SweetSpot: Johnny Bench
Back in the first draft, it was still possible to dig up a relatively unknown kid from rural Oklahoma. Bench wasn't selected until the second round -- the 36th player overall -- and seven other catchers went ahead of him. Jim McLaughlin, the Reds' farm director in 1965, in Kevin Kerrane's classic book on scouting, "Dollar Sign on the Muscle":
A friend of mine with another club said, "You better send someone down to Binger, Oklahoma, to look at this kid Bench. We're not gonna draft him because the general manager's seen another he likes up in New England." ... They took that New England catcher on the first round, and the kid never got above Double A. And we took Bench on the second round. It was kind of a poker game. Nobody else knew much about him; his team hadn't played many games, and our scout was usually the only one there, so we could wait. After the draft Bill DeWitt, my boss, said, "I've never heard of him." I said, "I know you haven't, but you will. And that's why you hired me -- to hear about kids like this one."
Does McLaughlin's story check out? Sort of. There was no catcher from New England drafted in the first round, but the Orioles did take a catcher from Dartmouth in the second round -- one pick ahead of Bench. As to the claim that nobody else knew about Bench, at least one other team saw him: the Dodgers drafted a high school teammate of Bench's in the seventh round, but passed twice on selecting Bench.
1966: Reggie Jackson falls into A's lap
In one of the more famous draft blunders, the Mets' had the No. 1 pick and passed on Arizona State outfielder Jackson to select a high school catcher named Steve Chilcott, who would battle injuries and never reach the majors. "It was a position pick," said Joe McDonald, a Mets executive at the time. "We did not feel we had an adequate catching prospect in the organization."
1966: Braves draft Tom Seaver
The Braves? Yep. Atlanta selected Seaver in the now non-existent January secondary phase of the draft (for players who had previously been drafted). Seaver, pitching at USC, had been drafted the previous June by the Dodgers, but didn't sign after the Dodgers turned down his $70,000 asking price. The Braves took him with the 20th pick of the January phase, setting off a weird chain of events. The Braves signed Seaver for $40,000, but commissioner Spike Eckert ruled Seaver was ineligible to sign because USC had already played two exhibition games (Seaver didn't pitch). But the NCAA then declared Seaver ineligible, because he had signed a pro contract. So Eckert ruled that any team willing to match the Braves' offer would enter a lottery. The Mets, Phillies and Indians matched, and the Mets won the lottery.
1971: George Brett and Mike Schmidt drafted back-to-back
Pretty cool that arguably the two greatest third basemen in history were drafted the same year with consecutive picks. The catch: They went in the second round, Brett and then Schmidt. The Royals' first-round pick was a pitcher named Roy Branch, who briefly reached the majors but never won a game; the Phillies' pick was Roy Thomas, who had a marginal eight-year career as a reliever, although never pitched in the majors for the Phillies.
1976: Trammell and Morris ... and Ozzie (sort of)
In 1976, the Tigers had one of the great drafts ever, selecting Steve Kemp in the January phase and then Alan Trammell (second round), Dan Petry (fourth round), and Jack Morris (fifth round). Trammell and Morris aren't in the Hall of Fame yet, but both could get there someday. No team has ever drafted (and signed) two future Hall of Famers in the same draft. The kicker: They also drafted Ozzie Smith in the seventh round, but he didn't sign, and the Padres selected him the following year.
1987: Mariners draft Ken Griffey Jr.
The Mariners owned the first overall pick, and penurious Mariners owner George Argyros wanted the club to draft college pitcher Mike Harkey, because he would be easier to sign and presumably quicker to reach the majors. Scouting director Roger Jongewaard won out in the end. (Harkey went fourth overall, to the Cubs.)
1988: Dodgers draft Mike Piazza ... in 62nd round
Maybe the most famous late-round pick, Piazza was the Dodgers' final pick that year -- the 1,390th pick overall out of 1,395.
1990: Braves land Chipper Jones
Hard-throwing high school right-hander Todd Van Poppel was the consensus top talent in the 1990 draft -- "the best pitching prospect ever" label had been slapped on him -- but his declaration that he didn't want to sign and instead attend the University of Texas scared teams off him. So the Braves took Jones, which worked out pretty well for them.
2000: Cardinals draft Yadier Molina
The 2000 draft as one of the worst ever -- after top pick Adrian Gonzalez (by the Marlins), the rest of the top 15 were Adam Johnson, Luis Montanez, Mike Stodolka, Justin Wayne, Rocco Baldelli, Matt Harrington, Matt Wheatland, Mark Phillips, Joe Torres, Dave Krynzel, Joe Borchard, Shaun Boyd, Beau Hale and Chase Utley (OK, finally one that panned out). Keep that list in mind when you get excited about your team's first-round pick this year. The only other first-round of note that year was Adam Wainwright (by the Braves). He would eventually get traded to St. Louis, where he would team with a young catcher from Puerto Rico also drafted in 2000.
2009: Nationals draft Stephen Strasburg
The story here is how the Mariners kicked away the No. 1 overall selection. The Nationals headed into the final weekend with a record of 59-99, having gone 3-11 over their previous 14 games. The Mariners were 58-101 and had lost 14 of 15. This was tanking at its best. All the Mariners had to do was lose one game to lock up the first pick. One loss. Easy, right? Instead the Mariners sweep the A's. The Nationals lose all three. Josh Outman's throwing error sets up Yuniesky Betancourt's two-run go-ahead in triple in the fifth inning of the season finale. In other words, if Outman doesn't throw the ball away, Strasburg might be in a Mariners uniform instead of a Nationals one. (With the second pick, the Mariners selected Dustin Ackley.)
"I don't want to embarrass any other catcher by comparing him with Johnny Bench."* * * *
-- Sparky Anderson
"In my 30 years in baseball, the closest total package I've seen to (Ivan Rodriguez) is Johnny Bench."
-- Johnny Oates
"The game has never seen a better catcher than Yadier Molina."
-- Tony La Russa
Ultimately, it's a question that can't be answered, certainly not just by numbers or dusty anecdotes: Who has been baseball's greatest defensive catcher? Certainly, you can't tell those baserunners who tried to steal -- or didn't try to steal -- on Johnny Bench that it would be anyone else. For those who played against Ivan Rodriguez, they'll tell stories of getting picked off base when all they heard -- let alone saw -- was the leathery snap of the ball smacking into the first baseman's glove. If you're Nelson Figueroa, the 38-year-old pitcher who has spent parts of nine seasons in the majors but most of his professional career in the minor leagues, he'd likely say it has to be Yadier Molina.
Figueroa, a journeyman right-hander, helped Puerto Rico eliminate the United States in the World Baseball Classic in March, throwing six shutout innings with an assortment of sub-90-mph fastballs and offspeed pitches. In interviews, Figueroa praised Molina, the St. Louis Cardinals' backstop, for instilling confidence in the Puerto Rican staff. That complete trust in Molina's pitch-calling abilities allowed them to focus on throwing a particular pitch rather than thinking about what pitch to throw.
"I don't throw very hard, but I'll pitch inside," Figueroa said after beating the U.S. "A lot of times they'll sit outside, waiting for that breaking ball, and they won't get it. It was a great exhibition of what can be done without having a plus fastball. Yadier had a great plan. I didn't really have to shake him off, if at all."
The art of calling a game is the most subtle attribute a catcher brings to his job. The leadership required in helping a pitcher's confidence is certainly difficult to identify. A catcher's arm, however, is something we can all see. Molina mowed down Jimmy Rollins trying to steal in that game with a laser-beam throw right to the corner of second base to catch a guy who was 30-for-35 on stolen base attempts last season, and that was easy to admire.
But greatest defensive catcher of all time? Can we go there?
* * * *
"My idea is to really play the game of baseball. Not many people know what that can mean. You don't give the other team a single extra out or base or at-bat. You don't even give them one extra swing. You have to know the game to understand why a catcher feels so special about his work. You have every part of the game running through your fingers."
-- Carlton Fisk, "Why Time Begins On Opening Day"
The best catchers have to call a game, work with pitchers, know the opposing hitters, know the umpires, frame pitches, block pitches in the dirt, scramble after popups, have the guts to call for a 3-2 slider with a runner on third and a tie game in the ninth, throw out runners, block the plate, and play with various pains, bruises and injuries that would send other position players crying into the trainer's room for mercy.
Bench once went to the hospital to have a sore foot X-rayed, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote. It wasn't broken, but three previous breaks, now healed -- which Bench had played through -- showed up.
Ever since he won his first Gold Glove Award as a 20-year-old rookie, in 1968, Bench has been the standard-bearer for all-around excellence behind the plate. He was big and strong, but also nimble and athletic (he'd play other positions on his rare days off from catching) and possessed as powerful an arm as many old-timers had ever seen. He also revolutionized how the position was played: He caught the ball one-handed, as opposed to the traditional method at the time of two hands, which helped him cock his arm for a quicker release.
He was so revered that heading into his sophomore season, Sports Illustrated wrote a profile already asking if he could be the greatest ever. In 1972, in the midst of Bench's second MVP season, Anderson, his manager, said:
"Johnny just does things other catchers can't do. We have a boy on our team, Bill Plummer, who can throw as hard, but there is no one who can come up throwing quicker than John. Nobody ever really steals a base on him. ... If we had pitchers who could hold a runner, we'd never have any bases stolen at all. Johnny will grab a ball that is inside and be in a throwing motion all at the same time. He has a way of fielding a bunt in front of the plate so that as he picks it up he is bounding back to throw. And he makes the play at the plate better than anyone. He just takes the plate away from the runner. That's physical strength, of course, but there's a technique involved, too."
Here's my favorite Johnny Bench stat: From 1970 to 1979, the Reds played 45 postseason games. They stole 54 bases and got caught 17 times. Reds opponents stole -- get this -- six bases, and were caught 13 times. Four of those steals came in 1979, by which time Bench's arm had started to go. Six-for-19 in 45 games? As Bench himself reportedly said, "I can throw out any man alive." He was right.
Of course, caught stealing is only part of the defensive equation, although Bench earned praise in all aspects of his game. We don't have Pitchf/x data beyond just the past few years, so there is no scientific way to measure how effective Bench or Rodriguez -- let alone Gabby Hartnett or Mickey Cochrane or Yogi Berra -- were at framing pitches.
