SweetSpot: Ted Williams



The reason for doing this piece should be pretty obvious: Masahiro Tanaka is 11-2 with a 2.11 ERA, leading the American League in wins and ERA. He's not just the clear best rookie so far but a Cy Young and MVP contender.

Tanaka makes his 16th start on Saturday and his consistency has perhaps been his most impressive attribute. He's pitched at least six innings each start and allowed more than three runs just once, a four-run game against the Cubs in May. He's allowed more hits than innings three times and has reached double-digit strikeouts in five starts, second-most in the majors only to David Price. His splitter has been as good -- or better -- than advertised, as opponents are hitting .119 against it with one home run (his first pitch of the season, actually).

Of course, some don't like to call him a rookie considering his years of experience in Japan, but he's a rookie under MLB rules. We're just about at the halfway point and Tanaka has earned 4.1 Wins Above Replacement via Baseball-Reference. Double that and you get 8.2, and only one rookie pitcher since the lively ball era began in 1920 has been worth more.

More on that guy later. Let's take a look at some of the great rookie seasons ever since 1901.

The MVPs: Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners (7.7 WAR), and Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox (7.4 WAR)
Suzuki and Lynn rank fourth and fifth on the all-time rookie list for WAR among position players, if we consider Joe Jackson a rookie in 1911. Did both deserve their awards? Suzuki ranked fourth in the AL in WAR, behind Jason Giambi (9.1), teammate Bret Boone (8.8) and Alex Rodriguez (8.4). I always thought Boone deserved MVP honors that year, hitting .331 while driving in a league-leading 141 runs. Of course, one reason he drove in 141 was Ichiro getting on in front of him. There's no doubt Ichiro had the "wow" factor that year and was so unique -- this little guy playing small ball in the middle of the steroids era -- that everyone fell in love with him.

Lynn hit .331 with 21 home runs and 105 RBIs, leading the league in slugging percentage, runs and doubles and winning a Gold Glove for his defense in center. Baseball-Reference has Rod Carew (7.8 WAR) better, but you can't argue with Lynn getting MVP honors considering the numbers are close and the Red Sox won the AL East while the Twins finished under .500.

The should-have-been MVP: Mike Trout, 2012 Angels (10.8 WAR)
Not to rehash old wounds, but Trout's rookie season WAR is easily the best ever for a rookie position player -- and one of the best ever no matter the experience level. He hit .326/.399/.564 with 30 home runs, 129 runs and a league-leading 49 steals in a depressed offensive era. He played great defense, including four home run robberies. Baseball-Reference ranks his season 22nd all-time since 1901 among position players and the seventh-best of the expansion era (1961).

The only other rookie position player to lead his league in WAR was Paul Waner of the 1926 Pirates, by the modest total of 5.3.

A guy you've probably never heard of: Russ Ford, 1910 Yankees (11.0 WAR)
Actually, they were still called the Highlanders back then. Ford was a right-hander born in Manitoba, Canada -- the first player born in that province to reach the major leagues (and still just one of three, and the other two played a combined 14 games in the majors). Ford had pitched one game in 1909 and then went 26-6 with a 1.65 ERA in 1910, great numbers even for the dead-ball era. He ranked second to Walter Johnson in pitching WAR. His secret? He used an emery board hidden in his glove to scuff up the baseball. The pitch was actually legal back then and Ford was apparently an early practitioner of the pitch, or maybe even its inventor.

This SABR bio of Ford says he claimed to the press that he had 14 different varieties of the spitball (also still a legal pitch). "He had the emery paper attached to a piece of string, which was fastened to the inside of his undershirt," said umpire Billy Evans. "He had a hole in the center of his glove. At the end of each inning he would slip the emery paper under the tight-fitting undershirt, while at the start of each inning he would allow it to drop into the palm of his glove."

Ford wasn't quite a one-year wonder. He was effective in 1911 but then led the league in losses in 1912 as he started suffering from arm fatigue. He jumped to the Federal League in 1914 but then the emery ball was banned, and combined with his arm problems, Ford was out of the majors by 1916.

Best rookie teammates: Shoeless Joe Jackson (9.2 WAR) and Vean Gregg, 1911 Indians (9.1 WAR)
There is dispute on whether to call Jackson a rookie or not. He had 127 plate appearances with the Athletics and Indians over the three previous seasons, below the 140-PA standard we now use, although he probably exceeded the roster time limits. I would prefer to call him a rookie, and what a year he had: He hit .408/.468/.590, knocked in 83 runs and stole 41 bases. He was the second-best player in the league behind Ty Cobb, who hit .420.

His teammate has been forgotten, but Gregg went 23-7 with a league-leading 1.80 ERA. The 6-foot-2 left-hander was already 26 years old when he joined the Indians. Actually, the Indians had purchased his contract from Spokane in 1910, but Gregg refused to sign with Cleveland for $250 a month and was instead sold on option to Portland of the Pacific Coast League. He won 32 games and finally went to Cleveland.

That was a pretty interesting team. Besides Jackson and Gregg, you had an aging Cy Young in his final season (for seven starts) and Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie. Star pitcher Addie Joss, who had fallen ill the previous season, died in April. Anyway, Gregg was a revelation. Cobb and Eddie Collins called him the best left-hander in the league. He remains the only pitcher to win 20 or more games his first three seasons in the majors. Unfortunately, Gregg suffered from recurring arm pain throughout his career and 1913 was his last good season in the majors, although he eventually returned to the PCL and had some good years with Seattle.

1964: Dick Allen, Phillies (8.8 WAR) and Tony Oliva, Twins (6.8)
Allen's WAR total is third among rookie position players behind Trout and Jackson. He hit .318/.382/.557 with 29 home runs while leading the NL in runs and triples. Oliva won the AL batting title with a .323 mark and hit 32 home runs, also leading in hits, runs and doubles. Both had Hall of Fame talent, although they failed to get there. Oliva led the league five times in hits and won two more batting titles but had knee injuries that ruined the second half of his career.

