SweetSpot: Mickey Mantle

We talked a lot about Mike Trout in Tuesday's chat session. Following up on that, a couple Trout links to check out.

Buster Olney writes today:
If Trout were a free agent right now and told teams he would only sign a one-year deal, what would he get?

The responses to this purely hypothetical question, from club officials around MLB, invariably began with laughter Tuesday afternoon -- not at the mode of examination, but because the numbers would be so ridiculously enormous.

"I'd think the bidding would begin at $35 million," said one evaluator, "and wind up somewhere in the range of $45 million to $50 million."

Said a second evaluator: "If he was on the open market and the Dodgers had a chance to get him -- and pull him away from the Angels -- he'd get $50 million."


Meanwhile, the crew at Baseball Prospectus dreams up trade scenarios for Trout. I wrote in my chat that Trout is basically untradeable, four years from free agency. If you view him, somewhat conservatively, as a 9-WAR player, that's 36 WAR of value you're trading away. You have to luck into an enormously talented group of prospects to earn that back if you trade for young guys; but if you trade for veteran players, you're picking up too much salary (which the Angels, already hammered with the Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols contracts, wouldn't want to do).

Here's the first trade the BP folks came up with:

1. The Orioles Deal Manny Machado and Kevin Gausman
There aren't too many organizations in baseball who can boast a pre-arb one-two punch strong enough to offer a duo for Trout and not get laughed out of the room. For the Orioles, the duo of Manny Machado and Kevin Gausman is plenty powerful to accomplish that goal (of not getting laughed out of the room, that is).


I love Manny Machado like my old Dave Concepcion glove from Little League, but I wouldn't do that trade if I'm the Angels. Trout is better than Machado and Gausman is still too much of an unproven commodity to guarantee making up the difference.

There are a couple more serious suggestions before the article quickly deteriorates to comedy. That's how good Trout is: He's so good you can't even come up with enough plausible trade scenarios.

The other thing I mentioned in the chat was that I'd write something on thebkind of contracts all-time great players would receive as free agents in 2014 if we could transport them from the past. In other words, if Willie Mays had the same value as when he played and reached free agency after his first six full seasons, what kind of contract could he expect?

The first step is evaluating what the current market is for free agents. The Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240 million over 10 years. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects Cano being worth 35.3 WAR over the life of that contract, or $6.8 million per win. The Yankees gave Jacoby Ellsbury $153 million for seven years. His projected ZiPS WAR of 22.0 gives a value of $6.96 million per win.

Those numbers may seem high, but that's the going rate for an elite player, especially when you consider that the cost per win may continue to increase in the future. For the purpose of this study, we're actually going to use a slightly lower figure of $6.5 million per win.

Anyway, over the past two seasons, Cano was worth 16.1 WAR. Trout has been worth 20.1 WAR. Keep those figures in mind.

Willie Mays: Free agent after 1958 (entering age-28 season)
We're not giving credit to Mays for missing the 1953 season while in military service, so he reaches free agency after hitting .347/.419/.583 with 29 home runs and a league-leading 31 steals in 1958. The home run total was actually a low mark for him: Over the previous five seasons he'd averaged .328 and 38 home runs. His two-year WAR total was 18.5 and he'd played 150 games each season (in a 154-game schedule).

So you're talking about a Gold-Glove, power-hitting center fielder who had led the NL in steals three years in a row reaching free agency at 28. So he's three years younger than Cano and a better hitter, faster, better defensively and just as durable. We could project his 10-year WAR totals at something like this: 9.5, 9.0, 8.5, 8.0, 7.5, 6.5, 5.5, 4.5, 4.0, 3.0. That's 66 WAR. At $6.5 million per win, that's a $429 million contract.

Too much money? According to Baseball-Reference.com, Mays was actually worth 88.8 WAR from ages 28 to 37, including an amazing run from ages 31 to 34 where he topped 10 WAR each season.

Mickey Mantle: Free agent after 1957 (entering age-26 season)
Mantle was called up during the 1951 season, so he hits free agency after his seventh season in the majors. What he had done: Well, in 1956, he hit .353 with 52 home runs and won the Triple Crown. In 1957, he hit .365 with 34 home runs and a .512 OBP. His WAR over those two seasons was 22.6. At that point in his career, he also looked pretty durable, averaging 147 games per season the previous four years.

Imagine a guy with a .512 on-base percentage hitting free agency in the prime of his career, a switch-hitter with enormous power who played a premium defensive position? Magic Johnson may sign over his entire movie theater chain to sign him.

What could we project for Mantle? He was more valuable at the plate than Mays due to his ability to draw walks -- a skill that ages well. He wasn't the defensive player that Mays was, however, so maybe you would project that he'd move to right field at some point during the contract, lowering his value a bit. Let's say something like 11.0, 11.0, 10.5, 9.5, 8.5, 8.0, 7.0, 6.0, 5.5, 4.5. That's 81.5 WAR from ages 26 to 35. At our $6.5 million per win estimate, that's a $530 million contract.

Frankly, it's going to be hard to top Mantle since he was at his absolute peak when he would have hit his fictional free agency. As it turns out, he earned 55.5 WAR over those 10 years.

Babe Ruth: Free agent after 1920 (entering age-26 season)
Ruth is a little harder to calculate since 1920 was his first full season as a hitter and his first year with the Yankees. But what a year: .376/.532/.847, 54 home runs, worth 11.9 WAR. This would probably put him somewhere between Mays and Mantle in projected value.

Ruth, of course, remained the best hitter in the game well into his 30s. He earned 100.7 WAR over our 10-year span. In other words, fictional free agent Ruth would have been worth a $650 million contract in today's dollars.

Ty Cobb: Free agent after 1911 (entering age-25 season)
Cobb has the advantage of being a year younger than Mantle or Ruth. In 1911, he hit .420 and led the American League in batting average, slugging percentage, doubles, triples, runs, hits, stolen bases and RBIs. Value: 10.7 WAR. Considering his age and speed, this places him in the $450 million range. In real life, he was worth 73.1 WAR from 25 to 34, his 1917 season being the only one valued higher than his 1911 campaign.

OK, OK ... comparing Trout to four of the greatest players of all time isn't all that fair. Well, it is, but maybe that places unrealistic expectations on a player.

Two more recent players.

Ken Griffey Jr.: Free agent after 1994 (entering age-25 season)
Since Griffey reached the majors at 19, he would have been a young free agent. 1994 was the strike season and he'd hit .323 with 40 home runs in 111 games, which projects to 58 over 160 games. In 1993, he'd hit .309 with 45 home runs. He didn't get on base like Mantle or play center quite like Mays, so his WAR totals were 8.8 in '93 and a pro-rated 9.9 in '94.

We could project something like: 10.0 (he looked like he was still getting better), 10.0, 10.0, 9.5, 9.0, 8.5, 7.5, 7.0, 6.5, 5.5. Total WAR: 83.5. Estimated contract: $543 million. Oops, I just valued him higher than Mantle (in part because you would easily project Griffey to remain in center field at that point in his career).

Griffey got hurt in '95 but was great in 1996 and 1997 (his MVP season). He hit 56 home runs in 1998, but his average dropped under .300. He started putting on weight. He was traded to the Reds in 2000. He got hurt. The Reds were afraid to move him out of center. He was worth 9.6 and 9.1 WAR in '96 and '97, but just 42.2 cumulative from 25 to 34. (Griffey never did test free agency in his prime, although he did sign a $116.5 million extension after getting traded to the Reds.)

Alex Rodriguez: Free agent after 2000 (entering age-25 season)
SportsNation

Mike Trout would be a free agent after the 2017. He'll be 26. What kind of contract do you think he would get?

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    12%
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    30%
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    29%
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    20%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,186)

Of course, A-Rod actually was a free agent after posting 10.3 WAR in 2000 (4.8 in 1999). He received his record-breaking $252 million contract, which he later opted out of to sign the ridiculous extension the Yankees are now trapped under. From 2001 to 2010 he earned 71.6 WAR. By Baseball-Reference's evaluation, 2000 was his best season. Never should have left Seattle, Alex.

You can do this for other players easily enough -- maybe you think Trout is worth more than Rickey Henderson or Reggie Jackson or even Cesar Cedeno or Vada Pinson. Maybe you don't think Trout should be compared to Mays and Griffey. But the truth is he's every bit the player they were. Actually, at his age, he's better.

That possible $400 million contract that Buster wrote about Monday isn't outlandish at all. The question may actually be: When Trout becomes a free agent, will $500 million be out of the question?

Can Mantle's 565-foot homer be matched?

April, 17, 2013
4/17/13
2:15
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Wednesday marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most famous home runs in major-league history -- one hit by Mickey Mantle off Chuck Stobbs at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Yankees publicist Red Patterson claimed the home run went 565 feet.

[+] EnlargeMickey Mantle
AP PhotoMickey Mantle's home run in 1953 landed in a housing development beyond the left-field wall. But did it really travel 565 feet?
Is a 565-foot home run feasible in today's game? Let's look at that from two angles.

The longest home runs still needed a little bit more oomph
While we may never know for sure just how far Mantle's historic blow traveled, we can use ESPN's Home Run Tracker to illustrate just how far 565 feet is by comparing it to some of the longest home runs from recent seasons.

On Sept. 27, 2008, Adam Dunn hit the longest home run of the last 6-plus major-league seasons, a 504-foot home run off the scoreboard in center field at Chase Field in Phoenix.

This ball left Dunn's bat at approximately 121 miles per hour, but in order for this home run to have traveled 565 feet, he would have had to hit the ball at about 131 miles per hour. The hardest-hit home run recorded in the majors over the last six seasons was just over 122 miles per hour.

