 10 p.m. ET, so if you haven't seen Puig play yet, try checking out the game. It's a good matchup with Madison Bumgarner facing Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has quietly had an effective rookie season for the Dodgers.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports Dodgers rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig has impressed with his power to the opposite field.
Anyway, that's an interesting list above, and while comparing Puig to them isn't the most valuable of exercises, it's a fun exercise. It's what we like to do when a young phenom emerges. Who does he remind us of?

Mandy Brooks played a long time ago, and I'd never heard of him, with good reason: He was a 27-year-old rookie and 1925 was more or less the extent of his big league career (he added 57 plate appearances in 1926). He hit .370 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs in his first 19 games and finished the season at .281 with 14 home runs. The odd thing is he came up in late May and was immediately inserted into the cleanup spot. Guess they did things differently then.

Alvin Davis and Willie McCovey were different players from Puig -- slow left-handed-hitting first basemen (although McCovey ended up playing left field with Orlando Cepeda around). As a Mariners fan, I have fond memories of Davis' debut. He was called up a week into the season, homered in his first two games and hit .352 with eight home runs in his first 19 games. He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors and was one of the best hitters in the American League for seven years before suddenly losing it. He was a much different hitter from Puig, with great plate discipline (he had more walks than strikeouts in his career) and marginal power.

George Scott was a 22-year-old rookie with the Red Sox when he hit .343 with nine home runs through 19 games. He struck out 152 times that year -- the second-highest total ever at the time. Like Davis and McCovey, he was a first baseman, although athletic enough that the Red Sox tried him at third base one year.

Maybe you remember Josh Rutledge's hot start last year. It didn't get quite the same play as Puig's, but he hit .355 with five home runs, six doubles and two triples in his first 19 games. In the end, he was done in by poor strike-zone judgment; he finished the year with 54 strikeouts and nine walks, and his future appears to be more utility infielder than big league starter.

Chris Dickerson was a 26-year-old minor league vet when the Reds called him up in August of 2008. He hit .320 with six home runs, seven doubles, two triples and drew 12 walks in his first 19 games. He's never been able to get a regular gig, and as a backup with the Orioles this year he's hitting .265 with four home runs in 85 plate appearances, but has struck out 29 times while drawing two walks.


What will Yasiel Puig's final batting average be this season?


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So that leaves us with Joe DiMaggio and Jeff Francoeur, and I'd suggest Puig's future could range from DiMaggio to Francoeur -- yes, that's how wide of an arc we have to put over him right now. His raw ability is so immense, with that great opposite-field power -- four of his six home runs have gone to right-center or right -- and his plus defense (he has already been rated at plus-5 defensive runs saved in right and looks as if he could handle center) that he could grow into an MVP candidate someday.

Or he could turn into Francoeur.

Wait! Jeff Francoeur? Are you kidding me?

Well, remember, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover after his torrid start. He was the 2005 version of Puig, except he grew up right in the Braves' backyard instead of in Cuba. He hit .406 with seven home runs in his first 19 games. Although Puig hadn't had much high-level experience, neither had Francoeur, who was only 21 at the time of his recall in July, a year younger than Puig.

There was a red flag about Francoeur's start, however: He hadn't drawn a walk in those 19 games. "My whole life, plate discipline has been the knock on me," Francoeur said in that glowing SI cover story. "I'm not the kind of guy who'll look for a certain pitch and take two strikes till I get it. The biggest difference here is that I haven't been swinging at sliders in the dirt."

In the end, that approach did hurt Francoeur, who never learned to rein in that aggressive approach. And after hitting .300 as a rookie, he now has a career .264 average.

It could be that's what ultimately will determine Puig's star power as well; his two walks on Saturday were the first two unintentional free passes of his young career. I think he'll end up being much better than Francoeur, and maybe someday be mentioned again alongside Hall of Famers, but as you can see from that list of hot starts, 19 games does not yet guarantee that he's the real deal.
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.
We've moved on to the second round of the Greatest MLB Season Ever bracket. All top-10 seeds advanced, but there were three upsets; interestingly, all involved shortstops. Alex Rodriguez lost to Ken Griffey Jr. in a Mariners death duel (got destroyed, actually, 87 percent to 13 percent); Hank Aaron defeated Robin Yount, 61 to 39 percent; and Jimmie Foxx creamed Cal Ripken, 71 to 29 percent. Maybe I'll have to write up a post on the value of positional scarcity.