The catchers: Carlton Fisk, 1972 Red Sox (7.2 WAR) and Mike Piazza, 1993 Dodgers (7.0)
In a dominant year for pitchers, Fisk hit .293/.370/.538, making him one of the best players in the league. Piazza hit .318/.370/.561 with 35 home runs. Fisk finished fourth in the MVP voting, Piazza ninth (although he ranked second to Barry Bonds in WAR).

The shortstops: Troy Tulowitzki, 2007 Rockies (6.8 WAR) and Nomar Garciaparra, 1997 Red Sox (6.6 WAR)
Kind of similar in one regard: If Garciaparra had remained healthy, he was on a Hall of Fame trek through the first part of his career. As a rookie, he hit .306 with 85 extra-base hits. Tulo: If he stays healthy, we could be talking about a Hall of Famer.

Ted Williams, 1939 Red Sox (6.7 WAR)
Williams hit .327 with 31 home runs and a league-leading 145 RBIs as a 20-year-old rookie. He was already cocky. When asked before the season opener who he hit like, Williams said, "I hit like Ted Williams." It was in April of his rookie season when he uttered his famous quote, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'"

Fifty-two years later, another future Hall of Famer put up nearly identical numbers:

Williams: .327/.436/.609, 31 HR, 145 RBIs
Albert Pujols: .329/.403/.610, 37 HR, 130 RBIs

Greatest relief season ever: Mark Eichhorn, 1986 Blue Jays (7.4 WAR)
By greatest, I don't mean just among rookies. Eichhorn's season was a season for the ages: 14-6, 1.72 ERA, 10 saves and a mind-boggling 157 innings pitched. The sidearmer struck out 166 and allowed just 105 hits. Somehow, he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner, whose combined WAR doesn't beat Eichhorn's 7.4.

Britt Burns, 1980 White Sox (7.0 WAR)
Among starting pitchers since 1980, Burns has the highest WAR -- Jose Fernandez's 6.3 from last year would be second-highest. (Dwight Gooden had a 5.5 WAR in 1984; thought he'd rank a little higher.) Burns went 15-13 with a 2.84 ERA, throwing 238 innings at age 21. He actually led AL pitchers in WAR that but didn't factor in the Cy Young voting due to his win-loss record (the White Sox were 70-90 that year). Burns also finished just fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting, which didn't make any sense. Joe Charboneau won it and Dave Stapleton, a part-time first baseman for Boston who hit seven home runs, was second.

Burns, who made his debut in 1978 just two months after getting drafted, made the All-Star team in 1981 and could have been a great one. He hurt his shoulder in 1982, costing him velocity, and suffered from a degenerative hip condition. After winning 18 games in 1985, he never pitched again in the majors.

SportsNation

Who had the best rookie season?

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    4%
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    39%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,515)

Mark Fidrych, 1976 Tigers (9.6 WAR)
A lot of pitchers in the pre-1920 era put up big numbers as a rookie. Hall of Famer Pete Alexander, for example, went 28-13 while pitching 367 innings for the Phillies. Even then, Alexander's WAR doesn't beat what Fidrych did in his rookie season with the Tigers.

The numbers are astounding -- 19-9, 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games in 29 starts -- but don't begin to tell the story of Fidrych's magical season. He didn't even begin the season in the rotation, pitching once in relief in April and then once in early May before finally making his first start on May 15. He threw a two-hitter. He started again 10 days later and lost that game but then came a remarkable run: From May 31 through July 20, Fidrych went 10-1 in 11 starts with 10 complete games. He averaged more than nine innings per start because he twice pitched 11 innings. He was a phenomenon, this quirky kid with the curly hair who talked to the baseball.

I just mentioned this video the other day, but here it is again: the final moments of Fidrych's Monday night game against the Yankees that June. As the announcer says, "He is some kind of unbelievable."


Last Wednesday, Miguel Cabrera was facing hard-throwing Cleveland Indians rookie Danny Salazar in the eighth inning with two outs and a runner on. The Indians led the Tigers 3-2 and Salazar had struck out Cabrera three times -- looking on an 88 mph changeup, swinging on a 99 mph fastball at the letters, and then swinging again on a 100 mph fastball on the outside corner that left Cabrera awkwardly spinning in the dirt at home plate.

So Terry Francona let Salazar face Cabrera a fourth time. He had thrown 102 pitches. The fans at Progressive Field rose to their feet, sensing the drama of the moment, a potentially defining showdown of the Indians’ season. “This is the game right here, baby,” said the Indians broadcaster.

Salazar’s 103rd pitch was a 96 mph fastball over the middle of the plate and Cabrera crushed it to dead center field, 427 feet away -- 427 feet of misery for Cleveland fans, the rookie craning his neck as the ball flew out into the night, his face eventually contorting into a confused look of shock.

Don’t worry, Danny, you’re not the only one who hasn’t solved Mr. Cabrera. Two nights later, Cabrera hit a two-run, game-tying homer to center off Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, the seventh pitch of an epic confrontation. He homered on Saturday off Phil Hughes. He homered again off Rivera on Sunday. Monday night, he lined a first-pitch, 96 mph fastball from Chris Sale over the fence in right, his fourth homer in four games and fifth in six games (although the White Sox did beat the Tigers, 6-2).
[+] EnlargeChris Sale
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastVictim of a Miguel Cabrera home run? Chris Sale is another guy who knows the feeling.

Not that we haven’t been asking this question all season, but how are you supposed to get this guy out? You thought he was pretty good last year when he won the Triple Crown and the MVP Award, but Cabrera has somehow raised his game. He may not win the Triple Crown this season -- Chris Davis leads him in home runs, 43 to 37 -- but he’s better and it’s not even that close.

In 2012, Cabrera’s Triple Crown was the result of great numbers and even better timing. It was an epic achievement, but his 2013 season is more epic in its complete devastation of opposing pitchers.