On May 11, 2009, there were four home runs hit at AT&T Park during the Giants-Nationals game, helped by winds as strong as 28 miles per hour blowing straight out to center field. A perfectly struck ball hit to center field in those conditions would have to be hit at approximately 119 miles per hour to fly 565 feet.

Over the past six seasons, only 38 home runs have been hit that hard out of more than 34,000 total home runs.

On August 17, 2012, Giancarlo Stanton hit a home run at Coors Field, the highest-altitude ballpark in MLB, that came off his bat at more than 116 miles per hour and flew a season-long 494 feet. To get it to fly 565 feet, even in the mile-high air of Denver, Stanton would have had to hit it at more than 125 miles per hour.

Can 565 feet be reached in some ballparks?
Where would a 565-foot home run land if someone were able to achieve a perfect strike of the ball on a day where the weather conditions were most favorable?

Let's run through five ballparks just to show you how difficult a feat this would now be.

At Yankee Stadium, a 565-foot home run to straightaway center field would hit the lower quarter of the video board above the Batter's Eye restaurant. If the ball were hit to left field, it would land at the extreme back of the third deck.

At Nationals Park, a 565-foot homer would hit two-thirds of the way up the video board mounted high above the right-center field stands. To left-center field, a 565-foot homer would land on the roof of the Red Loft Bar.

At Fenway Park, a 565-foot homer to left field would land on the eastbound lanes of the Massachusetts Turnpike. To right field, it would land near the top of the right field grandstand, well above the red seat commemorating the landing point of Ted Williams' famous 1946 homer.

At Wrigley Field, a 565-foot homer to straightaway center field would pass just to the left of the scoreboard in center field, passing it about three-fourths of the way up, and land on the northwest corner of the intersection of Waveland and Sheffield avenues.

At PNC Park, a 565-foot homer to right-center would land well into the Allegheny River (50-100 feet into the water), well beyond where any ball has landed there in the past six years.

In other words, hitting one that far will be a near-impossible achievement even for today's most prodigious power hitters.
Alex RodriguezUS PresswireAt age 20 in 1996, Alex Rodriguez boasted a 9.2 WAR for the Seattle Mariners.

A couple weeks ago, Keith Law unveiled his annual list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 Insider. Keith's list isn't a projection of the best players for 2013, but rather a projection and ordering of players if you were starting a franchise.

I thought it would be fun to do a similar list for all time. Of course, it's a difficult assignment because I was attempting to follow the same line of thinking as in Keith's piece: Whom would you build a team around? In doing this you have to pretend to ignore what happened in a player's career after a certain moment in time and project how he would have been valued at a particular age.

So this isn't just a list of the best players through the age of 24, or a list of the best seasons under the age of 25 -- although many of those players appear here. We're looking at the numbers and considering what the scouting reports would have been. Mark Fidrych, for example, was great at 21, but didn't possess the explosive fastball to make this list.

So here goes. A couple quick points. First, I ignored the 19th century. Second, I think it's important to understand that it was easier for a young player to excel in 1905 or 1929 or even into the 1950s than it is now. In my opinion, a 20-year-old Mike Trout dominating in 2012 is more impressive than a 20-year-old Ty Cobb dominating in 1907. Also, position matters. You build around up-the-middle guys more than corner guys (although there are some of those here). Cobb, for example, spent his early years as a right fielder before moving to center, so I downgraded him because of that.

Here's a way to look at this: If one player is ranked 23rd and another is ranked 14th, I'm saying I wouldn't trade the No. 14 player -- at that point in his career -- for the No. 23 player. Feel free, of course, to disagree.

25. Sam McDowell, LHP, 1965 Indians (age 22)


How dominant was McDowell in 1965? He averaged 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings, a record at the time and one that would last until 1984. In fact, while McDowell's K rate now ranks 25th all time, it's one of only three in the top 25 that came before 1990. He led the American League in ERA that year and the following May Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on McDowell with the billing, "Faster than Koufax?"

As you can see from his walk total, he had the blazing fastball but not Koufax-like command. That SI article perhaps points to some of McDowell's future issues in that it portrays him a pitcher with a fastball, slider, changeup and overhand curve ... and all too willing, apparently, to throw all four pitches. "He has such a good changeup that he wants to use it -- too much, in my opinion," catcher Del Crandall said. "I do not believe he is as impressed with his fastball as the hitters have indicated that they are."

McDowell liked to think out there. You wonder if he had just settled on two pitches -- maybe fastball/slider like Randy Johnson -- if he would have solved some of the control problems that did plague him throughout his career. The article mentions a game where he threw 163 pitches. "About par for me," McDowell said. Back then, nobody cared. "He has a good idea how to pitch," his manager Birdie Tebbetts said, "and he's going to be a real pitcher, one of the truly great ones. He runs three times as much as some pitchers, and he concentrates. He's going to get very tired in the next few years from all those pitches he throws, but he can stand that because he's young and strong, because he has a perfect build for a pitcher and because he doesn't have a sore-arm delivery. He's smooth."

24. Mel Ott, RF, 1929 Giants (age 20)


John McGraw didn't discover Ott so much as Ott found John McGraw. Ott was a 16-year-old playing for a lumber company semi-pro team in Louisiana when the lumber company owner bought Ott a train ticket to New York to try out for McGraw's Giants. A year later, Ott was playing in the Giants' outfield -- McGraw not wanting to farm out his young discovery to the minor leagues and have him fall prey to unknown evils.

Ott hit .322 with 18 home runs at age 19 and then exploded at age 20. Even in the high-scoring season of 1929, Ott's numbers were impressive: 42 home runs, one behind league leader Chuck Klein and the most ever by a 20-year-old; first in walks; fourth in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage; second to Hack Wilson in RBIs. Ott -- helped by the short porch at the Polo Grounds -- never again hit 42 home runs but did lead the National League in homers six times and and in OBP four times.

23. Pete Reiser, CF, 1941 Dodgers (age 22)


Reiser's numbers are more impressive then they may appear at first glance: He led the National League in batting average, doubles, triples, runs, slugging percentage, total bases, runs created, OPS and OPS+, plus he was regarded as one of the fastest players in the league and played a terrific center field. Reiser led the NL in WAR that year, not that WAR existed in 1941, so teammate Dolph Camilli, who drove in 120 runs, won MVP honors.

Reiser would become one of baseball's legendary "what if" players. On July 19, 1942, he crashed head-first into an unpadded concrete wall in St. Louis, knocked unconscious with "blood pouring from his ears." Reiser either fractured his skull or didn't; history is a little murky on the whole incident, according to Steven Goldman. Reiser would miss only a few games and finished sixth in the MVP vote but he suffered from blurred vision the rest of the year. He was hitting .350 at the time, tailing off to .310 by the end of the season.

After that came World War II, and in 1947 Reiser crashed into another wall and was injured severely enough that he was given last rites. He was never the same. Does he deserve a spot in the top 25? While it's true that he may have never developed into a big home run hitter, it seemed clear he was already one of the game's best all-around players. Leo Durocher, who managed Reiser in '41, would say Willie Mays was the greatest player he ever managed, but that Reiser had the same potential.

22. Andruw Jones, CF, 1998 Braves (age 21)


Look where Jones stood at this point in his career: He already was compared to Willie Mays defensively (indeed, Baseball-Reference ranks Jones' 1998 season as the sixth-best since 1901 of any position, with his '99 season even better), hit more home runs than Ken Griffey Jr. did at the same age, stole 27 bases in 31 attempts and hit a respectable .271. There may have been some concern about the ultimate potential with the batting and on-base ability, but if you remember the young Jones, we saw a gifted all-around player with MVP glitter in his future.

Jones would have seasons of 51 home runs, a .302 average and as many as 83 walks -- he just never did all those things at once. He was a great player with his range in center, but eventually he got fat, his 30s were a big zero and a Hall of Fame career wasted away.

21. Bert Blyleven, RHP, 1973 Twins (age 22)


Blyleven ended up pitching so long and then his Hall of Fame debate became so heated that it's easy to forget that he was one of the greatest young pitchers of all time. He made the majors at 19 and the next year won 16 games with a 2.81 ERA. In the early '70s, pitchers were treated about as well as a herd of cattle intended for fast-food hamburgers and Blyleven pitched 278 innings at age 20, 287 at 21 and then 325 at age 22. Somehow his arm remained attached to the shoulder socket.

He threw nine shutouts in 1973 and two one-hitters, leading the AL in adjusted ERA and strikeout/walk ratio. That he finished seventh in the Cy Young vote was a reflection of less-informed times, when writers looked at his 20-17 win-loss record and failed to realize how good he was. While we know about his famous curveball, Bill James also rated Blyleven's fastball the ninth-best between 1970 and 1974. Sure, we would be concerned about Blyleven's workload, but he had the total package.

20. Bryce Harper, OF, 2012 Nationals (age 19)


In terms of WAR, Harper just had the best season ever by a 19-year-old position player. The rest of the top five: Mel Ott, Edgar Renteria, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ty Cobb. And Ott is 1.3 wins behind Harper.

19. Frank Tanana, LHP, 1975 Angels (age 21)


Maybe you remember the old junkballing Tanana instead of the young flamethrower who compiled 22.3 WAR from ages 21 to 23 -- second-best over those three ages since 1901, trailing only Walter Johnson (22.7). Nolan Ryan was a teammate those three years and Tanana was better: He went 50-28 with a 2.53 ERA while Ryan went 50-46, 3.16.

