Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Top 10 Teenage Seasons

The other day, we looked at some of the best seasons by players who weren't elected to the Hall of Fame.  We also discussed the MLB draft, examining some of the bigger flops from the first round.  It is in the spirit of both of those articles that we now rank the best seasons by teenagers in MLB history!
  • I've talked ad nauseam about Dwight Gooden's rookie year, so that one's not going to be on today's list.  But rest assured, it would be towards the top.
  • A player being a teenager means that this was their "age 19 [or younger] season."  That just means that they were 19 (or, in some cases, 18) on June 30th, indicating that they were a teenager for at least half of the season.  That's good enough for me.

1. Gary Nolan, SP, 1967 (CIN): 6.3 bWAR/147 ERA+/8.20 K/9
Gary Nolan turned 19-years-old on May 27, 1967.  He opened the season at the young age of eighteen, having been drafted out of high school by the Reds in the first round of the previous year's draft.  He threw 104 innings for the Reds' low-A affiliate in 1966, pitching to a 1.82 ERA, and was promptly summoned to the big leagues in April of 1967.  While our modern mindset might gasp in horror at such seemingly poor pitcher management, these moves somehow did not backfire for the Reds or Nolan in 1967.  Instead, Nolan turned in one of the best performances of any pitcher in 1967, even more impressive considering just how young he was.  His WAR was 2nd in the league; his K/9, 1st; his ERA, 4th; and his WHIP (1.125), 9th.  Plus, he famously struck out the side against the Astros in his season (and career) debut, later striking out none other than Willie Mays four times in one game.  (If you're wondering, that only happened three other times in Mays's career.)  Nolan actually had a pretty decent career, considering the Reds did everything in their power to ruin his arm from the second he set foot on a professional mound (he would later retire due to persistent arm troubles).  He got some play as a Cy Young Award contender in a number of other seasons, especially 1972 when his 1.99 ERA was second in the league to Steve Carlton, but no season was as impressive as his rookie 1967.

2. Mel Ott, RF, 1928 (NYG): 3.9 bWAR/139 OPS+/90 RC
Awesomely, this wasn't Ott's rookie year, or even his sophomore year; no, Ott was called up to the majors in 1926 as a 17-year-old!  Keeping that in mind, his 1928 season was pretty great by any standard.  Through 124 games Ott hit for a 139 OPS+ (good for 8th in the league) and 90 runs created (he didn't rank in the top 10 for this category, but that's all right).  His .397 OBP is by far the highest of any player on this list, almost 40 points higher than (spoiler alert!) Renteria's .358.  His .524 slugging percentage also continues to impress.

3. Bryce Harper, CF, 2012 (WAS): 5.2 bWAR/120 OPS+/89 RC
Harper's rookie season is fresh in the collective memory, but that doesn't mean it was any less remarkable.  Through a full season of being nineteen years of age, Harper performed well above average within the National League.  He hit for power (22 home runs), speed (18 stolen bases + 26 doubles + 9 triples), and was great at getting on base (.340 OBP).  His fielding was also really quite good (14 Rfield, second all-time among teenage seasons).  True, he struck out quite a lot (120 K's), but only grounded into 8 double plays, so there you go.  He didn't dominate leaderboards like Nolan, but his statistics were impressive enough on their own to merit some serious praise.

4. Wally Bunker, SP, 1964 (BAL): 3.5 bWAR/134 ERA+/1.042 WHIP
Players like Wally Bunker are what I like best about writing this blog.  Who on earth was Wally Bunker?  I suspect that most people who aren't fans of the mid-1960s Orioles have never heard of him, and indeed his career as a whole was perfectly acceptable but certainly not noteworthy.  Good thing he was only 19-years-old during his first full season, then, or I might never have discovered him!  Anyway, Bunker's season was pretty legitimate: aside from his excellent rate stats mentioned above, he managed 12 complete games (6th in the AL) and 19 wins (3rd).  True, he was aided by a pretty low BABIP (.216) but he still managed to do so over the course of a long, grueling season in which his numbers were better than almost anybody else's.

