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September 3, 2004

When Greatness Comes Early

Being Realistic About Young Players

by Chaim Bloom

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When it comes to personnel decisions at the major-league level, baseball executives are paid to predict the future. They have a leg up on Nostradamus and his ilk, though, because scouting and statistical research illuminate trends and tendencies that shape most players' careers. One of these tendencies, which has formed the basis for many tenets of performance analysis, is that players tend to peak at age 27. That conclusion was reached by Bill James and published in his 1987 Baseball Abstract.

This crucial knowledge informs every team's player moves, and when it does not, leads us to question them. For instance:

  • Budget concerns aside, the A's felt comfortable not trying to match New York's enormous offer for Jason Giambi in the fall of 2001, because the 31-year-old Giambi was a less than even bet to surpass his outstanding prime years in Oakland.

  • Because Adrian Beltre will be just 26 next April, teams will be more inclined to see his monster 2004 as a breakout season and not a fluke. Were Beltre 30, almost everybody would see his .337/.385/.651 performance as the likely peak in his career (cf. Javy Lopez, 2003); instead, many clubs will treat Beltre as if he's just hitting his stride.

  • We put the Devil Rays and Tigers under scrutiny for opening the 2003 season with Rocco Baldelli and Jeremy Bonderman on their respective rosters. The D-Rays have now added B.J. Upton, Joey Gathright and Scott Kazmir as well. The idea is that promoting these unready players so soon will be a long-term detriment since, if they stay on the major-league roster, they will reach free agency right as they are hitting their peaks, instead of remaining under their original team's control through their best years.

Knowing the traditional career path does not, however, guarantee anything about any particular player. Players generally follow that path, but individuals can and will take a variety of other courses. Our knowledge of the standard career path tells us, at the very least, that if we call up a young Bonderman or sign an aging Giambi, we are going against the odds. Many players will defy them, but we can't know who they are.

But let's say we have a player--call him Albert--who, at a very young age, is already performing at a level which almost every player in baseball would kill to reach at his peak. The club that holds Albert is lucky indeed, you would reason, because not only does it benefit from his outstanding early years, but it can look forward to an even better peak.

Maybe. Or could it be that when a player begins his career so well, we should count our blessings and not expect more?

To test these competing theories, let's go to the record books. We're going to use Keith Woolner's Marginal Lineup Value (MLVr) as our yardstick; it tells us how many more runs per game a team of otherwise average hitters will score with a particular player in the lineup. We'll look at how these fast starters did in their early years, and compare that against their supposed peaks. To diminish the effect of an off year unfortunately suffered at the age of 27, we'll use a three-year peak, from 26 to 28.

Since 1972, 47 players have posted an MLVr in excess of .200 for a season (minimum 200 plate appearances) before age 24. Most of them were 22 or 23, and of those who were younger, only Bob Horner and Adam Dunn failed to do it again while still young enough to be part of our study. We're not looking at a bunch of one-year wonders; the vast majority proved to be excellent, or at least very good, players.

Four of the 47 (Miguel Cabrera, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns and Albert Pujols) have not yet reached their "peak" years, so we'll leave them aside. Of the remaining 43, just nine players put up a peak MLVr higher than their best pre-24 season. (Aramis Ramirez, less than a full season into his peak period, would count as a tenth.)


                           early excellence              peak years         difference
PLAYER          AGE     AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr     AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr     (MLVr)
Jeff Bagwell     23    .294  .386  .437   .232    .322  .435  .597   .494      .262
Manny Ramirez    23    .308  .401  .558   .314    .324  .423  .650   .469      .155
George Brett     23    .333  .376  .462   .269    .345  .397  .577   .419      .150
Frank Thomas     23    .318  .452  .553   .444    .336  .465  .648   .568      .124
Eddie Murray     22    .285  .355  .480   .210    .309  .398  .531   .326      .116
Tim Raines       21    .304  .391  .438   .228    .315  .401  .481   .290      .062
Rafael Palmeiro  22    .276  .336  .543   .204    .295  .369  .506   .250      .046
Ted Simmons      22    .303  .335  .465   .201    .299  .385  .468   .245      .044
Vlad Guerrero    22    .324  .371  .589   .387    .332  .409  .583   .397      .010

That leaves 33 players who could not exceed their early brilliance during what was supposed to be their peak. Out of those, six fell short by .055 or less, which, over the course of a full season, amounts to fewer than ten runs:


                           early excellence              peak years         difference
PLAYER          AGE     AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr     AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr     (MLVr)
Alvin Davis      23    .284  .391  .497   .250    .298  .401  .492   .249     -.001
Gary Sheffield   23    .330  .385  .580   .427    .291  .450  .550   .403     -.024
R. Henderson     22    .319  .408  .437   .270    .288  .396  .493   .242     -.028
Raul Mondesi     23    .306  .333  .516   .204    .281  .337  .507   .166     -.038
Gary Carter      23    .284  .355  .525   .245    .272  .344  .485   .190     -.055
Scott Rolen      23    .290  .391  .532   .280    .280  .372  .510   .225     -.055

All but Rickey Henderson (1990, age 31) and Scott Rolen (right now, age 29) enjoyed their best individual seasons between ages 26 and 28, so for all intents and purposes we can say that this group equaled its early prowess during its players' supposed peak years.

The remaining 27 players fell off more dramatically, and only three (Chet Lemon, Jeff Burroughs and John Mayberry) even enjoyed individual peak years between ages 26 and 28.


