Wednesday, November 21, 2012

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist - 

Williams and DiMaggio, Mays and Mantle, Bonds and Griffey…baseball has a history of paired superstars, players of similar talent that are associated with each other for much of their careers. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, AL and NL Rookies of the Year of 2012, will almost certainly be paired in name for the rest of their careers; they are both, by any account, generational talents – at least based upon their respective performances relative to other players at a similar age. They are similar but different: both have all-around hitting ability that should translate to multiple "3-4-5" seasons (.300 BA, .400 OBP, .500 SLG); both have excellent plate discipline and both are above average in all facets of the game. Trout has the edge with his blazing speed (although Harper is no Bengie Molina), while Harper has the edge with his prodigious power (although Trout is no Reggie Willits).

Angels fans like to tout Trout over Harper, but looking at their performances in historical context relative to age, their seasons were both incredible. According to WAR, Trout not only had the best season ever by a 20-year old, but the best by a 21-year old or younger, and the best by any rookie in major league history. Harper, on the other hand, had the best season ever by a 19-year old.

So we’re left with the question: How good will these two players be? Will they be inner circle Hall of Famers like Mays and Mantle? Or will they merely be very good players who had tremendous rookie years? Obviously we can’t answer those questions definitively, but one thing we can do is look at historical precedents based upon what we do know – that is, what they have already done. So let’s take a look at both players and how they performed relative to players of similar qualifications.

A couple notes before we get into it. First of all, while this article is about both players, given that this is an Angels website I’ll be focusing more on Trout. Secondly, as for WAR usage I will be referencing's version of WAR throughout, fWAR; this is not because of a preference over Baseball-Reference’s version, rWAR, but because Fangraphs offers a better searchable free database.

Trout produced a 10.0 fWAR at age 20, a truly great season for any age, any year. Let’s start with that. How great is a 10 fWAR in baseball history?

First of all, and as an aside, baseball historians generally use one of two dates for major league history, either 1876 with the advent of the National League, or 1901 with the rise of the American League to major league status and the beginning of the two-league system we have today (with the brief exception of two years from 1914-15 when there was a third league, the Federal League). I’m going to be looking at the period from 1901 to the present day, a span of 112 years.

According to Fangraphs, since 1901 there have only been 87 position player seasons with a 10 fWAR or higher, accomplished by 35 players. So Trout is one of only 35 players in 112 years that has had a 10 fWAR or higher. Here’s the breakdown by number of seasons with a 10+ fWAR:

10 – Ruth
9 – Mays
6 – Bonds, Hornsby, Williams
5 – Gehrig, Wagner, Cobb
4 – Mantle
3 – Morgan
2 – Foxx, Yasztremski, Musial, Ripken, DiMaggio, Henderson
1 – Boudreau, Sisler, Kauff, Cash, Collins, Speaker, Petrocelli, Yount, Banks, Sosa, Evans, Griffey Jr, Santo, Bench, Pujols, J Robinson, Trout, Schmidt, A Rodriguez

Looking at that list, we can see an interesting breakdown – every player with at least two seasons is an all-time great, an inner circle Hall of Famer. In fact, you could make an argument that the nine players with four or more seasons of 10 fWAR are the nine greatest position players of all time; after that it becomes more debatable – who was better, Morgan or Ripken, Foxx or Schmidt? Etc. I’d probably add Musial and Hank Aaron to the top nine and call those the eleven greatest major leaguers ever, the top 20 rounded off by others on that list; notice that Hammerin' Hank never had a 10 fWAR season – but he did have an incredible fifteen 7+ fWAR seasons, which as we’ll discuss denotes MVP-caliber.

The worst players on the list are probably Cal Ripken and Carl Yasztremski – hardly mediocrities. But when we get to the single season players, we see a slightly different picture. Some inner circle Hall of Famers (Speaker, Pujols, Schmidt, etc), but a handful players that aren’t even in the Hall of Fame and probably never will be: Kauff, Cash, Petrocelli, Sosa, and Darrell Evans (Griffey isn’t in yet, but almost certainly will be). Let’s take a look at these players first.