5. Bob Feller, SP, 1937 (CLE): 3.4 bWAR/133 ERA+/9.11 K/9
Feller is the only 18-year-old entrant on this list, which is both somewhat surprising and very impressive.  Although bWAR prefers his 19-year-old season, I am more a fan of this one for a number of reasons.  First of all, let's not forget that he was only 18!  That's incredible.  Secondly, though it was in 130 fewer innings, Feller put up much better rate stats in '37: a higher ERA+, lower WHIP, and higher K/9.  WAR gives '38 Feller the edge due to more innings, but there is no doubt that Feller pitched better (in a more compressed period of time) in his 18-year-old season.  The fact that he was so young at the time--as well as the fact that he continued to impress the next year, and obviously for the rest of his career--allows me to give the edge to 1937.

6. Tony Conigliaro, LF, 1964 (BOS): 1.6 bWAR/137 OPS+/72 RC
On the other side of the coin in 1964 was Tony Conigliaro, the Red Sox' hotshot new outfielder.  Before the infamous HBP that effectively ended his all-star-worthy career, Conigliaro was an exciting rookie at the age of 19.  Though penalized in bWAR for his defective defense (-10 Rfield), over the course of 111 games Tony C proved that he could hit for power and contact with some great regularity.  Though he would never develop a great eye (no pun or insult intended, I swear...) for walks, he got on base through hits enough to make up for it in his OBP, which was a pretty good .354.  He was a productive hitter, creating 72 runs, in part due to his prodigious power (.530 SLG, which would have ranked 6th in the AL but he just missed the at bats cutoff in order to qualify for the leaderboards).  It goes without saying that it was a damn shame that his career was cut short by such a horrific injury, but we can still look at his 1964 season with pleasure.

7. Smoky Joe Wood, SP, 1909 (BOS): 2.8 bWAR/116 ERA+/1.021 WHIP
In his time, Smoky Joe Wood was one of baseball's most feared pitchers.  In 1912 he went 34-5 with 35 complete games and 10 shutouts and a 1.91 ERA.  His 1911 (23-17, 2.02) was almost as good.  But it was 1909 when Smoky Joe Wood, then just 19-years-old, showed the league just how good he could be.  In his first full season he ranked among the top ten in the AL in K/9 (8th), WHIP (8th), and shutouts (9th), the last of which is especially impressive considering he only started 19 games (for comparison's sake, Walter Johnson started 36 games and threw the same number of shutouts as Wood).  Wood's career was derailed by injury, though he reinvented himself as a decently successful outfielder after hurting his arm.  While 1911 and 1912 speak to how great Wood really was, his 19-year-old season in 1909 shows that how much potential he always had.

8. Rube Bressler, SP, 1914 (PHA): 3.7 bWAR/148 ERA+/1.138 WHIP
It's always tough to compare dead ball-era pitchers to those from the modern era, but such is the magic of modern statistics.  (Fun fact: Bressler spent 1914 and 1915 as a pitcher, played outfield for the next two seasons, went back to pitching part-time for the three seasons following that, and played outfield, as well as some first base, full-time from 1921 until his retirement in 1932.  Baseball!)  In 1914, Bressler alternated between starter and reliever, though he still managed to log 147.2 innings.  His 1.77 ERA would have ranked fourth (in an era when Walter Johnson was throwing around 400 innings every year, Bressler's 147.2 was a bit pedestrian) and his WHIP tenth.  Bressler's a bit of a fringe choice, given that he wasn't really a full-time player, but he managed to overwhelm the American League even more than most pitchers did during this notoriously offense-light era, and that's worth something.

9. Edgar Renteria, SS, 1996 (FLA): 3.3 bWAR/103 OPS+/63 RC
Renteria's 1996 was pretty good: he proved himself to be a solid fielder (11 Rfield) and good at getting on base, though also prone to striking out (68 strikeouts, compared to only 33 walks).  While never a particularly fearsome offensive player, Renteria did create 63 runs in only 106 games, something that pro-rates to 96 in 162 games.  Renteria is more famous for being a World Series hero at 20 years of age, but his 19-year-old season was plenty successful too.