                           early excellence              peak years         difference
PLAYER          AGE     AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr     AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr     (MLVr)
Ryan Klesko      23    .278  .344  .563   .227    .277  .354  .498   .162     -.065
Fred Lynn        23    .331  .397  .566   .381    .311  .396  .541   .308     -.073
Ken Griffey, Jr. 23    .309  .408  .617   .434    .297  .379  .628   .359     -.075
Jack Clark       22    .306  .356  .537   .321    .279  .378  .475   .237     -.084
Andruw Jones     23    .303  .366  .541   .238    .271  .345  .502   .151     -.087
Chet Lemon       23    .300  .370  .510   .261    .271  .362  .465   .161     -.100
Juan Gonzalez    23    .310  .368  .632   .419    .310  .357  .621   .319     -.100
Will Clark       23    .308  .369  .580   .366    .299  .366  .486   .262     -.104
Alex Rodriguez   20    .358  .411  .631   .472    .305  .396  .615   .367     -.105
D. Strawberry    23    .277  .389  .557   .352    .259  .348  .512   .239     -.113
Don Mattingly    23    .343  .376  .537   .353    .313  .360  .498   .235     -.118
Ricky Jordan     23    .308  .324  .491   .224    .287  .312  .432   .094     -.130
Ron Blomberg     23    .268  .355  .488   .264    .251  .330  .473   .133     -.131
Bob Horner       21    .314  .346  .552   .286    .271  .336  .479   .154     -.132
Jeff Burroughs   23    .301  .397  .504   .317    .269  .382  .477   .183     -.134
Troy Glaus       23    .284  .404  .604   .323    .260  .354  .522   .185     -.138
Dusty Baker      23    .320  .382  .495   .286    .267  .339  .425   .096     -.190
Lloyd Moseby     23    .315  .374  .499   .230    .259  .342  .423   .038     -.192
Matt Nokes       23    .289  .343  .536   .204    .248  .303  .426   .006     -.198
Mark McGwire     23    .289  .370  .618   .372    .234  .361  .485   .173     -.199
Cal Ripken, Jr.  22    .318  .371  .517   .279    .258  .340  .423   .057     -.222
John Mayberry    23    .298  .393  .507   .347    .251  .358  .430   .105     -.242
Cesar Cedeno     21    .322  .386  .535   .383    .272  .343  .423   .113     -.270
Ruben Sierra     23    .306  .347  .543   .278    .258  .303  .433  -.005     -.283
Kal Daniels      23    .334  .428  .617   .488    .270  .359  .459   .186     -.302
Fernando Tatis   23    .287  .367  .505   .214    .225  .305  .357   -.145    -.359
Rich Coggins     22    .319  .357  .468   .211         NOT IN BASEBALL

At the bottom of the list are some of the biggest disappointments of the last three decades. Kal Daniels hit .320/.398/.519 as a 22-year-old rookie in 1986, and exploded the following year, hitting .334/.429/.617. He remained an on-base threat for most of the rest of his short career, but never again showed the same power and never played more than 140 games in a season. The turf at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium is blamed for his knee problems and his demise. Then there's Cesar Cedeno and Bob Horner, two of the best young players ever, who simply never were as good again, and dwindled from sure Hall of Famers to also-rans.

But with a few exceptions, these players are fantastic. Would you have guessed that Cal Ripken Jr. would come in seventh from the bottom? He spent his late twenties buffeted by criticism that he should end The Streak before breaking out in 1991 with his best season at age 30. Ken Griffey, Jr. was fantastic from 26 to 28, but godly at 23 (and 24, his best season), a level he still has not approached and likely never will. And, no, that's no typo; that's Alex Rodriguez up there, who may be one of the five best players ever, but has never hit like he did when he was 20 and put up a .472 MLVr.

Which brings us back to our hypothetical Albert, who bears no small resemblance to the real-life Albert currently destroying the ball in St. Louis. Pujols makes the list for all three of his completed seasons; only Griffey, with four, has as many. In fact, Pujols' line quite resembles Junior's, although it is noticeably better:


                    AGE     AVG     OBP     SLG      MLVr
Ken Griffey Jr.      20    .300    .366    .481      .215
Ken Griffey Jr.      21    .327    .397    .527      .339
Ken Griffey Jr.      22    .308    .361    .535      .287
Ken Griffey Jr.      23    .309    .408    .617      .434

Albert Pujols        21    .329    .402    .610      .431
Albert Pujols        22    .314    .394    .561      .369
Albert Pujols        23    .359    .439    .667      .612

Pujols' 2003 season is the best ever for a player under 24, ahead of Alex Rodriguez, who's in third (.472 in 1996), with Daniels (.488 in 1987) sandwiched in between.

Faced with arbitration, the Cardinals took the plunge this winter, signing Pujols to a seven-year contract worth over $100 million. Now, Albert Pujols is so good that he almost breaks any mold we might have sought to establish; he doesn't need to improve to be well worth the money. When the question is, "Do you sign Albert Pujols?" the answer is a resounding "Duh!" The news was handed down amidst the persistent rumors that Pujols may really be as old as 28. If he is, the odds of topping what he's already done grow slimmer, but not by much. As we've seen, players who are excellent early also plateau early.

Most of the time, anyway. Pujols might top that .612 mark next year, or in three years, or when he's 35. But if you're lucky enough to find a bar where the locals are familiar with MLVr, and someone will take your bet that Albert Pujols has peaked at 23, jump on it. Youth is important, but when you're this good, it's hard to get better.

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