MLB Notebook: Ackley, Lawrie start strong
Alongside the brilliance of the raw and contextual numbers, one of the most alluring elements to Albert Pujols' debut season in 2001 was the fact that he played for the entire year. Because of this very basic element, it was fairly easy to compare and contrast his numbers and season against the very best first years the game has ever seen.
In an instant, Pujols in 2001 was smoothly balanced against Ted Williams in 1939, Alvin Davis in '84, Johnny Mize in '36, or Frank Robinson in '56. All of these men -- in their first Major League season -- qualified for the batting title and posted an OPS+ of at least 142 (Pujols was at 157, just behind Mize and Williams). For Pujols, there was no cup of coffee, no late-season start, no September callup to muddy the waters of comparison.
Of course, Pujols, Williams, Mize and Robinson are the exceptions. Only 470 players since 1901 have accumulated enough plate appearances or games to qualify for the batting title in their first season.
More often, a player gets just a sample of the big leagues in his first go-around. It may be a very little sip, like the 12 games experienced by Stan Musial in 1941 or the 13 enjoyed by Mike Schmidt in '72; it may take on the appearance of a deeper gulp, like the 52 games played by Willie McCovey in '59; or it may even be closer to a half-season, like those tasted by Mickey Mantle in '51 or Miguel Cabrera in 2003.
In these instances, the opportunities for historical comparison are not as directly evident or identifiable. The debut seasons authored by Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie and Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley in 2011 fell under the banner of this scenario, for Lawrie didn't get rolling until Aug. 5 and played in only 43 games, while Ackley managed to compile 376 plate appearances over 90 games. Still, their shortened seasons and the numbers they accrued over their non-qualifying first years did provide enough raw data to allow for a perusal through the history books in order to find some similar performances.
In 2011, Ackley -- in his age-23 season -- posted a .273/.348/.417 slash line, which worked out to a 117 OPS+. In his time in the Majors, Ackley collected 139 total bases and rang out 16 doubles, seven triples and six home runs for a total of 29 extra-base hits. Ackley got off to a wonderful start in his first 36 games, batting .305 with a .900 OPS through July, but then only hit .252 with a .679 OPS in his final two months. Still, in a year that saw Mariners franchise icon Ichiro Suzuki fail in his bid for an 11th straight 200-hit season and the team finish last in the Majors in runs, Ackley's rookie numbers provided some hope that things will soon get better for the Mariners.
Ackley's hot start had him collecting extra-base hits at a rate that nudged him into territory seen by only a couple of previous Mariners ballplayers. Through his first 40 games, the second baseman already had 20 extra-base hits (10 doubles, five triples and five home runs). In Seattle franchise history, only first baseman Davis (with 23 in 1984) and outfielder Jose Cruz, Jr. (21 in '97) accumulated more through 40 games played, and those 20 tied Ackley with 19 others for the 46th most in the live-ball era (Ackley's companion in this piece -- Lawrie -- had 21 extra-base hits through his first 40 games: a total that provided him with some big-name company and which will be examined a little further down).
Ackley's extra-base hit percentage (his percentage of all plate appearances ending with an extra-base hit) for the season worked out to 7.7, which was just slightly better than the league average of 7.5 percent. And when all second basemen in baseball in 2011 with at least 350 plate appearances are collected into their own subset, Ackley's percentage looks pretty decent. Of the 23 second sackers with at least that many times at the plate, Ackley's 7.7 percent places him 14th, but among the 13 ahead of him, none was as young as the 23-year-old.
Historically, Ackley's first year in the Majors does not offer up a lot of comparative seasons. In fact, the two most closely related first seasons for second basemen by OPS+, when playing time is the prime variable, each occurred more than 70 years ago.
Let's take a look at Ackley and these two other ballplayers.
Critz spent 12 seasons in the Majors, all in the National League, splitting his years between the Reds (1924-30) and Giants (1930-35). A defensive stalwart, Critz led all NL second basemen in fielding percentage five times, assists four times and range factor per game twice. Offensively, he didn't provide much value, and his best season by OPS+ occurred in his rookie year. He would never again reach 100, and his career OPS+ of 73 ranks 99th out of the 103 players since 1901 with at least 1,000 games at second.