[+] EnlargeHenry Aaron
AP File PhotoThe Milwaukee Braves' Hank Aaron was named the NL's MVP in 1957.
I'm not surprised about Rodriguez; even though I chose one of his "pre-steroid" seasons, he's not exactly a fan favorite. Griffey has no PED stain on his reputation, a huge advantage in a popular vote like this. I was surprised Ripken lost so easily to Foxx, despite Foxx's awesome power numbers in 1932 (58 home runs, 169 RBIs). Ripken remains one of the most beloved players ever, and while his raw numbers in 1991 might not immediately impress (.323, 34 home runs, 114 RBIs), those were tremendous numbers for that season and especially tremendous for a shortstop in the pre-Rodriguez/Jeter/Garciaparra era.

But here's what stands out to me: Baseball fans still show great respect for the old guys. Foxx beat Ripken. Aaron over Yount. Stan Musial over George Brett. Joe DiMaggio edged out Albert Pujols in the closest first-round vote, 52 to 48 percent. Ty Cobb easily outvoted Rickey Henderson. In fact, in every matchup in which there was a sizable generation gap, the older guy won. Now, some of these weren't necessarily surprises -- it's not surprising that Mickey Mantle would beat Mike Piazza, for example -- but could you imagine this happening in other sports? No football fan thinks Bronko Nagurski was better than Walter Payton or Emmitt Smith. Sammy Baugh wouldn't outpoll Peyton Manning. George Mikan wouldn't beat out Shaquille O'Neal. Bob Cousy doesn't beat out Magic Johnson or even a more modern guy such as Dwyane Wade.

But in baseball, we cling to the past. Yes, the sport has been around longer, so the framework of the game hasn't changed dramatically like it has in football or basketball. I always wonder why people will argue that football and basketball athletes have improved, but not baseball players. Of course, baseball players in 2012 are bigger, stronger and more athletic than the players Babe Ruth faced in 1921. Pitchers throw harder. Outfielders cover more ground. Infielders have stronger arms. That's the way sports evolve.

* * * *

OK, a quick look at Round 2 in which the matchups get a lot tougher to decide:

  • Babe Ruth 1921 versus Joe DiMaggio 1941: The Babe remains the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament, but Yankees fans will be torn here. DiMaggio had the historic 56-game hitting streak and should get a boost from playing a brilliant center field.
  • Carl Yastrzemski 1967 versus Honus Wagner 1908: Two guys who utterly dominated their leagues. Fans respect the old guys, but Wagner's stats were compiled in the dead ball era and might not impress the voting public.
  • Ty Cobb 1911 versus Joe Morgan: I've made my case for Morgan. Not that Cobb was a slouch. Note that while Cobb hit .420 to Morgan's .327. Their OBPs were essentially identical (.467 to .466). And while 1911 was the dead ball era, consider this: The OPS in the 1911 AL was .696; the OPS in the 1975 NL was .696.
  • Rogers Hornsby 1922 versus Mickey Mantle 1956: The Mick won the Triple Crown, but Hornsby hit .401 with 42 home runs and 152 RBIs. I expect a close vote.
  • Barry Bonds 2001 versus Ken Griffey Jr. 1997: The most intriguing matchup of the second round. Bonds beat out Johnny Bench 65 to 35 percent, and while it was a decisive victory it's also clear that many voters held PED usage against Bonds. With a tougher second-round matchup, it will be interesting to see how he fares.
  • Stan Musial 1948 versus Willie Mays 1962: What makes this even more interesting is that Musial played a lot of center field in 1948. Not saying he played it as well as Mays, but it makes his season more impressive than at first glance.
  • Hank Aaron 1957 versus Lou Gehrig 1927: Two MVP winners, two beloved players. Both World Series champions as well. I'll say Gehrig pulls it out.
  • Jimmie Foxx 1932 versus Ted Williams 1941: No matter the era, 58 home runs and 169 RBIs are impressive. But so is .406. I'll predict Teddy Ballgame rolls on.

