MLB Notebook: Upton starts off hot in desert
D-backs outfielder joins greats with huge age-23 season
Ted Williams winning the Triple Crown in 1942; Mark McGwire setting a new rookie record with 49 home runs in '87; Shoeless Joe Jackson batting .408 in his rookie season in '11; Al Simmons banging out 253 hits in '25; Hank Greenberg blasting 63 doubles in '34; Hal Trosky compiling 405 total bases in '36 and Tommy Davis driving in 153 runs in '62; Reggie Jackson totaling 37 home runs before the All-Star break in '69; Albert Pujols collecting 95 extra-base hits in 2003
All of these players were in their age-23 season when they accomplished these feats -- efforts so extraordinary on their own they generally transcend age considerations and simply look brilliant in any light.
Next to these overpowering examples, Justin Upton's 2011 campaign -- his fifth Major League season and one in which the D-backs outfielder finished fourth in National League MVP Award voting after finishing in the top-10 in the NL in six major offensive categories might, with a quick glance, look less lustrous. But Upton's year with the bat -- one that produced an OPS+ that is tied for the 31st best for any full-time qualifying outfielder in his age-23 season since 1901 -- was indeed notable.
The pleasure in reliving and contextualizing Upton's 2011 season actually involves two separate but connected viewpoints: the first expands on the idea introduced above, while the second uses his latest performance to consider how his career looks so far.
Upton's age serves as the link for these two perspectives, for he has indeed reached heights not typically scaled by ballplayers his age. For some perspective, consider that he has already accumulated 2,402 plate appearances in the Majors -- since 1901, a total surpassed by only 35 players before their age-24 season. Upton has made a lot out of this rare volume of opportunities, assembling stats and counting numbers that make for some interesting connections.
In Upton's Age-23 Season:
Upton established new career highs in 12 categories this past season, including home runs (31), OPS+ (141), total bases (313) and extra-base hits (75). He was having an average season early on, with 11 homers, 28 RBIs and a .266/.343/.502 slash line through May. A pair of 1.016 OPS months in June and July vaulted him into an early NL MVP Award discussion and reestablished the right fielder in the forefronts of the minds of many fans across the country. Historically, a few of Upton's numbers stand out -- all ranks or clubs referenced below are for players in their age-23 season, since 1901:
His 75 extra-base hits tie him with Williams (1942), Fred Lynn ('75) and Eric Chavez (2001) for the 29th most.
His 313 total bases are the 39th most; right below Frank Robinson in 1959 and Jose Reyes in 2006 (tied for 36th with 315) and Lou Gehrig in 1926 (in 38th place, with 314).
His 31 home runs are tied with Don Hurst (1929), Duke Snider ('50), Gary Carter ('77), Manny Ramirez ('95) and Scott Rolen ('98) for the 36th most;
He is one of 18 players with at least 20 steals and 20 home runs. Among this group of 18, Upton's 141 OPS+ is the sixth highest, right behind Jimmy Wynn (144) in 1965 and just ahead of Alex Rodriguez (134) in '99.
His 141 OPS+ is tied with Charlie Keller (1940) and Pete Reiser ('42) for the 66th highest among players who qualified for the batting title.
Pete Reiser, 1942
Great seasons at age 23
Duke Snider, 1950
Snider, the starting center fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was in his fourth Major League season in 1950 when he led the NL with 343 total bases and 199 hits. Snider is one of 11 players since 1901 to be in his age-23 season and lead his league in total bases, and the 343 are the 21st-most for any player in that age-season in the modern era. Snider established new career highs across the board in '50, which turned out to be a harbinger of performances to come. Starting with that age-23 season in '50, Snider would go on to post a slash line of .307/.391/.577 (150 OPS+) over an eight-year stretch, and would average 36 homers, 111 RBIs and 326 total bases per year from '50-57.
