Seven Players Who Peaked Too Soon
As everyone who follows baseball these days knows, Angels outfielder Mike Trout had a season for the ages last year. In his first full year, he put up numbers that rival the greatest seasons by any of the immortals. Despite not being brought up for the first month of the season, he led the A.L. in runs scored (129) and stolen bases (49 in 55 attempts), while also leading the league in OPS+ (171) and WAR (10.7).
He slugged 30 homers, and posted a .326 / .399 / .564 triple-slash line. He also played world-class defense in center-field. For his efforts, he won a Silver Slugger, the Rookie of the Year award, and he finished runner-up to Miguel Cabrera for the A.L. MVP award.
The question is, what does a player like this do for an encore? While it is hard to imagine a player of Trout’s talents suffering through a sophomore slump, it is also difficult to expect him to match, let alone top, last season’s incredible performance.
Perhaps he’ll hit a few more home runs and drive in more runs, but in what other significant category could be actually improve?These questions led me to consider players of the past who also got off to fast starts, and looked like Hall of Fame caliber players early in their careers. Some of them enjoyed reasonable success, but fell short of what was predicted of them. Others burned out faster than expected.
While I don’t necessarily expect a similar fate to befall Trout — he is a profoundly gifted athlete — these other players serve as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls he could encounter over the course of his career.
One caveat: There are no pitchers on this list. Baseball history is littered with dead arms, torn rotator cuffs, etc. There is nothing to be gained here by examining the careers of those unfortunate souls. And besides, Mike Trout is an outfielder.
1) Cesar Cedeno (1970-86) – Like Mike Trout, Cedeno played his first Major League game at age 19, and also like Trout, he was a star by age 21. Cedeno led the N.L. in doubles in each of his first two seasons. This young Astros outfielder batted .320 in consecutive seasons when he was 21 and 22-years old, respectively. For six consecutive years, 1972-77 inclusive, he stole at least 50 bases. He also had decent home run power, masked by the vast canyon that was the Astrodome. His 26 homers and 102 RBI in 1974 (at age 23) represented career highs. From ages 21-25, he won five consecutive Gold Gloves.
But Cedeno’s career high WAR was 7.9 in 1972, followed by 7.2 the following season. After age 23, he never reached even 6.0 WAR in any single season. After age 29, though he played for another half-dozen seasons, his career as a useful player was all but finished. Cedeno had a fine career, but never surmounted the heights he’d established for himself at an early age.
2) Fred Lynn (1974-90) – Another center-fielder, Lynn took the baseball world by storm in 1975 as a key cog in the Red Sox pennant drive. He became the first player in baseball history to be named Rookie-of-the-Year and MVP in the same season. His triple-slash line was .331 / .401 /.566. That .566 slugging percentage led the A.L. He also led the league with 47 doubles and 103 runs scored. Toss in solid power, 21 homers and 105 RBI, and a Gold Glove, and you had yourself a fantastic 23-year old ball-player.
Though Lynn made nine consecutive All-Star teams from 1975-83 (including three times as an Angel), Lynn only had one other season (1979) where he was as great a player as he was in ’75. Still, he was a remarkably steady player for several years after he left Boston. Beginning in 1982 at age 30, he slugged 21, 22, 23, 23, 23, 23, and 25 homers over a period of seven consecutive seasons. So he remained a useful player all the way up to his 35th birthday. But useful is a long way from great, and after age 27, Lynn was never again a great player.
3) Kal Daniels (1986-92) – Kal Daniels arrived on the scene in Cincinnati at about the same time as Barry Larkin and Eric Davis. By 1988, any one of the three looked like he had a chance to have a Hall of Fame caliber career. Larkin, of course, was the only one who did.
In his first taste of MLB action, as a 22-year old in 1986, Daniels batted .320 in 74 games with an OPS+ of 148. He also stole 15 bases in 17 attempts. In his first year of regular action in ’87, he hit 26 homers and stole 26 bases in 108 games while posting a .334 batting average. His OPS+ was a very impressive 169. In 1988, he set career highs in doubles, runs scored, and stolen bases, while leading the league in on-base percentage (.397.)