10. Ty Cobb, CF, 1906 (DET): 2.5 bWAR/132 OPS+/23 SB
During his relatively brief stint in the big leagues as a 19-year-old, Cobb showed some flashes of what was to come.  He would finish in the top ten in the American League for batting average, OBP, and OPS, while also putting up decent stolen base numbers.  His counting stats were also hampered by the fact that he only played 98 games, though it is fun to think about how much he could have dominated the league had he played fifty more games.

Runners-up: Chief Bender, SP, 1903 (PHA); Ken Griffey, CF, 1989 (SEA); Don Gullett, RP, 1970 (CIN); Sherry Magee, RF, 1904 (PHI)

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Trade That Will Save the Mets?

I haven't had time to write a full list (Subjective Baseball will return to its regularly scheduled programming on Wednesday), but I will offer a few brief thoughts on the state of the New York Mets.

Obviously things are dire.  Although my lists on this site are even-handed, I never admit to being anything other than a diehard Mets fan.  Increasingly, though, we see (and even hear, as with Sandy Alderson's interview on WFAN this afternoon) Mets fans of all stripes calling for trades or signings that will kickstart this team's future, just like the trades for Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez did in the 1980s.

Let's not forget just how good these players were before being traded to the Mets.  Carter's bWAR during his tenure in Montreal was 55.5.  Hernandez's, in St. Louis, was 34.3.  Both players were at the heights of their career (Carter was 30, a bit old for a catcher, while Hernandez was the nearly perfect 29) so the fact that the Mets were able to get both players for so cheap was a bit of a miracle.  For Carter, all that was required was Hubie Brooks (who was actually very good) and spare prospects; for Hernandez, the Mets merely gave up Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey.  That's not to say that the Mets don't have the chips to craft a similar trade; rather, the world of baseball has changed, and not in a way that benefits the Mets.  Among players who are currently 30-years-old or younger, Carter's bWAR would rank first, while Hernandez would come in 7th.  To put this comparison in present terms, asking Sandy Alderson to repeat such a scenario is akin to suggesting that he trade for Miguel Cabrera (51.1) and Ryan Braun (35.3) within the span of a year.  Obviously, this is ludicrous.  Advanced baseball metrics have improved our understanding of a player's true value, and even the Brewers selling Braun for pennies on the dollar--semi-similar to what happened when Whitey Herzog banished Hernandez from St. Louis--seems radically unlikely.

A recent rumor has the Mets linked to Andre Ethier.  Among active players who were born after 1982 (so, 31-years-old or younger), Ethier's bWAR (16.7) is 37th--and he's 31 on the nose, older than either Carter or Hernandez at the time of their trades.  Selling the farm à la Carter/Hernandez for Ethier, a player who has spent eight years in the MLB yet has never gotten over 3.8 bWAR in a season, would be a folly of epic proportions.  If the Mets are going to rebuild by trading for good players under contract, they need to do so with players who are very, not just marginally, talented.

Here's the good news: the increase in statistical knowledge has also led to the general overvaluation of prospects as commodities.  Remember Francisco Martinez?  Lastings Milledge?  Generation K?  You don't need to read my most recent article to know that prospects, even top prospects, don't always work out.  Sandy Alderson has worked very hard to stockpile the Mets' farm system with pretty good prospects, from Brandon Nimmo to Noah Syndergaard.  This can lead to one of two things: a 2015 team that features an almost wholly homegrown--or, at least, traded-for-when-they-were-still-in-the-minors--roster; or a 2015 team that features star players who were obtained by shelling out a number of top prospects.  Thanks to Sandy Alderson's direction, the Mets are still able to head down either path.  Let's not ruin it by calling for Alderson's ouster or ridiculous trades for Andre Ethier, okay?