Fred Lynn, 1975
Lynn is famous, of course, for being the first player to capture Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards in the same season. In addition to leading his league in doubles (with 47 -- an AL rookie record), Lynn also led the league in runs, slugging and OPS in '75. Since 1901, his 161 OPS+ that season is the 23rd-highest for any player in his age-23 season, and he is one of 31 players in the modern era to have an on-base percentage of at least .400 and a slugging percentage of at least .500 at that age. Lynn would have his best offensive season four years later in '79, when he captured the American League rate stat Triple Crown with a .333/.423/.637 slash line that went along with 39 home runs, 122 RBIs and 82 extra-base hits.
Frank Robinson, 1959
Robinson drove in 125 runs and amassed 36 home runs in his age-23 season in 1959. The 36 homers (at the time, tied for the eighth-most for any player in his age-23 season) gave him 134 for his career. For all players in history these 134 are the fourth-most, behind what Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, and Rodriguez collected (Upton, with 91 home runs, is 24th on that list). The '59 season was a bounce-back year for Robinson, who saw his OPS+ dip to 118 in '58 after posting a 142 and a 135 in his first two seasons. The 151 in '59 started a new trend for Robinson, who had a combined 164 OPS+ from '60-66, won a pair MVP Awards over that stretch, and would won the AL Triple Crown in 1966.
Through Upton's Age-23 Season
Back in his age-21 season in 2009, Upton put up a .899 OPS that worked out to 129 OPS+. The 129 is tied for the 34th-highest since 1901 for any qualifying player in that age-season. That figure, along with his career-high 141 OPS+ last year and his values in the seasons before and in between, gives him a career mark of 119. The 119 is tied for 26th-highest for all players since 1901 with at least 500 games through their age-23 season. Among players who had at least 75 percent of their career games in the outfield at this point in their respective careers, Upton also owns some impressive ranks when it comes to the collection of career numbers through his age-23 season. He is:
15th in home runs, with 91. The leader is Ott, with 153.
16th in total bases, with 1,028. The leader is Ott, with 1,573.
15th in extra-base hits, with 238. Again, Ott is at the top, with 342.
20th in RBIs, with 296. Ott is the leader, with 608.
17th in runs scored, with 331. Ott leads all challengers, with 582.
If Ott (and others, like Williams, Mickey Mantle, Cobb and Ken Griffey Jr.) are far beyond Upton, he does find some nice and interesting company closer to his level.
Through his age-23 season in 1965, Powell had 431 games in the outfield, as opposed to just 107 at first base -- the position he would become known for playing. Powell had a monster year with the bat in '64, when he led the AL in slugging, blasted 39 home runs and posted a 176 OPS+ that is the fourth-highest since '01 for any player who qualified for the batting title in his age-22 season. For a five-year stretch from '66-70 (his age-24 through age-28 seasons), Powell hit 141 home runs (tied for the 10th-most in the Majors for that span), compiled a 144 OPS+, made three All-Star teams and finished in the top-three in AL MVP Award voting three times, including a first-place finish in '70.
When he completed his age-23 season in 1935, Medwick was coming off a year in which he'd led the NL in total bases, was a year removed from leading his league in triples, and had just collected at least 40 doubles for the third straight season. And then he really got going. From '36-38, he posted a .350 batting mark, averaged 56 doubles, 89 extra-base hits and 363 total bases, and he led the league twice in hits, twice in total bases, three times each in doubles and RBIs, and once in runs, home runs, batting average, slugging, OPS and OPS+. Besides Medwick, only two other NL players in the modern era have ever led the league in RBIs in three straight seasons: Rogers Hornsby from '20-22 and George Foster from '76-78. Medwick's apex was in his age-25 season in '37, when he won the NL Triple Crown after batting .374 with 31 home runs and 154 RBIs.
In his age-21 season in 1987, Sierra hit 30 home runs and collected 69 extra-base hits. With that year, he is one of 15 players to have a 30-homer season that early in his career (age-wise), and his 69 extra-base hits are tied for the ninth-most since 1901 for any player in his age-21 season. Sierra then posted a career high 146 OPS+ in his age-23 season in '89 and led the AL in triples, RBIs, slugging and total bases. Before this switch-hitting youngster, the last player to be in his age-23 season or younger and lead his league in triples, total bases and slugging had been Musial in '43, and before Stan the Man, Reiser in '41. Like Upton, Sierra's age-23 season represented a new and higher level of performance and seemed to indicate that several campaigns of similar offensive firepower were waiting to be unleashed. But even though he would play 16 more seasons and finish with just under 800 extra-base hits, more than 2,100 hits and just over 300 home runs, Sierra would never again reach the heights he enjoyed in '89.
