SweetSpot: Willie Mays

So, Giancarlo Stanton's contract has me wondering: What would Babe Ruth be worth today?

In his piece for ESPN Insider, Dan Szymborski projected Stanton will be worth $316 million from ages 25 to 37, just shy of the $325 million he'll be getting.

Jeff Sullivan conducted a related study on FanGraphs, comparing Stanton to similar hitters through age 24 and then asking: How would a 13-year contract for those players have worked out in today's dollars?

Jeff looked at the value of the deals under the cost of $6 million per WAR and $7 million per WAR. Henry Aaron was the best comparable player and was valued at $776 million from ages 25 to 37 under the $6 million context. Alex Rodriguez, Frank Robinson, Miguel Cabrera, Mickey Mantle and Albert Pujols also topped $500 million of value. Heck, even Will Clark came in at $308 million. Boog Powell topped $200 million. BOOG POWELL! Who never made an All-Star team in his 30s and was basically done at 33.

Hmm.

OK ... if Will Clark was worth $300 million, what about Babe Ruth? I mean, no offense to Will Clark. Ruth wasn't in Jeff's study. What would the Bambino be worth today?

I combined Dan's system with Jeff's system. I assumed each win above replacement was worth $6 million with 5 percent annual growth. I then plugged in Ruth's year-by-year WAR from Baseball-Reference to get a value for each season. Here's what we get at each age:

25: 11.9 WAR ($71.4 million)
26: 12.9 WAR ($81.3 million)
27: 6.3 WAR ($41.7 million)
28: 14.1 WAR ($97.9 million)
29: 11.7 WAR ($85.3 million)
30: 3.5 WAR ($26.8 million)
31: 11.5 WAR ($92.5 million)
32: 12.4 WAR ($104.7 million)
33: 10.1 WAR ($89.5 million)
34: 8.0 WAR ($74.5 million)
35: 10.3 WAR (100.7 million)
36: 10.3 WAR ($105.7 million)
37: 8.3 WAR ($89.4 million)

Holy ... that's $1.06 billion of value. Babe Ruth, the billion-dollar ballplayer.

Let's do two more all-time greats.

Willie Mays comes in at $931 million, topping out at $104.2 million at age 34 when he was worth 11.2 WAR.

Barry Bonds comes in $916 million, topping out at a whopping $127.1 million at age 37. (Our theoretical contract doesn't even cover Bonds' age 38 and 39 seasons, when he was worth 9.2 and 10.6 WAR.)

Of course, I'd suggest this methodology breaks down at the extremes. It's one thing to pay a one-WAR player $6 million on a one-year contract but something different to pay a 5-WAR player $30 million over many seasons. In fact, you can argue that teams have limited their contracts on the upper end. Clayton Kershaw's AAV is $31 million even though he's averaged 7.0 WAR of value the past four seasons, suggesting he should have at least topped at $42 million, or even higher given inflation.

Stanton's AAV comes out to a mere $25 million -- although much of that is backloaded in the final seven years of the deal, so this does look like a short-term play by the Marlins. Maybe Stanton will be worth $25 million a season.

But if he is ... well, just imagine a contract for a reincarnated Babe.





Great pitcher-hitter MVP debates

November, 13, 2014
11/13/14
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This year's National League MVP vote promises to be an interesting result no matter who wins -- Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen or Giancarlo Stanton. If Kershaw wins, he'll be the first NL pitcher to win MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968; if McCutchen wins, he becomes a back-to-back MVP winner, the first center fielder to do that since Dale Murphy in 1982-83; if Stanton wins, he becomes the first MVP on a losing team since Alex Rodriguez of the Rangers in 2003.

Does a pitcher deserve to win, even one who went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA? There's still a reluctance by some voters to consider a pitcher for MVP honors, or at least consider them for the top of their ballot. Working against Kershaw is that he missed a month of action and pitched 198 innings, a low total for a Cy Young winner let alone an MVP. Working in his favor is that there was no clear best position player and it's possible that McCutchen and Stanton split first-place votes, allowing Kershaw to slip past them as the winner. Kershaw led all National League players in WAR at 8.0 -- more than a win better than the No. 2 player according to Baseball-Reference, Cole Hamels. Jonathan Lucroy led position players at 6.7 with Stanton at 6.5.

