It’s the afternoon of December 23. For some reason, I don’t think many people will be reading blogs all that much the rest of the week. But will I let that stop me from posting something interesting? Never.
In a nice long discussion over at BBTF yesterday about Albert Pujols’ current place on the greatest players of all-time list – does he belong in the top 10 after only nine years? how do we know he won’t spend the next ten years in a body cast? Frank Thomas! – commenter Joe C. said this (in reply to zonk):
Maybe – but it didn’t drag his peers down… Or – to put it this way – if we only took the first 9 seasons of what I’m saying are his peers, would Pujols stack up? I think so.
That’s not the right comparison to make, IMO. You should (not to say you should actually do this) be comparing Pujols to others’ best first nine seasons. Yeah, all of the guys who are in the top 10 all-time in OPS+ or whatever who aren’t active all maintained that level, sure – but how many guys had those rates at their peak, and were brought down (relatively speaking) by their decline phase?
I don’t know the answer, just throwing that out there.
That intrigued me. Who are the players with the best nine-year starts to their careers, and how well did they keep it up? Who are the players who plummeted the most?
In Joe C.’s question, he seems to be wondering about a player’s standing on the all-time charts, like OPS+. It’s a good question, but not one that I think I can realistically answer. However, if we instead decide to rank players using Wins Above Replacement at (and after) their first nine-years, it becomes very answerable and should be a fair compromise – after all, what’s the good of a stat that encompasses a player’s total worth if we don’t use it?
The only real problem I came across when trying to gather this data was deciding what counted as someone’s ninth season. Do you count from the season that he made his debut, or when he became a full-time player? And what do you consider a full-time player? What about partial seasons after that “first” season, where he might only play in 25 or 30 games due to injury or something – do those count towards the nine seasons? I decided to count the first “full-season” as season #1, and then any seasons after that as season #2 or #3, and so on, regardless of games played. In Thomas’ case, he played in 60 games in 1990 and then averaged 146 games played from 1991 to 1999. His first year, then, was 1991 (the cut-off for a “full season” was 81 games). For someone like Hank Greenberg, though, who had 12-game and 19-game seasons in the ’30s, all of his seasons after his first full season were counted toward the nine-season limit, putting his ninth season at 1941. Any value that the player may have added in those initial partial seasons is included, however.
So who are the leaders in WAR after their ninth season? Here’s the list (hitters only, using Rally’s Historic WAR Database):
(click “Read More” to continue reading)
Top Hitters’ WAR, First 9 Seasons
1. Babe Ruth (1926) – 96.8 WAR
2. Ted Williams (1950) – 79.7
**3. Albert Pujols (2009) – 76.6
4. Lou Gehrig (1933) – 76.2
4. Rogers Hornsby (1924) – 76.2
6. Eddie Collins (1916) – 74.9
7. Stan Musial (1951) – 74.3
8. Ty Cobb (1914) – 73.7
9. Tris Speaker (1917) – 72.6
10. Mickey Mantle (1959) – 72.1
11. Honus Wagner (1906) – 71.5
Babe Ruth will always be a problem because of those first few years as a pitcher. His first “full season”, according to this, is 1918, though he was a pitcher for 3 years before that. Since we’re only looking at hitters here and we’ve found his first full season as a hitter, it should be okay. As for the list itself, we see pretty clearly just how elite Pujols’ company is. Only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams provided more value in their first nine seasons as hitters than Pujols, and the great Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby as right behind him. If you ever had any doubt about how special Pujols has been this decade, I don’t think you can anymore.
But how did everybody fare after that ninth season? Just eyeballing that list, it doesn’t seem like anyone plummeted too far after reaching such high peaks early. And that’s true, as you can see in the list below:
Total WAR, 10th+ Season
Babe Ruth: 9 seasons, 75.2 WAR (8.4 WAR/season)
Ted Williams: 10 s., 45.6 (4.6)
Lou Gehrig: 6 s., 42.2 (7)
Rogers Hornsby: 13 s., 51.6 (4)
Eddie Collins: 14 s., 51.8 (3.7)
Stan Musial: 12 s., 53.5 (4.5)
Ty Cobb: 14 s., 85.7 (6.1)
Tris Speaker: 11 s., 60.4 (5.5)
Mickey Mantle: 9 s., 48.1 (5.3)
Honus Wagner: 11 s., 63 (5.7)
Of that top 10, only Eddie Collins (and maybe Rogers Hornsby) could be said to have degraded much after the ninth season. But, at 3.7 WAR/season from his 10th through 23rd seasons, it’s hard to complain too much.
So is that it? Can we just consider Pujols to be well on his way to being a top-5 all-time player? Not so fast. If we just look at these top players and no one else, then we’re doing the same thing Joe C. was warning about in his initial comment. We need to see some examples of players who did fall from grace, so to speak, after their ninth season. That might help give us an idea of how often this happens.
Here then is a list of all players who put up 50+ WAR in their first 9 seasons and then averaged less than 3.5 WAR/season over the rest of their career:
Cap Anson 1888 70.3 9 29.2 3.2 Jimmie Foxx 1936 66.8 8 27.3 3.4 Wade Boggs 1990 63.3 9 25.7 2.9 Arky Vaughan 1940 59.7 5 15.9 3.2 Jeff Bagwell 1999 59.6 6 20.3 3.4 Duke Snider 1957 57.9 7 9.6 1.4 Ken Griffey 1997 57.8 12 21.5 1.8 Johnny Mize 1947 57.5 6 12.7 2.1 Ernie Banks 1962 57.4 9 7 0.8 Frank Baker 1918 56.7 3 7 2.3 Cal Ripken 1990 54.8 11 35.1 3.2 Reggie Jackson 1976 54.8 11 19.8 1.8 Dick Allen 1972 54.8 5 6.4 1.3 Frank Thomas 1999 54.3 9 21.6 2.4 Frankie Frisch 1928 53.4 9 21.4 2.4 George Brett 1982 53.1 11 31.9 2.9 Mike Piazza 2001 52.6 6 6.5 1.1 Johnny Bench 1976 52.5 7 18.8 2.7 Sal Bando 1976 52.5 5 8.1 1.6 Andruw Jones 2005 51.9 4 6.5 1.6 Paul Waner 1934 51 11 22.8 2.1 Elmer Flick 1906 50.9 4 5.8 1.4 Lou Boudreau 1948 50.9 4 5.1 1.3
Not all of those names are remembered as all-time greats, but there are plenty of Hall of Famers on that list. My eye is immediately drawn to a few, though: Duke Snider, Ken Griffey, Johnny Mize, Reggie Jackson, and especially Ernie Banks all ended their careers on incredible downturns (Piazza too, but, as a catcher, he’s a much tougher comparison). That doesn’t make any of them any lesser of a Hall of Famer, and it doesn’t directly say anything about Pujols (especially since few, if any, could be said to have similar careers or body types to Pujols). But it does serve as a strong reminder that any player, no matter how healthy or great their first nine seasons are, can fall prey to injuries or aging. Those of us who are genuinely thrilled and thankful to be witnessing perhaps one of the greatest players of all-time need to temper that excitement some as Pujols enters his 30s. One never knows what will happen over the next 10-12 years.
See the full spreadsheet of players who earned 45 or more WAR in their first 9 seasons and how they fared the rest of their career.