MorganRich Pilling/Getty ImagesIn the mid-1970s, Joe Morgan was the best all-around player in baseball -- by a large margin.
In 1975, Joe Morgan hit .327 with 17 home runs and 94 RBIs. Those traditional statistics may not seem impressive, but Morgan’s season ranks as one of the best in the game’s history.

As we begin voting Monday on the greatest individual season of all time, consider Morgan's value that season:

  • He drew 132 walks, giving him a league-leading .466 on-base percentage (the highest figure, by the way, in either league between Mickey Mantle in 1962 and Wade Boggs in 1988).
  • Because of his ability to get on base, he created a lot of runs --about 145, 17 more than the No. 2 hitter in the league, Greg Luzinski. But he created his runs in an efficient manner. He used up 354 outs; Luzinski, by comparison, used up 443 outs. So Morgan created more runs while using up 89 fewer outs.
  • He stole 67 bases in 77 attempts. Factor in his speed, and he was one of the best baserunners in the league.
  • He was an outstanding defensive second baseman, not only winning a Gold Glove but also ranking as the third-best overall defensive player in the National League in 1975, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
  • He did all this in an era when second basemen usually produced little at the plate. In 1975, National League second basemen hit a collective .267/.330/.353 (BA/OBP/SLG) -- with just 80 home runs. Morgan hit nearly one quarter of all home runs by National League second basemen. In 2011 terms, that would be akin to a second baseman hitting close to 50 home runs.
  • The Reds won 108 games, Morgan was the near-unanimous MVP winner, and he even drove in the winning run in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

Add it up, and you end up with a player who was the best hitter in the league and one of the best defenders and baserunners in his league, and he did so while towering over other players at his position and playing on a championship team.

The wins above replacement statistic attempts to capture all this. In 1975, Morgan’s Baseball-Reference WAR was 12.0, the best of his career and easily the best in the National League. During his 1972 to 1976 peak, Morgan rated as the best player in the NL four times, at least acording to Baseball-Reference.

In 1975, Morgan was a full five wins better than Mike Schmidt, an astonishing total. Only 12 times since 1901 has a player recorded a bWAR of at least 4.5 wins higher than the No. 2 position player in his league:

1921 AL: Babe Ruth (14.0) over Ty Cobb/Tris Speaker (6.6)
1924 AL: Babe Ruth (11.9) over Harry Heilmann (6.2)
1956 AL: Mickey Mantle (12.9) over Yogi Berra (7.3)
2002 NL: Barry Bonds (12.2) over Jim Edmonds (7.2)
1975 NL: Joe Morgan (12.0) over Mike Schmidt (7.0)
1924 NL: Rogers Hornsby (13.0) over Frankie Frisch (8.0)
1967 AL: Carl Yastrzemski (12.2) over Al Kaline (7.3)
1946 AL: Ted Williams (11.8) over Johnny Pesky (6.9)
1923 AL: Babe Ruth (14.7) over Harry Heilmann (9.8)
1926 AL: Babe Ruth (12.0) over Goose Goslin (7.2)
1922 NL: Rogers Hornsby (10.7) over Dave Bancroft (5.9)
1948 NL: Stan Musial (11.5) over Johnny Mize (6.9)

For what it’s worth, only three of those 12 seasons ended in a World Series title -- Morgan, Mantle and Ruth in 1923.

So maybe Joe Morgan didn’t hit 73 home runs or drive in 191 runs or bat .400. But his 1975 season ranks as sleeper candidate for greatest individual season of all time.

* * * *

It wasn’t easy picking the 32 best seasons. I had two rules: Only one season per player, so we’d end up with a bracket of 32 different players; and I considered only seasons since 1901 (sorry, Ross Barnes fans).

It was important to get a diverse list of eras as well as positions. I did put a little more emphasis on more recent decades; basically, the quality of the game has improved over time, thus making it more difficult to post seasons with huge WAR totals like Ruth put up. Here is the breakdown by decade:

1900s -- 1
1910s -- 3
1920s -- 3
1930s -- 2
1940s -- 4
1950s -- 3
1960s -- 2
1970s -- 3
1980s -- 3
1990s -- 4
2000s -- 4

And by position:

C -- 2; Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza.
1B -- 3; Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rod Carew.
2B -- 4; Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, Jackie Robinson, Joe Morgan.
3B -- 2; George Brett, Mike Schmidt.
SS -- 5; Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez.
LF -- 6; Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols. (Ruth played left field in 1921, and Pujols primarily played left in 2003.)
CF – 8; Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Hack Wilson, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. (Musial started at all three outfield positions in 1948 but played the most in center.)
RF -- 2; Hank Aaron, Sammy Sosa.