Still, it's a classic pitcher versus position player debate. Here are few others from the past:

2011: Justin Verlander vs. Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista
Verlander: 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 251 IP, 250 SO, 8.4 WAR.
Ellsbury: .321/.376/.552, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 39 SB, 8.1 WAR.
Bautista: .302/.447/.608, 43 HR, 103 RBI, 8.1 WAR.

Verlander ended up winning with 280 points to beat out Ellsbury (242 points) and Bautista (232 points). Two things worked to Verlander's advantage: 1. There was no clear position player rival, as five different position players received first-place votes -- collectively, they had 15 first-place votes compared to Verlander's 13; 2. The other thing that happened was Ellsbury's Red Sox collapsed in September and missed the playoffs. Ellsbury himself had a great month -- he hit .358 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs -- and he probably would have won the award if Boston had made the playoffs.

[+] EnlargePedro Martinez
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesHow could Pedro Martinez NOT be the MVP in 1999?
1999: Ivan Rodriguez versus Pedro Martinez
Rodriguez: .332/.356/.558, 35 HR, 113 RBI, 25 SB, 7.0 WAR
Martinez: 23-4, 2.07 ERA, 213.1 IP, 313 SO, 9.7 WAR

Actually, you can throw Roberto Alomar and Manny Ramirez into the mix, as voting results went Rodriguez with 252 points, Martinez 239 and Alomar and Ramirez with 226. (Derek Jeter actually might have been the best position player that year but finished sixth in the voting.) Pedro had the most first-place votes with eight compared to Rodriguez's seven, but was left off two ballots. Most infamously, George King of the New York Post said pitchers shouldn't win MVP awards -- even though he had included two pitchers on his 1998 ballot, including David Wells of the Yankees.

Anyway, the voters missed this one as Pedro had a historic season. The Red Sox even made the playoffs that year, so that wasn't a viable excuse. The next year, Pedro could have won again when he went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA; he finished fifth in the voting.

1995: Barry Larkin and Dante Bichette versus Greg Maddux
Larkin: .319/.394/.492, 15 HR, 66 RBI, 51 SB, 5.9 WAR
Bichette: .340/.364/.620, 40 HR, 128 RBI, 1.1 WAR
Maddux: 19-2, 1.63 ERA, 209.2 IP, 181 SO, 9.6 WAR

Wow. In retrospect, this looks like an awful vote. Larkin had a great year and was honored for his all-around play while the Reds won their division, but Maddux had that 1.63 ERA in an era when offense had started to peak. Larkin received 11 first-place votes to Bichette's six and Maddux's seven, with the final vote totals going 281-251-249. That 1.1 WAR isn't a misprint for Bichette, who put up his numbers in Coors Field and was a lousy defender. In the end, at least Larkin won and not him.

1986: Roger Clemens versus Don Mattingly
Clemens: 24-4, 2.48 ERA, 254 IP, 238 SO, 8.9 WAR
Mattingly: .352/.394/.573, 31 HR, 113 RBI, 7.2 WAR

This one was a good debate in part because it was also Red Sox versus Yankees. Clemens actually won pretty easily, collecting 19 of the 28 first-place votes, and the fact the Red Sox won the division certainly helped. I think the voters got it right (and Clemens would be the last starting pitcher to win MVP honors until Verlander) ... actually, Baseball-Reference says Teddy Higuera was the most valuable player in the AL that year at 9.4 WAR. (Clemens led the majors in WAR in 1987, 1990 and 1997, so you can argue he deserved three MVP awards.)

1985: Willie McGee versus Dwight Gooden
McGee: .353/.384/.503, 10 HR, 82 RBI, 56 SB, 8.1 WAR
Gooden: 24-4, 1.53 ERA, 276.2 IP, 268 SO, 13.2 WAR

McGee wasn't a bad choice -- he led NL position players in WAR -- but it's hard to believe that Gooden received only one first-place vote with that otherworldly 1.53 ERA. He actually finished just fourth in the voting so it wasn't even much of a debate. The Cardinals did beat out the Mets for the NL East title, but it still seems strange now that Gooden's season didn't impress the MVP voters. (Especially when Clemens would win in the AL the next season with the same 24-4 record and an ERA a run higher.)

