A couple of months ago, I did a post on Pitching WAR Analysis: The First Seven Years. I chose seven as the magic number because this often represents the entire first half of many pitchers’ careers, and because it sometimes takes pitchers several years to fully harness their talent.Now we turn to Position Players’ War. This time I chose to focus only on the first five years of various players’ careers. I am of the opinion that although many hitters develop slowly, hitters often arrive a bit more fully formed than pitchers.
Also, with the recent call-up of Nationals outielder Bryce Harper, of whom many people are already predicting a Hall of Fame career, it is instructive to look at other players in their extreme youth to gauge whether or not it is useful to begin making those sorts of predictions so soon.
The list of 50 players that follows is not by any means meant to be some sort of comprehensive overview of baseball history. It is merely a snapshot of 50 players who went on to have significant, if not necessarily Hall of Fame worthy, careers.
I think you will be, as I was, surprised where some of these players rank in the early part of their respective careers. I left out Babe Ruth, by the way, because he tends to skew all lists in a way that makes almost all other players appear to be irrelevant pretenders.
1) Ted Williams – 43.3
2) Eddie Collins – 42.7
3) Ty Cobb – 42.2
4) Mickey Mantle – 38.3
5) Willie Mays – 38.1
6) Alex Rodriguez – 37.4
7) Tris Speaker – 37.0
8) Lou Gehrig – 36.5
9) Don Mattingly – 36.0
10) Stan Musial – 35.8
11) Albert Pujols – 35.0
11) Mike Schmidt – 35.0
13) Wade Boggs – 34.1
14) Cal Ripkin – 33.7
15) Rogers Hornsby – 33.6
16) Nomar Garciaparra – 33.2
17) Jimmie Foxx – 32.8
18) Joe Jackson – 32.7
18) Jackie Robinson – 32.7
20) Joe DiMaggio – 32.6
21) Johnny Bench – 31.0
21) Barry Bonds – 31.0
23) Dick Allen – 30.4
24) Bobby Bonds – 30.2
24) Frank Thomas – 30.2
26) Johnny Mize – 29.4
26) Dave Parker – 29.4
28) Ralph Kiner – 29.0
29) Andruw Jones – 28.8
30) Ken Griffey, Jr. – 28.7
31) Vada Pinson – 28.6
32) Hank Aaron – 28.3
33) Frank Robinson – 28.0
34) Sal Bando – 27.8
35) Reggie Jackson – 27.2
36) Duke Snider – 27.1
36) Honus Wagner – 27.1
38) Derek Jeter – 27.0
39) Jim Fregosi – 26.9
39) Al Kaline – 26.9
41) Cesar Cedeno – 26.6
42) George Brett – 26.3
43) Freddy Lynn – 25.1
44) Tony Oliva – 24.9
45) Bobby Murcer – 24.7
46) Chipper Jones – 24.6
47) Reggie Smith – 23.8
48) Jim Rice – 22.7
49) Robin Yount – 11.9
50) Roberto Clemente – 9.2
No real surprises among the top five, though a lot of people forget how good Eddie Collins was. I like that Mantle and Mays are listed so closely together, since they’ve always been linked so closely in the imaginations of baseball fans.A-Rod’s listed WAR was compiled entirely in Seattle through his age 24 season. It is highly unlikely he was using PED’s at that point. Whether we like him or not, he has always been a legitimately great baseball player.
Clearly, Don Mattingly was on his way to being the next Lou Gehrig before his back problems struck. Pujols sandwiched between Musial and Schmidt just feels right. Who was the best Cardinals player ever? I’ll take Musial by a hair over Pujols.
Look at the infielders listed 13-16. Nomar was right there with Boggs, Ripkin and Hornsby through his age 28 season, then a wrist injury after his age 29 season reduced him to a shell of his former self. After his age 28 season, he would accumulate just 9.0 additional WAR over the rest of his career.
Joe Jackson and Jackie Robinson, tied for 18th, are certainly two of the top five written about baseball players of the 20th century. Robinson arrived, fully formed, in the Majors at age 28. Therefore, it is highly likely that he would have accumulated significant additional WAR for his career had he broken in at a more typical 22 or 23 years of age.
Joe Jackson, on the other hand, certainly lost some additional career WAR at the end of his career. Banned from baseball at age 32, his final season in 1920 (not 1919, as some people believe), was one of his finest. There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have added significantly to his career WAR total had he played an additional 3-5 years.
Interesting how close Barry and his father, Bobby, were through their first five seasons.
Look at how close Dave Parker was to Johnny Mize. Parker could have been great if he’d taken the game more seriously in the early ’80’s.
If you had to pick either Andruw Jones or Ken Griffey, Jr. through their first five seasons, as you can see, it would have been a legitimate toss-up.
If you had to pick between Vada Pinson, Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson after just five seasons of each of their careers, are you sure you would have picked Aaron? Pinson was a special player through age 26, then merely a decent player after that.
Look at Sal Bando! He comes in ahead of his flashier teammate Reggie Jackson, and also ahead of fellow third basemen George Brett and Chipper Jones over their five initial seasons.
Back in the 1950’s, it was common to hear people speak of Willie, Mickey and The Duke. But as you can see through their first five seasons (and this holds true for the most part over the rest of their careers,) although Duke Snider was a very fine ballplayer, he was never really in the same class as his fellow New York center fielders.
Would you have guessed that, through their first five seasons, shortstops Honus Wagner, Derek Jeter and Jim Fregosi were just about equally valuable?
They were each highly productive players from the beginning of their careers. Wagner is probably one of the top ten players of all-time. Jeter, of course, has enjoyed a Hall of Fame caliber career. Fregosi, on the other hand, was pretty much done as a useful player at age 28, after which, of course, the Mets decided to trade away Nolan Ryan to obtain him. Nice job, guys.
Once upon a time, Cesar Cedeno was a very fine baseball player.
When I was a kid, I thought Freddy Lynn was the greatest thing since Shake a Pudd’n.
Before the Red Sox had Jim Rice, there was Reggie Smith. I am convinced that if they had kept Smith, he would have gone on into the Hall of Fame. He was a better all around player than Rice, and he hit into fewer double plays.
O.K., so what’s up with Robin Yount and Roberto Clemente? Their combined WAR for their first five years each adds up to just barely over 20.0. Were they overrated? How did they each manage to recover from such inauspicious debuts to go on to Hall of Fame careers?
Yount broke into the Majors at age 18, clearly before he was ready. He spent the better part of the 1970’s just learning his craft. But for the next five seasons, beginning in 1980, he accumulated another 34.7 WAR and won an MVP award. Those were his age 24-28 seasons. He won another MVP award in 1989, and finished his career with a HOF worthy 72.0 WAR.
As for Clemente, he, too, just wasn’t quite ready when he was brought up at age 20. By age 26, however, he was ready to dominate, and dominate he did, winning a Gold Glove each of the next dozen seasons, winning an MVP award (and a World Series ring in ’71), and he finished his career with an outstanding 91 WAR. Clearly, he was a late bloomer.
So, will Bryce Harper, only 19-years old, follow the career path of a Yount or a Clemente, or will he, alternatively, be the next Ty Cobb or Mickey Mantle? A third possibility, which none of us hope for, is the Cesar Cedeno / Vada Pinson / Nomar Garciaparra career path.
Generally speaking, if he can accumulate at least 35 WAR in his first five years, he is probably on his way to a HOF career. So let’s check back in after the 2016 season, and we’ll see how Harper’s career is progressing.
I’ll be waiting here, so don’t be late.
- Analyzing the aging pattern of MLB players (joeposnanski.si.com)