So there are our 32 players. I didn’t necessarily pick each player’s highest WAR season. In some cases, a player’s iconic season -- like Ted Williams’ .406 year or Hank Aaron’s 1957 MVP campaign -- was selected. In some instances, maybe a player had other things in his favor that would help him to potentially fare better in the voting, like a big RBI total. Certainly, WAR is a good baseline to use because it helps us adjust for differences in eras, but it shouldn’t be the only factor in determining the better season between two players. Was what Williams accomplished in 1941 more impressive than what Morgan accomplished in 1975? Is Yount being the best hitter in his league while playing shortstop more impressive than what Babe Ruth did in 1921 against an inferior brand of pitching? Maybe you prefer the all-around brilliance of Mays or DiMaggio over the pure hitting dominance of Rogers Hornsby or Lou Gehrig.

Which seasons just missed the cut? There were seven players who had a bWAR season of at least 10.0 who didn’t make the bracket -- Lou Boudreau, Jason Giambi, Ron Santo, Adrian Beltre, Home Run Baker, Norm Cash and Matt Kemp. Sorry, guys. (Just noticed there are three third basemen there; too late now to change the final 32, unfortunately.)

So get to the bracket and start voting. We’ll do one round per day this week, culminating in the final matchup on Friday.

Let the debates begin.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
MantleAP PhotoMickey Mantle won three MVP Awards and finished second three other times.
We're back with the much-anticipated final installment of my 50 greatest Yankees of all time. Here's ESPNNewYork's top 50 and photo gallery and here are the first two parts of my series, Nos. 50 through 31 and 30 through 16. The panel's ranking is in parenthesis.

15. Don Mattingly, 1B (11)
One of the prettiest swings you'll ever see. He was really only a great player for six seasons, before his back started to go, and just kind of hung around for six years after that. Is he more beloved than Jeter among Yankees fans?

14. Andy Pettitte, P (16)
Is he a Hall of Famer? The quick argument against him is that he finished in the top 10 in his league in ERA just three times. Bert Blyleven, who took 14 years to get inducted, finished in the top 10 on 10 occasions, including seven times in the top five. Jack Morris, similar to Pettitte in many regards, finished in the top 10 fives times and has struggled to get over the Hall of Fame hump. I think Pettitte faces the same obstacles, with 240 wins but a mediocre career ERA. Certainly, his 19 career postseason wins (more than any other pitcher) will give him a chance for election.

13. Thurman Munson, C (12)
When did the Yankees institute their no facial hair policy? One of the iconic baseball images of my youth was Munson's mustache and bushy sideburns. He looked tough and gritty and pugnacious, and by all accounts that's exactly what he was. Would he have made the Hall of Fame if he hadn't died? I'm not so sure. His bat had pretty much dried up his final seasons, with a .373 slugging percentage in 1978 and .374 in 1979. He never did walk much, so his on-base percentage was tied to his batting average. He was still a long ways from 2,000 hits and unlikely to make any more All-Star teams (he made seven).

12. Bernie Williams, OF (19)
Yankee most valuable players, according to Baseball-Reference's WAR (wins above replacement) statistic:

1995: Bernie Williams, 6.0
1996: Mariano Rivera, 5.4; Bernie Williams, 4.8
1997: Andy Pettitte, 7.6; David Cone, 6.7; Bernie Williams, 6.4
1998: Derek Jeter, 7.8; Bernie Williams, 6.1
1999: Derek Jeter, 8.0; Bernie Williams, 5.0
2000: Jorge Posada, 5.7; Bernie Williams, 5.0
2001: Mike Mussina, 6.5; Roger Clemens, 5.4; Bernie Williams, 4.0
2002: Jason Giambi, 7.3; Alfonso Soriano, 4.7; Bernie Williams, 4.4

Williams wasn’t usually the best player on the team, but during his eight-year peak (he topped .300 each season), he was always one of the three most valuable on the team. The advanced fielding metrics actually rate him as a poor center fielder, although he looked smooth out there to me, other than his weak throwing arm (he won four Gold Gloves). He performed well in the postseason (.275/.371/.480) and delivered as many critical playoff hits as Derek Jeter, just without as much fanfare or adoration from the media.