1978: Jim Rice versus Ron Guidry
Rice: .315/.370/.600, 46 HR, 139 RBI, 7.5 WAR
Guidry: 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 273.2 IP, 248 SO, 9.6 WAR

Unlike 1986, this Red Sox-Yankees debate went to the position player whose team failed to win the division. Guidry even got the win in the Bucky Dent tiebreaker game. Rice got 20 first-place votes to Guidry's eight.

1966: Roberto Clemente versus Sandy Koufax
Clemente: .317/.360/.536, 29 HR, 119 RBI, 8.2 WAR
Koufax: 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 323 IP, 317 SO, 9.0 WAR

Clemente had his best season while Koufax's Dodgers won the pennant. Koufax got nine first-place votes and Clemente eight, but Clemente edged him in the voting, 218 points to 208. In the '60s, the MVP went to a player on the pennant winner or division winner almost every year -- 15 out of 20 times -- so it has to be considered a little surprising that Clemente beat out a 27-game winner.

1965: Willie Mays versus Koufax
Mays: .317/.398/.645, 52 HR, 112 RBI, 11.2 WAR
Koufax: 26-8, 2.04 ERA, 335.2 IP, 382 SO, 8.6 WAR

Mays could have easily won eight or nine MVP awards in his career instead of the two he did win. The Dodgers won the pennant by two games over the Giants, but Mays easily won his second MVP award with nine first-place votes to Koufax's six. Remarkably, Maury Wills, who hit .286 with no home runs for the Dodgers, received the other five first-place votes. Anyway, the voters got it right as Mays had one of his greatest seasons.
We talked a lot about Mike Trout in Tuesday's chat session. Following up on that, a couple Trout links to check out.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two more recent players.

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

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

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

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

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

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    12%
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    30%
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    29%
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    20%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,186)

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

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

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

Posey, Mays and why the Giants will win

October, 24, 2012
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There is no magic formula to predict which team will win the World Series. We can look at numbers, we can look at heart, we can look at talent, but with baseball prediction is an impossible task. This year though, if the similarities between Buster Posey and Willie Mays have anything to do with it, the Giants will win the World Series.

To date, the careers of Willie Mays and Buster Posey are nearly identical.

Willie Mays came to the majors on May 25, 1951. He would win the Rookie of the year Award and help lead the Giants to the National League pennant. He batted .274 with 59 runs, 20 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Buster Posey came up to the majors (after a few plate appearances in 2009) on May 29, 2010. He won the Rookie of the Year Award, led the Giants to the National League pennant and then to a World Series championship. He batted .305, scored 58 runs, and hit 18 home runs with 67 RBIs.

Then in 1952 and 1953 Mays played in only 34 games because of military service. In 2011 Posey played in only 45 games because of a broken leg from a horrible injury at home plate which would sideline him for the year.

The next year for Mays was 1954. He batted .345 with 119 runs, 195 hits, 66 walks and 110 RBIs. Mays went to the All-Star Game and won the MVP. Posey, this year, batted .336 with 78 runs, 178 hits, 69 walks and had 103 RBIs. Posey was an All-Star and is the favorite to win the MVP Award.

In 1954 the New York Giants won the World Series in four games against the Cleveland Indians. Mays batted .286 in the World Series. Considering the history here, it might be as good a bet as any that the Giants will win the World Series this year and Posey will bat around .286.

The list: Worst MVP winners

September, 28, 2012
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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.

AL MVP debate: Cabrera versus Trout

September, 14, 2012
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Miguel Cabrera and Mike TroutUS PresswireMiguel Cabrera, left, is having a great season, but Mike Trout is the slam-dunk AL MVP.


The grievances seem mostly confined to Michigan but usually go something like this: The media is ignoring Miguel Cabrera's MVP candidacy because we're in love with Mike Trout since he's a rookie; that Trout isn't doing anything so historic that we should just hand him the trophy so easily; that Trout's Angels might not even make the playoffs; that Cabrera is the best hitter in the game; that Cabrera has been shafted in other MVP votes and finally deserves one.

Let's take those arguments one at a time.

1. We just love Mike Trout and are ignoring Miguel Cabrera.

Guilty. Of course we love Mike Trout. He hits, he runs, he fields, he robs opponents of home runs and then hits his own. His name is Trout and he tweets about fishing. The fact that he turned 21 in August isn't the reason he's the leading MVP candidate in the world; the fact that he turned 21 and is doing the things he's doing just adds an extra layer of awe.