Benny Kauff played almost a century ago and had a couple great years amidst a short career. Sosa has Hall of Fame numbers but is controversial due to his use of steroids; Darrell Evans is a “stathead” favorite – an underrated player who had a better career than many Hall of Famers; compare his 67.9 fWAR to Andre Dawson’s 62.3 or Jim Rice’s 56.1. Norm Cash’s 1961 season (10.9 fWAR) was one of the greatest fluke years of all time – in no other season of his 17-year career did he have higher than 5.9 fWAR (Darin Erstad's 8.8 2000 was also up there; his next highest total was 3.4). Cash was a very good player, comparable to modern players like Tim Salmon (but with a longer career), but in ’61 he was probably the second best player in baseball after Mickey Mantle. Petrocelli was similar – a very good player who had a truly great year.

At the least we can say that every player on that list is either a Hall of Famer or in the “Hall of the Very Good,” a term used by some baseball writers to describe those players with long and/or excellent careers that aren’t quite Hall of Fame worthy, but might merit at least some discussion (think Reggie Smith, Dwight Evans, Bobby Grich, Moises Alou, Tim Salmon, etc – players with roughly 30-60 fWAR). This would lead us to believe that the worst-case scenario for Trout is that he ends up being a player comparable to Petrocelli, Cash, or Evans.

But let’s fine-tune this a bit. Most of those seasons were not produced at the same age as Trout was in 2012: 20 years old (he turned 21 in August, but as the cut-off date is early July, 2012 was his “age 20 season”). What about very young players with 10 fWAR seasons?

If we look only at 20-year olds, Trout is the only player in the history of baseball to have a 10 fWAR season, although Alex Rodriguez is very close at 9.8. Notching it up to age 21 and again, Trout’s the only one, although to be fair we have a few players that are very close: Rogers Hornsby (9.9), A Rod (9.8), Joe Jackson (9.7), and Eddie Matthews (9.6). Given the inexactitude of WAR, we can say that these five players had roughly equal seasons in terms of value. So think about that for a moment – the only players with similar seasons to Trout at such a young age are four Hall of Fame talents. Of the five, Alex Rodriguez was the youngest, but only by about a week and a half than Trout.

What if we expand it to 22 and younger? We get a handful of players, including Ted Williams, Eddie Collins, Stan Musial, Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio. At age 23 it doubles again with 12 seasons by 10 players (including Trout); at age 24 it enlargens again to 22 seasons - and so forth. But the key point here is how rarified Trout's performance was at such a young age (or, again, any age).

From the above, we can say that,  based on fWAR:

Trout’s 2012 is if not the best ever by a player age 21 and younger, one of the very best.
It is also one of the 87 best seasons ever, accomplished by only 35 players.
The only other players to have similar seasons at a very young age – 22 or younger – are inner circle Hall of Famers.

The only other players to have similar seasons at any age are Hall of the Very Good players.

What about Bryce Harper? His 4.9 fWAR is the best ever by a 19 year old; the closest player is Mel Ott with a 4.6 fWAR (3rd is Buddy Lewis at 2.9). ­In terms of rookie years, Harper just squeezes into the top 90, although remember that every player above him was older.

As was the case with Trout, to get a larger pool of comparables for Harper we have to broaden our criteria a bit; let’s look at rookies 20 and younger. Trout's 2012, as we know, is 1st, but Harper is no slouch either – he’s 9th all time, behind only Trout, Williams, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Rogers Hornsby, Johnny Bench, Dick Hoblitzell, and Jason Heyward – and just ahead of Willie Mays. The outlier, obviously, is Hoblitzell, who was pretty much a league average player from a hundred years ago who had his best year at age 20. The rest are all Hall of Famers with the exception of Pinson, a classic Hall of the Very Good player, and Heyward – who is another excellent young player, almost exactly two years older than Trout and well on his way to at least a Hall of the Very Good career.

The bottom line with both Trout and Harper is that what we saw in 2012 were essentially unprecedented performances. Trout not only had the best rookie year ever, but the best season by any player 21 years or younger, among 442 qualifiers; Harper had the best season ever by a 19-year old, an age at which even great players generally struggle.