(As a side note, while writing this article I started thinking about a trade for Braun and realized just how surprisingly realistic this could be.  Think about it: the Brewers have a terrible farm system and Braun's contract is only going to get more expensive as he ages.  Throw in the never-ending drug suspicion [hmm...] and you get a player who could be obtained for much less than then 7-bWAR superstar he really is.  Potentially very interesting.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Top 10 First Round Draft Busts

In honor of the MLB Draft being upon us (this Thursday!), it's time to take a look at some picks that didn't pan out.  Maybe the team and player were just unlucky, maybe it was just a bad pick.  No matter the circumstance, these players just didn't pan out.  Whatever the case, it's fun to look back and laugh... unless, of course, you are a fan of that team.  On Wednesday, we'll examine some of the better first-round draft picks--fun for everybody!

  • A note: picks that didn't sign don't count for the purpose of this list.  Who knows how Danny Goodwin would have turned out had he signed with the White Sox in 1971?  Maybe he would have had a better career than Frank Tanana, who was drafted at #13 that year.  (Probably not, though.)
  • Also, there are way too many draft picks, even in the first round, for me to assume that this list is anywhere close to conclusive.  For now, just think of this list as an exploration of ten draft picks that panned out poorer than most.  There may be others that are even worse.  That's what the comments section is for!

1. Matt Anderson, RHP, #1, DET, 1997
The 1997 draft may not have had the deepest collection of talent, but it was one of the most top-heavy: J.D. Drew (though he didn't sign), Troy Glaus, now-awesome Jason Grilli, Vernon Wells, Michael Cuddyer, and Jon Garland were all chosen within the first ten picks.  The Tigers, with the #1 overall pick, majorly whiffed with the Anderson pick.  First of all, Anderson was always projected to be a relief pitcher, a big problem no matter where you're picking in the first round.  Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at it.  After an admittedly very good 1998 (he dominated the minors, the Tigers rushed him from AA, and he threw 44 innings in Detroit with a 145 ERA+ and 1.568 WHIP) he looked lost from then on.  He spent 2001 as the Tigers' closer but still pitched to a -0.1 bWAR.  This was a bad pick at the time and it just got worse as the years rolled on.

2. Brien Taylor, LHP, #1, NYY, 1991
Taylor's story is a famous one.  First he was the best young pitcher of all-time (quoth his agent, Scott Boras).  Then, almost as quickly, he hurt his arm defending his brother in a fight and was basically done, struggling with his weight and his arm until finally retiring in 2000, never reaching the majors.  Most of this was bad luck on the part of the Yankees, but two notes must be made.  First, even before he hurt his arm Taylor struggled badly with his control, issuing 5.6 BB/9 with the Yankees' AA affiliate in 1993.  Second, even with the arm injury Taylor reported to Yankees' camp out of shape and with a severely reduced fastball; some of this can be blamed on the injury, but some of it can probably also be blamed on Taylor's demeanor and the Yankees' handling of him.  It was the sad end to a career that had once showed such promise.

3. Matt Bush, SS: #1, SD, 2004
The Padres' choice of Matt Bush in the 2004 draft was inexcusable at the time.  Incredibly, it is even moreso today.  To recap: the cheapskate Padres chose Bush, a local high school product, because they knew they could sign him on the cheap.  This is almost always a terrible strategy: #1 overall picks have a total WAR of 883.9, #2 have 579, #3 have 486, etc...; your #1 draft pick, if he's the best player in the draft, will usually pay for himself in the long run.  It turns out that Bush's character makeup wasn't the best and he's been in legal trouble ever since he was drafted.  This is all unfortunate, but the kicker?  The consensus #1 pick, whom was drafted next by the Tigers, was a pitcher named Justin Verlander.  Oops.

4. Kurt Brown, C: #5, CHW, 1985
Poor Kurt Brown.  It isn't his fault that he, a career minor leaguer, was chosen among many all-time great players in the deepest first round in MLB Draft history.  In the end, that's really only a problem for the White Sox, who have had to live with the fact that they passed up Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro, as well as other great players chosen after Brown.