Stats through age-23 seasons
Early on, Cedeno put together two of the most remarkable back-to-back seasons for a young player. Since 1901, 11 players have enjoyed consecutive years, through their age-22 seasons, when they qualified for the batting title and posted an OPS+ of at least 150. Cobb (1907-09), Ott ('29-31) and Williams ('39-41) did it in three straight, while eight others had two consecutive seasons at this level. Those eight: Sam Crawford, Tris Speaker, Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Musial, Mathews, Pujols and Cedeno, in '72 and '73. Nine of these 11 went on to fashion Hall of Fame careers, not including Pujols, who could retire today and already has done enough to merit induction. The lone exception is Cedeno, who never was better than when he was 21 and 22 years old. One other bit of trivia: in baseball history, there have been a total of 19 seasons in which a player accumulated 20 home runs and 50 steals -- Cedeno had three before his age-24 season.
Since 1951, there have been 93 individual seasons in which a player -- in his age-23 season or younger -- qualified for the batting title and played at least 75 percent of his games in center field. Of those 93, 14 had seasons in which they amassed at least 300 total bases. Mantle and Mays each did it once, as did Cedeno, Juan Gonzalez (he was pretty much an everyday center fielder in 1992) and Carlos Beltran. Four others -- including Andruw Jones -- did it at least twice, with Vada Pinson (three times), Griffey Jr. (twice) and Grady Sizemore (twice) being the other three.
The second time Jones reached the plateau was in 2000, when he collected 355 total bases. That year, Jones scored 122 runs, had 78 of his 199 total hits go for extra-bases, and produced a (then) career-high 125 OPS+. Like Upton, Sierra and Snider, Jones' age-23 season established a new level of performance and looked to be the start of something special. Over the next six seasons, Jones would average 38 home runs, 110 RBIs, 69 extra-base hits and 299 total bases, and would conjure up a 118 OPS+. With the end of that run, Jones had just completed his age-29 season and had 342 lifetime homers. Perhaps to the surprise of many, he owned the same amount of home runs through that age-season as Hank Aaron.
Jones serves as an interesting companion to any thoughts about Upton's past, and his potential output ahead. Each player debuted in the Majors as a 19-year-old (Jones at 19 years and 114 days; Upton at 19 years and 342 days), each made a leap in his age-21 season, each took a step back the following year, and then each had a wonderful, rejuvenated age-23 campaign. The two also share a similar profile when it comes to extra-base-hit percentages at such a young age.
Since 1876, 71 big leaguers have played in at least 500 games through their age-23 season. Of these 71, Upton and Jones are two of only seven to have at least 40 percent of their total hits go for extra bases. The other five are named Williams, Mathews, Foxx, Rodriguez and Jose Canseco. Looking at the respective career OPS+ values for each of the seven through their age-23 season, Upton (119) and Jones (112) are side-by-side for the sixth- and seventh-lowest.
When Jones finished his 2006 season and increased his career home run total to 342, it seemed almost certain that he would someday join Mays, Mantle and Griffey Jr. as the only full-time center fielders to reach 500 homers. Five years have since passed and he is still 80 away from the magical number, almost certain to fall short of the milestone. To many, his career will be seen as unfulfilled -- as failing to reach the heights that his early prosperity and vivid talent once suggested.
Early success can be the start of something iconic, a solid building block for getting to final destinations rarely experienced. It can also serve as the foundation for wistful contemplations of what might have been. But regardless of the final evaluation, bold imprints at a young age are one of the most thrilling aspects of baseball. Like the brilliant early seasons from Williams in 1942 or Pujols in 2003, they resonate with a different tone and own a special staying power. Upton has certainly shown sustained flashes of this potential; and if we're all very lucky, his 2011 season might one day be viewed as the year that started it all.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.