As we've discussed, with both players there are very few close precedents – there are decent ones, but only a few players who have had comparable seasons at such a young age. But what if we ask: Among players who had a great season at a very young age, how did they perform for the rest of their careers? Who among them had Hall of Fame, Hall of Very Good, or just solid careers? Given that Trout’s 10 fWAR at age 20 is unprecedented, let’s use much broader criteria: age 21 (or younger) and 7+ fWAR. I’m picking 7 fWAR somewhat arbitrarily, but it is perhaps the cut-off for a great, MVP-caliber season (which again illustrates just how amazing Trout's 10 fWAR season was). In most years there are about half a dozen position players who have 7+ fWAR (In 40 years from 1973 to the present, the “Age of the DH”, there have been 275 7 fWAR seasons, or 5.5 per season).

The list is surprisingly short. There have only been 22 seasons by 19 players with a 7+ fWAR at age 21 or younger. The players are, in order of highest fWAR at that age: Trout , Hornsby, Rodriguez, Joe Jackson, E Matthews, Mel Ott (twice), Cesar Cedeno, Rickey Henderson, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams (twice), Al Kaline (twice), Albert Pujols, Frank Robinson, Ty Cobb, Ken Griffey Jr, Andruw Jones, Mickey Mantle, Donie Bush and Tris Speaker. This, I think, gives us a nice range to look at.

The outliers on that list are Jones, Bush, and Cedeno. Jackson isn’t in the Hall but was a Hall of Fame talent. Every other player is in the Hall of Fame, and most are inner circle Hall of Famers. In fact, let’s look at the career fWAR totals for each (what follows is a lot of statistical analysis; if you find it distasteful or boring, just skip ahead to the next part).

Player: fWAR total; first 7+ fWAR season (ranking among all of player’s seasons); number of seasons of 7+ fWAR, age of last 7+ fWAR season

Rogers Hornsby: 134.9; 9.9 fWAR at age 21 (7th); ten seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 33
Alex Rodriguez: 114.6; 9.8 fWAR at age 20 (2nd); eights seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 31
Joe Jackson: 66.0; 9.7 at age 21 (1st); five seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 30
Eddie Mathews: 107.3; 9.6 fWAR at age 21 (1st); eight seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 31
Mel Ott: 115.9; 8.9 fWAR at age 20 (1st); seven seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 29
Cesar Cedeno: 55.1; 8.8 fWAR at age 21 (1st); two seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 22
Rickey Henderson: 113.9; 8.3 fWAR at age 21 (4th); six seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 31
Jimmie Foxx: 112.2; 8.1 fWAR at age 21 (6th); eight seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 31
Ted Williams: 139.8; 7.9 fWAR at age 20 (9th); twelve seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 38
Al Kaline: 101.9; 7.7 fWAR at age 20 (3rd); four seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 32
Albert Pujols: 91.6; 7.7 fWAR at age 21 (8th); nine seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 30
Frank Robinson: 116.4; 7.6 fWAR at age 21 (4th); six seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 33
Ty Cobb: 161.8; 7.4 fWAR at age 20 (9th); eleven seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 34
Ken Griffey Jr: 83.9; 7.4 fWAR at age 21 (4th); six seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 28
Andruw Jones: 72.1; 7.3 fWAR at age 21 (3rd); five seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 27
Mickey Mantle: 123.3; 7.3 fWAR at age 20 (7th); nine seasons of 7+ fWAR, last at age 29
Donie Bush: 45.3; 7.1 fWAR at age 21 (1st); only season at 7+ fWAR
Tris Speaker: 141.6; 7.0 fWAR at age 21 (9th); eleven seasons at 7+ fWAR, last at age 35

That’s a lot of information there, but bear with me. Let me tease out some numbers for you. Again, what we have above is a list of 19 players who had an MVP-caliber season (defined as a 7 fWAR or greater) at age 21 or younger. Before we go into interpretation, it is worth mentioning who is not on that list - some truly great players, including the three highest fWAR totals of all time: Babe Ruth (a starting pitcher until age 24, his first great hitting year), Barry Bonds (also had his first great year at age 24), and Willie Mays (just missed this list by a year, having an 11.4 fWAR season at age 22). Also not on this list are Hank Aaron, Honus Wagner, and Stan Musial – all top ten fWAR players, not to mention Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, etc.

The list is also a mixture of a wide variety of positions:  13 outfielders (Trout makes 14), 2 first basemen, and 1 third baseman, shortstop, and second baseman. But the key component we’re looking for is an MVP-caliber season at a very young age (21 or younger).