5. Jeff Clement, C: #3, SEA, 2005
Through 152 major league games, Clement has an OPS+ of 74 and a bWAR of -1.2.  The next four players in the 2005 draft have combined for a 106.2 bWAR, with three of them (Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, and Troy Tulowitzki) netting over 30 points of WAR for their careers.  Clement wasn't expected to be this bad--he had a consistent OBP in the high .300s throughout his minor league career.  He just wasn't ever able to translate that to success at the major league level, either for the Mariners or the Pirates.

6. Clint Everts, RHP: #5, MON, 2001; Bobby Brownlie, RHP: #21, CHC, 2002
The 2002 draft--the Moneyball draft!--was one of the best in recent history.  The Expos drafted Everts, who never made the bigs, ahead of such A+ talents as Zack Greinke and Prince Fielder.  Brownlie was only drafted at #21, and it's reasonable for somebody so low to never pan out, but he was still drafted ahead of Jeremy Guthrie and Matt Cain.  Chris Gruler (#3, CIN) gets an honorable mention in this spot, but his career flamed out due to constant shoulder surgeries, not a lack of big league talent.

7. Donavan Tate, CF: #3, SD, 2009
The Padres didn't skimp this time, giving Tate a $6.7 million bonus.  Unfortunately, Tate was beset by off-field injuries from the beginning of his career, not to mention his poor performance (.620 OPS between A and A+ last season, his age-21 year).  He's currently on leave from the Padres to deal with personal issues, so while there's no guarantee that he won't come back and tear up professional baseball, this prospect is looking increasingly unlikely.  And to think that they (as well as almost every other team) could have had Mike Trout...

8. Bryan Bullington, RHP: #1, PIT, 2002
The Bullington pick has a separate spot from Everts and Brownlie only because Bullington was chosen first overall, though in this case that's not as much of a black mark.  Like Bush, Bullington was seemingly chosen due to signability concerns with the better player, B.J. Upton.  Unlike Bush, however, Bullington was good enough to make it to the MLB, though with a -0.2 bWAR to his name over his career he hasn't exactly lived up to expectations.  This pick would look a lot worse had any of the other top picks panned out, but with the exception of Upton they've all been disappointing.

9. Tommy Boggs, RHP: #2, TEX, 1974
Boggs only had one semi-good season (1980, with the Braves, when he had a bWAR of 2.6), and spent his career as a journeyman starter unable to pitch well.  He opened his career, after a promising rookie year (104 ERA+), with three straight seasons of an ERA+ 70 or under.  He wasn't a complete washout as a player, but the 1974 draft was mighty good: Lonnie Smith, Dale Murphy, and Willie Wilson, among a few others, could have been had by the Rangers with this #2 pick.  The same could be said for the Padres with their #1 overall choice, Bill Almon, but Almon managed to string together a long career as a quality infielder, even placing in the MVP voting in one season.  Boggs never had such success.

10. Steve Chilcott, C: #1, NYM, 1966
Chilcott gets a bad rap from people wanting to mock my beloved Mets.  Yes, Reggie Jackson was the next player chosen.  And okay, Chilcott never actually made the major leagues (he's one of only a handful of #1 draftees to lay claim to that dubious honor).  But it was actually a reasonable pick at the time.  The Mets wanted a catcher and Chilcott was the best player to deliver that for them.  He was also incredibly young--only 17 in 1966--and might have amounted to something with modern baseball knowledge.  His OPS through 22 games in AAA during his age 21 season was a reasonable .826 but that never translated into major league success.  The Mets' gamble with Chilcott didn't pay off at all, and for that he deserves at least a spot on this list, but this pick wasn't as bad as it's often made out to be.

Runners-up: Geoff Goetz, LHP: #6, NYM, 1997; Greg Reynolds, RHP: #2, PIT, 2006; Augie Schmidt, SS: #2, TOR, 1982