* * * *
Bill James' best defensive catchers by decade, from "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract":
1900s: Ossee Schreckengost
1910s: Ray Schalk
1920s: Muddy Ruel
1930s: Gabby Hartnett
1940s: Jim Hegan
1950s: Roy Campanella
1960s: Elston Howard
1970s: Johnny Bench
1980s: Jim Sundberg
1990s: Ivan Rodriguez
It's hard to compare catchers from the early part of the 20th century to Molina, of course, although good defensive catchers were enormously valuable in the dead-ball era because of all the steal attempts and bunts. The stolen base largely disappeared from the 1920s to the early '60s, so while Campanella had a tremendous arm (Baseball-Reference.com has him with a 57 percent career caught stealing rate, the best of all time), he faced very few steal attempts compared to more modern catchers, let alone the speed of players in recent decades. He very well may be the greatest defensive catcher ever, but I think it's bit of a leap to make that judgment.
So in limiting the discussion to players since Bench, I'm comfortable in the list of candidates below. The list includes their career caught stealing percentage, the league average percentage during their careers, number of pickoffs, and Total Zone fielding runs from Baseball-Reference.com.
Bench: 43 percent (35 league), 62 PO, +97 runs
Steve Yeager: 38 percent (33 league), 44 PO, +70 runs
Bob Boone: 40 percent (33 league), 76 PO, +107 runs
Jim Sundberg: 41 percent (35 league), 64 PO, +114 runs
Rodriguez: 46 percent (31 league), 88 PO, +167 runs
Molina: 45 percent (28 league), 46 PO, +95 runs
Gary Carter, Brad Ausmus and Rick Dempsey also would have their supporters.
(And if you want a sleeper best catcher? How about a career backup named Charlie O'Brien? Tim Belcher raved about O'Brien's pitch-framing abilities to Sports Illustrated in 1999: Charlie never moves. Most catchers lunge at a ball, or at least stab at it a little. Charlie? Nothing. No movement, no jerk, no reach. He's the best catcher I've ever seen at making pitches look like strikes. O'Brien was so good behind the plate that he lasted 15 seasons, until age 40, despite hitting .221 with 56 home runs in his career.)
James called Boone one of the top five defensive catchers ever; considering he won Gold Gloves from ages 38 to 41 (throwing out more than 40 percent of base stealers each year), it's certainly a conclusion that's hard to argue with. Boone was known as a consummate game-caller and he played on a lot of good teams with the Phillies, Angels and Royals. Sundberg won six straight Gold Gloves with the Rangers from 1976 to 1981. James wrote that Yeager's arm was as strong as Bench's, and he caught many good pitching staffs with the Dodgers.
As far as the Total Zone fielding stat, Rodriguez is way ahead, at least in terms of career total (in part because he's played more games at catcher than anybody, nearly 700 more than Bench). As you can see, the caught stealing totals for Rodriguez and Molina are much better compared to their contemporaries than the others.
But you'll never hear about Molina disregarding some part of his game. His arm strength is on par with Bench's -- his career caught stealing rate of 45 percent is best among active catchers and he's led his league three times in that category (he was at 48 percent last season, second by a hair to Cincinnati's Ryan Hanigan). Like Bench, Molina has caught for two World Series-winning teams. In 2006, he directed a staff that included past-his-peak Jeff Weaver, rookie Anthony Reyes and rookie closer Adam Wainwright to a title. In 2011, the Cardinals won again even though Wainwright, their best pitcher in 2010, missed the entire season. They had another young closer in Jason Motte, who like Wainwright in '06 had only assumed the role in September. You can see why La Russa loved his catcher so much.
Molina also rates very well on pitch framing, according to this study by Mike Fast on Baseball Prospectus. Aside from what the Pitchf/x data says, you only have to listen to Figueroa and members of the Cardinals to know what Molina means to a pitching staff.
Bench was a legendary figure in the early '70s, probably the most popular baseball player in America at the time. He was a better hitter than Molina (although Molina is coming off a terrific season at the plate). But the game does run through Molina's fingers, and by the time his career winds down, I think he'll be remembered as the greatest defensive catcher we've seen.
A couple weeks ago, Keith Law unveiled his annual list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 . Keith's list isn't a projection of the best players for 2013, but rather a projection and ordering of players if you were starting a franchise.
I thought it would be fun to do a similar list for all time. Of course, it's a difficult assignment because I was attempting to follow the same line of thinking as in Keith's piece: Whom would you build a team around? In doing this you have to pretend to ignore what happened in a player's career after a certain moment in time and project how he would have been valued at a particular age.
So this isn't just a list of the best players through the age of 24, or a list of the best seasons under the age of 25 -- although many of those players appear here. We're looking at the numbers and considering what the scouting reports would have been. Mark Fidrych, for example, was great at 21, but didn't possess the explosive fastball to make this list.
So here goes. A couple quick points. First, I ignored the 19th century. Second, I think it's important to understand that it was easier for a young player to excel in 1905 or 1929 or even into the 1950s than it is now. In my opinion, a 20-year-old Mike Trout dominating in 2012 is more impressive than a 20-year-old Ty Cobb dominating in 1907. Also, position matters. You build around up-the-middle guys more than corner guys (although there are some of those here). Cobb, for example, spent his early years as a right fielder before moving to center, so I downgraded him because of that.
Here's a way to look at this: If one player is ranked 23rd and another is ranked 14th, I'm saying I wouldn't trade the No. 14 player -- at that point in his career -- for the No. 23 player. Feel free, of course, to disagree.
25. Sam McDowell, LHP, 1965 Indians (age 22)
How dominant was McDowell in 1965? He averaged 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings, a record at the time and one that would last until 1984. In fact, while McDowell's K rate now ranks 25th all time, it's one of only three in the top 25 that came before 1990. He led the American League in ERA that year and the following May Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on McDowell with the billing, "Faster than Koufax?"
As you can see from his walk total, he had the blazing fastball but not Koufax-like command. That SI article perhaps points to some of McDowell's future issues in that it portrays him a pitcher with a fastball, slider, changeup and overhand curve ... and all too willing, apparently, to throw all four pitches. "He has such a good changeup that he wants to use it -- too much, in my opinion," catcher Del Crandall said. "I do not believe he is as impressed with his fastball as the hitters have indicated that they are."
McDowell liked to think out there. You wonder if he had just settled on two pitches -- maybe fastball/slider like Randy Johnson -- if he would have solved some of the control problems that did plague him throughout his career. The article mentions a game where he threw 163 pitches. "About par for me," McDowell said. Back then, nobody cared. "He has a good idea how to pitch," his manager Birdie Tebbetts said, "and he's going to be a real pitcher, one of the truly great ones. He runs three times as much as some pitchers, and he concentrates. He's going to get very tired in the next few years from all those pitches he throws, but he can stand that because he's young and strong, because he has a perfect build for a pitcher and because he doesn't have a sore-arm delivery. He's smooth."
24. Mel Ott, RF, 1929 Giants (age 20)
John McGraw didn't discover Ott so much as Ott found John McGraw. Ott was a 16-year-old playing for a lumber company semi-pro team in Louisiana when the lumber company owner bought Ott a train ticket to New York to try out for McGraw's Giants. A year later, Ott was playing in the Giants' outfield -- McGraw not wanting to farm out his young discovery to the minor leagues and have him fall prey to unknown evils.
Ott hit .322 with 18 home runs at age 19 and then exploded at age 20. Even in the high-scoring season of 1929, Ott's numbers were impressive: 42 home runs, one behind league leader Chuck Klein and the most ever by a 20-year-old; first in walks; fourth in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage; second to Hack Wilson in RBIs. Ott -- helped by the short porch at the Polo Grounds -- never again hit 42 home runs but did lead the National League in homers six times and and in OBP four times.
23. Pete Reiser, CF, 1941 Dodgers (age 22)
Reiser's numbers are more impressive then they may appear at first glance: He led the National League in batting average, doubles, triples, runs, slugging percentage, total bases, runs created, OPS and OPS+, plus he was regarded as one of the fastest players in the league and played a terrific center field. Reiser led the NL in WAR that year, not that WAR existed in 1941, so teammate Dolph Camilli, who drove in 120 runs, won MVP honors.
Reiser would become one of baseball's legendary "what if" players. On July 19, 1942, he crashed head-first into an unpadded concrete wall in St. Louis, knocked unconscious with "blood pouring from his ears." Reiser either fractured his skull or didn't; history is a little murky on the whole incident, according to Steven Goldman. Reiser would miss only a few games and finished sixth in the MVP vote but he suffered from blurred vision the rest of the year. He was hitting .350 at the time, tailing off to .310 by the end of the season.
After that came World War II, and in 1947 Reiser crashed into another wall and was injured severely enough that he was given last rites. He was never the same. Does he deserve a spot in the top 25? While it's true that he may have never developed into a big home run hitter, it seemed clear he was already one of the game's best all-around players. Leo Durocher, who managed Reiser in '41, would say Willie Mays was the greatest player he ever managed, but that Reiser had the same potential.
22. Andruw Jones, CF, 1998 Braves (age 21)
Look where Jones stood at this point in his career: He already was compared to Willie Mays defensively (indeed, Baseball-Reference ranks Jones' 1998 season as the sixth-best since 1901 of any position, with his '99 season even better), hit more home runs than Ken Griffey Jr. did at the same age, stole 27 bases in 31 attempts and hit a respectable .271. There may have been some concern about the ultimate potential with the batting and on-base ability, but if you remember the young Jones, we saw a gifted all-around player with MVP glitter in his future.
Jones would have seasons of 51 home runs, a .302 average and as many as 83 walks -- he just never did all those things at once. He was a great player with his range in center, but eventually he got fat, his 30s were a big zero and a Hall of Fame career wasted away.
21. Bert Blyleven, RHP, 1973 Twins (age 22)
Blyleven ended up pitching so long and then his Hall of Fame debate became so heated that it's easy to forget that he was one of the greatest young pitchers of all time. He made the majors at 19 and the next year won 16 games with a 2.81 ERA. In the early '70s, pitchers were treated about as well as a herd of cattle intended for fast-food hamburgers and Blyleven pitched 278 innings at age 20, 287 at 21 and then 325 at age 22. Somehow his arm remained attached to the shoulder socket.