The baseline numbers:

2012: .330/.393/.606, .999 OPS, 164 OPS+ , .417 wOBA, 166 wRC+
2013: .366/.459/.692, 1.151 OPS, 205 OPS+, .479 wOBA, 208 wRC+

So far he’s raised his batting 36 points, his on-base percentage 66 points and his slugging percentage 84 points. His advanced metrics -- OPS, park- and league-adjusted OPS, weighted on-base average and wRC+, essentially a park- and league-adjusted version of wOBA -- all correspond with that.

From a pure production standpoint, 2012 wasn’t really a historic season; it wasn’t even Cabrera’s best OPS figure at that point in his career. But using the advanced metrics we can place his 2013 in context of other all-time great seasons. There have been 49 seasons (including Cabrera’s) since 1901 in which a player recorded an OPS+ of 200 or greater, via Baseball-Reference.com. The last four were by Barry Bonds, the two before that by Sammy Sosa in 2001 and Mark McGwire in 1998, the two before that by Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell in the strike-shortened 1994 season, and the one before that Barry Bonds in the 1993 expansion. Albert Pujols, as great as he’s been, has a career-best OPS+ of 192 in 2008, a year he hit .357/.462/.653.

Of course, the 2001 to 2004 run that Bonds went on, as well as the Sosa and McGwire seasons, are understandably met with a bit of skepticism. They weren’t the only hitters putting up monster numbers from 1993 to 2009, just the ones who put up the biggest.

For the purpose of this next list, let’s go back before 1993, avoiding all those messy seasons from that era, and list the seasons with a 200 OPS+ since 1950:

Miguel Cabrera, 2013: 205
Barry Bonds, 1992: 204
George Brett, 1980: 203
Willie McCovey, 1969: 209
Mickey Mantle, 1961: 206
Norm Cash, 1961: 201
Ted Williams, 1957: 233
Mickey Mantle, 1957: 221
Mickey Mantle, 1956: 210
Ted Williams, 1954: 201

Those are pantheon seasons -- Bonds in his pre-PED heyday when he was still the best player in the game, Brett’s chase for .400, McCovey’s MVP season, Mantle’s Triple Crown year. Sorting by wOBA or wRC+ produces similar lists. FanGraphs currently ranks Cabrera’s 2013 as the seventh-best wRC+ since 1950, behind those four Bonds seasons and the 1957 years of Williams and Mantle.

What’s fun is looking at Cabrera’s batting average by zone this year:

Cabrera heat mapESPN Stats & InformationWell, sure, hit that low and outside corner every pitch and you have a chance.


Pitchers will try and work him up high, but pitching up leads to walks or home runs if you don’t hit your spot. What’s the big difference from last year? It’s hard to tell when looking at the numbers. He’s chasing pitches outside of the strike zone about 3 percent less often, so that’s certainly helped him zone in on a few more hittable pitches. More than anything, however, I think his continued improvement in going to right field has helped.

Check his opposite-field home runs by year:

2009: 5
2010: 11
2011: 6
2012: 9
2013: 9

But it’s not just the power to right field that has improved. Check his batting averages when going to the opposite field:

2009: .374
2010: .382
2011: .395
2012: .433
2013: .467

This is a batter -- like Bonds (with or without PEDs) or Williams -- who has mastered the art of hitting. In the case of Cabrera, that means trusting his hands to go to right field, but probably involves other little things like adjusting his feet and stride to the pitcher or situation.

Finally, and this is a big one, it also means setting up the pitcher. Here’s an example: Last year, he put the first pitch in play 31 times, hitting .387 with five home runs. This year he's already put the first pitch in play 77 times, hitting .481 with 11 home runs.

When Cabrera stepped in against Danny Salazar -- or Chris Sale on Monday -- it’s almost like he knew what was coming. He was sitting fastball and didn’t miss.

These days, it’s not often that he does.
There's a neat book out called "Facing Ted Williams" that's worth checking out if you're a Red Sox fan, Williams fan or just a fan of players talking about baseball from the old days.

[+] EnlargeTed Williams
Sports Publishing Ted Williams played his last game in 1960 but he's still worth reading about.
Writer Dave Heller interviewed dozens of players who played against Williams -- from pitchers who faced him many times to players who appeared in only a few games in the big leagues -- and gets some great insight and anecdotes.

One of the best interviews was with Virgil Trucks, who just recently died at the age of 95. He was old when Heller interviewed him but remembered so much. Williams hit 12 home runs off Trucks, the most he hit against one pitcher. Here's Trucks:
You couldn't fool him on pitches. I never even tried to fool him, because it would just be wasting a pitch anyway. ... You try to hide the ball from him, and he could still pick it up. He'd see that ball and he could see those seams and he knew what you were throwing. If you showed him that ball at all -- just up here before you release it -- he could pick it up right there. He could see a gnat on a gnat's nest from 100 yards.

Williams hit 10 home runs off Hall of Famer Bob Feller, although we don't have complete data for the rest of their numbers (missing 1939-41 and 1946-47). From the numbers we do have, Williams hit .333 with 34 walks and 10 strikeouts. In typical Feller fashion, however:
Was he the toughest out [I ever faced]? No, I had dozen fellows that were tougher than Ted. A lot of left-handed hitters like Tommy Henrich and Taft Wright, Stan Spence and Roy Cullenbine, who was a switch-hitter, Johnny Pesky, Nellie Fox, Rip Radcliff -- they were all tougher than Ted. DiMaggio hit me pretty good. ... I have no idea why he didn't hit a home run off me before the war, but he just didn't do it; though he hit 10 home runs off me in my last 10 years. ... He was difficult to strike out. I'd throw him a changeup around his ankles and he'd pull it foul, and then I'd throw a slider around his fists -- right around his belly button, around the belt buckle -- and that was a good pitch for him.

