Candles in the wind (Part 1)

PHILADELPHIA, December 20, 1983—Trying to get younger after their World Series loss to the Orioles, the Phillies have signed some key free agents. Replacing the 42-year-old Pete Rose and 41-year-old Tony Perez at first base will be Tony Horton and Ed Kranepool, both 39. Horton has had a long career, primarily with the Red Sox and Indians, and even in his waning years he will provide power that Rose lacked. Kranepool, the erstwhile Met, will provide insurance and a solid bat off the bench.

Joe Morgan will be replaced with another second baseman his age: Dalton Jones. The longtime Red Sox keystoner will be a welcome addition to the ballclub. And although the pitching will feel loss from 38-year-olds Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw leaving, along with 40-year-old Ron Reed, there’s some new old blood: Larry Dierker and Joe Coleman, both 37, and Sam McDowell, 41. McDowell’s fastball is still sensational, though his age keeps him from a starter’s workload. All involved think this will be an exciting team; at least it will be younger!

REALITY, May 1, 2008—I didn’t make up any of those ages. Each is the player’s baseball age for their respective seasons: the actual Phillies for 1983 and the “newcomers” for 1984. Do you think of those newcomers as being the same age as the players they replaced, or do you put them in quite separate eras? Probably the latter, and part of the reason is that most of the newcomers had long and visible careers at a young age, which masked their early retirement.

Before this year, Alex Rodriguez had played 752 games before age 26 and 752 games since. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he only turned 25 in 2000. If he had come up at a normal age and got hurt this year, he’d be just one of many players whose Hall of Fame careers were derailed by injuries; instead, he’s a Hall of Fame cinch. Players born in 1975 include A-Rod, J.D. Drew, Derrek and Travis Lee, Julio Lugo, Junior Spivey, and Fernando Tatis; you get a cookie if you associated them together like their ages suggest.

The three parts of this series (infielders, catchers and outfielders, and pitchers) will take a position-by-position breakdown of the players whose stars rose and fell early. Here’s my methodology:

For each position, take the top 30 players ranked by games played before their age-26 season, and then rank those players by the percentage of career games that were played before their age-26 season.

When any active players get on the top 30 list, their percentage of games played before 26 is automatically 100 percent since they’re still under 26, which then puts them at the top of that list until they play enough afterwards to lower their career percentage. Miguel Cabrera is No. 12 at third base for career games played before 26; he’s still adding to that total, and he will be at 100 percent until next year, when he enters his 26-and-later phase. On the flipside, Carl Crawford is No. 3 at left field; this season is his first lowering his percentage from 100.

For each position, I’ll give the top 10 percentage list in order, games played before age 26 and games played at age 26 and later, percentage of total games played before 26, the start and end points of their MLB career, and the hypothetical “normal” career start and end—i.e., if they had played strictly from ages 24 to 40. And then I’ll talk about the five most recent players to make the list, as it’s easier for us to imagine how different their careers would be as compared with a player from long ago.

The numbers in all three articles are as of April 28 of this year. No one should have changed on the lists by then; if they do, I’ll list that update separately. Active players are bolded.

First Base

Most Games Played Before 26: Jimmie Foxx, 959
30th Place on the List: Rafael Palmeiro, 568
Active Players Soon on the List: Prince Fielder in 2009 and possibly Billy Butler at some point, depending on where he ends up on the field. Butler may become the first significant pre-26 DH.

Player                  To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Tony Horton               636       0      100%    1964-1970    1969-1985
Vic Saier                 801      64       93%    1911-1919    1915-1931
Albert Pujols             790     328       71%    2001-        2004-2020
Dick Hoblitzel            919     399       70%    1908-1918    1913-1929
Hal Trosky                773     574       57%    1933-1946    1937-1953
Elbie Fletcher            777     638       55%    1934-1949    1940-1956
Fred Merkle               853     785       52%    1907-1926    1913-1929
Jason Thompson            717     701       51%    1976-1986    1979-1995
Ed Kranepool              930     923       50%    1962-1979    1969-1985
Joe Pepitone              675     722       48%    1962-1973    1965-1981

Depending on how badly Pujols’s elbow affects things, he could be on this list permanently, a Trosky in the making, which would be a tragic thing indeed. Trosky’s not the only tragic figure on this list: Horton, the only inactive position player on any of these lists to have played entirely before 26, could not handle the day-to-day activities of baseball life and had to get out for his health, still refusing to talk about baseball. ArmchairGM covers this much better than I ever could.