He threw nine shutouts in 1973 and two one-hitters, leading the AL in adjusted ERA and strikeout/walk ratio. That he finished seventh in the Cy Young vote was a reflection of less-informed times, when writers looked at his 20-17 win-loss record and failed to realize how good he was. While we know about his famous curveball, Bill James also rated Blyleven's fastball the ninth-best between 1970 and 1974. Sure, we would be concerned about Blyleven's workload, but he had the total package.
20. Bryce Harper, OF, 2012 Nationals (age 19)
In terms of WAR, Harper just had the best season ever by a 19-year-old position player. The rest of the top five: Mel Ott, Edgar Renteria, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ty Cobb. And Ott is 1.3 wins behind Harper.
19. Frank Tanana, LHP, 1975 Angels (age 21)
Maybe you remember the old junkballing Tanana instead of the young flamethrower who compiled 22.3 WAR from ages 21 to 23 -- second-best over those three ages since 1901, trailing only Walter Johnson (22.7). Nolan Ryan was a teammate those three years and Tanana was better: He went 50-28 with a 2.53 ERA while Ryan went 50-46, 3.16.
As a 21-year-old, Tanana led the AL in strikeouts and strikeout/walk ratio while finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. Two years later, Sports Illustrated's Ron Fimrite wrote, "They know it exists; they just cannot find it, because the Tanana curve is among the most wicked in all of baseball. But then so are his fastball and his changeup. And all three are thrown with withering accuracy. Unlike Ryan, with whom he forms the most devastating one-two pitching entry in the game, he has complete control." James ranked Tanana's fastball the third-best of that era, behind two famous ones: Ryan's and Goose Gossage's.
Then he hurt his shoulder, and lost his speed. To his credit, he stuck around to win 240 games.
18. Hank Aaron, RF, 1957 Braves (age 23)
Aaron hit .314 at 21, won a batting title with a .328 mark at 22, but at age 23 his power exploded as he hit those 44 home runs and won what would be the only MVP Award of his career. Aaron led the NL in home runs, RBIs and runs and chased the Triple Crown into August (he would finish fourth in batting average). The only thing he didn't do yet was run -- one steal that year (though at his base-stealing peak in 1963 he took 31 bases).
In a profile that year in Sports Illustrated -- titled, appropriately, "Murder With A Blunt Instrument" -- Roy Terrell painted the image of Aaron that would last throughout his career: "Perhaps the most unusual part of the Aaron story is the fact that no one gets very excited about it. Sometimes it is even easy to forget that Henry Aaron is around. Without the physical proportions or explosive speed of a Mickey Mantle, without the breathtaking color of a Willie Mays, without the long and brilliant -- and controversial -- career of a Ted Williams, Aaron seems to be hardly a personality at all. He says practically nothing, stays out of nightclubs, never loses his cap running the bases, and spits only upon the ground."
17. Al Kaline, RF, 1955 Tigers (age 20)
Here's one example of why this list was difficult to put together: Do you take the 20-year-old Kaline over the 23-year-old Aaron? Or the 20-year-old Kaline over the 21-year-old Aaron for that matter? I think you have to go with Kaline, trying to ignore what happened after each age. An 18-year-old bonus baby in 1953, in 1955 Kaline led the AL with his .340 average, 200 hits and 321 total bases. He finished second in the MVP vote to Yogi Berra. He played a terrific right field.
Kaline went on to collect 3,000 hits and become a Hall of Famer, of course, but 1955 remained arguably the best year of his career (in terms of WAR, 1961 edges it out at 8.2). Kaline never hit 30 home runs and never hit .340 again. Looking back at '55, he got off to a great start, hitting over .400 in April and .371 in the first half (.301 in the second). Perhaps the league eventually figured something out; he also tore up the woeful Kansas City A's that year, hitting .451 against them with nine of his 27 home runs.
16. Cesar Cedeno, CF, 1972 Astros (age 21)
The sky was the proverbial limit for Cedeno in 1972 when he finished third in the NL in OPS while playing in the expansive Astrodome. Not shown above: He stole 55 bases and won a Gold Glove. Cedeno was outstanding again the next year, hitting .320 with 25 home runs and 56 steals. What happened from there? I wrote about his cautionary tale last August.
15. Mark Prior, RHP, 2003 Cubs (age 22)
How good was Prior in his first full season in the majors? As good as advertised when he came out of USC. From 1994 to 2004, the only pitchers with a lower ERA in a season were Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, Randy Johnson and Jason Schmidt. In the heart of the steroids era, Prior looked like the next Clemens, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound horse who would lead the Cubs to a World Series championship.
"Chicago Heat" read the Sports Illustrated cover that summer, featuring Prior and Kerry Wood. The article detailed Prior's extensive conditioning program between starts and his fundamentally sound mechanics.
The next year, he got hurt.
14. Eddie Mathews, 3B, 1953 Braves (age 21)
Check those numbers again. Mathews' 47 home runs not only led the NL but remain the most ever for a player 21 or younger -- 20-year-old Mel Ott being the only other player that young to hit at least 40. Ty Cobb had seen Mathews as a minor leaguer and declared, "I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them."
Mathews finished second in the MVP voting to Roy Campanella that year, but in some regards, Mathews spent the rest of his career trying to live up to the unlimited promise of his sophomore campaign. He would finish second again in the 1959 MVP vote and hit over 500 home runs but tailed off in his early 30s. In his autobiography, Mathews mentioned that his drinking caused him to lose several jobs in baseball, including a stint as Braves manager in the early '70s, although it's unclear if that was a problem during his playing days.
13. Cal Ripken, SS, 1983 Orioles (age 22)
On June 22, 1982, Earl Weaver moved a 21-year-old rookie from third base to shortstop in a game against Cleveland. The Orioles lost 8-6 and the kid moved back to third base. On July 1, Weaver started the rookie again at shortstop. He'd spend the next 14 years there -- starting every game.
In his first full season at shortstop, Cal Ripken's Orioles won the AL East (and went on to win the World Series) and Ripken captured MVP honors with his strong year at the plate -- he led the AL in runs and finished second in total bases -- and surprising defense up the middle. Maybe he didn't have the speed of other shortstops, but his arm strength allowed him to play deep and he had a quick first step.
Ripken's bat never really developed from where it was as a 22-year-old -- he only had two more seasons that compared, offensively, to 1983 (1984 and his second MVP season of 1991) -- and while too much attention was paid to his ironman streak, he remained a power-hitting shortstop with underrated defense.
12. Walter Johnson, RHP, 1910 Senators (age 22)
Johnson's speed was apparent from the day he joined the Senators in 1907, a raw youngster with impossibly long arms. After losing 25 games in 1909 -- the Senators were awful -- Johnson had his breakthrough season at 22, winning 25 games for a team that would limp to a 66-85. Johnson led the AL in games started, complete games, innings pitched and strikeouts, and threw eight shutouts.
That offseason, the Washington Post circulated a rumored trade of Johnson for Ty Cobb. Tigers president Frank Navin denied the rumor, saying the Senators would never trade Johnson, whom Navin called "in my opinion the best young pitcher in the country, and doubly valuable because he is so young."
Was Johnson the hardest thrower of all time? It's possible, although some speculate that Johnson was merely the first pitcher to throw hard all the time (instead of saving his best stuff for key situations, as most pitchers could do during the dead-ball era), thus making his fastball seem faster than it was. Cobb would probably disagree with that. In Henry Thomas' biography of Johnson, he quotes Cobb saying, "The first time I saw him, I watched him take that easy windup -- and then something went past me that made me flinch. I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it. The thing just hissed with danger. Every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark."
11. Vida Blue, LHP, 1971 A's (age 21)
Blue had started only 10 games in the big leagues (those 10 games included a no-hitter and one-hitter) when the 1971 season began. He got knocked out in the second inning of the season opener, but then quickly announced his presence: A six-inning shutout with 13 strikeouts in his next start, followed by a two-hit shutout and then eight complete games in his next nine starts, including three more shutouts. At the All-Star break he was 17-3 with a 1.42 ERA and 17 complete games in 22 starts. He would appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.
"He throws harder than Sandy Koufax did," Orioles first baseman Boog Powell said that season. "He has an effortless motion, a smooth, compact delivery. He goes out for nine innings and doesn't seem to weaken."
Blue relied mainly on his overpowering fastball, which he sometimes "cut" to add sinking movement. He also had a curveball and threw an occasional changeup. Blue was an outstanding athlete -- he threw 35 touchdown passes his senior year in high school, but chose baseball because there wasn't a future in pro football back then for black quarterbacks.
Blue's usage was an issue that summer and manager Dick Williams did cut back in the second half. But the damage may have been done. A holdout in 1972 -- Blue went 6-10 that year -- didn't help matters. But a quote from teammate Sal Bando in 1973 sums up why Blue, while remaining an excellent pitcher, never duplicated his 1971 wonders: "He found out that you can't throw the fastball for 300 innings."
10. Ken Griffey Jr., CF, 1990 Mariners (age 20)
"The Natural," billed the Sports Illustrated cover in May of 1990. Indeed, when told before one game to watch out for Bert Blyleven's curveball, Junior asked, "Is he a righty or lefty?" Griffey hit .300 and slugged .481 in his second year in the bigs with that picture-perfect swing, numbers more impressive in those years before muscles and offense exploded. He ranked seventh in the AL in batting average and ninth in slugging, won a Gold Glove and drew the inevitable comparisons to the next man on our list.
Am I overrating him on the list? After all, Bryce Harper had the same WAR in 2012, at the age of 19, as Griffey had at 20 and is 10 spots lower on the list. I think there was a certain awe about Griffey's potential at the time -- the leaping grabs in center field, the ability to hit for average, the untapped power that would eventually be unleashed. As Bill James wrote then, "He hasn't been overhyped; he's worth it. Griffey is the only major league player who has not yet established reasonable limits for himself. He could be anything -- he could be the greatest player there ever was, or he could be Cesar Cedeno."
I guess you could say the same thing right now about Harper, but let's wait a year on him. Obviously, I think he's going be awesome -- he's on this list after all -- but potential is a tough label to put on one so young.
