Freeman, Hosmer enjoy historic first seasons
Connie Mack -- the all-time managerial leader in games, wins and losses and the claimant of the third most pennants -- oversaw two dynasties during his 53 seasons as a Major League skipper. As part of these two spectacular runs (the first from 1910-1914 and the second from 1929-1931), Mack was blessed each time with a mighty contribution from a particularly young first baseman.
When the Athletics won four pennants and three World Series during the first stretch of greatness, Mack had -- for much of that run -- a first baseman named Stuffy McInnis handling ground balls and throws at first, while during the latter stretch in the late 1920s and early '30s, the iconic Jimmie Foxx was bruising American League pitching in a manner rarely seen before or since.
Among all Major League first basemen in the modern era who qualified for the batting title in their age-21 season or younger, Foxx and McInnis also own three of the top eight OPS+ seasons. Foxx stands mightily atop his cohort, with a 173 in 1929, but McInnis owns two spots -- the fourth highest at 136 in 1912, and the eighth highest (121) in 1911. Expanding beyond these two Athletics stars, the list of the top 10 marks is also interesting for how the performances are clustered: there are five such seasons between 1909 and 1914, two between 1929 and 1934, one each in 1958 and 1959 (by the same player), and then the final two (which are tied for the 10th highest) which occurred this past season. Here is the list, ordered by year:
Top OPS+ seasons among first basemen
These two most recent seasons -- by the Braves' Freddie Freeman and the Royals' Eric Hosmer -- are significant and notable for more than just the rare level of performance at such a young age; they also represent interesting divergences in how such final year numbers can be achieved.
Freeman -- a second-round pick by Atlanta in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft -- got started with a cup of coffee (20 games) in 2010, and then in 2011 -- at 21 years and 200 days -- was Atlanta's youngest Opening Day starting first baseman since 1938. After a difficult first month that saw him post a .695 OPS in 28 games, Freeman went on a three-month tear that saw him produce a slash line of .322/.382/.510 in 325 plate appearances.
During this stretch, one out of Freeman's every three hits went for extra-bases, and Atlanta rolled, going 50-31. In August, Freeman stumbled a bit (.714 OPS), which turned out to be a harbinger for the disastrous final month for player and club. While the Braves were seeing their 8 1/2-game lead in the Wild Card standings disappear, Freeman saw his September OPS plummet to .670.
In contrast, Hosmer -- the Royals' first-round pick (third overall) in the 2008 Draft -- made his Major League debut on May 6, 2011, and just about immediately matched all of the fanfare with his offensive work. In his first month, he compiled an .836 OPS in 23 games.
Alternating between good to great and fair to poor months, Hosmer saved his best for the final month of the season, when he posted a .917 OPS in 25 September games, and was among the top-20 in the Majors in batting, slugging and OPS for the month. The final flourish helped make Hosmer -- despite playing in only 128 games -- the Majors' leader among first-year players in runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBIs, slugging, OPS, OPS+ (all rate stats requiring a minimum of 200 plate appearances), total bases and extra-base hits.
Hosmer's debut season stands out not only for its relatively high standing among all very young first baseman, but also for where it placed him among all young players in his franchise's history. In the 43 seasons that make up the Royals story, Hosmer, amazingly, became the first player to ever qualify for the batting title in his age-21 season (or younger). And with age out of the mix, he became only the second player for the Royals to qualify for the batting title in his very first year in the Majors. The only previous Royal to do this was Alex Gordon in 2007, when the third baseman -- in his age-23 season -- compiled a 90 OPS+ with 55 extra-base hits (36 doubles, four triples and 15 home runs) in 151 games.
If one puts these two variables together, Hosmer's uncommon season appears even more exceptional when considering all of Major League history. Since 1876, Hosmer is one of only seven first basemen to have his debut season come in his age-21 season or younger and to qualify for the batting title. Three of the others accomplished this feat in the 1800s (John Reilly in 1880, Jim Field in 1883 and Joe Quinn in 1884), and the rest joined the club well before Hosmer was born. Joe Nealon did it for the Pirates in 1906, George Burns matched the feat in 1914 for the Tigers, and Orlando Cepeda joined the group in 1958. After Cepeda, no first baseman would again do this until Hosmer in 2011.