But that doesn't mean we have anything against Cabrera. We should all respect the way he has moved back to third base and acquitted himself better than anyone expected. He has missed one game all season. That he's a hitting machine, as feared as any batsman in the league, goes without saying. I don't think Cabrera is getting ignored. It is, however, difficult to claim the spotlight when a kid who spent most of the season at 20 years old is putting up numbers we've never seen from someone that young.

2. Trout isn't doing anything that historic.

Through Thursday's games, Trout is hitting .331/.397/.569. If you look just at that triple-slash line then, yes, I suppose you could say there's nothing historic going on here. After all, since 1901 there have been 193 times that a player reached all three of those numbers. Cabrera himself even did it last season.

Of course, Trout has 45 steals (in 49 attempts). Not all 193 of those players ran the bases with Trout's blazing speed. In fact, only 17 of them swiped as many as 25 bases.

And not all of them hit 27 home runs. In fact, of those 17 who stole 25-plus bases, only eight hit as many 20 home runs. All eight happened to be outfielders. Of those eight -- Ken Williams in 1922, Willie Mays in 1957 and 1958, Barry Bonds in 1993, Ellis Burks in 1996, Larry Walker in 1997, Vladimir Guerrero in 2002 and Ryan Braun in 2011 -- only one played center field.

So just like that: Mike Trout and Willie Mays. Yes, with a straight face.

Maybe that's too goofy of an approach for you. WAR -- wins above replacement -- is an attempt to analyze a player's batting, fielding and baserunning statistics into one number. Entering Thursday's game, Trout's Baseball-Reference WAR was 10.3. According to the metrics, there have 28 seasons when a player achieved 10.3 WAR or higher. Six of those seasons were by Babe Ruth, and there have been just six during the divisional era -- Joe Morgan in 1975, Robin Yount in 1982, Cal Ripken in 1991 and Barry Bonds in 2001, 2002 and 2004.

Assuming Trout doesn't go 0 for his next 75, I'm pretty comfortable calling this a historic season.

Oh, Cabrera's WAR: 5.8. Excellent figure. Not historic.

3. How can Trout be the MVP if the Angels don't make the playoffs?

This seems to be Cabrera's best argument -- assuming the Tigers make the playoffs, of course, and the Angels don't. It is true that during the wild-card era few players from non-playoff teams have won the MVP award: Larry Walker in 1997, Barry Bonds in 2001 and 2004, Alex Rodriguez in 2003, Ryan Howard in 2006, Albert Pujols in 2008.

But why this should be held against Trout confuses me. Where would the Angels be without him? Nowhere near contending for the playoffs. Plus, there is the likely scenario that the Angels win more games than the Tigers, yet miss the playoffs while the Tigers make it. I fail to see why that makes Cabrera a better MVP candidate than Trout when Trout's team will have won more games.

4. Cabrera is the best hitter in the game.

I won't disagree with this assessment, but the problem here is it's hard to argue that he has been a better hitter than Trout in 2012.

Trout: .331/.397/.569, 27 HR, 77 RBI, 115 runs
Cabrera: .328/.393/.590, 36 HR, 118 RBI, 91 runs

So Cabrera has the slightest edge in OPS, .983 to .966. Even though he spent the first few weeks of the season in Triple-A, however, Trout has created more runs -- 115 to 113, by our numbers, 121 to 117 by Baseball-Reference figures. But here's another key: Trout has created those while using up 344 outs; Cabrera has used 401 outs.

That's before we even get to the ballparks. Angel Stadium has played a strong pitcher's park this season. Comerica, despite its reputation, has played as a slight hitter's park. So it's hard to give Cabrera the edge on offense when Trout has been the better offensive player. Factor in Trout's obvious huge edges in defense and baserunning, and it's not close.

And, no, I don't want to hear about RBIs. Trout bats leadoff. He doesn't get the opportunities. For what it's worth, in "high leverage" situations, Trout is hitting .328 with four home runs and Cabrera is hitting .351 with four home runs.