9. Willie Mays, CF, 1954 Giants (age 23)
Mays missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the Army, but his return to the majors was so spectacular that he cracks my top 10, even if he is a little older than most of the others on this list. This is what the debate is all about: Would you trade 23-year-old Willie Mays for 20-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.? Mays led the NL in batting average and slugging percentage while finishing third in home runs. If there had been a Gold Glove Award back then, Mays would have won that, too. He did capture MVP honors and deservedly so.
I think the difference is this: The 23-year-old Mays was the finished product; the 20-year-old Griffey wasn't. While Griffey did develop into the player everyone projected, Mays was already that player. While Griffey made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1990, Mays made the cover of Time in 1954. In July, Mays appeared on three network TV shows in one weekend. He was a phenomenon, and a Newsweek headline read: "Willie Mays: The Hottest Thing Since Babe Ruth."
8. Bob Feller, RHP, 1939 Indians (age 20)
I could have put the 17-year-old Feller on the list (he made the majors while still a high school junior in Iowa and struck out 17 batters in a game that September), or the 18-year-old Feller (he appeared on the cover of Time that spring and his high school graduation was aired by NBC Radio), or the 19-year-old Feller (went 17-11 with a 4.08 ERA but walked 208 batters), but I think the 20-year-old Feller is the better choice.
It was his breakout season and while he still wasn't quite polished, his control had improved enough for him to make that leap to superstar status. He led the AL in wins, innings and strikeouts. In a league where only eight pitchers struck out 100 batters, Feller had 246. How fast did Feller throw? In the days before radar guns, he challenged a motorcycle in the summer of 1940. The motorcycle was racing at 86 mph as it flew past Feller as he unleashed his pitch. He managed to hit the target on his first try -- three feet ahead of the motorcycle. MLB declared he threw the ball 104 mph.
7. Mickey Mantle, CF, 1956 Yankees (age 24)
The oldest player on my list, you could argue I made the wrong choice: That 20-year-old Mickey Mantle was more valuable than 24-year-old Mantle, in part because in a theoretical trade you would lose the four seasons from ages 20-23. I'm sure Nate Silver or Dan Szymborski could run the numbers through their projection system and give a mathematical answer. Anyway, the 20-year-old Mantle was already one of the best players in the league: He hit .311 with 23 home runs, led the AL in OPS and finished third in the MVP vote. He remained at the level the next two seasons then hit 37 home runs at age 23.
But then ... then came one of the greatest seasons in major league history. Mantle hit .353 with 52 home runs and won the Triple Crown. He slugged .705 and had a 1.169 OPS. At the time, you may have thought: OK, Mantle raised his game to a new level -- the highest level -- and he's just entering his peak years; he may do this for the next seven or eight seasons. We know now that didn't quite happen. He was nearly as good in 1957 when he hit .365 and had an on-base percentage over .500, but those were his two best years.
That Mantle wasn't able to maintain that level of play isn't really a knock against him, although we can debate how much was bad knees and other injuries and how much was off-the-field habits. But he was so good in 1956 that even a 20-year-old Mantle -- even a raw kid with big speed and huge power -- couldn't have been projected to have this kind of season.
6. Joe DiMaggio, CF, 1937 Yankees (age 22)
Picture Joe D at age 22: Second season in the majors, a league-leading 46 home runs, a league-leading 151 runs scored, third in batting average, second in RBIs, first in slugging percentage, graceful in the outfield and on the bases, nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts, the best player on the best team in the world. What kind of future would that player have?
By WAR, it would be DiMaggio's second-best season. One reason I ranked him sixth is that you could easily project a 22-year-old who hit 46 home runs to become a 50-homer guy; but the 46 would be DiMaggio's career high, as he never hit 40 again. (Yankee Stadium, with its mammoth 457 feet to left-center, certainly hurt him; he hit 27 homers on the road in 1937, for example.)
"Name a better right-handed hitter, or a better thrower, or a better fielder, or a better baserunner," Hank Greenberg once said. "That's right, a better baserunner. Did you ever see him slide when he hooked the bag with his toe? Absolutely perfect."
5. Mike Trout, CF, 2012 Angels (age 20)
Wait: I just ran that quote and then ranked Trout ahead of DiMaggio? Well, where do we begin?
1. Trout just played his age-20 season (he turned 21 in August). DiMaggio was still in the Pacific Coast League at 20.
2. DiMaggio may have been a great baserunner, but he did play in an era when there weren't many stolen bases. He stole 30 bases in his career; Trout just stole 49 bases in 54 attempts.
3. Check their adjusted OPS. Trout's is actually a shade higher. The AL hit .281/.355/.415 in 1937; it hit .255/.320/.411 in 2012.
4. Trout drew more walks in fewer plate appearances -- in a league where pitchers averaged nearly a walk less per nine innings.
5. Trout's WAR is the highest of any 20-year-old position player. Or 21-year-old for that matter.
So ... yes, I would rather build around 20-year-old Mike Trout than 22-year-old Joe DiMaggio.
4. Johnny Bench, C, 1970 Reds (age 22)
The only catcher to make the list, Bench's value, in part, lies in that positional scarcity. Who was he in 1970? Only the NL MVP after leading the league in home runs and RBIs while possessing the strongest arm many had ever seen -- he started 130 games at catcher and allowed only 32 steals while throwing out 30. You did not run on Johnny Bench.
3. Ted Williams, LF, 1941 Red Sox (age 22)
OK, maybe he couldn't play center field like DiMaggio or Trout. But the man did hit .400. By the way, the feat is more impressive now than it was at the time. From 1935 to 1940, seven players had hit better than .370, including Luke Appling's .388 mark. So Williams was 18 points higher than the recently established high at the time. The highest average in the past seven years was Joe Mauer's .365 mark in 2009, so in some fashion Williams' .406 would be akin to somebody hitting .383 today. (The AL hit .267 in 2009 and .266 in 1941.)
2. Dwight Gooden, RHP, 1985 Mets (age 20)
All these years later, I'm still trying to figure out how Gooden finished fourth in the MVP vote. "His pitch does everything," Cubs first baseman Leon Durham said that year. "It moves, it sinks, it rises." Gooden threw a hard curve and a slow curve and hitters couldn't touch either one. Batters hit .201 off him and slugged .270. He threw eight shutouts -- and that doesn't count two other games where he pitched nine innings with no runs and got a no-decision. He allowed one run or fewer in 19 of his 35 starts.
It wasn't just the best pitching season ever by a young starter, it may have been the best, period. Baseball-Reference.com rates it fourth-best since 1901, behind two Walter Johnson seasons and one Cy Young year, back in the days when hitters didn't hit home runs and pitchers could spit on the ball.
What happened? Sure, there were the drugs and maybe hitters learned to lay off the high fastball and maybe he lost the feel for his curveball -- as good as Blyleven's they said -- and then pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre instructed him not to go for strikeouts all the time and he hurt his shoulder in 1989 and was definitely never the same after that.
But in 1985, in that glorious summer, Dr. K was as good as any pitcher ever was.
1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, 1996 Mariners (age 20)
"The way he's going, someday he might bat .400 and hit 60 home runs. He's the best young talent I've seen in years." -- Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, summer of 1996.
I think the 20-year-old A-Rod is the pretty easy call for No. 1. He was already a five-tool player, leading the AL in batting average while swatting 36 home runs and a league-leading 54 doubles. He was polished in the field, with range and a strong arm. Like Trout now, he didn't have to get better to become the best player in baseball.
For me, as a Mariners fan, I can't believe that was 17 years ago. As much as I loved the young Griffey or the middle-aged Edgar Martinez or the fireballing Randy Johnson, Rodriguez's year was something special, when a player so young is so good you can only cherish the present and dream of a future with no limits.
* * * *
Honorable mention: Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Smoky Joe Wood, Babe Ruth (the pitcher), Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Arky Vaughan, Herb Score, Frank Robinson, Don Drysdale, Vada Pinson, Rickey Henderson, Roger Clemens, Albert Pujols.
Although you could have made strong cases for Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina, Ryan Braun and even Chase Headley or David Wright, Posey won for two obvious reasons:
1. His team made the playoffs. Of the other top candidates, only Molina's Cardinals reached the playoffs, and they squeezed in as the second wild card. Since the implementation of the wild card in 1995, only six MVP winners have come from non-playoff teams (Larry Walker in 1997; Barry Bonds in 2001 and 2004; Alex Rodriguez in 2003; Ryan Howard in 2006; and Albert Pujols in 2008). In an otherwise heated debate, tie goes to the guy with the better teammates. This was best exemplified last year, when Justin Verlander beat out Jacoby Ellsbury and Braun beat Matt Kemp.
2. The arc of the Posey narrative. Rookie of the year to gruesome season-ending injury to comeback season. It is a great story, although Posey's candidacy certainly went beyond that. The stats are impressive as well: A league-leading .336 average and 172 OPS+; second in the league in OBP and fourth in slugging percentage, despite playing in a tough hitter's park (17 of Posey's 24 home runs came on the road); solid defense behind the plate plus the flexibility to play first base; hitting .367 in the final two months, most of which teammate Melky Cabrera missed because of his PED suspension.
It's an award statheads and traditionalists can agree upon as Posey also led the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR:
It's rare for a catcher to rate so high in WAR. During the integration era (1947 on), only 22 catcher-seasons rated 6.5 or higher. Posey's 7.2 ranks seventh, which puts his season in historic context:
1. Mike Piazza, 1997 Dodgers: 8.5
2. Johnny Bench, 1972 Reds: 8.5*
3. Gary Carter, 1982 Expos: 8.3
4. Johnny Bench, 1974 Reds: 7.7
5. Joe Mauer, 2009 Twins: 7.6*
6. Darrell Porter, 1979 Royals: 7.4
7. Buster Posey, 2012 Giants: 7.2*
8. Gary Carter, 1984 Expos: 7.2
9. Johnny Bench, 1970 Reds: 7.1*
10. Carlton Fisk, 1972 Red Sox: 7.0
(* won MVP award)
Posey's adjusted OPS ranks second among all catchers since 1947, behind Piazza's 1997 season and just ahead of Mauer's 2009. Only Mauer (twice), Piazza and Jorge Posada (.338 in 2007) hit for a higher average. And none of those guys above added a World Series victory.