As a 21-year-old, Tanana led the AL in strikeouts and strikeout/walk ratio while finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. Two years later, Sports Illustrated's Ron Fimrite wrote, "They know it exists; they just cannot find it, because the Tanana curve is among the most wicked in all of baseball. But then so are his fastball and his changeup. And all three are thrown with withering accuracy. Unlike Ryan, with whom he forms the most devastating one-two pitching entry in the game, he has complete control." James ranked Tanana's fastball the third-best of that era, behind two famous ones: Ryan's and Goose Gossage's.

Then he hurt his shoulder, and lost his speed. To his credit, he stuck around to win 240 games.

18. Hank Aaron, RF, 1957 Braves (age 23)


Aaron hit .314 at 21, won a batting title with a .328 mark at 22, but at age 23 his power exploded as he hit those 44 home runs and won what would be the only MVP Award of his career. Aaron led the NL in home runs, RBIs and runs and chased the Triple Crown into August (he would finish fourth in batting average). The only thing he didn't do yet was run -- one steal that year (though at his base-stealing peak in 1963 he took 31 bases).

In a profile that year in Sports Illustrated -- titled, appropriately, "Murder With A Blunt Instrument" -- Roy Terrell painted the image of Aaron that would last throughout his career: "Perhaps the most unusual part of the Aaron story is the fact that no one gets very excited about it. Sometimes it is even easy to forget that Henry Aaron is around. Without the physical proportions or explosive speed of a Mickey Mantle, without the breathtaking color of a Willie Mays, without the long and brilliant -- and controversial -- career of a Ted Williams, Aaron seems to be hardly a personality at all. He says practically nothing, stays out of nightclubs, never loses his cap running the bases, and spits only upon the ground."

17. Al Kaline, RF, 1955 Tigers (age 20)


Here's one example of why this list was difficult to put together: Do you take the 20-year-old Kaline over the 23-year-old Aaron? Or the 20-year-old Kaline over the 21-year-old Aaron for that matter? I think you have to go with Kaline, trying to ignore what happened after each age. An 18-year-old bonus baby in 1953, in 1955 Kaline led the AL with his .340 average, 200 hits and 321 total bases. He finished second in the MVP vote to Yogi Berra. He played a terrific right field.

Kaline went on to collect 3,000 hits and become a Hall of Famer, of course, but 1955 remained arguably the best year of his career (in terms of WAR, 1961 edges it out at 8.2). Kaline never hit 30 home runs and never hit .340 again. Looking back at '55, he got off to a great start, hitting over .400 in April and .371 in the first half (.301 in the second). Perhaps the league eventually figured something out; he also tore up the woeful Kansas City A's that year, hitting .451 against them with nine of his 27 home runs.

16. Cesar Cedeno, CF, 1972 Astros (age 21)


The sky was the proverbial limit for Cedeno in 1972 when he finished third in the NL in OPS while playing in the expansive Astrodome. Not shown above: He stole 55 bases and won a Gold Glove. Cedeno was outstanding again the next year, hitting .320 with 25 home runs and 56 steals. What happened from there? I wrote about his cautionary tale last August.

15. Mark Prior, RHP, 2003 Cubs (age 22)


How good was Prior in his first full season in the majors? As good as advertised when he came out of USC. From 1994 to 2004, the only pitchers with a lower ERA in a season were Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, Randy Johnson and Jason Schmidt. In the heart of the steroids era, Prior looked like the next Clemens, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound horse who would lead the Cubs to a World Series championship.

"Chicago Heat" read the Sports Illustrated cover that summer, featuring Prior and Kerry Wood. The article detailed Prior's extensive conditioning program between starts and his fundamentally sound mechanics.

The next year, he got hurt.

14. Eddie Mathews, 3B, 1953 Braves (age 21)


Check those numbers again. Mathews' 47 home runs not only led the NL but remain the most ever for a player 21 or younger -- 20-year-old Mel Ott being the only other player that young to hit at least 40. Ty Cobb had seen Mathews as a minor leaguer and declared, "I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them."

Mathews finished second in the MVP voting to Roy Campanella that year, but in some regards, Mathews spent the rest of his career trying to live up to the unlimited promise of his sophomore campaign. He would finish second again in the 1959 MVP vote and hit over 500 home runs but tailed off in his early 30s. In his autobiography, Mathews mentioned that his drinking caused him to lose several jobs in baseball, including a stint as Braves manager in the early '70s, although it's unclear if that was a problem during his playing days.

13. Cal Ripken, SS, 1983 Orioles (age 22)


On June 22, 1982, Earl Weaver moved a 21-year-old rookie from third base to shortstop in a game against Cleveland. The Orioles lost 8-6 and the kid moved back to third base. On July 1, Weaver started the rookie again at shortstop. He'd spend the next 14 years there -- starting every game.

In his first full season at shortstop, Cal Ripken's Orioles won the AL East (and went on to win the World Series) and Ripken captured MVP honors with his strong year at the plate -- he led the AL in runs and finished second in total bases -- and surprising defense up the middle. Maybe he didn't have the speed of other shortstops, but his arm strength allowed him to play deep and he had a quick first step.

Ripken's bat never really developed from where it was as a 22-year-old -- he only had two more seasons that compared, offensively, to 1983 (1984 and his second MVP season of 1991) -- and while too much attention was paid to his ironman streak, he remained a power-hitting shortstop with underrated defense.

12. Walter Johnson, RHP, 1910 Senators (age 22)


Johnson's speed was apparent from the day he joined the Senators in 1907, a raw youngster with impossibly long arms. After losing 25 games in 1909 -- the Senators were awful -- Johnson had his breakthrough season at 22, winning 25 games for a team that would limp to a 66-85. Johnson led the AL in games started, complete games, innings pitched and strikeouts, and threw eight shutouts.

That offseason, the Washington Post circulated a rumored trade of Johnson for Ty Cobb. Tigers president Frank Navin denied the rumor, saying the Senators would never trade Johnson, whom Navin called "in my opinion the best young pitcher in the country, and doubly valuable because he is so young."

Was Johnson the hardest thrower of all time? It's possible, although some speculate that Johnson was merely the first pitcher to throw hard all the time (instead of saving his best stuff for key situations, as most pitchers could do during the dead-ball era), thus making his fastball seem faster than it was. Cobb would probably disagree with that. In Henry Thomas' biography of Johnson, he quotes Cobb saying, "The first time I saw him, I watched him take that easy windup -- and then something went past me that made me flinch. I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it. The thing just hissed with danger. Every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark."

11. Vida Blue, LHP, 1971 A's (age 21)


Blue had started only 10 games in the big leagues (those 10 games included a no-hitter and one-hitter) when the 1971 season began. He got knocked out in the second inning of the season opener, but then quickly announced his presence: A six-inning shutout with 13 strikeouts in his next start, followed by a two-hit shutout and then eight complete games in his next nine starts, including three more shutouts. At the All-Star break he was 17-3 with a 1.42 ERA and 17 complete games in 22 starts. He would appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.

"He throws harder than Sandy Koufax did," Orioles first baseman Boog Powell said that season. "He has an effortless motion, a smooth, compact delivery. He goes out for nine innings and doesn't seem to weaken."

Blue relied mainly on his overpowering fastball, which he sometimes "cut" to add sinking movement. He also had a curveball and threw an occasional changeup. Blue was an outstanding athlete -- he threw 35 touchdown passes his senior year in high school, but chose baseball because there wasn't a future in pro football back then for black quarterbacks.

Blue's usage was an issue that summer and manager Dick Williams did cut back in the second half. But the damage may have been done. A holdout in 1972 -- Blue went 6-10 that year -- didn't help matters. But a quote from teammate Sal Bando in 1973 sums up why Blue, while remaining an excellent pitcher, never duplicated his 1971 wonders: "He found out that you can't throw the fastball for 300 innings."

10. Ken Griffey Jr., CF, 1990 Mariners (age 20)

"The Natural," billed the Sports Illustrated cover in May of 1990. Indeed, when told before one game to watch out for Bert Blyleven's curveball, Junior asked, "Is he a righty or lefty?" Griffey hit .300 and slugged .481 in his second year in the bigs with that picture-perfect swing, numbers more impressive in those years before muscles and offense exploded. He ranked seventh in the AL in batting average and ninth in slugging, won a Gold Glove and drew the inevitable comparisons to the next man on our list.

Am I overrating him on the list? After all, Bryce Harper had the same WAR in 2012, at the age of 19, as Griffey had at 20 and is 10 spots lower on the list. I think there was a certain awe about Griffey's potential at the time -- the leaping grabs in center field, the ability to hit for average, the untapped power that would eventually be unleashed. As Bill James wrote then, "He hasn't been overhyped; he's worth it. Griffey is the only major league player who has not yet established reasonable limits for himself. He could be anything -- he could be the greatest player there ever was, or he could be Cesar Cedeno."

I guess you could say the same thing right now about Harper, but let's wait a year on him. Obviously, I think he's going be awesome -- he's on this list after all -- but potential is a tough label to put on one so young.

9. Willie Mays, CF, 1954 Giants (age 23)

Mays missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the Army, but his return to the majors was so spectacular that he cracks my top 10, even if he is a little older than most of the others on this list. This is what the debate is all about: Would you trade 23-year-old Willie Mays for 20-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.? Mays led the NL in batting average and slugging percentage while finishing third in home runs. If there had been a Gold Glove Award back then, Mays would have won that, too. He did capture MVP honors and deservedly so.

I think the difference is this: The 23-year-old Mays was the finished product; the 20-year-old Griffey wasn't. While Griffey did develop into the player everyone projected, Mays was already that player. While Griffey made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1990, Mays made the cover of Time in 1954. In July, Mays appeared on three network TV shows in one weekend. He was a phenomenon, and a Newsweek headline read: "Willie Mays: The Hottest Thing Since Babe Ruth."