11. Red Ruffing, P (9)
Ruffing began his career with the Red Sox and went 39-96 with their awful teams of the 1920s. Traded to the Yankees for backup outfielder Cedric Durst and $50,000 in 1930, Ruffing apparently changed his motion slightly, became a Hall of Famer by going 231-124 with the Yankees and winning 20 games each season from 1936-39, when the Yankees won four straight World Series. He relied primarily on his fastball and a slider that the "Neyer/James Guide to Pitching" reports that "there's an abundance of evidence suggesting that he was among the first to throw a good one."

10. Bill Dickey, C (10)
One of the best-hitting catchers of all time, Dickey fashioned a .313/.382/.486 career line, impressive even for the high-octane offense of the 1930s. Later, he helped mentor Yogi Berra, who always gave credit to Dickey for helping him develop his catching skills.

9. Mariano Rivera, P (5)
He might have been pretty good if he had ever developed a second pitch.

8. Jorge Posada, C (21)
Posada ahead of Rivera? It's a close call, but I'll take the great-hitting catcher with solid defense (Posada was never great at blocking pitches but his arm was average or slightly above for most of his career) over the legendary closer. Their career value is similar: 52.9 WAR for Rivera, 46.0 for Posada. But generally speaking, the closer position is overrated; Rivera's most valuable season was actually 1996, when he served as John Wetteland's setup guy and pitched 107 innings. It's perhaps instructive that the season Posada missed with injury (2008) was the one season the Yankees didn't make the playoffs since the two joined the club.

7. Whitey Ford, P (8)
Ford went 236-106 with the Yankees, but won 20 games just twice -- 25 in 1961 and 24 in 1963. That was primarily because Casey Stengel never believed in Ford's durability (he was 5-foot-10), so didn't work him hard. His career high in starts under Stengel was 33 and he topped 230 innings just once. After Stengel was fired following the 1960 season, Ford averaged 37 starts and 260 innings over the next five seasons. His World Series record was excellent as well -- 10-8 with a 2.71 ERA in 22 starts.

6. Joe DiMaggio, OF (3)
DiMaggio played 13 seasons in the majors, appeared in 10 World Series and won nine of them. Perhaps no player in baseball history has ever been so identified as a "winner" as DiMaggio. So why rank DiMaggio only sixth? I'll admit: Something about him just rubs me the wrong way. He frequently held out, battled injuries and he had a lot of great teammates who chipped in with the winning. Of course, he was a devastating hitter who was severely penalized by the huge dimensions in left-center at Yankee Stadium when he played (he hit 213 home runs on the road in his career, 148 at home). His fielding was probably more average than great and nobody stole bases in his day (he had 30 career steals).

5. Derek Jeter, SS (7)
An amazingly consistent and durable player (his only injury came in 2003), Jeter is less than 300 runs away from passing Babe Ruth for the most runs scored in Yankees history. B-R actually ranks Jeter as the most valuable offensive player in the American League in 1999 and 2006, and that's why I gave him the nod over DiMaggio: A great-hitting shortstop who has played nearly every game for 16-plus seasons is more difficult to find than a great center fielder.

[+] EnlargeYogi Berra
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesYogi Berra was a three-time MVP with the Yankees.
4. Yogi Berra, C (6)
Behind the "Yogisms" caricature, it's easy to forget how great he was: A three-time MVP who during his 1950-56 peak caught an average of 142 games per season, hitting .295/.364/.502 with 27 homers and 108 RBIs per season. Yogi's power was underrated: he finished in the top 10 in the AL in homers every season from 1949 through 1957. Casey Stengel loved to fiddle with his lineups, platoon and move players around, but the one constant he had was Yogi behind the plate.