What does the future hold for Posey? In looking at his splits, he absolutely crushed left-handers, hitting .433 with a .793 slugging percentage, compared to .292 with a .440 slugging versus right-handers. Because he's unlikely to hit .433 again versus lefties, he'll have to pick up his production against right-handers to match his 2012 numbers in ensuing seasons.
On the other hand, he hit .385/.456/.646 in the second half, which is perhaps an indicator that he was getting healthier, stronger and better as the season wore on. (That second half did include a .423 average on balls in play, an unsustainable figure, so I wouldn't predict Posey to hit .336 again in 2013.)
Still, Posey has vaulted onto the short list of best players in the game. I don't see this as a fluke season, and in looking at those catchers on that list above -- Bench, Piazza, Carter, Fisk -- I see a player with Hall of Fame potential and the possibility of building a legacy as the leader of a -- dare we say -- three- or four-time World Series champion.
Eric Karabell wrote about Kevin Youkilis today and then we talked about Youkilis and two other 30-something third basemen off to slow starts, Scott Rolen and Placido Polanco. We also discussed Chris Young's injury and where Ivan Rodriguez ranks all-time among catchers. Check it out!
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.
Player A is Raines. Player B is Tony Gwynn. That final column is times reached base. Yes, Raines reached base more often in his career than Gwynn, in just slightly more plate appearances. I'm not the first writer to come up with that comparison. Joe Posnanski, among others, is especially fond of this factoid. The point of the statistic isn't to bring down Gwynn, rather to show how potent and devastating an offensive player Raines was. The arc of his game was a little different than Gwynn's but the results are similar: Gwynn got more singles, Raines walked more and had a little more power. He was one of the great base stealers of all time and scored more runs in his career than Gwynn.
That's what Raines did: He scored runs. He's 51st on the all-time list and of the 50 players ahead of him, all eligible candidates are in the Hall of Fame except for Jimmy Ryan and George Van Haltren, two 1890s outfielders; turn-of-the-century shortstop Bill Dahlen; and Rafael Palmeiro.
A common refrain about Raines from his advocates is that he was one of the best players in baseball over a span in the 1980s. This isn't some after-the-fact hocus-pocus going on. It was widely believed at the time. In a 1984 Sports Illustrated piece on Raines, Pete Rose said: "Right now he's the best player in the National League. Mike Schmidt is a tremendous player and so are Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson, but Rock can beat you in more ways than any other player in the league. He can beat you with his glove, his speed and his hitting from either side of the plate." In his annual Baseball Abstracts, Bill James often argued the case of Raines' all-around brilliance. Raines finished fifth, sixth and seventh in MVP votes, despite playing for mediocre Expos teams.
Raines' five-year peak was 1983 to 1987. According to Baseball-Reference's WAR ranking, the top five players during those years were Wade Boggs (39.7), Rickey Henderson (34.1), Cal Ripken (33.3), Schmidt (31.4) and Raines (30.7). Pretty nice company. (The next five were Alan Trammell, Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Murphy and Keith Hernandez.)
To be fair, this alone doesn't make him a Hall of Famer. I checked every five-year period since 1969 (1969 to 1973, 1970 to 1974, etc.) and not all of the names that appear in the top five are Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers. Heck, Sal Bando rated as the best player in baseball from 1969 to 1973.
Some characterize Raines as having too short of a peak level of dominance. From 1988 to 1995, he averaged .283/.375/.409, with 81 runs and 33 steals per season. Maybe not an MVP candidate anymore, but still a good player, top leadoff hitter and valuable contributor. He's hardly alone in this aspect. He had six seasons with an OPS+ of 130 or higher, the same as Jim Rice, Dawson and Ernie Banks, and more than Kirby Puckett, Roberto Alomar, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra, Tony Perez or Robin Yount.
Maybe Raines doesn't have a slum-dunk case. But he has a case. Maybe voters have forgotten his great years in Montreal (and they have forgotten; he received only 37 percent of the vote last year). Maybe they remember his final seasons with the Yankees, when he became a part-time player on two World Series champions. Maybe they can't believe he compares favorably with Tony Gwynn.
Bryce Harper is drawing comparisons to some of the greatest prospects we've ever seen. Still just 18, he's hitting .340 and slugging .615 for the Nationals' Class A team in Hagerstown, Md. His potential at the plate, combined with good speed and strong throwing arm, make him, in scouting lexicon, a five-tool athlete.
Where would he rank on a mythical all-time prospect list? I'm going to go back to 1965 and the advent of the draft, and come up with my list of the top 50 prospects. What does this mean? I'm not thinking of where guys stood when drafted, but where they were at any time before they reached the majors. We know the hype around Harper, and Stephen Strasburg before him, but I tried to imagine how players from 40 years ago would have been evaluated and hyped if we'd had prospect lists and the Internet.
I'm not a scout. I didn't see these guys play. But I've been following this stuff for over two decades and can remember the hype around guys like Ben McDonald or Brien Taylor. Baseball America has been around 30 years and has been running its annual top 100 prospect list since 1990, so that was a great resource. For players before then, I scoured minor league statistics, looked at where players were originally drafted to get a better idea on their tools, factored in age and performance and came up with the following.
Needless to say, our judgment is probably influenced somewhat by future performance, but not all these players became superstars.
50. Greg Luzinski, 1B/LF, Phillies
OK, he was slower than dirt and didn’t have the magazine-cover baseball body, but his bat was so good the Phillies made him the 11th pick in 1968. He was arguably the most dominant teenage hitter of the draft era. He led the Carolina League with 31 home runs as an 18-year-old, hitting for average and drawing walks. The next season, he hit .325 with 33 home runs in Double-A. The next year, he belted 36 home runs in Triple-A. He moved from first base to left field in the majors and let's just say he always tried hard out there. He got fat and became a DH, but he did twice finish second in the NL MVP voting.
49. Shawon Dunston, SS, Cubs
The first overall pick in 1982, Dunston had an absolute cannon for an arm, good speed and range, and hitting potential -- in other words, everything you want in a shortstop. He hit .321 in rookie ball and .310 in Class A and reached the majors in 1985. While he had a long career, his free-swinging ways prevented him from ever being a valuable player.
48. Kevin McReynolds, CF, Padres
A college product out of Arkansas, McReynolds fell to sixth in the 1981 draft over concerns about a knee injury. A five-tool talent, he abated those concerns by hitting .368 with 33 home runs in 1982 and .377 with 33 home runs at Triple-A Reno in 1983. His major league career was more solid than spectacular, although he did finish third in the 1988 NL MVP vote while with the Mets.
47. Jose Rijo, RHP, Yankees
While Dwight Gooden was burning up the Carolina League in 1983, Rijo was doing the same for the Yankees in the Florida State League that year at the same age. He went 18-7 with a 1.88 ERA and 184 strikeouts in 200 innings (including a few starts in Double-A). When Gooden made the majors the following season, George Steinbrenner wanted his own teenage sensation and rushed Rijo to the majors, and then later included him in a trade with the A's for Rickey Henderson. He had his best years for the Reds, winning World Series MVP honors in 1990.
He didn't come with a high-pick pedigree as a 13th-round selection, but his 1983 season in the Carolina League was one of the best minor league seasons in the past 30 years. As a 20-year-old, he hit .358/.472/.503, with an incredible 107/35 BB/K ratio plus 105 stolen bases. His size and questions about his power potential may have been raised, but he profiled as a classic leadoff hitter and center fielder.
45. Ted Simmons, C, Cardinals
A first-round pick out of a Michigan high school in 1967, the switch-hitting catcher made a major league cameo the next season after hitting .331 with 28 home runs in Class A. He'd go on to become one of the best-hitting catchers in major league history.
44. Keith Hernandez, 1B, Cardinals
Hernandez fell to the 42nd round of the 1971 draft after sitting out his senior season following a dispute with his coach. By 1974, he was in Triple-A at age 20, displaying a sweet stroke to the tune of a .351 average and 14 home runs, and showing off the slick glove that would make him one of the best defensive first basemen of all time.
43. Clint Hurdle, OF, Royals
"This Year's Phenom" screamed the 1978 Sports Illustrated spring training cover story. The ninth pick in 1975, Hurdle shot through the minors and hit .329/.449/.529 at Triple-A in 1977, a year in which he turned 20 years old. He didn't have much speed but he had everything else -- including the attitude. The SI story tells how he had asked for a single room on the road as a rookie -- not exactly a request that won over the veterans (back then, you had to earn a single room with a few years in the majors). Hurdle hit a decent .264 that year and .294 with 10 home runs in 1980, but the Royals traded him 1981 and he never escaped the phenom label.
42. Mike Ivie, C, Padres
The Padres made Ivie the first player selected in the 1970 draft, a power-hitting catcher with a strong arm from a Georgia high school. In 1971, he hit .305 with 15 home runs at Class A, playing most of the season as an 18-year-old, and getting a cup of coffee in the majors. Trouble is, he soon had to move to first base. After getting drafted, the Padres brought Ivie to San Diego and he caught batting practice for the big league team. One of his throws back to the pitcher hit the protective screen and veteran Chris Cannizzaro reportedly said, “That, rook, is why they’re sending you to Tri-Cities.” Ivie developed a block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher (although the Cannizzaro incident may be more apocryphal than anything) and had to move to first base. As Rick Monday once said, "Mike Ivie is a $40 million airport with a $30 control tower."
41. Jack Clark, 3B, Giants
You have an 18-year-old third baseman hitting .315 with 19 home runs in the California League? Yes, that’s a top prospect. Clark had a strong arm (he actually pitched some his first season as a pro) but never did master the intricacies of playing third base and moved to right field (and later first base), but he became one of the most feared hitters in the majors in the '80s.
40. Dwight Evans, RF, Red Sox
He wasn’t drafted until the fifth round in 1969, but was already in Triple-A at age 20 in 1972, winning International League MVP honors by hitting .300 with a .409 OBP and 17 home runs. Add in his legendary throwing arm (he’d win eight Gold Gloves with the Red Sox) and prospect mavens would have been drooling over Dewey.