Through age 24, he had stolen 63 bases while getting caught just 16 times. 1989 was marred by injuries, and he was traded to the Dodgers. 1990, his first complete year as a Dodger, was also his last highly productive season. His 27 homers and 94 RBI were career highs, he batted a respectable .296, and his OPS+ was a nifty 155. Somehow, though, by age 27, he was all but done. Normally, that’s about the time that most really good players are just hitting their stride. But after age 28, Daniels never again played in the Majors.
4) Carlos Baerga (1990-2005) -The Indians had some great lineups in the 1990’s, and Carlos Baerga was one of the most important, productive players on those teams. As a 22-year old in 1991, he hit a solid .288 and flashed the tantalizing talent of someone who had a lot more fine seasons ahead of him. In ’92, he had 205 hits, including 20 homers and 105 RBI to go along with a .312 batting average. He had another 200 hit season with 21 homers, 114 RBI, 15 steals, 105 runs scored and a .321 batting average as a 24-year old in ’93.
Along with Roberto Alomar, he was the cream of the crop of second basemen. But after accumulating nearly 14 WAR in over his first three years, he produced less than 4.0 WAR combined over the remaining 12 years of his career. He had two more seasons of impressive batting averages in ’94 and ’95, hitting .314 in each of those seasons. But like Kal Daniels, the productive portion of his career was essentially over by the time he turned 28-years old. Even taking into account the rigors of playing a middle infield position, his decline was both sudden and steep.
5) Vada Pinson (1958-75) -Similar to Cesar Cedeno in that through his age 27 season, he appeared to be on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Through age 26, he was an impressive combination of power, speed, and batting average. Playing for the Reds for the first decade of his career, he led the N.L. in hits, doubles and triples twice each, and in runs once. He received a significant number of MVP votes in five of his first six years. He enjoyed four 200-hit seasons, scored at least 96 runs in each of his first seven seasons, and batted over .300 four times. He regularly hit over 20 homers while topping 20 steals in the same season.
But Pinson was little more than a journeyman for the final eight years of his career, making stops in St. Louis, Cleveland, California, and K.C. until finally retiring in 1975 at age 36, a mere shadow of the player he had been in his early to mid-20’s.
6) Alvin Davis (1984-92) – In his rookie season, Davis was a 5.7 WAR player who slugged 27 homers while driving in 116 runs. He had an on-base percentage of nearly .400, made the All-Star team, and was named A.L. Rookie of the Year for the 1984 season. The young first-baseman appeared to be the Seattle Mariners’ first budding superstar. At age 23, it appeared that he would continue to grow into one of the A.L.’s most fearsome young sluggers.
Yet, though he produced respectable numbers for the next half-dozen seasons, he ended up being a good, but never a great, Major League baseball player. Essentially washed-up by age 30, he was out of baseball altogether by age 31. As it turned out, the only All-Star game he ever played in was during his rookie season.
7) Lloyd Waner (1927-45) – It may seem odd including Lloyd (Little Poison) Waner on this list, considering he’s in the Hall of Fame, but 1) he doesn’t belong in The Hall and 2) he was essentially Cesar Cedeno long before Cesar Cedeno. (Actually, to be fair to Cedeno, this half of the Waner brothers was never as good as Cesar.) Still, Lloyd Waner topped the 200-hit, 100-run plateau in each of his first three seasons.
Through age 26, he’d batted at least .333 in all but one of his first six seasons. He’d also received substantial MVP consideration in four of those six years. But by 1933, when he was still just 27-years old, he’d become just another ball-player. He lived off his reputation (and that of his more talented brother) for nearly a dozen more seasons, but the apparent superstar (though erroneously recognized as such by Cooperstown) was not able to sustain, let alone top, the success he enjoyed his first few years.
There are, of course, many other players I could have added to this list. Tony Oliva and Andruw Jones are a couple of others who come to mind. I’m sure you can think of several others.
What remains to be seen, then, is which career path will become Mike Trout’s ultimate destiny? Is he the second-coming of Mickey Mantle, or will he become this generation’s Cesar Cedeno?
What do you think?