3. Lou Gehrig, 1B (2)
It's often portrayed that Yankee scout Paul Krichell "discovered" Gehrig, a testament to the Yankees digging in haystacks to find their Hall of Famers. Sounds good, but it's not accurate. Gehrig was quite well known by the time the Yankees signed him. As a high school senior, Gehrig hit a grand slam at Wrigley Field, as his School of Commerce team defeated Lane Tech of Chicago. "Gherrig, a 17-year-old boy, who played first base for the easterners and who came here touted as the 'Babe' Ruth of the high schools of New York, lived up to his reputation by driving the ball over the right field wall of Cubs park for a home run with the bases filled," intoned one paper. His exploits at Columbia were well covered by the New York papers. A 1937 AP report says Gehrig was to make $37,000, tops in the majors. The story also indicates the Yankees would have by far the highest payroll, around $368,000 for the "hired hands." Of course, that salary barely pushed Gehrig above his own manager's $35,000 salary.

2. Mickey Mantle, OF (4)
You often read or hear things like, "Just imagine how good Mickey Mantle would have been if he hadn’t hurt his knee or drank so much." That might be true, but it also undersells Mantle's dominance. He won three MVP awards and finished second in the voting three other times. Baseball-Reference has Mantle as the AL's best player six times (and its best offensive player nine times). Since 1950, according to B-R, 13 AL players have compiled 10 or more WAR in one season. Mantle's 1956 season ranks No. 1, his 1957 season No. 2 and his 1961 season (when Roger Maris won the MVP award) No. 4. You can make an argument that his 1956 Triple Crown season is the greatest season ever. He hit .353/.464/.705, played a good center field, ran the bases and hit .444 with runners in scoring position. With 52 home runs, he hit 20 more than any other AL hitter, was one of six to drive in 100 runs (he drove in 130) and one of three to score 100 (132).

1. Babe Ruth, OF (1)
Babe Ruth won only one MVP award in his career, but that of course is misleading. For much of his career there was either (A) no award given, or (B) he was ineligible (for a short time, previous winners couldn't win again). So how many would he have won? And by that, I don’t mean how many years was he the best player in the American League (12, according to Baseball-Reference, including once as a pitcher), but how many times would he have likely been voted the winner, keeping in mind voters (by today's standards, at least) are usually reluctant to give it to the same player year after year and players on pennant winners have an advantage. Ruth probably would have won in 1916 (as a pitcher with the Red Sox), 1920, 1921, 1923 (the year he actually won), 1926 and 1928. I have him finishing second in 1919 (to Eddie Cicotte, who won 29 games for the pennant-winning White Sox), 1924 (to Walter Johnson, who led the Senators to the pennant) and 1927 (to Gehrig).

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

Black baseball's best pitchers

February, 5, 2011
MLB.com is asking "Who was black baseball's best pitcher?" Among the pitchers that the 19-member expert panel will consider to name in their top five is Satchel Paige, who, pitching in St. Louis and being one of baseball's all-time characters, has always been one of my favorites. It's impossible to really know who was best, let alone how they compared to the major leaguers of the day. But Richard Donovan's famous profile of Paige for Collier's magazine (the source of Paige's apocryphal "rules for living") contains a helpful anecdote involving Joe DiMaggio in 1935:
[+] EnlargeSatchel Paige
AP PhotoLeroy "Satchel" Paige played in the Negro Leagues from 1927-47.
At the time, DiMaggio was playing around the Bay Area with an off-season team of major-league all-stars. Yankee scouts, who wished to see how their new find reacted to serious fire, finally got hold of Paige, who was taking the sun in Los Angeles. Paige was willing, after hearing about the guarantee, and started North with his team, composed entirely of Ebel Brooks, catcher for the New York Black Yankees of the Negro National League.

In Oakland, Paige found three local semipro players, filled out the roster with high-school boys and gazed solemnly at the terrifying line-up of major-league talent. Then he proceeded with the business of the day, which was to fan 15, allow three hits in 10 innings and lose the game, two to one, when his youths, possibly rendered hysterical by the reputation of the opposition, threw to the winds the three balls that came their way. With a man on third in the tenth inning, DiMaggio, who had struck out twice and fouled out once in his previous official times at bat, finally hit a hopper which Paige lost in the shadows of dusk. One ex-Yankee scout remembers sending a telegram East: DIMAGGIO ALL WE HOPED HE'D BE; HIT SATCH ONE FOR FOUR.