Five teams passed over Bonds in the 1985 draft, even though he was a power-speed threat at Arizona State (it was a loaded draft, with B.J. Surhoff, Will Clark, Bobby Witt and Barry Larkin going ahead of him). In the minors, he quickly showed it wouldn't be long before he reached the majors, although it seems there were some doubts about his home run potential ... including from Bonds himself. I dug up a fun quote from a 1985 newspaper article: “I’ve never thought of myself as a home run hitter," Bonds said. "But I have the ability to put the ball in play and hit it to all fields. I like getting on base better than going around the bases."
38. Corey Patterson, CF, Cubs
Prospect analysts drooled over his package of tools, a mesmerizing mix of athleticism and baseball skills. Baseball America rated him its No. 2 prospect in 2001, behind only Josh Hamilton. Patterson lacked one thing, however: strike-zone judgment. It derailed his career. And while he's hung around, it's mostly been as a backup outfielder/Triple-A call-up.
37. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers
Just 17 years old in 1996, he hit .284 with 26 home runs between the South Atlantic League and the California League (somehow, that made him only the 30th-best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America). The next year, he hit .327 with 26 home runs in the Florida State League and jumped to the No 3 prospect.
36. Vida Blue, LHP, A's
A second-round pick out of a Louisiana high school in 1967, Blue had an electrifying fastball. In 1970, he dominated at Triple-A Iowa, with a 2.17 ERA, 88 hits and 165 strikeouts in 130 innings. That September he pitched a one-hitter for the A's ... and then followed that up with a no-hitter later in the month.
35. Tim Raines, 2B, Expos
He may have fallen to the fifth round of the 1977 draft due to his short (5-foot-8) stature, but by 1980 the Expos had a super prospect on their hands. Playing second base for Triple-A Denver, Raines -- just 20 years old -- hit .354 with 77 stolen bases and more walks than strikeouts. His fielding numbers actually looked pretty good, but the Expos moved him to the outfield and he became one of the best leadoff men in the game’s history.
34. Jim Rice, OF, Red Sox
Rice and Fred Lynn shared the Pawtucket outfield in 1974 … and the team finished 57-87. Rice was named International League MVP after hitting .337 and slugging .579. Just 21 and powerfully built, Rice ran well as a young player as well. The next year, Lynn and Rice led the Red Sox to the AL pennant and finished first and third, respectively, in the MVP vote.
33. Don Baylor, OF, Orioles
While many of us may remember him only as a barrel-chested designated hitter and manager, Baylor was a superior athlete coming up through the minors, having all the tools other than a strong throwing arm. A second-round pick in 1967, he tore up Triple-A Rochester as a 21-year-old, hitting .327/.429/.583 with 26 steals.
The Orioles took Ripken in the second round of the 1978 draft -- their first-rounder was actually another high school third baseman named Robert Boyce. Ripken had excelled as a pitcher in high school (100 strikeouts in 60 innings with a 0.70 ERA) but the Orioles liked his bat. Of course, they had an inside track -- his father was the team’s third-base coach. Junior took BP once at Memorial Stadium. "He was 15 and he was hitting them into the concrete seats,” Earl Weaver said later, in 1982. Ripken may have lacked foot speed, but he had everything else and rose quickly through the system. At Triple-A, spending most of the season at 20 years old, he hit .288 with 23 home runs, playing mostly third base -- but also some shortstop. "He's very intelligent, too, like a young [Ken] Singleton,” Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said before Ripken’s rookie season. “He's a low-key guy whose voice doesn't carry, unlike his father, but he'll make people notice him. I just wish he were my kid."
31. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rays
Tampa Bay made the five-tool talent the first overall pick in 1999. We know the detours he took along the way, but the talent did, indeed, prove to be special.
30. David Clyde, LHP, Rangers
His story is pretty well known: The Rangers made the Houston high schooler the first pick in 1973 and put him immediately in the big leagues as a gate attraction. While he won his first start, he wasn't ready for the majors, his career fizzled and he became a famous "what-if."
29. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
As Baseball America wrote after he dominated the minors at age 18 in 2004: "It's difficult to project Hernandez's ceiling because his ability seems limitless." The Mariners prevented him from throwing his slider for several years to help prevent injury. I'd say that worked out and his ceiling turned out to be pretty high.
28. Gary Sheffield, SS, Brewers
Scouts weren't sure if he'd be able to stay at shortstop, but there was no denying his bat: He hit .327 with 28 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 1988, earning a late-season call to the majors while still at teenager.
27. Ben McDonald, RHP, Orioles
Before Stephen Strasburg and Mark Prior, there was McDonald, the 6-foot-7 hurler from LSU who moonlighted on the basketball team. At the time, I remember there being more pre-draft hype about McDonald -- stuff like how he wrestled alligators -- than previous No. 1 picks. The negotiations with the Orioles were a bit contentious and there was talk of a new baseball league starting, with McDonald being the big name. That never happened, he signed with Baltimore and had a solid career before getting injured.
26. Steve Avery, LHP, Braves
Smooth, efficient and hard-throwing, Avery was your classic lefty pitching prospect. The No. 3 overall pick in 1988, he was the No. 1 prospect in the game before the 1990 season (ahead of McDonald). By 1991, he was winning playoff games for the Braves at 21. While you wouldn't say he was abused or overworked, the heavy workload at a young age took its toll and he lost his fastball by the mid-'90s.
25. Brad Komminsk, CF, Braves
The fourth overall pick in 1979, Komminsk was an outfielder with all the tools. He hit .322 with 33 home runs and 35 steals in the Carolina League in 1981, leading Braves farm director Hank Aaron to say, “He will do things Dale Murphy never dreamed of.” In 1983, he still looked like a future star after hitting .334 with 24 home runs in Triple-A. The Braves reportedly turned down an offer of Jim Rice from the Red Sox. For whatever reason -- maybe a victim of great expectations, maybe a stiff swing, maybe never getting a full season in the bigs -- he hit just .218 in his major league career.
24. J.R. Richard, RHP, Astros
Outside of Randy Johnson, maybe the most intimidating pitcher who ever lived. The 6-foot-8 righty threw about 100 miles per hour and didn't always know where it was going. The second pick in 1969 (after Jeff Burroughs), he took a few seasons to refine his control but became a durable, 300-strikeout pitcher in the late '70s, before a stroke sadly ended his career in 1980, in the middle of his best season.
23. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
He doesn't turn 20 until August, but is already putting up big numbers in Double-A, showing tools across the board, including plate discipline and a flair that few possess.
22. Todd Van Poppel, RHP, A's
The top prize in the 1990 draft, the Texas high school sensation was threatening to attend college, so he fell to the A's with the 14th pick. The A's signed him to a major league contract, and while he pitched well that first year in the minors -- earning him Baseball America's No. 1 prospect status before 1991 -- he never again dominated. The Braves' consolation choice as the No. 1 pick? Chipper Jones.
"Mauer combines a picture-perfect left-handed stroke with impeccable strike-zone judgment to generate high batting averages and on-base percentage," wrote Baseball America before the 2004 season, when it made Mauer its No. 1 prospect. The Twins had taken a chance in drafting the hometown kid over Mark Prior in 2001, but their homework paid off.
20. J.D. Drew, RF, Cardinals
As John Sickels recently wrote in a career retrospective about Drew, "A superstar outfielder at Florida State University, J.D. Drew was rated as the best position player available in the 1997 draft class. He was the first 30-30 player in college baseball history, and many scouts felt he was a once-a-decade talent." The Phillies drafted Drew second in 1997, but he didn't sign in a famously contentious Scott Boras negotiation and the Cardinals drafted him the next year.
19. Bobby Grich, SS, Orioles
He hit .383 (with a .503 OBP!) as a 21-year-old slick-fielding shortstop in Triple-A in 1970 and then won league MVP honors the following season after leading the International League with 32 home runs and a .336 average. Mark Belanger’s presence in Baltimore forced him to second base in the majors, where he’d make six All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves as one of the most underrated players of the past 40 years.
18. Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins
Baseball America's No. 1 prospect before the 2002 season, it's easy to understand why: In 2001, Beckett pitched 140 innings in the minors, allowed just 82 hits and delivered a strikeout/walk ratio of 203/34. He was big, he threw hard and he was a cocky Texan. They compared him to Roger Clemens with good reason.
17. Delmon Young, RF, Rays
Baseball America ranked him as one of baseball's top three prospects four years running, including No. 1 in 2006. Scouts loved his bat and -- oddly, considering his major league reputation on defense -- his range and arm in right field. He hasn't been a bust, but he hasn't lived up to the hype.
16. Darryl Strawberry, RF, Mets
Before he became the first pick in the 1980 draft, Sports Illustrated ran a short feature on Strawberry that included this quote from scout Phil Pote: "He's got a [Ted] Williams-type physical makeup -- tall, rangy, good leverage. He's got bat quickness, he can drive the ball. The ball jumps off his bat. He's got what we call 'bat presence' -- an intangible, a something. Any swing of his can hurt you. He's just a natural hitter. He could make a lot of money in baseball."
15. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles
After hitting .355/.454/.600 between Class A and Double-A in 2008, Wieters became everyone’s No. 1 prospect before the 2009 season. As Kevin Goldstein wrote at Baseball Prospectus: “A monster on offense, Wieters is a switch-hitter with plus to plus-plus power from both sides of the plate, an excellent batting eye, and a fantastic feel for contact. He walked more times (82) than he struck out (76) in '08, hits to all fields, rarely chases a bad pitch, and punishes mistakes. Defensively, he's incredibly agile behind the plate, and his plus-plus arm can shut down an opponents' running game.” Wieters is hitting better this season, but his not turning into an elite hitter is one of the biggest prospect disappointments in years.
14. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves
His .323/.408/.555 line in the minors as a 19-year-old brought comparisons to other tall right fielders like Dave Winfield and Dave Parker, only with a little more speed and a more precocious understanding of the strike zone.
13. Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs
Coming out of USC, many scouts called him the best college pitcher they'd ever seen, and the hype around him was similar to what Stephen Strasburg would experience nearly a decade later. He was the consensus best player in the 2001 draft but went No. 2 to the Cubs as the Twins took Mauer. The minor leagues were no problem and he was dominating major leaguers by 2002.