From this prism, Hosmer's season looks awfully compelling, and although his production -- by OPS+ -- doesn't quite match up with the seasons sculpted by Foxx or Hal Trosky or some of the others -- his (and Freeman's) presence among the top-10 surely is interesting enough to direct a brief exploration into some of the elements that made the others' starts and careers resonate.
In the 136 seasons that make up the history of the National League, only eight produced a lower runs per game average than the 1909 season. So, Hoblitzell's superficially pedestrian numbers look awfully nice when it's understood that teams in the NL in 1909 averaged 3.65 runs per game (in contrast, the highest scoring environment since 1901 came in 1930, when National League teams scored an average of 5.68 runs per game). Hoblitzell didn't lead his league in any category in 1909 (Pirates great Honus Wagner took many of the top spots himself), but the 20-year-old did finish in the top-10 in batting (third), on-base percentage (10th), slugging (fourth), OPS (third), hits (seventh), total bases (tied for sixth), triples (tied for eighth), home runs (tied for sixth), RBIs (eighth), extra-base hits (tied for eighth) and OPS+ (third). Incidentally, Hoblitzell's 143 OPS+ is the ninth highest in the modern era for any qualifying player in his age-20 season. The eight players who produced higher values are Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx (who played more than half of his games at third base that season).
From 1903-32, the Giants franchise had seven players make their Major League debut in their age-18 season or younger -- a total that was second most, behind the Athletics' 10. This period also coincides with John McGraw's reign as the Giants' full-time skipper; McGraw was fond of molding ballplayers in exacting and highly defined terms. The second of the Giants' seven was Merkle, who made his debut on September 21, 1907 -- almost exactly one year before committing the most famous blunder in baseball history (or at least the most famous before Bill Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series). The 19-year-old's baserunning gaffe on Sept. 23 -- forever known as Merkle's Boner -- in the heat of the 1908 pennant race overshadowed anything else he would ever accomplish in the game, including having a role on five pennant-winning clubs and the producing of one of the best young offensive seasons ever for a first baseman. Merkle was in the top-10 in eight different offensive categories in his age-21 season in 1910, and was also part of an interesting side note in baseball history that year. In 1910, the Giants went 91-63 (second in the NL), while having four players in their age-23 season or younger qualify for the batting title. Only 12 other teams since 1901 have featured this many young everyday players, and of those other 12, only one had a better record than the 1910 New York club: the 1928 Giants, who -- led by McGraw -- finished second with a 93-61 record. Merkle's 131 OPS+ in 1910 was the highest of his career (for a season in which he qualified for the batting title); over 5,501 plate appearances after that season, the first baseman had a career mark of 110.
In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2001, James commented that, according to his Win Shares system, the 1914 Athletics infield, for value, was the greatest of all-time in a season. The quartet featured future Hall of Famers at second (Eddie Collins) and third (Frank Baker), shortstop Jack Barry and McInnis at first. This group, as a starting unit, was together from 1911-14, and over the course of those four seasons won three pennants, two World Series and an American League-best 386 games (the Giants, with Merkle at first, won a Major League-best 387 contests). McInnis, who debuted for the Athletics in 1909 as an 18-year-old, led all Major League first basemen in hits, RBIs and OPS+ from 1911-14, and concluded his career in 1927 with 10 qualifying seasons as a first baseman with a .300 batting average. Those 10 campaigns tie him with Jake Daubert, Bill Terry and Jimmie Foxx for the fourth-most ever at the position, behind 13 from George Sisler, 12 by Lou Gehrig, and 11 from Todd Helton. McInnis batted .321 in his age-20 season in 1911, .327 in his age-21 season, and then .324 in 1913; he is one of five players in the modern era to have three qualifying seasons with at least a .320 batting average through his age-22 season. The others are Hall of Famers Cobb, Foxx, Ott and Williams. Besides his two World Series titles with the Athletics, McInnis captured crowns with the Red Sox in 1918 and the Pirates in 1925, making him one of four players in history to win World Series' with three different franchises (the other three are Lonnie Smith, Luis Polonia and Wally Schang, McInnis' teammate on the A's and 1918 Red Sox.
