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)

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