12. Gregg Jefferies, SS, Mets
Was he overhyped because he was a Mets prospect? I don't think so. A first-round pick in 1985, Jefferies was a pure hitter and won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award in 1986 after hitting .353 with 16 home runs and 53 steals, and then again in 1987 after hitting .367 with 48 doubles and 20 home runs. He was a switch-hitter who rarely struck out and reached the majors a few weeks after his 20th birthday. Turned out he wasn't a shortstop (or a second baseman, for that matter) and he did end up having a decent career after leaving the Mets.
11. Bobby Valentine, SS, Dodgers
The fifth pick in the 1968 draft by the Dodgers, Valentine was a football and baseball star from Stamford, Conn., owner of blazing speed and a good bat. By 1970, just 20 years old, he was the Pacific League MVP after hitting .340 with 69 extra-base hits and 29 steals as a shortstop. He was a little raw in the field (54 errors), but he was penciled in as the Dodgers’ starting shortstop in 1971. But that offseason he tore up his knee playing touch football, an injury that caused his leg to knit with an 18-degree bend between the knee and ankle. "The doctors said the condition would restrict my running," Valentine said in a 1974 Sports Illustrated article, "and to really correct it would require a 13-to-16-month project with surgery, plates and screws and another cast, and that after two years my leg would be good as new." The speed was gone. He later broke his leg in two places running into an outfield fence.
10. Reggie Jackson, OF, A's
A high school catcher named Steve Chilcott was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 draft by the Mets -- the only team that apparently didn’t have Jackson as the top player on its board. A star at Arizona State, Jackson was a center fielder with power, speed and a strong throwing arm. The A’s gladly took him with the second pick and he was in the majors by 1967.
He was the sixth overall pick in 1982 and the next season he struck out 300 batters in 191 innings in the Carolina League ... at age 18. He then pitched for Tidewater in the Triple-A playoffs. (Can you imagine that kind of workload today?) At 19, he was the best pitcher in the National League.
8. Brien Taylor, LHP, Yankees
To this day, many scouts still say Taylor was the best left-handed pitching prospect they've ever seen, throwing in the upper 90s with a smooth, easy delivery. The first pick in 1991 and signed to a then-record $1.5 million deal (shattering the previous mark by nearly $1 million), Taylor was on his way to stardom when he injured his shoulder in a bar fight after the 1993 season.
7. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals
Too high? Dave Cameron recently asked: "Best prospect ever?"
6. Andruw Jones, CF, Braves
Baseball America's two-time Minor League Player of the Year and No. 1 overall prospect, Jones was a precocious talent with more speed and range than Ken Griffey Jr. After hitting two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series at age 19, the potential seemed unlimited. Some may view his career as a disappointment, but that's a little harsh for a guy who won 10 Gold Gloves and hit more than 400 home runs.
5. Bo Jackson, OF, Royals
Jackson’s tools made scouts drool. Monster 500-foot home runs. Electrifying speed. A laser-beam arm. Considering there have been few athletes like Bo in any sport, his tools were off the charts. He fell to the Royals in the fourth round of the 1986 draft only because everyone thought the Heisman Trophy winner would play football (the Angels had five of the first 28 picks and passed). Jackson did sign with Kansas City ("Now it's time for what I love to do," he said then) and was in the majors that September. In this Sports Illustrated article after he signed, Royals owner Ewing Kaufman compared him to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, saying he had more power and speed then George Brett. The Royals' scouting director said he had a better arm then Roberto Clemente. Reggie Jackson said he could become ... the next Reggie Jackson.
Truth be told, Jackson’s tools never translated to great baseball results. He had raw power but struck out too much, wasn’t a great outfielder (despite his speed and strong arm, he played left field), and didn’t steal many bases because he didn't get on base enough. Before he injured his hip in the NFL, he had become a good player -- but not a great one.
4. Johnny Bench, C, Reds
How did Bench fall to the second round in the 1965 draft? Scout Jim McLaughlin tells the story in Kevin Kerrane’s classic book, “Dollar Sign on the Muscle”: “A friend of mine with another club said, ‘You better send someone down to Binger, Oklahoma, to look at this kid Bench. We’re not gonna draft him, because the general manager’s seen another catcher he likes up in New England.’ … Nobody else knew much about him; his team hadn’t played many games, and our scout was usually the only one there, so we could wait.”
The story may or may not be true -- the Orioles did draft a catcher from Dartmouth one spot ahead of Bench -- but Bench’s legendary throwing arm and power quickly asserted itself. At 18, he hit .294 with 22 home runs in the Carolina League and the next season he was The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year after hitting 23 home runs at Triple-A Buffalo. By the time he reached the Reds at 19, he was already a big name.
3. Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners
The Mariners nearly took a college pitcher named Mike Harkey instead of Griffey with the first pick in the 1987 draft. If they’d done that, Seattle may not have a major league baseball team right now. Griffey tore up the Northwest League as a 17-year-old, and as an 18-year-old hit .325 with 13 home runs in 280 at-bats in the California League. With power, defense, speed and the prettiest swing you'll ever see, Griffey broke camp with the Mariners in 1989 at age 19 and never looked back.
2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
We seem to hear "best pitching prospect" ever more often than "best position player prospect," and maybe Strasburg was a product of getting drafted in the Internet age, but everyone agreed: This kid was one of a kind. Before blowing out his elbow, he was everything the scouts had promised, blowing 100-mph fastballs by minor leaguers for a few weeks then striking out 12.2 hitters per nine innings in the majors.
1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners
"The next Cal Ripken," a scout said before the 1993 draft. "He's not just a field-and-throw guy, he's got all of the tools." Interestingly, Baseball America actually rated Trot Nixon as the best pure high school hitter before that draft, and Derrek Lee as the best power hitter. It did rate Rodriguez as being closest to the majors. "I originally wanted us to go for the college relief pitcher," Mariners manager Lou Piniella told the Seattle Times in 1993, referring to Darren Dreifort. "Then I saw films of the shortstop [Rodriguez]. He's a man among boys out there. Wow! No way we could pass on him." Baseball America was correct: Just 18, Rodriguez made his major league debut the next year, and hit .312 with 21 home runs between three levels in the minors. With power, speed, work ethic and an excellent glove at a premium position, he was the perfect prospect.
That's why if you're younger than 30, you might not realize how good Carter was at his peak. In doing some research for a post on Jorge Posada last week, I looked up the eight-year peak value for the best catchers of all time.
Not surprisingly, Johnny Bench had the highest WAR (wins above replacement level), according to Baseball-Reference.com, at 49.2.
But guess what? Gary Carter matched him with a 49.2 during his best eight-year peak.
Here are their numbers during those eight-year peaks:
Now, admittedly, something about the numbers don't exactly add up: Bench rates as the slightly superior offensive player (43.4 WAR to 38.5), but Carter trumps him in defense (10.7 WAR to 5.8). Carter was a legitimately outstanding defensive catcher while with the Expos -- as you can see by his 41 percent success rate in throwing out basestealers. But Bench had an even better caught stealing percentage (49 percent). Why the difference in defensive value? I'm not exactly sure, but it might come down to opportunity: Carter had 1,171 stolen base attempts against him during this period; Bench had just 531. While some of that is attributable to the run-happy era in which Carter played, some of that is attributable to the fact that runners just didn't try to steal on Johnny Bench.
Anyway, my point is that I don't think anybody puts Carter in the same class as Johnny Bench, but he deserves to be right there alongside him, or at least thisclose. Even when we stretch that peak period to 10 years, Carter comes in at 58.0 WAR, Bench at 57.8. Bench had about three more good seasons than Carter and that does give him the edge in career value.
And yet ... when Johnny Bench entered the Hall of Fame ballot in 1989, he received 96.4 percent of the vote, one of the highest totals ever. Gary Carter received 42.3 percent and it took him six seasons to get elected.
Carter will go undergo more tests at the Duke Medical Center on Thursday. Let's hope the news is positive.
The club wants to call up top prospect Jesus Montero. He can DH, he can spell Russell Martin behind the plate once or twice or week (allowing Alex Rodriguez or another position a player a day off in the field) and the Yankees would be a better ballclub for it. Just tell that to the fans and release Posada. The fans will understand. I'm pretty sure they care more about winning than sentiment.
And for those who believe this would look bad to other major leaguers, who may then be reluctant to sign with the Yankees, I say: Really? You think a future free agent would turn down more money from the Yankees because they once released Jorge Posada? Please.
* * * *
I've always felt Posada has been vastly underappreciated during this 15-year run of Yankee greatness. Switch-hitting catchers with power and plate discipline don't grow on trees. I recently ranked Posada the eighth-greatest Yankee of all time ... ahead of Mariano Rivera. Pretty much everyone disagrees with that, but employing one of the best catchers of all time is more valuable in my opinion than employing the greatest closer ever.
Where does Posada rank all time? Let's run some numbers. If you're not familiar with WAR, it stands for wins above a replacement level player for that position. OPS+ is a players on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for home park and era, and scaled to where 100 is a league average hitter. Anyway, here are the top 10 catches via WAR from Baseball-Reference.com, plus Posada and Roy Campanella.
Posada spent his first year in the minor league as a second baseman. But 20 errors in 64 games at Oneonta necessitated a position change and he moved to catcher. He was never a top prospect coming through the minors; although he displayed good patience and moderate power, he hit just .258 in six minor league seasons, including three years at Triple-A learning the catching craft.
As a rookie in 1997, Joe Girardi earned the majority of the playing time. Posada turned 26 that year and hit .250. Nobody was predicting he'd turn into a star at that point.
Because of that late start, Posada falls just short of the top-10 catchers on the career WAR value list above. But what about peak value? I like to look at a player's best eight consecutive seasons as another way to assess his value, more of a "Did he dominate when he was at his best?" kind of question. Obviously, not every player has his best eight seasons consecutively, but it's just another to break down a player's career.