8. Bob Feller, RHP, 1939 Indians (age 20)


I could have put the 17-year-old Feller on the list (he made the majors while still a high school junior in Iowa and struck out 17 batters in a game that September), or the 18-year-old Feller (he appeared on the cover of Time that spring and his high school graduation was aired by NBC Radio), or the 19-year-old Feller (went 17-11 with a 4.08 ERA but walked 208 batters), but I think the 20-year-old Feller is the better choice.

It was his breakout season and while he still wasn't quite polished, his control had improved enough for him to make that leap to superstar status. He led the AL in wins, innings and strikeouts. In a league where only eight pitchers struck out 100 batters, Feller had 246. How fast did Feller throw? In the days before radar guns, he challenged a motorcycle in the summer of 1940. The motorcycle was racing at 86 mph as it flew past Feller as he unleashed his pitch. He managed to hit the target on his first try -- three feet ahead of the motorcycle. MLB declared he threw the ball 104 mph.

7. Mickey Mantle, CF, 1956 Yankees (age 24)

The oldest player on my list, you could argue I made the wrong choice: That 20-year-old Mickey Mantle was more valuable than 24-year-old Mantle, in part because in a theoretical trade you would lose the four seasons from ages 20-23. I'm sure Nate Silver or Dan Szymborski could run the numbers through their projection system and give a mathematical answer. Anyway, the 20-year-old Mantle was already one of the best players in the league: He hit .311 with 23 home runs, led the AL in OPS and finished third in the MVP vote. He remained at the level the next two seasons then hit 37 home runs at age 23.

But then ... then came one of the greatest seasons in major league history. Mantle hit .353 with 52 home runs and won the Triple Crown. He slugged .705 and had a 1.169 OPS. At the time, you may have thought: OK, Mantle raised his game to a new level -- the highest level -- and he's just entering his peak years; he may do this for the next seven or eight seasons. We know now that didn't quite happen. He was nearly as good in 1957 when he hit .365 and had an on-base percentage over .500, but those were his two best years.

That Mantle wasn't able to maintain that level of play isn't really a knock against him, although we can debate how much was bad knees and other injuries and how much was off-the-field habits. But he was so good in 1956 that even a 20-year-old Mantle -- even a raw kid with big speed and huge power -- couldn't have been projected to have this kind of season.

6. Joe DiMaggio, CF, 1937 Yankees (age 22)


Picture Joe D at age 22: Second season in the majors, a league-leading 46 home runs, a league-leading 151 runs scored, third in batting average, second in RBIs, first in slugging percentage, graceful in the outfield and on the bases, nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts, the best player on the best team in the world. What kind of future would that player have?

By WAR, it would be DiMaggio's second-best season. One reason I ranked him sixth is that you could easily project a 22-year-old who hit 46 home runs to become a 50-homer guy; but the 46 would be DiMaggio's career high, as he never hit 40 again. (Yankee Stadium, with its mammoth 457 feet to left-center, certainly hurt him; he hit 27 homers on the road in 1937, for example.)

"Name a better right-handed hitter, or a better thrower, or a better fielder, or a better baserunner," Hank Greenberg once said. "That's right, a better baserunner. Did you ever see him slide when he hooked the bag with his toe? Absolutely perfect."

5. Mike Trout, CF, 2012 Angels (age 20)


Wait: I just ran that quote and then ranked Trout ahead of DiMaggio? Well, where do we begin?

1. Trout just played his age-20 season (he turned 21 in August). DiMaggio was still in the Pacific Coast League at 20.

2. DiMaggio may have been a great baserunner, but he did play in an era when there weren't many stolen bases. He stole 30 bases in his career; Trout just stole 49 bases in 54 attempts.

3. Check their adjusted OPS. Trout's is actually a shade higher. The AL hit .281/.355/.415 in 1937; it hit .255/.320/.411 in 2012.

4. Trout drew more walks in fewer plate appearances -- in a league where pitchers averaged nearly a walk less per nine innings.

5. Trout's WAR is the highest of any 20-year-old position player. Or 21-year-old for that matter.

So ... yes, I would rather build around 20-year-old Mike Trout than 22-year-old Joe DiMaggio.

4. Johnny Bench, C, 1970 Reds (age 22)

The only catcher to make the list, Bench's value, in part, lies in that positional scarcity. Who was he in 1970? Only the NL MVP after leading the league in home runs and RBIs while possessing the strongest arm many had ever seen -- he started 130 games at catcher and allowed only 32 steals while throwing out 30. You did not run on Johnny Bench.

3. Ted Williams, LF, 1941 Red Sox (age 22)


OK, maybe he couldn't play center field like DiMaggio or Trout. But the man did hit .400. By the way, the feat is more impressive now than it was at the time. From 1935 to 1940, seven players had hit better than .370, including Luke Appling's .388 mark. So Williams was 18 points higher than the recently established high at the time. The highest average in the past seven years was Joe Mauer's .365 mark in 2009, so in some fashion Williams' .406 would be akin to somebody hitting .383 today. (The AL hit .267 in 2009 and .266 in 1941.)

2. Dwight Gooden, RHP, 1985 Mets (age 20)

All these years later, I'm still trying to figure out how Gooden finished fourth in the MVP vote. "His pitch does everything," Cubs first baseman Leon Durham said that year. "It moves, it sinks, it rises." Gooden threw a hard curve and a slow curve and hitters couldn't touch either one. Batters hit .201 off him and slugged .270. He threw eight shutouts -- and that doesn't count two other games where he pitched nine innings with no runs and got a no-decision. He allowed one run or fewer in 19 of his 35 starts.

It wasn't just the best pitching season ever by a young starter, it may have been the best, period. Baseball-Reference.com rates it fourth-best since 1901, behind two Walter Johnson seasons and one Cy Young year, back in the days when hitters didn't hit home runs and pitchers could spit on the ball.

What happened? Sure, there were the drugs and maybe hitters learned to lay off the high fastball and maybe he lost the feel for his curveball -- as good as Blyleven's they said -- and then pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre instructed him not to go for strikeouts all the time and he hurt his shoulder in 1989 and was definitely never the same after that.

But in 1985, in that glorious summer, Dr. K was as good as any pitcher ever was.

1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, 1996 Mariners (age 20)

"The way he's going, someday he might bat .400 and hit 60 home runs. He's the best young talent I've seen in years." -- Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, summer of 1996.

I think the 20-year-old A-Rod is the pretty easy call for No. 1. He was already a five-tool player, leading the AL in batting average while swatting 36 home runs and a league-leading 54 doubles. He was polished in the field, with range and a strong arm. Like Trout now, he didn't have to get better to become the best player in baseball.

For me, as a Mariners fan, I can't believe that was 17 years ago. As much as I loved the young Griffey or the middle-aged Edgar Martinez or the fireballing Randy Johnson, Rodriguez's year was something special, when a player so young is so good you can only cherish the present and dream of a future with no limits.

* * * *

Honorable mention: Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Smoky Joe Wood, Babe Ruth (the pitcher), Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Arky Vaughan, Herb Score, Frank Robinson, Don Drysdale, Vada Pinson, Rickey Henderson, Roger Clemens, Albert Pujols.
Over the weekend I started reading Jane Leavy's biography on Mickey Mantle, "The Last Boy." The book came out in 2010 and I've had the paperback on my shelf for quite awhile now, so figured I'd finally give it my time. I've never actually read any of the seemingly hundreds of books on Mantle -- Mantle himself collaborated on six different autobiographies -- but Leavy's book was especially well received.

Anyway, in an early chapter, Leavy details the story of a spring training game from Mantle's rookie season in 1951. Mantle had played in Class C ball the year before so wasn't expected to break camp with the big league club, but his talent was obviously undeniable and the New York reporters filed breathless report after breathless report on the phenom's exploits.

The Yankees trained in Phoenix that year and then took a tour through California. In a game against USC on the Southern Cal campus, Mantle hit two long home runs, including one legendary shot that landed on the football practice field, where spring practice was under way. The ball bounced into a huddle and hit Frank Gifford on the foot, at least according to Gifford. A USC pitcher named Ed Hookstratten was there that day as well.
"We walked it off,' Hookstratten said. "A shoe is a foot. We got over the fence in the football field and paced it form there. I bet the whole team went out. We were all curious. Six hundred, six-fifty, going toward seven hundred feet, absolutely."

Despite Gifford's eyewitness testimony, reports circulated around campus that the ball had landed in a Methodist church behind the practice football field. Or over it. Or in a dentist's office.
[+] EnlargeMickey Mantle
C&G Collections/Getty ImagesThe mythology of Mickey Mantle makes him untouchable by any player in the modern era.
Leavy writes that, six decades later, others have used technology more advanced than a shoe to attempt to measure Mantle's blast, arriving at estimates from 551 to 660 feet. Mantle apparently couldn't remember the home run.

Maybe Mantle really did hit a 600-foot home run. Maybe he didn't. The legend -- or mythology -- of it exists, and at some point the legend becomes truth.

This story brings me back to the recent Hall of Fame election, or to the Hall of 100 project we just did on ESPN, and how we view baseball in an age where every game is televised, every statistic recorded, the distance of every home run measured.