As for the other recent names, Thompson provided a good amount of homers and an outstanding on-base percentage, but the power dropped after injuries and he was done at age 32. His last season produced a .196/.406/.275 line, so the eye was still there in a Bob Hamelin sort of way, but he was released in June that year and didn’t come back. Perhaps in a more OBP-friendly era, he could have turned himself into the precursor to Andres Galarraga and hung around for a few more years. I suspect this is hard to do at first base, however, because there are usually a number of power sources at the position and teams can’t take much of a chance on a player who’s lost it for a few years. There usually aren’t too many other skills to fall back on at first base if the power goes.

Kranepool is a fundamentally odd case even on these lists. Due to his being a Met, he came up ridiculously early and became their regular first baseman as a teenager. 1967 was the last year he would play more than 130 games in a season; he came into normal MLB age just as the Mets were getting better, which meant his services, better suited to a platoon role, were not needed quite as much. Had he come up at the normal time, I don’t think the tail end of his career would have changed in particular apart maybe from staying longer: 1968-1979 reflects what his playing time should have been all along, but the putrid condition of the early Mets alters his career shape quite a bit.

Pepitone is a famous case of hard living and early leaving. Perhaps surprisingly, he’s one of the very few position players of that lifestyle to make these lists; it happens more often with pitchers. Maybe if you have to play every day, having to show up in game condition keeps a tighter leash; maybe the sample size is too small. In any event, he could have stayed with the Yankees into the Steinbrenner era, which would have been entertaining with Billy Martin. They could have ganged up on that poor marshmallow salesman….

Second Base

Most Games Before 26: Bill Mazeroski, 978
30th Place: Pete Rose, 611
Active Players Soon on the List: Jose Lopez in 2009; aside from starting pitcher, this is the only position without an active player in the top 30.

Player                   To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Cass Michaels              938     350       73%    1943-1954    1950-1966
Dalton Jones               656     251       72%    1964-1972    1968-1984
Jerry Browne               617     365       63%    1986-1995    1990-2006
Jimmy Bloodworth           625     377       62%    1937-1951    1942-1958
Rennie Stennett            749     488       61%    1971-1981    1975-1991
Frankie Gustine            758     503       60%    1939-1950    1944-1960
Jose Oquendo               704     486       59%    1983-1995    1988-2004
Hal Lanier                 708     488       59%    1964-1973    1967-1983
Gregg Jefferies            759     706       52%    1987-2000    1992-2008
Bobby Doerr                909     956       49%    1937-1951    1942-1958

That’s right; Gregg Jefferies would still be playing; he’s 5 years (sans 3 days) younger than Roger Clemens. Is it possible that Jefferies could have sorted out his immaturity issues in the minors, gotten traded to some smaller organization like the Mets did a lot in that era, and then stayed around longer? It probably wouldn’t have hurt.

As this list shows, there’s a difference between young players up the middle and other youngsters. Up the middle, you might be able to make it to the majors early for your glove alone, with the club hoping you’ll hit later. When you don’t, you get decreasing playing time (Oquendo) and perhaps an early exit (Lanier). At least Lanier’s early exit helped him develop his coaching career early enough to manage the Astros at the age of 43 to the NL West flag; that was probably more fun than becoming the next Don Kessinger. It’s easy to remember that Lanier and Joe Morgan were about the same age when they came up with the Colt-stros; it’s much harder to remember 20 years later when Morgan is still playing and Lanier hasn’t been seen playing for a decade.

Of course, great defense is just one type of a lopsided middle infielder profile; Jerry Browne suffered from the same kind of malady, as he was Luis Castillo without the stolen bases. There’s not far to go from that, and Browne was off in 1995 and gone afterward, instead of playing into the 2000s as he conceivably could have.

You could also go the straight-up injury route like Stennett. Oddly enough, his almost-immediate predecessor at second, Mazeroski, tops the list of frequently used young second basemen; though Maz had plenty of games after 26, he retired young at 35. Mazeroski and Doerr show you can build a nice Hall of Fame case out of playing young; Maz’s famous shot came at 24, while several his age were still trying to break into the big leagues. Obviously, I don’t know if there are players in the minors whose Hall of Fame cases are shot by not coming up early enough to compensate for injuries they’ll get later, but Mazeroski would neither have played long enough nor had his moment in the spotlight had he followed the career path of, say, Ryan Howard.

Shortstop

Most Games Before 26: Robin Yount, 1084
30th Place: Cristian Guzman, 696
Active Players Soon on the List: Jose Reyes should knock Guzman off the list in either July or August.