1. Johnny Bench (1968-1975), 49.2 WAR (43.4 offense, 5.8 defense)
2. Gary Carter (1978-1985), 49.2 WAR (38.5, 10.7)
3. Mike Piazza (1993-2000), 48.4 WAR (50.6, -2.2)
4. Yogi Berra (1950-1957), 41.9 WAR (40.3, 1.6)
5. Mickey Cochrane (1928-1935), 40.9 WAR (41.0, -0.1)
6. Ivan Rodriguez (1997-2004), 40.2 WAR (32.8, 7.4)
7. Ted Simmons (1973-1980), 38.0 WAR (39.4, -1.4)
8. Jorge Posada (2000-2007), 37.1 WAR (37.8, -0.7)
9. Bill Dickey (1932-1939), 36.1 WAR (35.7, 0.4)
10. Roy Campanella (1948-1955), 34.4 WAR (33.0, 1.4)
11. Carlton Fisk (1972-1979), 33.8 WAR (31.4, 2.4)
12. Gabby Hartnett (1930-1937), 28.5 WAR (27.4, 1.1)
Anyway, not a bad career for an error-prone minor league second baseman. Even though he has a solid case as one of the 10-12 most valuable catchers ever, it seems to fall a little short of Hall of Fame standards in my book, even with extra credit for World Series rings.
Posada wasn't in the lineup Wednesday night (Derek Jeter got a night at DH) and I get the feeling we won't be seeing him much there in the coming weeks. I suppose if he's forced out he'll end up leaving the majors like he came in -- very quietly.
(For more Yankees coverage, check out our SweetSpot blog affiliate, It's About the Money, Stupid.)
Here's my quick list without spending too much time thinking about it:
1. Willie Mays: He could hit, hit for power, run the bases and field with the best we've ever seen. Could have won as many as 10-11 MVP Awards.
2. Barry Bonds: If he had played center field instead of left, I'd consider him for No. 1.
3. Babe Ruth: I'd like to see him hitting 95-mph fastballs on a regular basis.
4. Hank Aaron: A testament to longevity, consistency, durability and greatness.
5. Stan Musial: Won three MVPs and finished second four other times.
6. Ted Williams: Maybe the greatest hitter of all time, but I give Musial the slight all-around edge.
7. Albert Pujols: Barring injury, he's this good.
8. Roger Clemens: We don't know what he did and if it helped. But we know what he did on the field. Greatest pitcher of all time.
9. Mike Schmidt: Dominated the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s. Eight-time home run champ and one of best fielding third basemen ever.
10. Walter Johnson: Could have dominated in any era.
11. Honus Wagner: Won batting titles, ran the bases and hit for power in the dead-ball era.
12. Lou Gehrig: Only strike against him is he didn't play a premium defensive position.
13. Alex Rodriguez: You can't deny the numbers.
14. Lefty Grove: The most underrated great pitcher of all time. Won nine ERA titles.
15. Mickey Mantle: If only he had stayed healthy.
16. Ty Cobb: Would love to go back in time and bring him back to 2011.
17. Josh Gibson: They say he hit 'em longer than the Babe.
18. Joe Morgan: The most underrated great position player of all time. Did everything well.
19. Rickey Henderson: The object is to score runs and nobody has scored more than Rickey.
20. Greg Maddux: 355 wins, fourth-most starts, more pitches painting black than anyone.
21. Cal Ripken: Overrated as a hitter, underrated as a fielder.
22. Tom Seaver: Mets fans still can't believe they traded him.
23. Pedro Martinez: At his peak, the best ever. Four pitches that made batters cry.
24. Frank Robinson: And to think he was only third-best NL outfielder of the early '60s.
25. Johnny Bench: Knees gave out, but those first 12 seasons were amazing.
26. Satchel Paige: Was he even the best Negro Leagues pitcher?
27. Rogers Hornsby: No denying his hitting numbers. Too low? Maybe so.
28. Pete Alexander: Won 94 games over one three-year span, impressive even for the time.
29. Cy Young: Yes, you can say I'm disrespecting the 19th century.
30. Sandy Koufax: A little bit of a product of his time and a huge home/road splits, plus short career for this list.
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C -- Johnny Bench, 1970 Reds (22). The MVP winner led the NL with 45 home runs and 148 RBIs and won the Gold Glove after throwing out 48 percent of basestealers. According to Baseball-Reference's WAR figure, three of the top four 22-and-under catcher seasons belong to Bench (Bill Freehan's 1964 sneaks in). That's why Bench was the most popular baseball player in the early '70s.
1B -- Jimmie Foxx, 1929 A's (21). Only three first basemen accumulated a 5.0 WAR or better at 22 or younger: Foxx (twice), Stuffy McInnis (twice) and Hal Trosky. Foxx hit .354 with 33 home runs and led the AL with a .463 on-base percentage in '29.
2B -- Eddie Collins, 1909 A's (22). I think we'll find that most of the big offensive seasons at these young ages came from outfielders. Based on WAR, Collins is a landslide winner for his sterling .347/.417/.450 line from '09. Tack on 67 steals and great defense and he's an amazing four wins better than the next-best season, Joe Morgan's 1965 campaign for Houston.
3B -- Eddie Mathews, 1953 Braves (21). Mathews' second season in the bigs was so spectacular -- 47 home runs, 135 RBIs, .406 OBP, .627 slugging -- that it put unfair expectations on him the rest of his career. He remained one of the NL's best players throughout his 20s, but his last All-Star appearance came when he was 30.
SS -- Alex Rodriguez, 1996 Mariners (20). Slight edge over Cal Ripken's 1983 or A-Rod's 1998. In '96, in his first full season, he hit line drive after line drive after line drive. He hit .356 with 54 doubles and 36 home runs and didn't turn 21 until late in July.
LF -- Ted Williams, 1941 Red Sox (22). Rickey Henderson was awesome in '80 (100 steals, .420 OBP), but Ted hit .406.
CF -- Cesar Cedeno, 1972 Astros (21). Hit .320/.385/.537 in the Astrodome, with 55 stolen bases. At the time, he looked like a sure bet Hall of Famer. As predicted, many great young center fielders to choose from -- Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Tris Speaker, Andruw Jones ... which tells how good Cedeno was.
RF -- Ty Cobb, 1909 Tigers (22). Won the Triple Crown while also leading the league in runs, hits, stolen bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I'd say that was a pretty good season.
P -- Dwight Gooden, 1985 Mets (20). Went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, 16 complete games and eight shutouts. Should have won the MVP Award, but received just one first-place vote. Strange because Roger Clemens would win the AL MVP the next season with an identical 24-4 record.
P -- Bob Feller, 1940 Indians (21). If you think Gooden was worked hard, Feller went 27-11 with 31 complete games and 320 innings pitched.
P -- Vida Blue, 1971 A's (21). As mentioned earlier, he's the youngest player to win the MVP Award. With a blazing fastball, he went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA and 301 strikeouts in 312 innings. He had a long, successful career, but was never again as dominant.
P --Bert Blyleven, 1973 Twins (22). People forget how good Blyleven was at a young age. He went 20-17, but led the AL in adjusted ERA and threw nine shutouts while pitching 325 innings.
P -- Joe Wood, 1912 Red Sox (22). His 34-5 record was impressive even for 1912. They called him Smoky because of his fastball, and Walter Johnson once said Wood threw harder. Wood led the Red Sox to the World Series title but a broken thumb the next season led to arm problems that eventually ended his pitching career (he made it back to the majors as an outfielder).
*22 as of June 30 of that season.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
OK, here we go: At 22 years, 191 days, Rose will become the youngest NBA MVP ever, edging out Wes Unseld at 23 years, 9 days. Now, the fact that Wes Unseld once won an MVP Award (as a rookie, no less) is another story. So, who are baseball's youngest MVP winners? Here are those who won at 23 or younger:
Vida Blue, 1971 A's: Turned 22 on July 28.
Johnny Bench, 1970 Reds: Didn't turn 23 until Dec. 7.
Stan Musial, 1943 Cardinals: Didn't turn 23 until Nov. 21.
Cal Ripken, 1983 Orioles: Turned 23 on Aug. 24.
Willie Mays, 1954 Giants: Turned 23 on May 6.
Jeff Burroughs, 1974 Rangers: Turned 23 on March 7.
Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox: Turned 23 on Feb. 3.
Several players have won an MVP at 24, including Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg, Denny McLain, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig.
Not on the above list: Ty Cobb, because there wasn't an MVP Award for much of his career. He arguably was the AL's best player in 1907, when he was 20 years old.
Dwight Gooden remains the youngest to win a Cy Young Award, just 20 years old when he won in 1985.
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- TD: Were there some projections that you found particularly interesting this year?
NS: It was pretty tame for the most part though we had Matt Wieters ... that's probably the projection where we're sticking our necks out this year [PECOTA sees Wieters playing at an MVP level from the start]. We have the Nationals being not good but somewhat competitive, within a couple of games of .500. Those were maybe the two and I guess they're both relevant to your beat. But nothing as dramatic as last year, when we had the Rays winning 90 games or something.
TD: I did want to ask you about Wieters, because PECOTA seems to have an almost unprecedented crush on him. I was wondering what you made of that?
NS: Yeah, in the six years I've been doing this, I've never seen a projection for a rookie that was that strong. Part of it is that PECOTA has two steps. One is what I do but one is what Clay Davenport does, the minor league translations. The Double-A team Wieters was playing for, when you look at park effects and league difficulty, it was a really tough year for hitters in Double-A. And so that gets ratcheted up quite a bit. The Eastern League was very competitive. He did about as well as any player can do down at that level. He's a big guy. That translates pretty well. And we look at the size of a guy's signing bonus because that has some predictive value. The fact that he has a very big pedigree in college and that more often than not, guys who are drafted that high tend to pan out. That combination of things led to a really aggressive forecast where, if he played for a whole year at that level, he could be an MVP contender.
Unfortunately, that reaction might say less about that someone's methods than about our lack of imagination. And when I say "our," of course I mean "my" ... I didn't, and still don't, buy Matt Wieters as an MVP candidate. I just don't have any frame of reference that allows me to do that. I don't know ... Johnny Bench, maybe. He was a little before my time, but I do know that when Bench was 22, he hit 45 home runs and was the National League's Most Valuable Player.
Wieters turns 23 next month. Should we assume that no catcher will ever arrive in the majors again who's as talented as Johnny Bench? That would be a faulty assumption, I'm sure. Are Nate Silver and Clay Davenport the guys who will know when the next Johnny Bench is about to show up? I don't know. But considering the things that they consider, I sure wouldn't bet the farm against them.