By In Stuff

Harper, Trout and the Future

In honor of Bryce Harper playing his 162nd career game, here is the list of the Top 12 home run hitters through Age 20 season:

1. Mel Ott, 61

2. Tony Conigliaro, 56

3. Alex Rodriguez, 41

4. Ken Griffey, 38

5. Frank Robinson, 38

6. Mickey Mantle, 36

7. Mike Trout, 35

8. Al Kaline, 32

9. Bryce Harper, 31

(tie) Ted Williams, 31

11. Orlando Cepeda, 25

(tie) Eddie Mathews, 25

Now, some of these players — Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams and Cepeda — actually turned 21at some point DURING the season, something Bryce Harper will not do until October.

There are a couple of points worth making here. One, Harper is on pace to hit 60 home runs this year. And while he probably won’t do that, he has to hit 40 this year (31 more in the last five months) to pass Mel Ott for most home runs through Age 20 season.

But here’s an even more significant point, I think. Look at the 12 players. Tony Conigliaro seemed on his way to an extraordinary career until he was hit in the face by a Jack Hamilton pitch. the pitch fractured his cheek, dislocated his jaw and caused serious problems to his eye. His comeback was stirring and magnificent — he hit 36 homers in 1970 — but his vision was never the same and he was done at 26 (he did try another comeback at 30, making it back to the Majors). He goes down with Herb Score and a couple of others as the greatest “What might have beens” in baseball history.

So take away Conigliaro. And take away Trout and Harper because they are active. That leaves nine players.

All nine are either in the Hall of Fame or will be in the Hall of Fame (depending on how the voters treat A-Rod). That’s amazing to me. All nine are all-time players.

It just goes to show you that this sort of brilliance as a young hitter is very telling and predictive. It’s interesting. Take a look at the pitchers with the most strikeouts through age 20 (since 1901):

1. Bob Feller, 712

2. Dwight Gooden, 544

3. Bert Blyleven, 359

4. Gary Nolan, 317

5. Larry Dierker, 290

6. Mike McCormick, 287

(tie) Pete Schneider, 287

8. Chief Bender, 276

9. Felix Hernandez, 253

10. Smoky Joe Wood, 244

11. Rick Ankiel, 233

12. Walter Johnson, 231

Sort of a mixed bag, isn’t it? Pitcher wins through Age 20 looks more or less the same — you can add Wally Bunker and Milt Pappas and Ray Sadecki, take out Walter Johnson, Rick Ankiel and King Felix. It still gives you an inconsistent mix. Pitchers get hurt — Gary Nolan did, Smoky Joe Wood did. Dwight Gooden lost his way. Rick Ankiel, well, this happened.

That sort of thing does not seem to happen as often to young hitters. Sure, they will occasionally get hurt. Vada Pinson, Claudell Washington, Cesar Cedeno and a handful of others all ran into various problems along the way. But, generally speaking, brilliant young hitters stay brilliant for an extended period of time. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are obviously a long, long, long way away from becoming all-time players. But I’d bet on both of them.

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6 Responses to Harper, Trout and the Future

  1. Yes, Dwight Gooden lost his way. But I think the telling of Dwight Gooden’s failure to become a Hall of Fame pitcher too often falls back on that and glosses over that Dwight, too, got hurt.

    He hurt his shoulder in the Summer of 1989 and was never the same.

    • Frank says:

      The problem is that we will never know if Gooden could have recovered from his injury. Many others have recovered from early career injuries to great or good careers (e.g., Jim Palmer, Tommy John). The injury and the cocaine are not unrelated. Staying disciplined through recovery from an injury is a major aspect of the mental part of the game. Gooden did not give himself a chance to recover.

  2. Mark Daniel says:

    This is striking data. In short, 9 of 10 players on this list have put up HoF caliber numbers. I’m including Griffey and ARod because they clearly have put up HoF numbers regardless of whether they get in the HoF. The 10th player suffered a catastrophic injury that derailed his career.

    In comparison, there are around 300 players in the HoF, about 70 of whom are pitchers. So there are 230 position players in the Hall. Fangraphs, under career batting, has 3749 players who played at least 206 games (that’s as low as their list goes).

    Thus, if you take every player who played at least 206 games (Trout has played 203, Harper 164, so this is a reasonable comparison), and calculate their random chance of entering the HoF, you have 230/3749, or 6.1%. In other words, if a player reaches 206 games, they have a 6.1% chance of making it to the HoF.
    If you look at the list Joe has above, prior to Trout and Harper, 9 of the 10 players on the list made the HoF, or 90%. Better yet, 8 of 10 were elected by the BBWAA (only 112 players have been elected by the BBWAA), which makes these numbers even more striking.

    So, for predictive purposes, it seems these numbers strongly suggest that both Trout and Harper are going to put up HoF numbers, with a 1 in 10 chance that they will not do so by way of injury. Thus, this brings up the question of whether Trout and Harper should be given 10 year, $250 million contracts right now. I mean, the risk appears very minimal at this point, and what better of a guarantee do we have in baseball than this?

    • JonW says:

      An interesting question. But only a couple players on this list had guaranteed muti-year contracts. If the others weren’t literally playing for their ongoing livelihoods each year, would they all have put forth the dedication that got them on this list? I suspect that if given a modern mega-contract, one or two would have coasted on their talent at less than full effort to a great career instead of an immortal career with 100% effort.

    • clashfan says:

      JonW, I don’t know about that. First, haven’t they shown that the ‘contract year’ phenomenon is bunk? Second, these guys are special. They have the immense talent and the exacting work ethic that propels them to the absolute top. You don’t get there without a lot of inner motivation. I don’t think money spoils these guys.

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