Of course very few players are elected to the Hall of Fame. The stories of players like Mickey Mantle grow with the years, like Jack's beanstalk, to a place where only giants can roam. The writers who vote aren't gatekeeping the moral integrity of the game -- keep out those cheaters! -- as much they are the mythos of baseball's rich history. Mark McGwire can't hit 600-foot home runs, or least not with the assistance of steroids. Bryce Harper can run and hit, sure, but Mantle -- you should have him when he was 20 years old. He hit the longest home runs ever and ran like a Heisman Trophy winner and made throws you'd never seen before.

There will never be another Mickey Mantle. That's what the Baseball Writers are protecting.

To be fair, they're not the only ones. Baseball-Reference.com has something called the Fan EloRater, where readers can vote on player comparisons. The top 15 hitters are Ruth, Mays, Wagner, Speaker, Williams, Cobb, Aaron, Hornsby, Musial, Gehrig, Mantle, Collins, Lajoie, Kaline and Foxx.

Not a single player who began his career after 1954. Not a single player who played a game in the '80s, '90s, '00s or '10s. Nine of 15 who never played against a black player. The top five pitchers all played before World War II, and four of those pitched in the dead-ball era. At least Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson crack the top 15.

This is how we view baseball. The greats of yesteryear are untouchable.

Players today can't hit home runs as far as Mantle or throw as hard as Feller or pitch like Cy Young. The players were better in the old days. Of course they were.

You can believe that if you want. The stories, after all, do help tie baseball's present to baseball's past. Or you can believe this: You can believe that when you see Mike Trout, you're seeing the ghost of Willie Mays, excepting that Mays is still very much alive, of course. When you watch Justin Verlander, you can see Bob Feller, only with much better control. When Clayton Kershaw pitches, he evokes the dominance of another Dodgers left-hander. Miguel Cabrera is a right-handed Lou Gehrig.

The greats are playing now, just like they played in the '30s and the '50s and the '80s. So create your own stories, your own legends. I remember that game when ...

The list: Worst MVP winners

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
4:20
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In my earlier post, I wrote about players since 1969 who had terrific all-around seasons but didn't win the MVP Award. As a companion to that piece, let's take a quick look at worst MVP winners. There are many ways to look at this, but the easiest is to simply create a cutoff using Wins Above Replacement.

Let's start by looking at MVP winners who had less than 5.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com).

Division Era: 1969 to 2011

[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireFinishing second in the AL in RBIs helped Justin Morneau earn league MVP honors in 2006.
2006 AL: Justin Morneau, Twins (4.0 WAR)

This actually wasn't as bad a selection as it may seem. Grady Sizemore led AL position players at 6.5 WAR and Vernon Wells was the only other 6-win player, but their teams didn't make the playoffs. Morneau wasn't a great choice -- he won because he finished second in the league in RBIs -- and edged out Derek Jeter (5.4 WAR) by 14 points in a year without an obvious top guy.

1998 AL: Juan Gonzalez, Rangers (4.6 WAR)

Gonzalez fit the classic mode of an MVP winner: An RBI leader who played for a playoff team. Nomar Garciaparra (6.8 WAR) and Jeter (7.3 WAR) finished second and third in the voting and also went to the postseason. They would have been better choices, along with WAR leader Alex Rodriguez (8.3).

1996 AL: Juan Gonzalez, Rangers (3.5 WAR)

Touched on this one in the other post. He was only ninth in the AL in OPS and his game was all offense. According to WAR, he ranked as the 30th-best position player in the AL. Probably my vote for the worst MVP selection ever.

1995 AL: Mo Vaughn, Red Sox (4.1 WAR)

Shortened 144-game season, but was unlikely to reach 5 WAR. Edged out Albert Belle (6.6 WAR) by eight points. Red Sox teammate John Valentin actually led the AL in WAR for position players at 8.1, with Edgar Martinez (6.7) second and Belle third. Voters during this period didn't really give much weight to position. Sure, up-the-middle guys like Robin Yount or Ryne Sandberg or Cal Ripken would win MVP Awards, but in years when they were the best offensive players in the league. Valentin had great numbers, especially for a shortstop, and was an underrated defender. Vaughn got extra credit for leadership and Valentin finished ninth in the voting.

1992 AL: Dennis Eckersley, A's (2.8 WAR)

Before Justin Verlander last year, the last pitcher to win MVP. An idiosyncratic selection that's impossible to defend (this even wasn't his 0.61 ERA season). Kirby Puckett had the highest WAR among hitters (6.8) and finished second in the vote.

1987 AL: George Bell, Blue Jays (4.6 WAR)

One of the more famous MVP disputes. Bell led the AL in RBIs and hit 47 home runs and edged out Alan Trammell (8.0 WAR) even though Trammell's Tigers won the AL East on the final day of the season.

1987 NL: Andre Dawson, Cubs (3.7 WAR)

Inexplicable back then and even more so now. Wait, it was explicable: Dawson led the league in home runs and RBIs and won despite a .328 OBP and the Cubs' last-place finish. Ozzie Smith (6.2 WAR) was second in the voting, while Tony Gwynn had the highest WAR at 8.3.

1984 AL: Willie Hernandez, Tigers (4.6 WAR)

The Tigers closer did have an amazing season (9-3, 1.92 ERA, 32 saves, 140 innings) but arguably the most anonymous MVP winner ever. Ripken had the highest WAR in the league and finished 28th in the vote. Ouch.

1979 AL: Don Baylor, Angels (3.5 WAR)

Baylor led the AL in runs scored and RBIs, was viewed as a team leader and the Angels made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, so it's easy to see why he won, despite his limited defensive value (he split the season at DH and left field). George Brett (8.4) and Fred Lynn (8.6) had monster seasons, but finished third and fourth in the voting.

1979 NL: Willie Stargell, Pirates (2.3 WAR)

Shared the award with Keith Hernandez. The only time a guy won an MVP Award for putting gold stars on his teammates' caps.

1974 AL: Jeff Burroughs, Rangers (3.2 WAR)

Another RBI leader and the Rangers won 84 games after losing 105 games the year before. Six different players received first-place votes. The WAR leaders were Rod Carew (7.2) and Bobby Grich (7.0), who finished seventh and ninth in the voting. Grich's all-around game never was fully appreciated. Actually, Gaylord Perry had the best WAR; pitchers dominated the AL back then. Eight of the top-10 players in 1974 by WAR were pitchers.

1974 NL: Steve Garvey, Dodgers (4.3 WAR)

A very good player for a few years but not really a great one. Mediocre on-base percentages and only moderate power for a first baseman.

1970 AL: Boog Powell, Orioles (4.8 WAR)

Talked about this in the other post. Carl Yastrzemski had a huge season for the Red Sox.

Pre-1969 winners
I'm not saying the best players won every year -- heck, it would have been boring just to give it to Willie Mays every year -- but here the most egregious MVP winners in the pre-division period.

1962 NL: Maury Wills (5.8) over Mays (10.2)

Wills did have a good season but won primarily because he stole a then-record 104 bases, at a time when the stolen base was just regaining popularity after nearly going extinct in the 1950s. So there was a certain "wow" factor that impressed the writers back then. Still ... Mays was incredible (.304, 49 home runs, 141 RBIs, 130 runs, Willie Mays defense). Plus, the Giants beat the Dodgers in the three-game tiebreaker to win the pennant. Wills won the vote by seven points.

1961 AL: Roger Maris (6.7) over Mickey Mantle (10.2)

Like Mays, they couldn't give it to Mantle every year. Maris set the home run record but Mantle hit 54 of his own and had a 1.135 OPS versus .993 for Maris. The vote was close: 202 to 198.

1958 AL: Jackie Jensen (4.6 WAR)

Jensen led the league in RBIs and Mantle (8.4) didn't.

1955 AL: Yogi Berra (4.2 WAR)

Voters used to place a lot more emphasis on leadership attributes back in the '50s, a big reason Berra and fellow catcher Roy Campanella both won three MVP awards. Yogi had a good year, but Mantle or Al Kaline probably should have won.

1952 NL: Hank Sauer (5.2 WAR)

Often cited as a terrible MVP selection -- Sauer was a 35-year-old left fielder on a .500 club -- he did lead the NL in home runs and RBIs and ranks fifth in WAR among position. Still, an odd choice over more well-rounded players like Jackie Robinson (8.1) or Stan Musial (7.8), or 28-game winner Robin Roberts (who finished second in the vote).

1950 NL: Jim Konstanty (4.2 WAR)

An obscure 33-year-old relief pitcher for the pennant-winning Whiz Kids who went 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 152 innings. Had only one other season above 1.0 WAR. The Phillies didn't really have a star position player, so the Konstanty story line took hold and he got 18 of the 24 first-place votes.

1947 AL: Joe DiMaggio (4.5 WAR) over Ted Williams (9.6 WAR)

Maybe the most controversial results in MVP history. This was the year Williams won the Triple Crown but was left off a ballot and lost the vote by one point. Whether it was Boston writer Mel Webb who did so remains unclear. This story says Webb may not even have had a vote.

This may have been the most bizarre MVP vote ever and not just because Williams didn't win. Eddie Joost, a shortstop who hit .206 for the 78-76 Philadelpia A's received two first-place votes -- just one fewer than Williams. Some of the down-the-ballot votes were hilarious, including a shortstop named for the Senators named Mark Christman who hit .222/.287/.281 and earned four points.

1944 NL: Marty Marion (4.6) over Stan Musial (8.8)

Musial actually finished fourth in the voting as his Cardinals teammate won. Marion was a good defensive shortstop and probably led the league in intangibles. Eight different players received first-place votes but Musial was the best player in the league.

1934 AL: Mickey Cochrane (3.7)

Cochrane was the player-manager for the pennant-winning Tigers, so this one wasn't just about numbers. Lou Gehrig hit .363/.465/.706 and compiled 10.1 WAR -- good enough to finish fifth in the voting. Yankee fans are still ticked off.
Joey VottoTyler Barrick/Getty ImagesJoey Votto has been one of the most dominant hitters in the National League this season.