George Henry Burns -- not to be confused with George Joseph Burns, a contemporary who manned the outfield in the NL -- is probably the most similar to Hosmer when it comes to this group of first basemen. Like Hosmer (and unlike Hoblitzell, Merkle, McInnis, Foxx, Trosky or Freeman), Burns' age-21 season also signified his first season in the Majors. His 119 OPS+ in that debut year is also the closest to the 118 posted by the Royals rookie. Like Hosmer, Burns showed a modicum of power that first season, with an extra-base hit percentage (his percentage of plate appearances ending with an extra-base hit) of 5.9, which was above the league average of 4.7; in 2011, Hosmer's extra-base hit percentage was at 8.7 while the league average stood at 7.5 percent. Burns played in the Majors for 16 seasons, twice led his league in hits (in 1918 and 1926) and in 1926, a year that saw him claim the American League's MVP, rang out 64 doubles -- the highest mark ever for a first baseman and tied for the second-highest total ever.
Best of Modern Era Starting Eight
|Catcher||Johnny Bench||1969||.293||.353||.487||129||26 HRs|
|First base||Jimmie Foxx||1929||.354||.463||.625||173||33 HRs, 103 BBs|
|Second base||Joe Morgan||1965||.271||.373||.418||131||97 BBs|
|Third base||Eddie Mathews||1953||.302||.406||.627||171||47 HRs, 135 RBIs|
|Shortstop||Rogers Hornsby||1917||.327||.385||.484||169||17 triples|
|Left field||Ted Williams||1940||.344||.442||.594||161||134 runs|
|Center field||Cesar Cedeno||1972||.320||.385||.537||162||55 SBs|
|Right field||Ty Cobb||1908||.324||.367||.475||169||36 triples|
Not only is Foxx's offensive season in 1929 the best ever for a first baseman in his age-21 season, it is arguably the greatest for any player in the modern era for any position at that age. Consider these ranks and numbers:
Second-highest batting average (.354), highest on-base percentage (.463), second-highest slugging percentage (.625), highest OPS (1.088) and highest OPS+ (173);
Tied for the highest WAR runs batting, second-highest batting runs, and second highest batting wins;
Tied for the second-most walks (103), tied for the fifth-most home runs (33), fourth-most runs (123), seventh-most RBIs (118), and tied for the eighth-most total bases (323).
Among all players in their age-21 season, the highest total for extra-base hits is the 89 assembled by Trosky in 1934. Trosky, who had 45 doubles, 35 homers and nine triples, also drove in 142 runs (most ever for a player in his age-21 season), collected 206 hits and finished the year with 374 total bases, also the most ever for a player in his age-21 season. The total bases and extra-base hits also represent all-time rookie records, with Trosky (who played in 11 games in 1933) tied with Tony Oliva in 1964 for the rookie total base mark. Since 1901, for all players through their age-26 season, Trosky is 21st all-time in home runs, fifth in RBIs, tied for 20th in total bases, 15th in extra-base hits, 10th in slugging and tied for 37th in OPS+; very clearly, he was crafting a career that would put him on a direct path to the Hall of Fame. Debilitating migraines road blocked that potential destination, but the start, including that age-21 season, remains extraordinary.
Besides McInnis, Cepeda is the only other first baseman to make this list twice. In his debut season in 1958 -- one where Cepeda was a unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year -- the first baseman became the first player in the modern era to be in his age-20 season or younger and lead his league in doubles. In 1958, Cha Cha also became just the sixth player (and first player at first base) to hit at least 25 home runs in his age-20 season; no first baseman has done this since. In baseball history, seven other players -- five outfielders, one third baseman and one shortstop -- have done this. His 125 OPS+ in 1958 and 133 in 1959 started a run in which Cepeda qualified for the batting title and produced an OPS+ of at least 125 in seven seasons before his age-27 season -- the only other players to do this are Sherry Magee and Hornsby, Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Cobb and Ott. In baseball history, eight players have hit at least 600 home runs: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome. Through their respective age-26 seasons, Cepeda (222 homers) had more than everyone in the 600-plus club except for Rodriguez (298) and Griffey (238).
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.