Of course, Old Satch did eventually get to pitch in the major leagues, breaking in as a 41-year-old rookie and ultimately setting the record as the oldest player to play in a game, at the ripe old age of 59 in 1965 (courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com):

But Paige didn't simply get credit by making a cameo pinch-hitting appearance or DHing, as Minnie Minoso did as a 50-year-old. No: Satch started and faced 10 batters over three innings, striking out one and yielding one hit (to fellow future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski). And that was after pitching in probably 2,500 games.

-- Matt Philip is the editor and principal writer of the blog Fungoes.

Explaining the Yankees, 'pop'-style

July, 27, 2009
It's always interesting when the storyline doesn't quite fit the reality. From a review in The New York Times of three Yankee-centric books that were released this spring:
    What makes fans proud of the pinstripes is the Yankees' Jeterian side. Derek Jeter, with his four World Series rings and the respect of everyone in baseball for being a stand-up guy and playing the game the right way, is the latest in a long string of Bronx Bombers with dignity, character and class - recall Bernie Williams, Thurman Munson, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford and Lou Gehrig. These men are why New Yorkers feel the Yanks are the sporting extension of the ego of a city that sees itself filled with winners who are tough under pressure. The Rodriguez side is perhaps what the rest of the country thinks of us: larger than life, financially bloated and perpetually controversial. Alas, in recent years it seems the A-Rod side is dominating. The '09 Yanks are streaky, and though sometimes great, they spent most of the first half in second place in the American League East behind the still-hated Red Sox, who have beaten the Yanks all eight times they've played this year.


    Rodriguez, according to Roberts, is deep down still the abandoned little boy who was scarred by his father, Victor, who left the family when Alex was 10. "He had always been a sensitive boy; Victor's departure made him even more fragile emotionally. Neighbors recall seeing Alex's eyes brim with tears at the slightest criticism.” His father's absence became part of his identity, and his baseball success filled the void that had been created. But his self-esteem remains so fragile that he's afraid of failing, and he's so painfully self-aware that he's gripped by a performance anxiety that makes high-pressure moments nearly impossible. Which is why he usually fails in them. Yankee players tell Roberts he's "the vainest hitter they've ever known.”

    Torre takes that sentiment deeper in his book. "When it comes to a key situation, he can't get himself to concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks,” he says. "Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. And sometimes players aren't willing to do that. They have a reputation to uphold.” But through five years as a Yankee, Rodriguez is fashioning a reputation as someone who hits mammoth home runs in the early innings and dribblers to the shortstop with the game on the line.

Doesn't this seem like a strange time to note the Yankees' dysfunctionality? Considering they're now sitting in first place and look like a fantastic bet to return to the playoffs this fall? But of course that's just an editing issue. I'm sure the review was written a few weeks ago when the Yankees were still in second place, and it was easy to suggest a systemic problem. Now, though? Not so much.

That's a trifle. What's not a trifle is the endorsement of Selena Roberts' efforts at exploring the inner world of Alex Rodriguez. My personal opinion is that Roberts simply is not qualified to psychoanalyze Rodriguez. Not unless she's prepared to explain away all the little boys who have been abandoned and scarred and still somehow managed to excel in their chosen professions, and occasionally even succeed in high-pressure moments.

But while we're on that subject, Rodriguez' career batting line is .304/.389/.576.

Not for nothing, when games are close and late, he's batting .278/.378/.539 (and in those spots he's often faced tough relief pitchers). I just don't see anything there, or at least not anything that would justify consulting Freud's notebooks.

Ah, but of course there is October. In postseason games, Rodriguez has indeed struggled, relative to his regular-season performance: .279/.361/.483.

You might argue that 167 plate appearances isn't enough to prove -- or even suggest -- anything. I don't think I would argue much with you. But let's assume that those numbers mean something. Should we now scurry to expert witnesses to explain why Willie Mays hit just one home run in 99 postseason plate appearances? Have you seen Joe DiMaggio's postseason numbers? They're significantly worse than A-Rod's and DiMaggio finished with 220 World Series plate appearances. Has anyone resorted to pop psychology to explain DiMaggio's October struggles?

Maybe someone should. But it seems to me that the rules are different for Rodriguez. It might be natural, given the current state of sports coverage, but it sure isn't fair.