Joey Votto has an OPS+ of 204 (via Baseball-Reference.com).

What does that mean? In case you're not familiar with OPS+, it takes a player's on-base percentage + slugging percentage and adjusts it for the context of the player's league and home park. Thus we can more easily compare hitters from different eras.

For example, Votto enters Monday's game in Cleveland hitting .366/.489/.652. He leads the major leagues in batting average, on-base percentage, doubles (28), walks (54) and OPS (1.141).

Here's why OPS+ becomes a valuable and fun tool.

The National League is hitting .252/.317/.397.

Compare Votto's season to, say, Manny Ramirez with the Indians in 2000. Ramirez hit .351/.457/.697 that year, leading the AL with a 1.154 OPS.

But in 2000 the American League hit .276/.349/.443, an OPS 78 points higher.

Even when taking out the pitchers' hitting from the NL stats, Votto is producing in a much tougher hitting environment. Ramirez's OPS+ checks in at a still impressive 189, but not quite as good as Votto's 204.

Another example. In 1949, Williams hit .343/.490/.650 -- like Votto, a 1.141 OPS. The AL hit .263/.353/.379. There weren't as many home runs, but check out the league on-base percentage: 36 points higher than Votto's league. Williams drew a lot of walks (162 that year), but it was also easier to draw walks then. (Votto, by the way, is on pace for 138 walks.)

Factor in Fenway Park (a little better run environment for hitters in 1949 than The Great American Ballpark is right now) and Baseball-Reference rates Williams' season as a 191 OPS+.

In fact, I may look silly for saying this, but that's kind of who Votto is right now: Ted Williams. Both draw a ton of walks and hit for a high average. Williams hit a career-high 43 home runs in 1949, the only season he topped 40. Votto is on pace for "only" 30 home runs ... but he's on pace for 69 doubles.

As Justin Havens and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information point out, Votto's eye at the plate has improved significantly from his 2010 MVP season. Look at how he's fared on pitches outside the strike zone the past three seasons:

He's laying off more of those pitches, but when he does attack, he's producing a .960 OPS.

Anyway, Votto's 204 OPS+ isn't necessarily unprecedented; there have been 49 seasons since 1901 where a hitter had a 200 OPS+ or higher, the last being Barry Bonds in 2004. Of course, 23 of those were by Williams (six), Bonds (six) and Babe Ruth (11). Nineteen of the 49 came in the 1920s and 1930s, a period when runs scoring was matched only by the offense seen in the "steroid era."

If we take out the 1920s and 1930s and the 1994-2007 steroid era, here are the players who generated a 200 OPS+:

Four of those big years (Cash and Mantle in 1961, McCovey in 1969 and Bonds in 1993) came in expansion seasons, five more in the dead ball era, which I wouldn't exactly refer to as modern baseball. Leaving out what I'll call those special circumstances, that leaves only a few 200+ OPS years in modern baseball that happened in a non-expansion, non-high-octane offensive eras:

  • Six seasons by Ted Williams
  • Two seasons by Mickey Mantle
  • One season each by Stan Musial, George Brett and Barry Bonds

(For those who want to keep track, the players who achieved a 200 OPS+ in the steroid era were Bonds, who did it each year from 2001-2004), Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas in 1994, Mark McGwire in 1998 and Sammy Sosa in 2001.)

I'm not discounting all those other seasons, but merely pointing the difficult of Votto doing this at a time when pitchers have regained control of the game. So far, of course, it's only been through 65 games. But what a stretch of hitting.

Mike Trout: Greatest 20-year-old ever?

June, 11, 2012
6/11/12
3:29
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Mike TroutLisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesMike Trout has revitalized the Angels' offense since being recalled in late April.
It’s April 27. The Cleveland Indians are celebrating a walk-off victory, after getting to the Angels’ bullpen, an occurrence that has become a fixture for the Halos in April. The Angels sit at 6-14, having lost five straight games and won only one series.

Albert Pujols isn’t hitting. In fact, no one is hitting. The bullpen can’t get any one out. This team that was supposed to be magical instead is boring. If you want to see a magical team, look no further than the top of the American League West, where the Texas Rangers boast a 15-5 record and can do no wrong. The Angels sit nine games behind their rivals and there’s no sign of things turning around any time soon.

Fast forward to June 11. The Angels are 32-29 and are 14-4 in their last 18 games. The starting pitching has been brilliant. The bullpen has turned things around. Even the offense is performing. What happened?

Mike Trout happened. Since being recalled on April 28, Trout has raked, posting a .350/.407/.548 slash line along with five home runs, three triples and 10 doubles. He’s also stolen 13 bases in 16 attempts. Over the weekend, he went 8-for-14 with eight runs scored in three games against the Rockies. Since May 26 he's batting .441.

Defensively, every metric loves him. He’s been worth between 2.3 (Baseball-Reference, eighth among AL position players) to 2.9 (FanGraphs, third in AL) wins above replacement, depending upon which advanced metric you choose to subscribe to. That may not sound like much, but it’s the difference between the Angels sitting five or six games behind Texas instead of their current three-game deficit.

Forget about what the numbers say for a second. Every baseball cliché you can think of applies to Trout. The 20-year-old is a "professional hitter" who "plays the game the right way" and is an absolute "gamer." This kid is arguably the best player on this team right now, and he’s expected to get better and better. The swagger and attitude he’s brought to the Angels aren’t quantifiable, but have certainly helped this team turn things around.

So where would the Halos be without Trout? You could argue that the bullpen’s success was inevitable, especially given what Ernesto Frieri has added. The starting rotation has always been solid, but the offense is where the Angels have seen the most improvement since Trout came up.

Trout turns 21 in August, but this is considered his age-20 season. Can he really contend for a batting title in his rookie season? His batting average on balls in play is .410, which is probably unsustainable (since 2000, only two hitters have hit .400 on balls in play over a full season -- Manny Ramirez in 2000 and Jose Hernandez in 2002), but Trout is also improving rapidly. In his first 20 games this season, he struck out 20 times in 88 plate appearances; in his next 19 games, he struck out 13 times in 89 plate appearances. So while the average on balls in play may come down, he may put more balls in play as the season progresses.

Currently, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects Trout to hit .301/.367/.467, worth about 5.8 wins above replacement. If we project his current Baseball-Reference WAR (2.3 in 39 games) over an additional 100 games (the Angels have 101 remaining), we get 8.2 WAR by season's end. Since 1901, Baseball-Reference lists only 10 20-year-old position players as recording 5.0 WAR or more:

Alex Rodriguez, 1996 Mariners: 9.2
Al Kaline, 1955 Tigers: 8.0
Mel Ott, 1929 Giants: 7.3
Ted Williams, 1939 Red Sox: 6.6
Ty Cobb, 1906 Tigers: 6.6
Jason Heyward, 2010 Braves: 6.3
Vada Pinson, 1959 Reds: 6.3
Mickey Mantle, 1952 Yankees: 6.3
Frank Robinson, 1956 Reds: 6.2
Ken Griffey Jr., 1990 Mariners: 5.0

OK, matching Alex Rodriguez's 1996 season will be next-to-impossible. But 5.0 WAR seems like a realistic expectation, which would make Trout one of the best 20-year-olds in baseball history.

Hudson Belinsky attends Cornell University, is the Owner/Editor of Halosdaily.com and an intern for Baseball Prospectus.
The voters have spoken: They like outfielders who put up monster numbers in the pre-expansion era.

It's not too surprising, of course, that Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial are our semifinalists in the Greatest Season Ever bracket. Ruth, Williams and Mantle were three of the top four seeds. But as I wrote Wednesday, it was arguably easier to put up big numbers in the old days.

Let's take a closer look at the two semifinal matchups (vote here!).