5. Cabrera deserves an MVP award.

Hey, I feel for him. If Cabrera fails to win it this year, he'll join Eddie Murray as the only players to finish in the top five of the MVP voting six times yet never win. That's no reason, of course, to vote for a player.

It's Mike Trout's year. He's the best player in the game. This should be Reagan-Mondale. If Trout doesn't win, it would be one of the biggest travesties in MVP voting history.

A year later, Buster Posey's back in action

May, 26, 2012
5/26/12
12:51
AM ET


Exactly one year ago, Buster Posey went from sure thing to question mark. It wasn’t because of anything he failed to do, it wasn’t because he hadn’t fulfilled every expectation for his greatness. If anything, it was a matter of professional hazard: He was a catcher protecting home plate, and when Scott Cousins took his shot at scoring, Posey was there, trying to make a play. Instants later, Posey went from the best young catcher in baseball to a young man in agony at home plate.

Giants fans were understandably devastated. Posey was the best thing to happen to catcher offense since Mike Piazza. His rookie-season performance -- hitting .305/.357/.505 with 18 home runs, gunning down 29 percent of stolen-base attempts and winning the National League Rookie of the Year award -- created a heightened expectation of what was to come. He was the new bright light on a defending champion; a first-rounder who hadn’t just lived up to his promise, he’d taken the Giants to the promised land. And then, one play at the plate later, Posey was dealing with a case of career, interrupted.

Now, one year later, we can say that interruption, however avoidable, however unfortunate, has cost Posey little in terms of what he’s able to do. One year later, and he’s hitting like the same kid catcher who provided so much joy in 2010: .297/.364/.473, not very different from the .297/.366/.479 line that ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski projected for him via ZiPS before the season. Posey is fourth in OPS+ and OBP among regular receivers, sixth in slugging, seventh in homers. Quibblers might note that Posey is throwing out just 22 percent of stolen-base attempts, but when people are testing you scarcely more often (0.77 attempts per nine innings) than they do Yadier Molina (0.69), that’s a sign of respect of what Posey is to this day: A big-league catcher.

Losing sight of Posey’s comeback might be easy, especially after the Dodgers’ torrid start. The Giants have had more than their share of problems beyond that: Brian Wilson’s broken beyond repair this season and Pablo Sandoval’s out with a broken hand for a few more weeks yet. Tim Lincecum has delivered just one quality start in 10 this season, and took another beating at the hands of the Fish Friday night. The long-standing Aubrey Huff versus Brandon Belt debate over who should be playing first base has been fairly pointless with both men’s bats missing in action.

But in the big picture, Posey is just the leading example of how much is going right for the Giants already. He joins Melky Cabrera’s crazy-good start, and Posey’s handling a pitching staff that, outside of Lincecum’s woes, may very well be the league’s best. In the two wild-card-team era, that’s something any skipper could work and win with.

You can consider me an interested party as an observer to Posey’s misfortune because, this time last year, I’d selected Posey in ESPN’s franchise player draft. I’d picked Posey before he suffered the injury, but the horror of this play at the plate came before we went to press. In an act of generosity, I was asked if I wanted to change my pick from Posey, taking anyone left on the board. I thought about it … and I said no.

I said no because I believed, or because I wanted to believe, not just in Posey’s promise of what could be, of what was supposed to be, but because I wanted to believe that he’d be back, that he would be every bit the player he’d already been and was always meant to be. I believed because I’m a fan, and in the way that every fan wants to see players play, I wanted to see Posey play again. Call it faith if you want, faith in a player, faith in the miracle of modern orthopedics, but I believed Posey would be back.

It wasn’t simple fandom on my part, and I don’t think any of us kid ourselves over the amount of work that went into his getting back on the field. Frankly, as a Northern Californian and an A’s fan in the late ’70s, I grew up hating the Giants, resenting the affection they received from a fawning press still buzzing off a contact high from Willie Mays, where Charley Finley’s franchise received -- and deserved -- derision. No, if I was a fan of anything, it was Posey’s game, a fan of what baseball deserves, of what he deserves.