Jack Harshman was a left-handed pitcher with the Giants, White Sox, Orioles and Indians (and briefly Williams' teammate in 1959). Williams hit just 5-for-35 off him without a home run.
As far as my being lucky against him, that's what it is. I mean nobody actually outpitched [Ted]; he was just that good a hitter. You have the statistics here -- which I did not know until I read this -- that he only hit .156 against me. I did remember, though, that he never hit a home run and he had one double. ... Something else about Ted that was outstanding was that I honestly [cannot] recall him ever taking an awkward swing. When he made his mind to swing, it was a fluid, good, solid, balanced swing. So many of the other hitters that were considered good very often would be totally fooled and looked awkward, but he never did.

Anyway, that's just a small sample. One of my favorite moments from the book was an obscure infielder named Chuck Stevens talking about watching Williams take batting practice. But Stevens asks: "I often wondered if Joe [DiMaggio] stopped what he was doing. Did you ever stop to think that? One of the greats looking at another great."

It was a fun project by Heller, something different than the standard biography. Wade Boggs also has an interesting foreword in the book. Makes you wonder: Who in today's game will we still be talking about 60 years from now?

Stan Musial and not striking out

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
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I wanted to point out a couple of interesting Stan Musial links. First, Matt Philip has a graphical tribute to Musial's amazing career here. Check it out.

Rob Neyer has a nice column on what Musial meant ... to a Royals fan.

[+] EnlargeStan Musial
AP Photo/Warren M. WinterbottomStan Musial demonstrates the form that won him the National League batting title in 1943.
Finally, Dave Cameron has a piece at FanGraphs on Musial's amazingly low strikeout rates, particularly for a power hitter. In 1943, Musial struck out just 18 times in 700 plate appearances. In his greatest season in 1948, he hit 39 home runs and struck out just 34 times. As Dave points out, strikeout rates have changed over time, so he translated Musial's strikeout and power rates to 2012 levels:
Now, if we simply multiply those index numbers by the league norms of 2012, we get the equivalent of Musial’s career K% and ISO numbers. Since the league average strikeout rate last year was 19.8% and the average ISO was .151, that would give Musial a modern K% of 10.1% and a modern ISO of .290.

You will not be surprised to learn that no hitter in baseball last year posted an ISO of .290 and a K% of 10%. In fact, no one even came remotely close.

[snip]

This probably seems like an obvious conclusion – there were no hitters in baseball last year who could match one of the best power/contact hitters in baseball history. This unique set of skills is what made Musial great in the first place, and you didn’t need two context adjusted index stats to tell you that Musial was a special player in that regard.

Still, it’s hard to imagine what a Musial-like player would even look like in today’s day and age. Just using his career K% and ISO numbers, you’d essentially be looking at a hybrid of Darwin Barney‘s contact skills and Josh Hamilton’s power.

Musial wasn't the only player of his era to combine power with low strikeout rates. The year Ted Williams hit .406 he struck out just 27 times (while drawing 145 walks!). His career strikeout rate of 7.2 percent isn't much higher than Musial's 5.5 percent.

Joe DiMaggio famously hit nearly as many home runs (361) as he had strikeouts (369). His strikeout rate of 4.8 percent was even lower than Musial's.

Of course, Musial, Williams and DiMaggio are three of the greatest hitters of all time.

But there were others from that period as well. Ted Kluszewski is remembered today for his cut-off uniform sleeves, so you may think of him as a big swing-from-his-behind slugger, but his career strikeout rate was just 5.6 percent. From 1953 to 1956, he hit 171 home runs and struck out just 140 times.

Yogi Berra was a famous bad-ball hitter, but he was able to put the bat on the ball, even most of the bad ones. He had 358 home runs, just 414 strikeouts. In 1950, he hit 28 home runs and struck out 12 times. That's a good week for Adam Dunn.

Johnny Mize? OK, another Hall of Famer. In 1947-48, he hit 91 home runs against just 79 strikeouts. Career K rate: 7.1 percent.

From 1940 to 1960 there were 37 players who batted at least 2,500 times and had a lower strikeout rate than Musial. Now most of those guys didn't many home runs, and Dave is right in that Musial's twin skills were historically unique.

The closest modern equivalent would be another Cardinals legend, Albert Pujols, with a career strikeout rate of 9.6 percent. In fact ... from 1992 to 2012, there were 38 players who batted at least 2,500 times and had a lower strikeout rate than Pujols. Twice, Pujols nearly pulled off the "more home runs than strikeouts" feat, 46 and 52 in 2004 and 49 and 50 in 2006. (Barry Bonds had 45 home runs and just 41 strikeouts in 2004.)

The trouble when comparing generations is that too many end up concluding, "Geez, all the great hitters played in the 1920s and '30s and '40s and '50s. Look at those guys! They hit home runs and never struck out! They don't make hitters like that anymore!"

There's an issue I have with that theory, however: The pitching wasn't as good. It wasn't close to being as good as now. I'm not knocking Musial or Williams or Kluszewski by pointing this out, but if you don't believe the pitching hasn't improved, than you believe that all these special hitters played in the same generation, and that even though hitters today have all these advantages those players didn't -- video, weight training, offseason workouts and so on -- they're not as good.

I believe the best ARE as good. But the game changes. In this case, the pitching has improved over time, for a lot of reasons such as bigger, stronger pitchers who throw harder and have nasty changeups and paint the corners. Sure, there was more emphasis on putting the ball in play back then, but in 1949 there were also 4.1 walks per nine innings compared to just 3.7 strikeouts. In 2012, those figures were 3.1 and 7.6.

And the game is still evolving. Even in 1992, the strikeout rate was just 5.6 per nine innings.

Stan Musial was great. But so are Albert Pujols and Buster Posey and Robinson Cano and Joe Mauer and Miguel Cabrera -- even if they do strike out more than The Man did.
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.
There are four left fielders in major league history who stand out among all the rest. Three of them are three of the most exciting, singular players in the annals of the sport; they are also three of the most arrogant, churlish players in the game's history and -- depending on your opinion on such personalities -- most disliked.

