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Braves 20-year-old phenom Jason Heyward(notes) is already making 2010 fun and is an example of why we all love sports. Let’s try to project him using comparable players who were regulars in an age-20 season (turning 21 before June 30 disqualifies you).
By some measures, Heyward is already a 50/50 shot for Cooperstown.
(Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
First off, thanks again to the great BaseballReference.com and its outstanding “player finder” feature. That’s the best subscription a baseball fan can buy. (Maybe they’ll comp me now.)
I limited the search parameters to offensive-oriented positions like the corner OF one played by Heyward. So we’re only looking at 1B, 3B, LF and RF. We have 27 players with at least 502 plate appearances in that age-20 season going back as far as 1907. The last 20-year-old qualifier before Heyward? Former Dodger Adrian Beltre(notes) in 1999.
Of those 27, 20 were league average or better hitters when measured by OPS+, a number that essentially divides the players on-base plus slugging percentage by the league average one. So 100 is always average. An OPS+ of 120 is 20 percent above average. One of 80 is 20 percent below. Also note the figures are adjusted for ballpark effects.
The best age 20 OPS+ was Ty Cobb (167) in 1907, followed closely by Mel Ott (165 in 1929), Al Kaline (162 in 1955) and Ted Williams (160 in 1939). A full dozen of our 27 candidates were at least 20 percent better than average at age 20 – Rogers Hornsby (150), Jimmie Foxx (148), Dick Hoblitzell (144), Frank Robinson (142), Sherry Magee (134), Tony Conigliaro (133) and Stuffy McInnis (121).
If you’re like me right now, you’re asking, “Who the heck is Dick Hoblitzell?” He played in the dead-ball era (1909). Enough said. Ditto for Mr. Magee (1905).
There hasn’t been a corner IF or OF at age 20 who had been more than a hair above average (Beltre was 101) in OPS+ since Claudell Washington (119) in 1975. That no one has been given a chance other than Beltre is probably true. But remember our criteria is qualifying for a batting title. Let’s see how many 20 year olds played those positions in the current century while compiling fewer than 502 plate appearances.
Ryan Zimmerman(notes) and Travis Snider(notes) basically had cups of coffee – 62 and 80 plate appearances, respectively (162 and 113 OPS+, respectively, too). Delmon Young(notes) had marginally more PAs (130 with a 108 OPS+). Justin Upton(notes) and Miguel Cabrera(notes) provide much more data and each had a 106 OPS+ in 417 and 346 PAs and 15 and 12 homers, respectively.
I know I lose Alex Rodriguez(notes) in this search and some great offensive center fielders (Ken Griffey, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle) and even catchers like Johnny Bench who certainly were viewed even at the time as great hitting prospects. But I don’t want to mix in more more defensive-oriented guys like Elvis Andrus(notes). Our primary focus is Heyward as a hitter.
I’m quite shocked by how few of these young hitters fell on their face. Looking at Ed Kranepool, our first sub-100 OPS+ hitter at 93, we’re reminded that not all of these players were rookies like Heyward is. But Kranepool (1965) is our most recent hitter on the sub-100 OPS+ list.
Of our 27 candidates with 502 PAs, 11 ended up in the Hall of Fame – 40.7 percent. Bill James has said that any position player who is a major league regular at age 20 has about a 50 percent chance of getting into the Hall.
How are the most respected forecasting systems projecting Heyward this year?
We can’t put stock in the first game, of course, no matter how Titanic that first big league homer was. But I love that Heyward walked about as often (10 times) as he K’ed (11) in 59 spring at-bats when you know he must have been pressing to make a big enough impression to win the everyday job. Note, however, that his spring training isolated slugging was unimpressive – just .119.
If I had to pick one of those projections right now, I would not hesitate at all in selecting James’. Heyward simply looks like that special combination of power, patience and athleticism that is typically seen just once every generation.