So, seeing Posey take the field in Florida to face the Marlins on this unhappy anniversary, you can consider me guilty of a contact high of my own, one that comes from getting to say that this is one of those happy non-news stories: That Buster Posey remains the player he’s supposed to be. And whether you root for the Giants or against them, that’s a beautiful thing, all by itself.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Hunter PenceJeff Curry/US PresswireHunter Pence does a little dance with Shane Victorino, but nobody was the worse for wear.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
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.
Albert PujolsAP Photo/Chris CarlsonAlbert Pujols isn't alone among elite hitters who have had prolonged slumps.
The shocking thing about Albert Pujols' start, of course, is that if any player seemed immune to a slump it was him.

After all, this is player who ranks eighth all time in career adjusted OPS, behind seven guys named Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Gehrig, Hornsby, Mantle and Brouthers. (Well, maybe you don't know that last guy. That's Dan Brouthers, who played in the 19th century). Pujols never had a bad month. OK, he did twice hit under .250 in a month -- July of 2001, his rookie season, when he hit .241 but still hit four home runs and had a .793 OPS; and last April, when he hit .245 but slugged seven home runs.

But we're now 24 games into the season and Pujols is homerless with a feeble .208/.255/.292 line. I broke down his issues last week, but I wanted to take another approach. Have other all-time great hitters ever gone through a similar spell while still in their prime seasons? I examined seven of the best post-World War II hitters to see.

Stan Musial
April 15-June 12, 1947: 44 games, .202/.298/.345, 5 HR, 23 BB, 13 SO
Musial didn't quite have the power of Pujols but did top 30 home runs six times. Not surprisingly for a guy who hit .300 for the first 16 seasons of his career, he didn't suffer many dry spells. As it turns out, even his slow start in 1947 was caused by bad health -- appendicitis and tonsillitis.

Willie Mays
April 17-May 13, 1956: 22 games, .209/.303/.384, 3 HR, 11 BB, 8 SO
Mays actually went through a few slumps in his career, unusual for hitters of his caliber. Here's one from the start of the 1956 season. Through 42 games he still had just four home runs. Good news for Angels fans: Mays still finished with 36 home runs as he hit six home runs in both June and July, nine in August and 11 in September.

July 3-Aug. 3, 1958: 30 games, .250/.356/.313, 0 HR, 19 BB, 10 SO
Mays went through a long homerless drought in 1958. Before the drought, he missed two games while hospitalized with fatigue. In fact, going back to May, Mays would hit just three home runs over a 65-game stretch. One big difference between this slump and Pujols' slump: Mays had 19 walks and 10 strikeouts while Pujols has six walks and 14 strikeouts. He'd finish the year hitting .347 with 29 home runs.

May 28-June 25, 1959: 27 games, .265/.318/.367, 1 HR, 8 BB, 8 SO
According James Hirsch's "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend," Mays battled a couple injuries during his span. On June 1, a home-plate collision with Del Rise left him with bruised shins. Rice broke his leg on the play and Mays left the game. Three days later, Mays hurt his shoulder in another home-plate collision. He played for a few days after that but then missed five games, available only to pinch-hit.

Aug. 28-Sept. 30, 1960: 32 games, .288/.343/.400, 0 HR, 9 BB, 10 SO
Mays hit .319 with 20 home runs in 1960, but only a home run on the final day of the season prevented a homerless September. Still, he managed to hit .288 during this power drought.

April 22-May 15, 1963: 22 games, .244/.330/.329, 1 HR, 11 BB, 10 SO
Now 32 -- the same age as Pujols -- Mays appeared to have just had a slow stretch soon after the season began. He'd still finish with a .314 average and 38 home runs and finish fifth in the MVP vote. Best-case scenario for Pujols?

June 24-July 31, 1965: 22 games, .223/.289/301, 2 HR, 10 BB, 11 SO
One final slump for Mays, but this one was another injury-related one. According to Hirsch's book, Mays pulled groin muscle on June 30 and then bruised his thigh and hip in a home-plate collision on July 10 that forced him to leave the game. Nonetheless, he'd still end up with one of his greatest seasons: a career-high 52 home runs and his second MVP trophy.

Hank Aaron
June 1-June 25, 1956: 28 games, .227/.277/.327, 1 HR, 8 BB, 10 SO
Few players matched the Aaron's consistency. This was just his second full season, still 22 years old. He'd end up winning the batting title that year with a .328 mark.

April 25-May 28, 1958: 31 games, .208/.288/.320 1 HR, 14 BB, 14 SO
Despite this dry spell, Aaron would finish at .326 with 30 home runs.