The fourth was, simply, known as The Man.

Ted Williams was arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Barry Bonds became the greatest hitter since Williams. Rickey Henderson was the greatest power-speed combo ever, unless you give that honor to Bonds. It's easy to extract an image of them in play: Williams, with that beautiful uppercut swing, launching that home run in the 1941 All-Star Game, the last man to hit .400; Bonds, once the graceful two-way threat, already the best player in the game, turning into the beefy monster late in his career and putting up softball numbers; Henderson, in that crouch at home plate, annoying pitchers with his postage-stamp strike zone and then annoying them further by swiping second base ... and often third.

[+] EnlargeStan Musial
(AP Photo/Tom Gannam, FileStan Musial was perhaps more loved by St. Louis fans than any player in his team's hometown.
But Stan Musial? What's your image of Stan the Man?

Musial died Saturday at the age of 92. William Nack has written an eloquent obituary of Musial, and the subhead on that story reads, "Baseball lost a true gentleman and one of its most underrated players."

Let's be honest: Williams, Bonds and Henderson were all a pain the ass. Williams was undeniably the Bonds of his day in many ways, from attitude to talent, except Giants fans actually liked Bonds more than Red Sox fans liked Williams. The Williams love affair in Boston didn't really begin until late in his career and didn't really entirely blossom until after he retired and became an old man. As John Updike wrote in his famous New Yorker essay on Williams after his final game at Fenway, "The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories."

With Bonds, even Giants fans admit to his sins and the late-career numbers compiled with help beyond just quick wrists and maple bats. Rickey? I suppose he's revered in Oakland, but he doesn't belong just to Oakland, having gone from the A's to the Yankees to the Blue Jays back to the A's and then to the Padres and a bunch of other stops. Rickey was a man of many steals and many teams and many teammates whose names he never bothered to learn.

With Musial, it was just baseball. No fighting with the media or fighting with teammates or deciding to take a day off. He showed up to the ballpark every day, played as hard as he could, usually lashed a couple hits and then returned the next day to do the same thing. I'm pretty sure he never got caught playing cards in the clubhouse in the middle of a game.

Of course, he played his entire career with the Cardinals, and I would argue no baseball player is more beloved by his home fans than Musial is in St. Louis. Sure, maybe Cal Ripken in Baltimore, maybe Mickey Mantle or Derek Jeter in New York, maybe George Brett in Kansas City. You can make those arguments, maybe a few others as well. But how many of those guys were so respected by fans throughout the league as Musial was?

As beloved as he was in St. Louis, however, Musial's legacy had faded over time, picking up in attention only in recent years, it seemed. He wasn't the last player to hit .400. He hadn't played with the Yankees. He didn't play center field like Willie Mays or become the home run king like Hank Aaron. Again: What label do you put on Musial?

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How about ballplayer? I think you can make the argument that Musial is the greatest of the four; it's a hard one to win (in part because Musial actually played a few more games at first base than left field, and also several seasons in right field). But that speaks not just to his versatility -- he was athletic enough to play over 300 games in center field as well -- but his obvious willingness to put the team first, not always something said about Williams, Bonds or Henderson. He once played more than 800 games in a row, and that durability, consistency and attitude provided a bonus you didn't get at all times from the other three.

In terms of career wins above replacement, the four rank like this:

Bonds: 158.1 WAR
Musial: 123.4 WAR
Williams: 119.8 WAR
Henderson: 106.8 WAR

Williams, of course, missed three full seasons and the majority of two others serving in World War II and the Korean War. Musial missed one season during World War II. Maybe Musial didn't quite match Williams' overwhelming skills at the plate, but the guy was pretty good with the stick, winning seven batting titles, one more than Williams, and hitting .331 lifetime. And Musial didn't have the benefit of playing half his games in Fenway Park (where Williams hit .361 in his career, compared to .328 on the road). Musial never led the National League in home runs, but he led eight times in doubles, five times in triples and six times in slugging percentage. This was a player who never loafed to first base, that's for sure.

"I consciously memorized the speed at which every pitcher in the league threw his fastball, curve, and slider," Musial said about his approach to hitting. "Then, I'd pick up the speed of the ball in the first 30 feet of its flight and knew how it would move once it had crossed the plate."

The respect the writers held for Musial was evident in the MVP voting: He won the award three times and finished second on four other occasions. The only player with more MVP "award shares" (percentage of total MVP votes) than Musial is Bonds. "I've had pretty good success with Stan [Musial] by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third," Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine once said.

Ballplayer. I like it. And if I were starting a team, I might just take Stan the Man and leave the headaches for somebody else.

The list: Worst MVP winners

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
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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.
Mike TroutKelvin Kuo/US PresswireIs Angels outfielder Mike Trout having one of the best rookie seasons of all time?

This came up on my Twitter timeline Sunday night when somebody asked if Mike Trout is having the greatest rookie seasons of all time. Entering Monday night's game against the Tigers, Trout is hitting .349/.403/.574 and leads the American League in batting average, stole bases and adjusted OPS. He also leads in Baseball-Reference WAR, at 5.0 ... despite missing the first 20 games while in Triple-A. Assuming he keeps that rate of production over the Angels, we're talking about an additional 5.4 WAR over the Angels' final 73 games (if he plays every game).

That's beyond phenomenal. That's season-for-the-ages kind of stuff. And not just because he's 20 years old. Since 1901, Baseball-Reference rates 46 different seasons for position players at 10.0 Wins Above Replacement or better -- eight of those by Babe Ruth, six by Willie Mays and so on. Only eight of those 46 have come since 1969. For those reasons, the logical analysis is that Trout will slow down a bit at some point. Maybe a little fatigue sets in. More likely, his .401 average on balls in play drops a bit or he falls into a three-week slump.

Anyway, back to the original question. Here are 12 great rookie seasons.