Ainge
Mantle
Ainge
Ruth
Babe Ruth 1921 versus Mickey Mantle 1956
  • Ruth came over to the Yankees in 1920 and exploded with 54 home runs, a mind-numbing total at the time that shattered his record of 29 set the previous season. As often noted, Ruth hit more home runs in 1920 than every American League team. In 1921, he upped his mark to 59, still better than five AL teams.
  • Ruth set the all-time record with 119 extra-base hits, added 44 doubles and 16 triples. Remember, this wasn't the fat, big-bellied Ruth we remember. In 1921, he was still a slim, powerful athlete, as opposed to just a powerful slugger. It should be noted, however, that hitting 16 triples wasn't a rare feat back then: Ruth ranked fourth in the AL that year. Outfielders played much more shallow so it was easier to leg out three-baggers.
  • Ruth scored 177 runs, tied for second all-time (Billy Hamilton scored 198 in 1894, a crazy ridiculous season that would require a post of its own). The Yankees did score a lot of runs that year -- 948 -- but Bob Meusel was the only other hitter in the lineup in the top 10 in the AL in OPS.
  • Ruth did tower over the rest of the league -- the No. 2 AL guy in OPS was Harry Heilmann at 1.051, well behind Ruth's 1.359. The No. 2 guys in WAR were Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb at 6.6, well behind Ruth's 14.0. To some extent, Ruth's dominance has perhaps been exaggerated a bit. Yes, he was the first guy to put up these kinds of numbers. But in 1922, Rogers Hornsby hit .401 with 42 home runs. The same year Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns hit 39 home runs and drove in 155 runs. In 1923, Cy Williams tied Ruth for the major league lead with 41 home runs. Soon thereafter, sluggers like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx were putting up comparable numbers.
  • Ruth played mostly left field in 1921, and Baseball-Reference.com estimates his defense as about average. (For his career, they do rate him a little above average overall.)
  • Ruth led the Yankees to their first pennant, but it ended in a disappointing World Series loss to the Giants in eight games (it was a best-of-nine that year). Ruth .313/.476/.500 with one home run and four RBIs, but was limited to six games as he battled an infected arm and a knee injury suffered in Game 5. He didn't play in Game 6 or 7 (both Yankees losses) and pinch-hit in the ninth inning of Game 8 with the Yankees down 1-0, but grounded out.
  • Mickey Mantle was 24 years in 1956, already a four-time All-Star and the reigning AL home run champion. But he took his game to a new level in 1956, hitting .353/.464/.705 with 52 home runs and 130 RBIs to win the Triple Crown. He led the AL with 132 runs and 376 total bases and was the unanimous MVP as the Yankees won the pennant by nine games.
  • Like Ruth, Mantle dominated his contemporaries. His 52 home runs were 20 more than Vic Wertz, the No. 2 guy, and Yogi Berra was the only other American Leaguer to reach 30. His 132 runs were 23 more than any other player and he was one of only two players (Al Kaline was the other) with 300 total bases.
  • Unlike with Ruth, we know Mantle's splits, and he was incredible with runners on base, hitting .444 with runners in scoring position and .392 with men on base. In so-called "late and close" situations he hit .373/.481/.791, with eight home runs in 67 at-bats.
  • He hit .325 with 10 home runs against second-place Cleveland.
  • Mantle was never in the class of Willie Mays on defense, but in 1956 he was still young and fast, his knees not yet completely ravaged. He rates as a slightly above-average center fielder and an excellent baserunner.
  • He capped the season with a World Series victory, hitting three home runs, including one in Don Larsen's 2-0 perfect game victory in Game 5.
Ainge
Williams
Ainge
Musial
Stan Musial 1948 versus Ted Williams 1941
  • Stan the Man did everything in 1948, leading the National League in average, OBP, slugging, runs, hits, RBIs, doubles, triples and total bases. He just missed the Triple Crown, hitting 39 home runs, one behind Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. His 1.159 OPS was nearly 200 points better than Mize's .959.
  • His 11.5 WAR was well ahead of Mize, the No. 2 guy at 6.9.
  • Musial scored 135 runs and drove in 131 despite having little help in the St. Louis lineup outside of Enos Slaughter -- the Cardinals scored 742 runs. Backup Ron Northey was second on the team with 13 home runs.
  • Musial hit .415 on the road with 23 of his 39 home runs.
  • He also stepped up against the Cardinals' main rivals. The Cardinals finished in second place behind Boston, but Musial hit .443 against the Braves and .391 with eight home runs against third-place Brooklyn.
  • Musial split his time among all three outfield positions, starting 61 games in center, 51 in right and 41 in left. He rates as a slightly above-average defender. Somehow, he wasn't the unanimous MVP, collecting 18 of 24 first-place votes.
  • Ted Williams was just 22 years old and in his third season in 1941. He'd hit .327 as a rookie and .344 in 1940. Nobody expected this kind of season, especially after he broke a bone in his right ankle in spring training, which limited him to pinch-hitting the first two weeks of the season.
  • Once he got going, Williams hit .436 in May, .372 in June, .429 in July, .402 in August and .397 in September.
  • Despite leading the AL in average, OBP, slugging and home runs and runs scored, Williams lost the MVP vote to Joe DiMaggio of the pennant-winning Yankees, 291 points to 254 points.
  • During DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, he hit .408/.463/.717 with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs. Over the same calendar stretch, Williams hit .412/.540/.684 with 50 RBIs.
  • Against the Yankees, Williams hit .471 although with just two home runs.
  • Williams slugged .735, a figure no AL hitter has matched since.
  • His 1.288 OPS is a figure topped only by Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.
  • Hit .553 OBP is third-highest in MLB history, behind two Bonds seasons.
Here are the debut seasons of the 15 greatest position players in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference.com's WAR (wins above replacement-level) statistic, listed in chronological order:

1897 (Honus Wagner)
1905 (Ty Cobb)
1906 (Eddie Collins)
1907 (Tris Speaker)
1914 (Babe Ruth)
1915 (Rogers Hornsby)
1923 (Lou Gehrig)
1926 (Mel Ott)
1939 (Ted Williams)
1941 (Stan Musial)
1951 (Willie Mays)
1951 (Mickey Mantle)
1954 (Hank Aaron)
1979 (Rickey Henderson)
1986 (Barry Bonds)

You see the issue here, right? Only two of the greatest 15 players debuted in the past 55 years. Yes, I cheated a little. If I'd listed the top 20 players, Alex Rodriguez slides on to the list; if I listed the top 30, Albert Pujols joins the list. Chipper Jones is the only other active player in the top 50. But the point is: WAR suggests the greatest of the greatest played 50 years ago or 75 years ago or more than 100 years ago.

As the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his essay "The Extinction of the .400 Hitter," there are common explanations for this: "The first, naive and moral, simply acknowledges with a sigh that there were giants in the earth in those days. Something in us needs to castigate the present in the light of an unrealistically rosy past." Gould also cites the simple explanation that pitching and fielding have improved.

There is another layer to the argument, something that sabermetricians from Bill James to Richard Cramer have argued, that the skill of the average player has increased through time, thus making it more difficult to exceed the norm like Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Rogers Hornsby did. Gould writes that "The disappearance of the .400 hitter is largely the result of a more general phenomenon -- a decrease in the variation of batting average as the game standardized its methods of play -- and not an intrinsically driven trend warranting a special explanation in itself."

Gould was writing about hitting .400, but the same idea can be carried over to WAR. Essentially, the reason the list of greatest players ever is backlogged with players from the early 20th century is the game hadn't fully developed yet. We saw more extreme results, as it was easier for the best players to excel in a sport that wasn't fully mature.

Here's an example. Hornsby's 1922 season, when he hit .401 with 42 home runs, was included in our Greatest Season Ever bracket. Hornsby was the best hitter in the National League that season. His WAR is calculated, in part, by comparing him to the other second basemen in the NL from that season. Besides Hornsby, there were nine other second basemen who accumulated at least 300 plate appearances:

Hornsby, Cardinals: 1.181 OPS (704 PAs)
Cotton Tierney, Pirates: .893 OPS (487 PAs)
Lew Fonseca, Reds: .882 OPS (318 PAs)
Frankie Frisch, Giants: .824 OPS (582 PAs)
Frank Parkinson, Phillies: .757 OPS (618 PAs)
Johnny Rawlings, Giants: .729 OPS (346 PAs)
Sam Bohne, Reds, .705 OPS (435 PAs)
Zeb Terry, Cubs, .677 OPS (571 PAs)
Ivy Olson, Dodgers, .653 OPS (595 PAs)
Larry Kopf, Braves, .630 OPS (530 PAs)

The overall National League OPS in 1922 was .753.

Now, compare that to National League second basemen in 2011. Running a similar query, we get a list of 17 players, ranging from Rickie Weeks (.818 OPS) to Jonathan Herrera (.612 OPS). And Herrera was an extreme case; the next-lowest OPS belonged to Aaron Miles at .660. The overall NL OPS in 2011 was .710, so only Herrera was more than 50 points below the league-average OPS figure. In 1922 there were three second basemen (nearly half the league; remember, there were only eight teams in the league back then) at least 75 points below the league-average OPS. I'm not going to suggest I completely understand how WAR is calculated, but I believe this suggests the replacement-level floor in 2011 was much higher than it was in 1922. Weeks isn't Hornsby, but even if he was, it would be more difficult for him to obtain the same level of WAR since the level of play is stronger in 2011.

That doesn't mean Hornsby wasn't a great player or didn't have a terrific season; I'm suggesting it was easier for him to excel against a weaker caliber of competition. It's like it would be if somebody invented a new version of chess or something: Initially, there would be a few people who excelled at the game, but over time others would catch on, adapt and learn the skills necessary to compete.

That's what happens in baseball. I would hope that most of you believe the quality of the game improves over time. Trust me: Babe Ruth didn't face many 6-foot-4 pitchers who threw 95 mph. (In fact, from 1920 through 1935, Baseball-Reference lists 35 pitchers at least 6-4, only 16 of whom pitched at least 100 innings in their careers. In 2011 alone, Baseball-Reference lists 218 pitchers at 6-4 or taller, 58 of whom threw at least 100 innings.)

At some point this becomes a philosophical argument, I suppose, because in the end you can only mathematically compare a player to his contemporaries. But while I believe there were giants back in 1922, I also believe there are giants in 2012.

* * * *

OK, the quarterfinals. Ken Griffey Jr. upset Barry Bonds in the second round, proving (not surprisingly) that there is no love for Bonds' 2001 season. I do wonder how he would have fared if I had chosen his magnificent 1993 season. The matchups:
  • 1921 Babe Ruth versus 1967 Carl Yastrzemski: Our first of two Yankees-Red Sox battles. Can Yaz stop the Babe? I suspect not.
  • 1911 Ty Cobb versus 1956 Mickey Mantle: Should be a close one. Mantle won the Triple Crown, but Cobb hit .420, stole 83 bases and scored 147 runs.
  • 1997 Ken Griffey Jr. versus 1948 Stan Musial: I suspect many of you may know this, but Griffey and Musial were both born in Donora, Pa.
  • 1927 Lou Gehrig versus 1941 Ted Williams: Williams hit .406, but Gehrig hit .373 with 47 home runs and 175 RBIs. Gehrig in an upset?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
We've moved on to the second round of the Greatest MLB Season Ever bracket. All top-10 seeds advanced, but there were three upsets; interestingly, all involved shortstops. Alex Rodriguez lost to Ken Griffey Jr. in a Mariners death duel (got destroyed, actually, 87 percent to 13 percent); Hank Aaron defeated Robin Yount, 61 to 39 percent; and Jimmie Foxx creamed Cal Ripken, 71 to 29 percent. Maybe I'll have to write up a post on the value of positional scarcity.