May 2-June 9, 1968: 32 games, .179/.268/.325, 3 HR, 16 BB, 15 SO
Aaron was 34 by now and 1968 was the famous Year of the Pitcher. Aaron would recover to hit .287 with 29 home runs -- big numbers for that season, as he ranked fifth in the NL in home runs.

Barry Bonds
April 8-May 19, 1991: 31 games, .182/.272/.255, 2 HR, 14 BB, 21 SO

I checked Bonds from 1990 to 1999, and this was the only bad stretch he had. It was likely caused by a bruised thumb that did force him to miss four games in early April and took time to heal.

July 28-Sept. 1, 1995: 33 games, .208/.386/.396, 4 HR, 28 BB, 25 SO
Here's another low-average stretch for Bonds, but even then he hit a few home runs and drew 28 walks in 33 games. Again, that's one big problem Pujols is having: his walk rate has declined significantly.

Manny Ramirez
Sept. 1995: .247/.314/.333, 1 HR in 24 games
Not too many bad months for Ramirez. This one came at the end of his first full season in the majors.

April 2007: 24 games, .202/.314/.315, 2 HR, 15 BB, 15 SO
Another slow stretch. Ramirez would finish with a .296 average and 20 home runs in 133 games.

Alex Rodriguez
Sept. 1999: .183, but seven home runs
June 1-June 26, 2006: 22 games, .213/.351/.325, 2 HR, 15 BB, 24 SO
July 26-August 20, 2010: 20 games, .195/.241/.416, 5 HR, 5 BB, 18 SO


A-Rod has had a few low-average periods in his career, but has usually kept his power intact. That poor 2010 stretch includes various ailments -- hip flexor tendinitis, a bruised shin and a strained calf muscle.

Miguel Cabrera
August 2007: .229/.345/.448, five home runs

Cabrera has essentially been slump-proof so far. This is the worst month on his record and it was still a big spike compared to what Pujols has done.

Why does this all mean? I guess there is enough anecdotal evidence here that even superstar hitters in the prime (or very near their prime) can still have rough stretches for 20-plus games. Look, Pujols isn't going to turn into a .220 hitter overnight. Yes, he's undoubtedly hit into some bad luck so far. Maybe like Willie Mays in 1963 or 1965 he can suffer through this slump and still put up MVP numbers. Hey, it's one reason we watch. Because we don't really know, do we?

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
We've moved on to the second round of the Greatest MLB Season Ever bracket. All top-10 seeds advanced, but there were three upsets; interestingly, all involved shortstops. Alex Rodriguez lost to Ken Griffey Jr. in a Mariners death duel (got destroyed, actually, 87 percent to 13 percent); Hank Aaron defeated Robin Yount, 61 to 39 percent; and Jimmie Foxx creamed Cal Ripken, 71 to 29 percent. Maybe I'll have to write up a post on the value of positional scarcity.

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

And by position:

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

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

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

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

Let the debates begin.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
I asked my colleague Jim Caple a simple question: "Who is on your short list of the greatest hitters of all time?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Mays
Case against: Career on-base percentage is nearly 100 points below Ruth and Williams, lowering his career wRC+ to .157.
ST. LOUIS -- I hopped in the cab this morning and immediately the driver started talking about Thursday night's game.

He didn't even bother asking if I was a baseball fan. In St. Louis, they just assume you are.

"That's the kind of game I like to see. A close game. Of course I want to see my team win, but that was a good one," offered Lundy the cabbie. "I'm not a big fan of those 10-1 games."

Lundy was in a good mood, even though his Cardinals had lost in heartbreaking fashion. He said he'd be watching as the World Series shifts to Texas for the next three contests. I didn't ask how old Lundy was; he could have been 60, could have been 75. He started talking about a game from long ago.

"I remember Bob Gibson one time. I think the score was 1-0, but I'm not sure exactly," he began. "He struck out Jim Ray Hart, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. That was something."

I complemented him on his Jim Ray Hart reference.

"You know," Lundy said, "all three of those guys could really mash the ball. But Gibson got all three of 'em."