[+] EnlargeSeattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki
AP Photo/Bob GalbraithIn his rookie season in 2001, Ichiro Suzuki hit .350 and scored 127 runs.
Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners: 7.5 WAR
Stats: .350/.381/.457, 8 HR, 69 RBI, 242 H, 127 R, 56 SB, 126 OPS+, Gold Glove, MVP

Quote: "It's almost as if he has a tennis racket in his hands. I'm gonna lob this one -- and it's a blooper over the shortstop's head. I'm gonna ace this one -- and it's a liner down the right-field line. He's toying with guys, and there's nothing they can do about it." -- Mariners coach John Moses (Sports Illustrated)

Albert Pujols, 2001 Cardinals: 6.3 WAR
Stats: .329/.403/.610, 37 HR, 130 RBI, 47 2B, 112 R, 157 OPS+, 4th in MVP

Quote: "I watched him in spring training and I saw that he wanted to be here. He adjusts well, he's very coachable, very intense. He concentrates well. He does all of the things you want in a ballplayer. He's going to go through his struggles. Everybody does. But he's a young, gifted player. He's well ahead of his class. In fact, he's the valedictorian." -- Cardinals hitting coach Mike Easler (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Nomar Garciaparra, 1997 Red Sox: 6.5 WAR
Stats: .306/.342/.534, 30 HR, 98 RBI, 44 2B, 209 H, 122 R, 22 SB, 123 OPS+, 8th in MVP

Quote: "He's got power, he's got RBI, he's got average, he's got range, he's got a strong arm and he has great instincts -- but he can't (slide) headfirst. I was telling him the only thing he needs to do is slide headfirst. It seems like he's been safe on an awful lot of plays they've called him out on." -- Red Sox catcher Mike Stanley

Mike Piazza, 1993 Dodgers: 6.8 WAR
Stats: .318/.370/.561, 35 HR, 112 RBI, 81 R, 153 OPS+, 9th in MVP

Quote: "I was at a baseball card show with a scout that knew Mr. (Ted) Williams, and he told him about Mike's hitting. So when Mr. Williams asked if he could come over and see Mike's swing, I said, 'Are you kidding?' He watched Mike's swing and he said, 'If this kid is swinging this well now and he's only 16, I guarantee you that he will hit in the major leagues.'" -- Mike's father, Vince (Los Angeles Times)

[+] EnlargeFred Lynn
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesFormer Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn won an MVP and gold glove in his rookie season.
Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox: 7.1 WAR
Stats: .331/.401/.566, 21 HR, 105 RBI, 47 2B, 103 R, 162 OPS+, Gold Glove, MVP

Quote: "But if anybody is ever going to look like the deliverer whom dedicated, oft-disappointed, doggedly impatient Red Sox fans demand -- and have been demanding more and more ever since Yastrzemski filled the role in the team's last pennant year, '67 -- it may be Lynn. He does resemble Yaz, and also Musial, facially, and he has what pitchers see in nightmares: 'a live bat.' -- Roy Blount Jr. in Sports Illustrated

Carlton Fisk, 1972 Red Sox: 7.0 WAR
Stats: .293/.370/.538, 22 HR, 61 RBI, 74 R, 162 OPS+, Gold Glove, 4th in MVP

Quote: "My original intention this year was to use him primarily against running teams. We have always felt he was sound defensively, but he hadn't proven he could hit for average over an entire season. But Duane Josephson got hurt the first week, and I decided to give him his chance. Nobody's beat him out yet. He's our most consistent hitter." -- Red Sox manager Eddie Kasko (Sports Illustrated)

Dick Allen, 1964 Phillies: 8.5 WAR
Stats: .318/.382/.557, 29 HR, 91 RBI, 38 2B, 13 3B, 125 R, 162 OPS+, 7th in MVP

Quote: "I saw Richie hit one this spring that was as long as any I've ever seen hit. When he played at Little Rock last year he hit 33, and we kept getting reports that some were terrific. On March 24 in Tampa I saw him hit one that I will always remember. It came off Mike Fornieles of the Reds. Richie's best power is supposed to be to right center, but he pulled this one. Right above the sign that says 360 feet in Al Lopez field there is a light pole, and on top of the pole are the lamps. The ball hit in the middle of the lamps, and I'd guess that that pole is between 80 feet and 100 feet up. The ball actually was still rising when it hit." -- Phillies general manager John Quinn (Sports Illustrated)

Tony Oliva, 1964 Twins: 6.6 WAR
Stats: .323/.359/.557, 32 HR, 94 RBI, 43 2B, 217 H, 109 R, 150 OPS+, 4th in MVP

Quote: "As a rule, Cubans playing in the United States are looked upon as 'traitors' here and their names are not even mentioned in the newspapers or on radio. Oliva, however, has changed all that. Oliva has been wielding such a hot bat and making such big baseball news that Havana newspapers could not resist reporting his activities to baseball-loving Cubans. Too many Cubans have been calling them to find out how Oliva is doing." -- ANP

Vada Pinson, 1959 Reds: 6.3 WAR
Stats: .316/.371/.509, 20 HR, 84 RBI, 47 2B, 131 R, 129 OPS, 15th in MVP

(Technically, Pinson was not considered a rookie at the time, since he had 96 at-bats in 1958, six more than the 90 the allowed to maintain rookie status.)