Player                    To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Buddy Kerr                  753     314       71%    1943-1951    1947-1963
Cristian Guzman             696     358       66%    1999-        2002-2018
Tony Kubek                  697     395       64%    1957-1965    1960-1976
Cecil Travis                814     514       61%    1933-1947    1938-1954
Buck Weaver                 733     521       58%    1912-1920    1915-1931
Zoilo Versalles             812     588       58%    1959-1971    1964-1980
Red Kress                   757     634       54%    1927-1946    1931-1947
Travis Jackson              899     757       54%    1922-1936    1928-1944
Dick Schofield              736     632       54%    1983-1996    1987-2003
Granny Hamner               780     751       51%    1944-1962    1951-1967

This is a strange list, with a blacklisted player, some war stories, and two guys (Kress and Hamner) who came back as pitchers long after they were effectively out of the majors, giving an illusion of longevity. Guzman, of course, is quite the enigma, but at 30 he still has a few years left potentially, especially if it really is the LASIK working for him.

Schofield is the poster boy of the Oquendo/Lanier school of anachronistic careers. Would the Blue Jays have won the AL East in 1993 if Schofield hadn’t gotten hurt in May, leaving the Blue Jays floundering for a month before they traded Darrin Jackson for Tony Fernandez? The differences in offense were so great, and the replacement options so bland (Alfredo Griffin? Domingo Cedeno? Luis Sojo?) that Schofield might have gotten the whole season to try to hit better than his .191/.294/.236 line that year. Schofield’s getting hurt exposed depth problems and prompted the Fernandez trade; trading the struggling Jackson for Fernandez exposed another depth problem that was answered by acquiring Rickey Henderson. If Schofield and Jackson, both young veterans, had stayed in the lineup to work out their problems, they may not have made the playoffs. Funny how these sorts of things go….

Versalles is sort of a pre-Guzman, a Twins shortstop with some success early but not a lot of plate discipline. The Yankees have an 18-year-old prospect named Zoilo Almonte who may one day challenge Versalles for “best major league player named Zoilo,” but until then the throne is secure.

Tony Kubek is one of the few injury cases on the shortstop list. Had he played into his thirties, he could have been a positive reminder of the Stengel days for Yankees fans, as opposed to fading stars like Mickey Mantle, other early retirees like Bobby Richardson, or the next generation like Mel Stottlemyre.

I had no idea until doing this research that Hamner was pretty much done as an effective player by 27; I don’t know how much more ironic you can get for a guy nicknamed Granny, but there you go. Other than catcher, shortstop is the only spot where the most recent five players to play the bulk of their careers before 26 include any players who debuted before the war ended. Nineteen of the top 30 young shortstops debuted post-war, yet only four of them exited early; by contrast, pre-war had six early exits out of 11. I have no clue why this is—maybe the kind of players who were made into shortstops changed over time.

Speaking of changing over time…

Third Base

Most Games Before 26: Adrian Beltre, 966
30th Place: Robin Ventura, 637
Active Players Soon on the List: David Wright around August, and Ryan Zimmerman probably early 2010.

Player                    To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Miguel Cabrera             745      ---      100%    2003-        2007-2023
Hank Blalock               664       80       89%    2002-        2006-2022
Adrian Beltre              966      486       67%    1998-        2003-2019
Buddy Lewis                895      454       66%    1935-1949    1941-1957
Freddie Lindstrom          943      495       66%    1924-1936    1930-1946
George Moriarty            696      380       65%    1903-1916    1910-1926
Bob Horner                 657      353       64%    1978-1988    1982-1998
Roy Howell                 659      453       59%    1974-1984    1978-1994
Eric Chavez                744      512       59%    1998-        2002-2018
Troy Glaus                 678      592       53%    1998-        2001-2017

We’re currently in a very unusual era, with so many young third basemen. Despite that third base has the second-highest games requirement for the top 30, the last 10 years have brought a remarkably high quantity of third basemen. I assume this is because of the defensive spectrum of the draft gaining traction—i.e., the “draft a shortstop and move ‘em later” plan. This approach seems to be giving actual definition to third basemen for the first time; it’s like the position is playing catch-up on young talent. There’s a lot of fan frustration on this list, with Blalock, Beltre, Chavez and Horner (Horner’s career could have overlapped essentially with Wade Boggs‘s), but the first three are still relatively young and could bounce back (though with Blalock and Chavez “back” is the key word). If Glaus had stayed with the Angels for another year, the entire set of AL West third basemen for 2005 would be on this list!

Next time: catchers (the list for which is going to change significantly very soon) and the glut of young talent in the outfield.

References & Resources
Baseball-reference.com.

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