When I landed in Dallas, I checked out Lundy's story. Turns out Gibson never did strike out all three of those guys in the same inning, let alone in the ninth inning of a tight game. Maybe he was remembering a game from July of 1965, tied 1-1 in the ninth; Mays had singled and Jim Davenport had walked, but Gibson got Hart to ground out and struck out McCovey to escape the jam. Maybe he was remembering a game from April of 1967; in the fourth inning, Gibson got Mays to fly out and struck out McCovey and Hart. Gibson pitched a shutout that day and got Mays and McCovey to end it. Close enough.

The point here: It doesn't really matter if Lundy got the facts right. In his mind, clear as day, he remembers the time Bob Gibson struck out Jim Ray Hart, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, can picture Gibby falling wildly off the mound, Mays swinging helplessly at a nasty slider (Mays never could hit Gibson: .196 career batting average).

I don't know if St. Louis is the best baseball city in America, although it would certainly be hard to beat. I'm not sure how we would go about making that definition anyway, but I know this: How many other cities have cabbies who can remember Jim Ray Hart?

And by the way, Hart could mash: He twice hit more than 30 home runs and from 1964 to 1968 averaged .285 with 28 home runs per season.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Hank AaronManny Rubio/US PresswireHank Aaron hit 755 home runs ... but how many of those came hitting cleanup?
Conventional wisdom says you hit your big home run hitter in the cleanup spot. With Jim Thome joining the 600-homer club, I thought it would be fun to take a little look at the eight members of the club to see where they hit most often in their careers -- as it turns, only two of the eight hit cleanup most often and neither of them did it 50 percent of the time.

Barry Bonds

Career plate appearances: 12,606
PAs batting cleanup: 3,599 (28.5 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 242

Bonds received his most PAs in the three-hole, but also came to the plate more than 2,000 times in the leadoff spot (where he hit early in his career) and the five-hole. Bonds hit fifth in his first MVP season in 1990, as Andy Van Slyke hit third and Bobby Bonilla fourth. When Bonilla left after the 1991 season, Bonds moved into the cleanup spot. Inexplicably, Dusty Baker also hit Bonds fifth during his monster 1993 season when he hit .336/.458/.677. Will Clark and Matt Williams manned the three- and four-holes, but if Bonds had hit third or fourth (or even second) -- and thus received more plate appearances, the Giants may have picked up that one extra win they needed to tie the Braves that year.

Hank Aaron

Career plate appearances: 13,941
PAs batting cleanup: 5,126 (36.7 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 261

Fred Haney, Aaron's manager in Milwaukee, talked about moving Aaron into the leadoff spot since he would get more plate appearances, but he never actually did it. Aaron had nearly 8,000 PAs hitting third.

Babe Ruth

Career plate appearances: 10,617
PAs batting cleanup: 2,012 (19 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 144

We're missing some data from early in his career, when he was mostly a pitcher, but Ruth wore No. 3 for a reason -- that's where he batted most often, in front of Lou Gehrig. But if the Yankees had worn numbers in 1920 -- his first season with the club -- Ruth would have worn No. 4.

Willie Mays

Career plate appearances: 12,493
PAs batting cleanup: 1,849 (14.8 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 111

Mays started 66 games in his career in the leadoff spot. Most of these came late in his career -- 32 times in 1972 and 20 times in 1973, his final season. It actually made since in 1972, when he posted a .400 on-base percentage.

Ken Griffey Jr.

Career plate appearances: 11,304
PAs batting cleanup: 984 (8.7 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 56

Griffey batted third nearly his entire career.

Alex Rodriguez

Career plate appearances: 10,550
PAs batting cleanup: 4,173 (40 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 243

Did the '96 Mariners have the best 2-3-4 single-season combo of all time? Hitting second, A-Rod hit .358/.414/.631, Griffey hit .303/.392/.628 and Edgar Martinez hit .327/.464/.595.

Sammy Sosa

Career plate appearances: 9,896
PAs batting cleanup: 3,319 (33.5 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 215

Sosa received a few more PAs hitting third than cleanup.

Jim Thome

Career plate appearances: 10,220
PAs batting cleanup: 2,998 (29.9 percent)
Home runs hitting cleanup: 202

Thome has received more than 2,000 PAs in the third, fourth and fifth spots. On the 1995 Cleveland team that reached the World Series, Thome usually hit sixth -- and despite hitting .314/.438/.558 that year, began 1996 hitting seventh!

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

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