Quote: "At the plate, where Pinson hits left-handed, his swing is just like Vada: smooth and compact. He stands in the middle of the box, takes a short, controlled stride, and the bat comes around in a short, controlled arc. If the pitch is in where he wants it, he pulls sharply to right; if the pitch is away, he goes to center or left. He has not allowed himself to become hypnotized by the home run. Vada Pinson is so good that he is almost boring. Except that he can run. Boy, how Vada Pinson can run." -- Roy Terrell in Sports Illustrated

Frank Robinson, 1956 Reds: 6.2 WAR
Stats: .290/.379/.558, 38 HR, 83 RBI, 122 R, 143 OPS+, 7th in MVP

Quote: "He's the greatest young ballplayer I've seen since Ted Williams. This kid can do everything. He'll be around a long, long time." --Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts (Associated Press)

[+] EnlargeTed Williams
AP PhotoTed Williams' rookie season wasn't his best statistically, but he still finished fourth in the MVP voting.
Ted Williams, 1939 Red Sox: 6.6 WAR
Stats: .327/.436/.609, 31 HR, 145 RBI, 44 2B, 11 3B, 131 R, 160 OPS+, 4th in MVP

Quote: "Notice the kid. He doesn't hit the ball; he doesn't hit at it. He swings clean through it. He's close to being, and may well be before he's through, the wrist-hitter par excellence." -- San Diego sportswriter Stuart Lake (Associated Press)

Shoeless Joe Jackson, 1911 Naps: 9.0 WAR
Stats: .408/.468/.590, 7 HR, 83 RBI, 45 2B, 19 3B, 233 H, 126 R, 193 OPS+, 4th in MVP

(Jackson had 115 at-bats spread out over three seasons before 1911. He would not have been considered a rookie at the time, but using the 130 at-bat cut-off that is now applied, we'll consider Jackson a rookie.)

Quote: "Everything he hit was really blessed. He could break bones with his shots. Blindfold me and I could still tell you when Joe hit the ball. It had a special crack." -- Pitcher Ernie Shore
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
PM ET
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.
Barry Bonds, Randy JohnsonAP Photo/Eric RisbergBarry Bonds hit three home runs in 49 at-bats against left-handed power thrower Randy Johnson.
The other night I tweeted something like, "Would love to see Aroldis Chapman face 2001 Barry Bonds." On the Baseball Today podcast, we had a reader ask us about best pitcher-hitter matchups to watch for over the next few years.

With that prompt, I'd thought it would be fun to list 10 of my all-time favorite matchups I would have wanted to see ... although a few of them are recent enough that some of us did see them. With help from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org, we can even find results of the matchups.

Ty Cobb versus Walter Johnson (.366, 1 HR)
According to researcher Terry Cullen, Cobb hit .366 in his career off Johnson (120-for-328) -- pretty amazing considering Cobb's average against all pitchers was ... .366. While Cobb reportedly said Johnson's fastball "looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed," he certainly didn't have issues hitting it. Cobb knew Johnson was too nice to pitch inside, so he'd crowd the plate. "I saw him wince when he fired one close to somebody's head, and he used to tell me that he was afraid someday that he would kill a man with that fireball," Cobb once said. "So I used to cheat. I'd crowd that plate so far that I was actually sticking my toes on it when I was facing Johnson. I knew he was timid about hitting a batter, and when he saw me crowding the plate he'd steer his pitches a little bit wide. Then with two balls and no strikes, he'd ease up a bit to get it over. That's the Johnson pitch I hit. I was depending on him to be scared of hitting me." Now, that's what Cobb said; seems a little too simple though, doesn't it? Why didn't every hitter do that? There's no doubt the approach helped Cobb, but unlike most hitters, he could hit Johnson's fastball. (By the way, his only home run off Johnson was an inside-the-parker.)

Babe Ruth versus Lefty Grove (incomplete)
Some say Grove was the best pitcher of all time -- 300 wins with a .680 winning percentage, nine ERA titles, seven consecutive strikeout titles. Wouldn't you love to see Ruth taking a big cut against Grove's legendary fastball? I couldn't find Ruth career's numbers against Grove, but he did hit nine home runs off him, tied with Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg for the most against Grove. In the data Retrosheet has available, Ruth hit .300/.349/.438 with three home runs in 80 at-bats, six walks and 27 K's.

Ted Williams versus Bob Feller (.347/.467/.677, 9 HR in 124 ABs)
Those numbers are from Retrosheet, but are incomplete. From 1948 to 1956, Williams crushed Feller -- .389/.511/.833, with eight home runs in 72 at-bats. So, at least initially, Feller fared better before Williams started dominating. Williams did call Feller the best pitcher he ever faced.

Willie Mays versus Bob Gibson (.196/.315/.304, 3 HR in 92 ABs)
With his fastball/slider combo, you might expect that Gibson was tough on right-handed batters and you'd be correct: right-handers hit .204 against him, left-handers .257. Basically, he owned Mays, who struck out 30 times in 108 plate appearances and had just four extra-base hits. In James Hirsch's biography of Mays he tells the story of Gibson once visiting Mays' home wearing glasses. Gibson didn't wear them when he pitched. "You wear glasses? Man, you're going to kill somebody one of those days," Mays said. Hirsch writes that later in his career Mays started conveniently scheduling off days against hard-throwers like Gibson and Tom Seaver, and that he always preferred off-speed pitches to fastballs.

Hank Aaron versus Bob Gibson (.215/.278/.423, 8 HR in 163 ABs)
Aaron had a little more success than Mays. So who did hit well against Gibson? Billy Williams hit .259 but with 10 home runs in 174 at-bats and 24 walks against 14 strikeouts. Richie Hebner had a 1.127 OPS against Gibson in 74 PAs, batting .387. Darrell Evans, facing mostly the late-career Gibson, never struck out against him in 35 PAs, drawing 11 walks and and hitting three home runs.

Willie Mays versus Sandy Koufax (.278/.426/.536, 5 HR in 97 ABs)
Of course, Mays faced the young Koufax, and then the unhittable Koufax. During Koufax's 1962-1966 run, when he led the National League each season in ERA, Mays still hit a respectable .242/.373/.484, with more walks than strikeouts.

Hank Aaron versus Sandy Koufax (.362/.431/.647, 7 HR in 116 ABs)
Of 73 players with at least 40 career plate appearances against Koufax, only five hit .300. Most of that damage was against pre-'62 Koufax, as Aaron hit .259 from '62 to '66.