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

And by position:

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

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

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

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

Let the debates begin.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Photo of the day: Spring training, 1953

February, 6, 2012
2/06/12
5:24
PM ET
Just a little blast from the past to whet the appetite for spring training ...

Spring Training 1953Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesTed Williams, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle pose during spring training, circa 1953.

Minnie Minoso's still not in the HOF?

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
8:30
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While Chicagoans can celebrate Ron Santo finally getting his due from Cooperstown -- posthumously and several decades late -- it isn’t like the outcome of the "Golden Era" election was a perfect bit of resolution for baseball fans in the Windy City. White Sox great Minnie Minoso is still on the outside looking in, and that’s every bit as egregious an oversight.

Taken at face value, the big-league numbers for Minoso don’t make an overwhelming case, not the way that Santo’s did. Minoso led the league in steals three times in an era when people didn’t steal a ton of bases. He led in triples three times and hits once and total bases in another -- that doesn't exactly get statheads fired up. Tallying up 1,963 hits, 186 home runs, 205 steals and a .298/.389/.459 batting line doesn’t sound like much in isolation. Minoso did not win a major award, and he never played in the postseason. At first blush, it’s a very good career, but perhaps not an all-time great one.

That would be a superficial response, however. You can’t talk about Minnie Minoso’s case for Cooperstown without getting into his history in other circuits, playing at a time when opportunity was not equal, thanks to matters of race and the reserve clause. His first three years as a pro were spent in his homeland in Cuba (1943-45), followed by three more years starring in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans (1946-1948). Minoso then had to spend 1949 and 1950 marking time in the PCL because the Indians felt they were already stocked up in the outfield.

Minoso would only get his real break in 1951 after getting sent to the White Sox in a three-way deal. When, at long last, he made it to the majors to stay in 1951, Minoso was already 28 years old. (He was born in 1922, not 1925 as had been initially thought.) As a result, Minoso was already well through the years that are supposed to be a player’s peak seasons, years he hadn’t gotten to spend in the majors thanks to institutionalized racism and then limited opportunities. We don’t know, can’t know, how much of his career was lost to those factors, just that it was.

However, despite this late start Minoso went on a 10-year run that marked him as one of the best players in the American League. Not broadly speaking, or generously: We’re talking about Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Minnie Minoso. Using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, from 1951-60 Minoso is second in the AL behind only Mantle. If you harbor a reasonable suspicion of defensive value, using offense alone Minoso falls from second ... all the way to third, behind Mantle and Williams.

Going year to year and using WAR, in 1951 Minoso was one of the four best position players in the league; count offense alone in that season, and he’s behind just Teddy Ballgame. Sticking with WAR, Minoso was one of the five best position players in the AL in 1951, 1953, 1954 (leading the league), 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1959 (tying with Nellie Fox for the lead). This isn’t a Ralph Kiner-like brief run -- Minoso was simply a great ballplayer, and consistently one of the best of his era.

Minoso’s career is often a case of just missing out, which is why his coming up short in this latest popularity contest can be especially exasperating. He just missed winning the 1951 AL Rookie of the Year, getting 11 first-place votes to the 13 given to Gil McDougald of the Yankees. In 1954, when Minoso was the best player in the league, he was one of five candidates to get an MVP vote in a fractured ballot; instead, the Yankees’ Yogi Berra won his second of three MVP trophies. Minoso also just missed the postseason during this era of Yankees’ dominance: he was on the White Sox in 1957 and in 1960, but because he’d been dealt to the Tribe (for Hall of Famer Early Wynn and outfielder/third baseman Al Smith), he missed being part of the 1959 pennant-winning team.

All of this neglects Minoso’s importance as an example and as a trailblazer as baseball’s first great black Latin player as well as the first black man to play for the White Sox. His popularity in Chicago was locked in from the get-go, as he was widely acknowledged as the reason why White Sox attendance crossed a million for the first time in franchise history in 1951, and then stayed there through the ’50s. Remarkably, the rookie was rewarded with a Minnie Minoso Day at Comiskey Park at the end of that same season. Those aren’t criteria, but a black Latin star becoming a big part of a franchise-wide turnaround is rightly remembered on the South Side as cause for pride.

This is not to trash the positive results of Monday's announcement. Santo’s selection is the closing note of a long campaign to right a wrong, achieving what many already believed -- that Ron Santo was a Hall of Famer, and always had been. The chicanery of the process isn't suddenly validated because this latest mechanism belatedly achieved the right conclusion. In light of the continuing oversight of Minoso, a healthy dose of skepticism that we’ll see the Hall eventually get it right in his case as well would be totally understandable. You can wonder if Minoso will be alive to enjoy the recognition that he too is due, should that day finally come. After what happened with Ron Santo, you have to hope not.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
I asked my colleague Jim Caple a simple question: "Who is on your short list of the greatest hitters of all time?"

He reeled off the names: Pujols, Bonds, Ruth, Williams ... Mays, Hornsby, Cobb (a little reluctantly on that one). We could include a few others, of course -- Gehrig, Aaron, Musial.

Anyway, maybe we'll do a more thorough examination of this question in the offseason. This is just a quick primer as we sit here waiting for the start of Game 4.

Here are the all-time leaders in FanGraphs' wRC+, which compares a hitter's runs created to an average player and is park- and league-adjusted, so a batter with a 150 wRC+ created 50 percent more runs than average:

1. Babe Ruth, 197
2. Ted Williams, 189
3. Barry Bonds, 175
4. Lou Gehrig, 174
5. Rogers Hornsby, 171
6. Ty Cobb, 171
7. Mickey Mantle, 171
8. Albert Pujols, 167

Here is the case against each of those eight, plus Willie Mays:

Babe Ruth
Case against: The advanced statistics don't factor in a timeline adjustment -- or what can be called the evolutionary improvement in the game. Overall, the players in Ruth's era were not as good, not as big and strong as today, the equipment wasn't as good, the fields not as good. This made it easier for a great player to excel above a league-average type of player. Put it this way: Ruth did not have to face guys like Alexi Ogando throwing 97-mph fastballs and 89-mph sliders. You think Ruth would be able to get the 40-ounce bat he used in 1927 around on a 100-mph Justin Verlander heater?

Ted Williams
Case against: The era he played in was perfect for him, a time when pitchers walked more hitters than now, amplifying Williams' skill-set -- patience the plate -- even more. Only hit 40 home runs once. While wRC+ accounts for Fenway being a great hitter's park, it perhaps doesn't fully factor in the advantage it gave Williams, who hit .361 there, .328 on the road. Integration didn't come until the second half of his career, and even then the AL lagged behind the NL.

Barry Bonds
Case against: Bonds through the 1999 season: .288/.409/.559; Bonds from 2000 (when he turned 36 during the season) to the end of his career: .322/.517/.724.

Lou Gehrig
Case against: Played in the 1920s and 1930s, the best offensive era in major league history. Played before integration. Since he got sick, his last season came when he was 35, so he missed the decline phase of his career, which would have lowered his career wRC+ number (although boosting his overall numbers).

Rogers Hornsby
Case against: Fabulous peak, but last great season came when he was just 33. Same arguments here as Ruth and Gehrig; without a timeline adjustment it was easier to statistically excel over an average player. Here's another example about the quality of play issue: In the 1920s National League, when Hornsby dominated, the strikeout rate never topped 3.0 per nine innings. Are we to assume the hitters were all just awesome back then? Or is it possible pitchers just didn't throw as hard, and thus it was easier to put the ball in play?

Ty Cobb
Case against: Talk about a different era. Fielders used gloves barely bigger than their hands when he played. He hit with a split-handed grip, which I'm not sure would fly against 97-mph fastballs on a regular basis. H&B factory records list his bat sizes in 1920 as 36 to 38 ounces, and 37 to 40 ounces in 1921-22. All this suggests a batting style more like a guy slapping the ball in play, as opposed to trying to drive the ball on a regular basis. (I'm not exactly saying Ichiro here; more like a slightly more powerful version of Tony Gwynn.) Could he have hit for power in a different era?

Mickey Mantle
Case against: Short career, too many injuries. Never played 150 games in a season after turning 30.

Albert Pujols
Case against: Has yet to enter decline phase of his career, grounds into too many double plays, doesn't walk quite as much as OBP kings like Ruth, Williams, Bonds and Mantle. The big question here: Has he entered the decline phase of his career? The biggest red flag to me on his 2011 season is that his walk rate dropped significantly from previous seasons, as he was more aggressive at the plate (he swung at 44 percent of all pitches this season, compared to slightly less than 40 percent over the previous five seasons). This change of approach could signify a guy who recognized his bat speed has started to slow slightly and thus swung more often early in the count. Or it could simply be a situation of him getting more pitches to hit with Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday hitting behind him.

Willie Mays
Case against: Career on-base percentage is nearly 100 points below Ruth and Williams, lowering his career wRC+ to .157.
To go with our Willie Mays package today, SportsNation worked up a list ranker with 30 of the greatest players of all time. Don't agree with me that Willie Mays was the greatest ever? Then Click here to vote yourself.

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.

Follow David on Twitter: @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog: @espn_sweet_spot.

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