So how’d they do for the rest of their careers? All, with the exception of Jackson, Cedeno and Bush, compiled 70+ fWAR – which is as good a threshold for the Hall of Fame as any. For 5 of the 18 (28%) it was their best season. Only one (Bush) didn’t have a second great season, and all but Bush and Cedeno had at least four seasons of 7+ fWAR. In terms of the age the player was when they last had an MVP-caliber season, the range was wide – from 21 (Bush, his only) to 38 (Williams).

The “average player” of the list would compile 105.4 career fWAR (good for 24th all time among position players between Nap Lajoie and Al Kaline), have 7 seasons of 7 fWAR or greater, with the average age of their last great year being age 30.

Perhaps the most worrisome comparable is Cesar Cedeno, who was actually somewhat similar to Trout for his age 21 and 22 seasons. In both years he hit .320 with a .900+ OPS, 22-25 HR, and 55+ SB. He was, like Trout, a very speedy Gold Glove level centerfielder with excellent all-around skills. For the rest of his career Cedeno only ever hit .300 again once, and ended up finishing with a very good—but not great--.285/.347/.443 line in 2006 games. Cedeno is a classic Hall of the Very Good player, yet based upon his age 21 and 22 seasons he looked like he was heading towards a Hall of Fame career. Cedeno, I would say, describes the worst possible outcome for Trout: An excellent player who just happened to have his very best years at a very young age.

And what about Harper? Is my Angels homerism keeping me from going into as much depth? No, not really – the problem is simply that we haven’t seen Harper’s true level of greatness yet. The extraordinariness of his season has more to do with how young he was; he wasn't great in 2012, but he was very good - and 19-year olds are almost never very good. As I said earlier, he had the best season of any 19-year old in the history of the game and the 9th best season among age 20 or younger rookies; he’s in rarified company to say the least.  What we don’t know is how great he’ll become; most analysts suggest he’ll be as good, if not better, than Trout.

(Fangraphs guru Dave Cameron believes Harper will be better mainly because his best skills – power and discipline – grow with age, whereas a lot of Trout’s value relies on speed, which will decline with time; this is not to say that Trout won’t be great without blazing speed, but just not quite as good. It may be that, if Cameron is right, Trout will be the better player over the next five years or so, with Harper taking over sometime in their mid-to-late twenties. But it is really too soon to conjecture. I believe that it will be akin to Mays and Mantle and come down to longevity: Mantle was better at his very best, but Mays was only a step behind and had a longer career).

Well, the long answer is above. The short answer is this: Barring something completely unforeseen or a total break from historical precedent, Mike Trout is going to have a great career. According to his historical precedents, there is a small chance that he will merely be a “Hall of the Very Good” player; but it is more likely that he’s going to be a true Hall of Fame player, and there is a small but solid chance that he’ll be one of the all-time greats. What is important to keep in mind is that the above deliberations were only found through broader criteria than what Trout actually accomplished; as I said earlier, both he and Harper are in uncharted waters.

It is virtually impossible to project either player at this point – both only have about a full season of play. But I’ll give it a shot - why not? I’m going to guess that Trout takes a step back, at least in 2013, mainly because of his unreal July. I think he’ll have a great year but adjust to more even production. Harper, on the other hand, will take off and begin to bridge the gap between the two. So I’ll guess we’ll see something like this:

Harper: .290/.380/.550, 35 HR, 20 SB; 7 fWAR
Trout: .315/.400/.530, 25 HR, 50 SB; 8 fWAR

What about at their peaks? Well, the sky’s the limit. I could see Harper putting together a series of .300+/1.000+ OPS seasons, challenging for 50+ HR a few times. And Trout? I think he’ll have more seasons like 2012 – maybe not in 2013 – but that we’ll see seasons of .330+/.950+, perhaps even a batting title or two. Both players, I believe, are bound for multiple MVP awards - which is a prediction reserved only for the rarest talents.

Am I exaggerating in my accolades? Let us not forget just how young these guys are. Harper is 20, Trout 21. Most rookies don’t break into the majors until age 23-25; Tim Salmon was 24 when he won Rookie of the Year in 1993. The question is not whether these two will be great, but how great. Chances are they’ll be better than Hall of the Very Good; both look like Hall of Fame talents, but the question is whether they’ll be great players like Griffey and Jones, or all-time greats like Mantle and Mays.

That is a question that every baseball fan is going to enjoy finding the answer to.
Love to hear what you think!

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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