The 25 best young position players of the modern era by WAR per 162 games

In yesterday’s post, I noted that Mike Trout was on the verge of having the most Wins Above Replacement in his first four seasons of any center fielder in baseball history. Longtime reader Devon Young commented that Trout already has the most WAR of any player through his age 22 season, which got me thinking.

As I replied to Devon, Trout’s comps through age 22 are impressive, though I don’t place a ton of stock in them. The reason? There simply haven’t been that many players in baseball history who’ve racked up a lot of WAR before age 22. It’s rare that players make the majors and receive significant playing time before their mid-20s. Sometimes, this is due to factors beyond playing ability. Some players go to college first. Others are kept in the minors longer than necessary, perhaps with an aging, expensive veteran occupying their position with the big league club.

I decided to see how Trout might rate historically through a different lens: WAR per 162 games over a player’s first four seasons. I got onto this line of thought after noting that Trout and Joe DiMaggio had roughly the same lifetime WAR through their first four years, though Trout’s done it in 81 fewer games. The following is an exercise that rewards this sort of quicker achievement.

The following are the 25 highest totals for WAR per 162 games among position players of the modern era who had at least 15 WAR over their first four seasons. As an aside, I’ll break ties by favoring which player has the overall most WAR for their first four seasons:

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
1 Ted Williams 9.5 34.2 586 2613
2 Mike Trout 9.3 26.6 463 2070
3 Willie Mays 8.8 24.8 458 1978
4 Stan Musial 8.6 24 455 1953
5 Kenny Lofton 8.1 21.4 428 1910

It’s no sad consolation for Trout being second to Williams here and if we do another version of this exercise in a year, perhaps Trout will be first. The Splendid Splinter has long since had the standard for triumphant entries into the majors, offering a .356/.481/.642 slash over his first four seasons and hitting .406 in his third year. Kept in the minors through 1938 over concerns about his attitude, Williams was more or less in full stride by his debut with the Red Sox. His 190 OPS+ over his first four seasons is identical to his rate for the stat lifetime.

Mays and Musial’s inclusions here aren’t surprising, though I’m struck by Kenny Lofton. I recently wrote of Barry Bonds as the most underrated player of the 1990s, though I could maybe give it to Lofton now. Similar to Tim Raines, I generally picture Lofton as a journeyman over the second half of his career. I forget the young speedster who electrified baseball, leading the league in steals his first five full seasons while offering a .316/.386/.435 slash. I assume Hall of Fame voters forgot this as well, as Lofton received 3.2 percent of the vote his sole appearance on the writers ballot.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
6 Evan Longoria 7.9 27.4 563 2414
7 Dick Allen 7.8 22.7 474 2040
8 Joe DiMaggio 7.7 26.3 554 2545
9 Rogers Hornsby 7.7 19.8 417 1665
10 Wade Boggs 7.6 27 576 2550

As fellow baseball blogger William Juliano told me today on Twitter, using WAR to make comparisons across eras is shaky. This, William explained, is because WAR for the past decade or so includes defensive data gathered through sophisticated means, while older WAR more or less gauges defense through box scores. While this fact alone isn’t enough for me to abandon this exercise, as WAR skews more toward a player’s offensive contributions, it isn’t insignificant either. Take DiMaggio, for instance.

A surprising amount of DiMaggio’s early value comes from his defense. Perhaps if there was more defensive play-by-play data available for his era, he might rate closer to Trout here. As it stands, finishing eighth-best seems like no slight. [I’m struck in general by the number of legendary players like DiMaggio comprising the bulk of the ranks here. One of my favorite things about WAR is that it often reinforces popular perceptions of players like the Yankee Clipper. In sum, I assume WAR helps the cause of players like DiMaggio more than it hurts them.]

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
11 Arky Vaughan 7.6 26.7 567 2479
12 Albert Pujols 7.5 29.2 629 2728
13 Bobby Grich 7.5 15.3 332 1367
14 Johnny Mize 7.4 26.2 572 2368
15 Nomar Garciaparra 7.3 20.4 455 2074

The Veterans Committee gave Mize and Vaughan their due in the 1980s, though they perhaps deserved it far sooner. By WAR, Mize and Vaughan were nearly equal to DiMaggio in the 1930s. Like Grich, Mize and Vaughan probably rate among the most underrated players all-time. All three sustained their value better than Nomar, who’s about to have a similarly lackluster debut on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
16 Eddie Mathews 7.2 25.7 581 2490
17 John Valentin 7.2 18.8 421 1727
18 Cal Ripken Jr. 7.1 22.3 507 2137
19 Charlie Keller 7 23.3 541 2370
20 Mike Piazza 7 16.9 389 1592

Bill James has spoken of the joy of baseball research where the results surprise him. Part of the reason I enjoy exercises like this is I wind up with players like Valentin who look gloriously out of place. Valentin’s part of the top 25 because of his 1995 season, his fourth in the majors, where he racked up 8.3 WAR to go with 27 homers, 102 RBI and a ninth place finish in American League MVP voting. He never had another year with even All Star-caliber WAR, though he finished with 32.5 WAR lifetime, a serviceable if generally unremarkable player.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
21 Jackie Robinson 6.9 25.6 598 2666
22 Ralph Kiner 6.8 25.4 604 2582
23 Frank Thomas 6.8 22.4 531 2328
24 Rickey Henderson 6.8 21.2 504 2269
25 Josh Donaldson 6.8 15.8 374 1555

I’m glad to see Kiner here, as he led the National League in home runs his first seven seasons. Next to Babe Ruth, he might be the best slugger out of the gate in baseball history. And this whole exercise would seem foolhardy without the presence of Robinson, even if he’s admittedly the oldest “young” player of this bunch. It’d be a shame not to include the player the Rookie of the Year award was created for. And Robinson’s WAR his first four seasons looks like one more reason he and so many other great black players were long overdue by 1947.

One final thing– Donaldson and Eric Davis each had 15.8 WAR, 374 games, and 6.8 WAR per 162 games through their first four seasons. I’m giving Donaldson the edge because his fourth season isn’t over yet, and I assume he’ll boost his numbers through the pennant race unfolding in the AL West. That’s not to slight Davis or the other 40 or so players with at least 6 WAR per 162 games over their first four seasons. If this exercise reminded me of anything, it’s the number of good young players who’ve shined throughout baseball history.

Five notable young players who fell short of the top 25: Barry Bonds (6.7 WAR per 162 games his first four seasons), Ken Griffey Jr. (6), Fred Lynn (5.4), Mickey Mantle (6.4),  Alex Rodriguez (6.6)

2 Replies to “The 25 best young position players of the modern era by WAR per 162 games”

  1. I think this would be better if you factored for age, not a player’s first four seasons. Griffey was a 19-year-old rookie. The fact that he was in the majors at that age is amazing in itself. At age 23, he belted 45 homers. … Instead, you are comparing a 22-year-old Griffey with a 27-year-old Wade Boggs. That is not a reasonable comp. Griffey had 9.1 B-Ref WAR at age 27, the same as Boggsy.

    1. Is it not a reasonable comp? I admit I’m playing contrarian a little here, as I’m aware of the notion that players don’t peak until somewhere around their late 20s or early 30s. That being said, four seasons into their careers, Griffey and Boggs had about the same experience [roughly 575 games and 2,500 plate appearances apiece.] It’s been shown that the more at-bats a hitter has against a pitcher, the better he’ll generally hit him. I question if experience isn’t a greater determining factor for charting a hitter’s improvement than age.

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