Buster Olney over at ESPN.com wrote in his blog today that baseball is getting younger. Indeed. A half dozen players played in the majors last year at the age of 20, the youngest of which, Starlin Castro, became the first MLB player born in the 1990s. Ugh! Now doesn't THAT make you feel old? Olney's post got this writer to thinking about young players and set out to find the greatest seasons ever by a player at the age of 20. Here's what the Fan found:
This is based on OPS, not a perfect stat, but it seems to do the job here. The following three are the only players in history to have an OPS over 1.000 at the age of twenty (and qualified for the batting title):
Mel Ott - New York Giants (1929). You would think that Ott had help from the short porch in right field at the Polo Grounds, but he hit more homers on the road and had a higher OPS while away from his home park.. It was fourth season in the big leagues and his second full season. He started when he was 17! At the age of 20, Mel Ott walked 123 times against only 36 strikeouts. His slash line that year was .328/.449/.635. He hit 42 homers, knocked in 151, scored 138 and added 37 doubles. And his fielding percentage at first base was right in line with the league average. His final WAR (baseball-reference.com) that season was 8.0. Ott had even better seasons (if you can believe that) as he got older, but remarkably, the Hall of Fame player who finished with 511 homers and over 1600 RBI never won an MVP award. His 1.084 OPS in 1929 is the highest ever for a 20 year old.
Ted Williams - Boston Red Sox (1939). This Fan still can't fathom what Ted Williams' career totals would look like if he didn't miss two stretches to fight in wars. Consider if you will that in the 19 seasons he did play, he only had ONE YEAR where his OPS was less than 1. Can you imagine that? Albert Pujols already has two seasons under 1. 1939 was Williams' rookie year and he started with a bang. He batted .327, had on OBP of .429 (he holds the record for career OBP) and slugged .609. He hit 31 homers and drove in 145 runs (to lead the league). He added 44 doubles and 11 triples and scored 131 times. The only knock on his was his fielding. He made 18 errors in the outfield. 18!? In the outfield? But he still finished with a WAR of 6.8 and an OPS of 1.045, tied for second all time with...
Alex Rodriguez - Seattle Mariners (1996). The Mariners sure cold mash. Rodriguez, Griffey Jr. and Edgar all finished above 1.000 in OPS and Jay Buhner added 44 homers and a .938 OPS. But all A-Rod did at the age of 20 was lead the league in batting, runs scored and doubles. His slash line was .358/.414/.631. He hit 54 doubles and 36 homers as part of his 215 hits. That's a lot of hitting for such a young guy. It was his first full season but he did play parts of the two seasons prior and started at the age of 18. Let's hope his career doesn't parallel Ott's. Ott started young and was finished being productive at 35 and was out of baseball at 38.
Went with ERA+ on this one and the pitcher had to qualify with enough innings for the ERA title.
Dwight Gooden - New York Mets (1985). Gooden had the best pitching season of a 20 year old in all of history. His ERA+ was 229 (!), the only 20 year old ever to have a season over 200. What didn't he do well that season? He went 24-4 with an ERA of 1.53. The slash line against him that season was .201/.254/.270. In other words, the entire league was worse than Emilio Bonifacio! He struck out 276 batters against just 68 walks. And...it was his second amazing season in a row. He won 17 the year before and he had 41 wins before he turned 21. There were no Joba Rules back then. He pitched 276+ innings. Unfortunately, we all know the rest of the story.
Harry Krause - Philadelphia Athletics (1909). Here's a guy you never heard of. He had this one brief shining season and could never repeat it and was out of baseball by the age of 24. But when he was 20, he went 18-8 with a 1.39 ERA (leading the league). He had a WHIP of 0.939 and is given a league leading 172 ERA+. This ranks him second all time as a 20 year old pitcher.
Don Drysdale, Bob Feller and Smokey Joe Wood all had 20 year old campaigns with an ERA+ in the 150s.
And those, folks, are the best performances ever by players at the age of 20.