Rookie second basemen during age-23 season
Like Critz, Martin was a career NL player, spending eight years in the Majors with the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs. And like Critz, Martin's most productive offensive season took place in his debut year. Martin was even selected to the All-Star team in '36 as a backup behind future Hall of Famer Billy Herman, but not did participate in the affair.
These two comparisons don't provide much to flesh out the skeleton of Ackley's first 90 games in the Majors, so perhaps another track can be used.
Over the past 10 seasons (2002-11), the top career OPS+ values by active second basemen with at least 500 games are owned by Chase Utley (127), Robinson Cano (119) and Dustin Pedroia (117). So let's look at some counting numbers, rate stats and narratives for this trio compared to Ackley, through each player's first 90 ballgames.
Ackley vs. active second basemen with best career OPS (min. 500 at-bats)
Utley's first 90 games came over the course of two seasons, in 2003 and '04, and he didn't play a full year until his age-26 season in 2005. It's a shame that the five-time All-Star didn't have an earlier and more voluminous start, for since '05, he has been putting on an offensive display not often seen by a second sacker. Since 1901, for all players with at least 1,000 games at second through their age-32 season, Utley's 127 career OPS+ is tied with Larry Doyle and Bobby Grich for the fifth highest, behind Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby (179), Eddie Collins (150), Joe Morgan (140) and Rod Carew (137).
Cano is one of 74 full-time second basemen since 1901 to qualify for the batting title in his debut season, and his 106 OPS+ that year (2005) ties him for 16th highest among this group. And because of the fullness of that start and his excellence with the bat in his hands, Cano had produced some rarely encountered counting numbers for the position. Since 1901, for all players with at least 75 percent of their games at second, through their first seven seasons, Cano owns the most hits (1,263), the most doubles (286), the fifth-most home runs (144), the second-most RBIs (621), the most total bases (2,035) and the most extra-base hits (457).
Pedroia got started in the big leagues in 2006 in his age-22 season, posted a 42 OPS+, and through his first 22 games in '07, was sitting on a .180 batting average and a .535 OPS. Since then, he has been smoking pitches all over the ballfield, putting on a self-proclaimed laser show in the Majors. The '07 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner and '08 AL Most Valuable Player Award winner is one of 11 second basemen since 1901 to have at least 250 extra-base hits and 300 walks through his age-27 season; among these 11, Pedroia's 117 OPS+ is the sixth highest, behind four Hall of Famers -- Collins (159), Tony Lazzeri (126), Joe Gordon (125) and Morgan (121) -- and one other who just might deserve recognition in Cooperstown, Doyle (128).
Ackley's production of 20 extra-base hits through his first 40 games and 163 plate appearances aligns nicely with what Lawrie did in the near totality of his first Major League season in 2011. Through his own first 40 contests, Lawrie pounded out 21 extra-base hits in 158 plate appearances. As mentioned earlier, this total of 21 through a player's first 40 games put the highly regarded third baseman in some company of other highly regarded stars of the distant and recent past.
Since 1920, 16 players (including Lawrie) have collected exactly 21 extra-base hits through their first 40 games, which ties this group for the 30th most in the live-ball era. Shining brightly within this cluster are Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Chuck Klein, the current all-time home run king Barry Bonds, near Hall of Famer Dick Allen, and five-time All-Star third baseman David Wright.
As a 23-year-old in 1928, Klein -- in 64 games and 275 plate appearances -- arrived on the scene with a big, bold and boisterous hello. Klein posted a 145 OPS+ in '28 while pounding out 29 extra-base hits with a .360 batting average. That 145 OPS+ would be the lowest Klein produced through his first six seasons. His 160 OPS+ through his first six years is tied with Joe DiMaggio for the 10th highest since 1901 (minimum of 3,000 plate appearances), and his 487 extra-base hits in his first six seasons were the most in the modern era until Pujols came along.
The saga of Mays' less-than-stellar start is often retold, but it's such a good story and worth repeating. The "Say Hey Kid" opened his Major League career in 1951 by going 0-for-12 with a pair of walks. The hitless streak was then put to rest with a home run off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, who would eventually serve up a total of 18 long balls (in 223 at-bats) to the iconic center fielder. But after that respite, Mays went hitless in his next 15 at-bats. Then, on June 2, he collected the first single and first triple of his career. That June was the start of something good, for over 29 games and 126 plate appearances that month, Mays would collect nine doubles, two triples and six home runs that helped generate a 1.041 OPS. When Mays' magical 22-year-career was concluded in '73, he owned 1,323 extra-base hits: at the time, the fourth most in baseball history behind the totals produced by Hank Aaron, Musial and Babe Ruth.