Mike Schmidt versus Nolan Ryan (.179/.405/.482, 5 HR in 56 ABs)
Ryan came over to the Astros in 1980, the year Schmidt won the first of his three MVP trophies. In the ultimate battle of power hitter versus power pitcher, the results were perhaps what you would expect: Schmidt hit for a low average, but got on base and popped home runs at a pretty good ratio.

Barry Bonds versus Greg Maddux (.265/.376/.508, 9 HR in 132 ABs)
The two came up in 1986, so it's not surprising that Maddux faced Bonds more than any hitter in his career. How good was Bonds? Even the pitcher with pinpoint control walked him 24 times in 157 PAs with just 16 strikeouts. Bonds' nine home runs off Maddux are the most he hit off one pitcher, tied with John Smoltz. Bonds had an .883 OPS against Maddux, but 1.138 against Smoltz and .992 against Tom Glavine. Who did own Bonds? He went 3-for-33 off Chuck McElroy, with just one walk (although two home runs).

Barry Bonds versus Randy Johnson (.306/.452/.551, 3 HR in 49 ABs)
Johnson had 37 intentional walks in his career; 34 were to right-handed batters. Two were to Barry Bonds. The other? Jeremy Hermida. Go figure. The first walk to Bonds came in 2003, runner on second, no outs, sixth inning, Diamondbacks down 2-0. The second one came in 2004 and is more interesting: 2004, game tied in the fifth, runners on first and second. Edgardo Alfonzo hit a fly ball to deep left-center that Luis Gonzalez dropped; Steve Finley was then credited with an error on the throw in as all three runners scored. The walk to Hermida came in 2008, in a game Hermida was batting eighth. Maybe that's when Johnson knew he was nearing the end.

What are some of your favorite matchups?

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Ted Williams/Babe RuthMark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesA 20-year-old rookie Ted Williams has fun with a retired Babe Ruth in 1939.


It's not surprising that Babe Ruth and Ted Williams reached the finals of our Greatest Season Ever bracket. In Ruth, you have the most iconic player of all time; in Williams, you have the owner of perhaps the most iconic season of all time.

Maybe it's a little surprising that a season that occurred 91 years ago and another that occurred 71 years ago made our final round -- as I wrote the other day, try to imagine such a result in any other sport. But it speaks to the legacy that baseball holds over us, the importance of its history as our national pastime, the weight and consideration we still give to statistics and magical numbers and, yes, the iconic status of two hitters whose great seasons came before the game was integrated.

On a pure statistical level, Ruth and Williams are the two greatest hitters of all time. In offense-only career wins above replacement, Ruth ranks No. 1 and Williams ranks No. 6 (despite missing nearly five full seasons to military service). In career OPS, Ruth and Williams rank first and second. In adjusted OPS, they still rank one and two. In career runs created, Ruth ranks second (behind Barry Bonds) and Williams ranks sixth despite the missed time. In adjusted batting wins, Ruth is first and Williams essentially tied for third with Ty Cobb (Bonds is second). In a statistic called offensive winning percentage, which calculates how an entire lineup of Ruth or Williams would fare with an average pitching staff and average defense, Ruth rates first and Williams second. The figures: .858 and .857. (All rankings from Baseball-Reference.com.)

Now, I have no doubt that if you put Albert Pujols into a time machine that took him back to 1921, he'd put up numbers comparable to Ruth's. I'm sure if you brought Ruth back in the time machine to 2011 that he'd be able to match Pujols' numbers. But he was the evolutionary figure, the guy who swung hard every time, who was willing to sacrifice strikeouts if it led to more home runs. He brought power to the game, leaving John McGraw's "inside baseball" in the dust. Look, was it easier in Ruth's time? Of course it was. The pitchers didn't throw as hard; this is fact, not speculation, best indicated by the nugget that Ruth used a 52-ounce bat early in his career. His bats did get lighter (he was one of the first batters to start using a thinner handle to better whip his stick through the strike zone), but you wouldn't be able to consistently get around on 95 mph fastballs with a 52-ounce or 48-ounce or 44-ounce bat.

An interesting comparison between Ruth and Williams is they both grew up in troubled circumstances. Ruth's father owned a saloon, and young George Herman Ruth was always in trouble. Nobody knows the exact reasons Ruth was initially sent away to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. (His sister claimed it was because Ruth simply refused to go to school.) He first went there when he was 8, more permanently when he turned 10. Reports vary on whether his mother (until she died) and father visited him at the school. Williams' father abandoned the family, and Bill James quotes Williams as once saying, "Well, I wouldn't have wanted to be married to a woman like that, either."

As James writes, "By the time he was 20, Williams was insecure, moody and filled with hate. ... He had a lot more in common with Ty Cobb than Babe Ruth." That passion fueled Williams as a hitter. But he was not a fan favorite the first part of his career, even in Boston. There were times he didn't hustle, there were times he made obscene gestures to fans and he famously feuded with reporters. Ruth, of course, was beloved, a hulking, gregarious figure who lived a big life and hit big home runs. It's been 76 years since he played his last game, and he still looms large over the sport as the widely regarded greatest player of all time.

Ruth, in 1921, hit .378 with 59 home runs, 171 RBIs and 177 runs scored. He drew 145 walks, struck out 81 times, had a .512 on-base percentage and slugged .846. Williams hit .406 in 1941, refusing to sit on the final day of the season with a .400 average and went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader. He drew 147 walks and struck out just 37 times, leading the league with 37 home runs and 135 runs scored. His .553 on-base percentage is the third-highest single-season total of all time, behind two of Bonds' seasons. Of course, Williams is the last guy to hit .400. Amazingly, he didn't win the MVP Award that season, losing out to Joe DiMaggio, although Williams actually outhit DiMaggio during the latter's 56-game hitting streak.

Ruth or Williams? Who gets your vote?

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
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!).

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Mantle
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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.
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Williams
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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.

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