Mays is now fifth all-time in extra-base hits, having been passed (since his retirement) by Barry Bonds, who is second all-time. Unlike Mays, Bonds got his first hit in his first plate appearance -- singling in a run against the Cubs' Dave Gumpert in 1986. In '92 and '93, Bonds won his second and third NL MVP Awards and posted back-to-back seasons with at least a 200 OPS+; the last player -- before Bonds -- to reach 200 in two straight qualifying seasons was Mantle in '56-57. That '93 season, Bonds posted a Major League-leading 88 extra-base hits -- the most since Willie Stargell collected 90 in 1973.
Through his first 43 games (10 in 1963 and the first 33 of '64, the year the third baseman won the NL Rookie of the Year Award), Allen assembled a slash line of .313/.351/.595/.946 -- not too far off what Lawrie did in his first 43: .293/.373/.580/.953. Allen finished that '64 campaign with a 162 OPS+, which is the third highest in the modern era for a third baseman in his age-22 season or younger. Allen's career OPS+ of 156 is the fifth highest for a player who has been retired for at least five years but has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame. The four men ahead of him are Shoeless Joe Jackson (169), Pete Browning (162), Dave Orr (162) and Mark McGwire (162).
In his first year in 2004, Wright collected 32 extra-base hits (17 doubles, a triple and 14 home runs) over 283 plate appearances, for an extra-base hit percentage of 11.3. This past season Lawrie produced an extra-base hit in 12.3 percent of his plate appearances. From '04-08, Wright averaged 76 extra-base hits per 162 games, while in his past three seasons, that average has dipped to 65 per 162 games. Even with this decline, Wright owns 481 extra-base hits through his age-28 season -- the fourth-highest sum in the modern era for a third baseman, behind the totals posted by Eddie Mathews, Adrian Beltre and Ron Santo.
By age, Wright and Lawrie made their Major League debuts only 15 days apart: Lawrie at 21 years and 199 days, and Wright at 21 years and 214 days. And while Wright appeared in more games that first season, Lawrie beats him in OPS+, 152-118. And perhaps these two items -- age and OPS+ -- are the most compelling when considering Lawrie's abridged first season.
Let's start with this piece of information: since 1901, 80 players have accumulated between 170 and 270 plate appearances in their first season and have had that debut year occur in their age-21 season (or younger). Four of those players went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Three of the four (Harry Heilmann, Frankie Frisch and Bobby Doerr) posted an OPS far below Lawrie's mark, while the other one -- who shall remain nameless for just a little bit -- achieved a higher value than Lawrie. Taking this one step further, among this group of 80 players, only one -- our unnamed Hall of Famer -- had a higher OPS+ than Lawrie.
"Player A" went 4-for-4 with two triples in his Major League debut on July 30, 1959, went on to -- despite playing in only 34 percent of his team's games that season -- be named the NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, and then added 508 home runs to the 13 he hit in '59 to finish with a career total that was, when he retired, tied for the eighth highest on record. He is, without any further introduction, McCovey. And that's the only player who stands above Lawrie in this admittedly contrived group of players.
For now, that's all we have for Ackley and Lawrie, two young stars of their respective organizations who showed flashes or sustained stretches of offensive excellence in 2011. Not every player who gets off to a strong start maintains or builds upon it -- the careers of Critz and Martin, not to mention Mitchell Page (who posted the fourth-highest OPS+ for any qualifying player in his first season, right behind Pujols) is evidence of that reality. And of course, not every future Hall of Fame career is immediately seared into the public's consciousness by a thunderous beginning.
So, like the joy and anxiety felt by parents as they watch their children soar and stumble, much of the pleasure of following a ballplayer lies in the experience of following the evolution. Here's to hoping that for these two soon-to-be second-year players, the seasons become full, the extra-base hits continue to rocket off the bat and the opportunities for historical comparison continue to offer all sorts of rich flavors for tasting.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.