While looking through the statistics at Baseball-Reference, I noticed something that I wouldn’t call surprising, but a bit overwhelming. It seems that baseball’s best players peak in their late 20’s. Pitchers, batters, fielders, it doesn’t matter – at 27ish, they’re as good as they’re going to get. Why is that?
Obviously the longer a hitter plays and sees pitchers, the smarter he’ll be – case in point is David Ortiz who often talked about half-knowing what a pitcher was going to try to get him out.
The same can be said about a long-serving pitcher who learns every batters weak spots.
So why is it that there are so many guys between 25 and 30 that light the world on fire?
First off is the pure biology of us humans being at our physical peak around 25-years-old. When it comes to doing physical stuff, that obviously plays a huge role.
Let’s look at some amazing seasons of guys in their late 20’s in major league baseball. I started by using Baseball Reference’s amazing table builder to pull out just what I was looking for. I started by looking at the top WAR guys. WAR means “wins above replacement”, which translates to, “how many additional wins can we credit specifically to this one player when compared to a guy just called up from triple-A.”
Babe Ruth, Yaz & Rogers Hornsby
Those are names every baseball nerd knows, but they also stand out because they were still setting records into their 30’s. Needless to say, there aren’t too many guys that can stand up in their company.
Of the top 25 guys to have ever played major league baseball, only a handful of position players (we’ll look at pitchers in another post) have ever had a single-season WAR above 12 in the modern era. There are 3 worth looking closer at.
The greatest baseball player of all time is often debated, but I’m not sure why anyone argues against Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth’s 1923 season stands at the top of the charts. The Yankees added 14 wins by having Ruth in the outfield that season – that’s 14% of their wins that year.
Looking at the Babe’s advanced statistics from that season are awe-inspiring. For example, his Adjusted Batting Runs (A set of formulas that estimates a player’s total contributions to a team’s runs total via linear weights. 0.0 is an avg performance, <0 is worse than avg and >0 is better than avg) was 121! In fact, Ruth is the only player in history to have over 100 – and he did it 4 times. His offensive WAR was 12.3, Ruth again is the only player in history to have an offensive WAR above 12 (he did it twice).
Ruth’s traditional stats aren’t too shabby either. In 1923, while winning the AL MVP award, he hit .393 with 41 home runs and 130 RBI’s. He also added 17 stolen bases while only striking out less than 100 times in 697 plate appearances. His OPS of 1.309 is second only to his season 2 years earlier. Again, no other player has ever reached an OPS over 1.3 except Babe Ruth.
1921 Babe Ruth, at age 26, was a beast. Lead the league in runs (177), home runs (59), RBI’s (168), Walks (145), on-base percentage (.512), slugging percentage (.846), OPS (1.359), total bases (457) and also winning two games as a pitcher.
Of the top 10 WAR players of all-time, Ruth has 4 different seasons in the top 10! His last was 1927 when he was past his prime at 32 years old.
In a league where an OPS over .900 is considered a good year and over 1.000 puts you in the MVP talk, Babe Ruth ended his career with an average OPS of 1.164. There is currently no active player in MLB that has reached that level even in a single season.
Sportswriter Tommy Holmes, on the day of Ruth’s funeral in 1948, said, “Some 20 years ago, I stopped talking about the Babe for the simple reason that I realized that those who had never seen him didn’t believe me.”
70+ years later, Mr. Holmes couldn’t be more right.
Imagine a player hitting 90 or 100 home runs each year, while also hitting .400 and occasionally starting a dozen games pitching. That’s what you would need to do today to have the same impact.
If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, you may remember the segment of the 1967 Red Sox. One sportswriter said that in the final 2 weeks of the season, Yaz may have had the best 2 weeks of any baseball player ever had. His WAR that year was 12.5 – and is the reason the Red Sox made the postseason.
In the final 12 games of the Red Sox 1967 season, there was a virtual 4-way tie for first place. Yaz hit .523, with 23 hits, 5 home runs, and 16 RBIs. He went 4 for 4 in the final game – capping his magical triple crown season that also included making the All-Star team, winning a Gold Glove in left field and an OPS of 1.040 – all as a 27-year-old.
Although Hornsby doesn’t have the name recognition of Babe Ruth, he was the National League’s nightmare for a decade. From 1919 to 1929 he tore it up. Leading the league in hitting 7 times. But 1924 was the crescendo for the then 28-year-old.
Rogers Hornsby is referred to as the greatest right-handed hitter. For six amazing seasons in succession, his batting averages were .370, .397, .401, .384, .424 and .403 for a composite .402.
Hornsby ranks second on the list for highest career batting average, behind Ty Cobb’s average of .366. His .358 career average is the highest for any right-handed hitter in baseball and any National League player.
At 26-years-old (1922) he set a mark that will never be broken, he batted over .400 and hit over 40 home runs. The 1922 season of Rogers Hornsby was so off-the-charts that it defies modern comprehension. Hornsby won the NL Triple Crown, the first of two Triple Crowns in his career. Only Ted Williams also won two batting Triple Crowns.
In addition to leading the NL in batting average (.401), home runs (42), and RBIs (152), Hornsby also led in hits (250), doubles (46), OPS (1.181), and many other categories, and had the longest hit streak (33 games) of 1922. Hornsby’s .722 Slugging Average was an NL record at the time and his 1.181 OPS was the second-highest recorded in NL history.
The 26-year-old Hornsby also led in double plays turned by a second baseman (81) among other top defensive stats.
His .424 batting average in 1924 is the highest single-season average of the modern era. His WAR in 1924 was 12.2. Amazingly, he came in second in the NL MVP voting that year. Hornsby would win the MVP the following year even though he only hit .403.
In a quote attributed to him while coaching for the 1962 Mets, Hornsby was asked how well he thought he could hit the current crop of pichers if he were playing today, to which he replied “I guess I’d hit about .280 or .290.” When asked why he’d hit for such a low average, Hornsby replied “Well, I’m 66 years old, what do you expect.”
The Exception – Willie Mays
There’s no denying that Willie Mays was one of the all-time greats, but one thing that makes him stand out even more was just how long he performed at an exceptional level. While most baseball players start to trail off after turning 30-years-old (as all of the advanced metrics show us now), Willie had many of his best seasons.
Willie Mays had 4 seasons in a row with a WAR above 10, from 1962 through 1965. Each year better than the one before.
At age 31 (1962) Mays had a Wins Above Replacement of 10.5 for the San Francisco Giants, in 1963 his WAR raised to 10.6, in ’64 it hit 11.0. And in 1965, at the age of 34, Willie Mays posted a WAR of 11.2 – 10th on the all-time list. The next over-30 person on the list is down at 88th – Honus Wagner when he was 35 added 9.2 wins above replacement.
There are some guys that show up when you’re looking at data that just don’t seem to fit, until you dig a little deeper. For example, I sorted on “Runs Created” – which is a new fangled calculation that estimates the players total contribution to a team’s run production.
Looking at the all-time Runs Created leaders it looks like what you would expect…
- Babe Ruth created 229 runs in 1921
- Babe Ruth created 209 runs in 1923
- Babe Ruth created 201 runs in 1927
- Babe Ruth created 194 runs in 1924
- Todd Helton created 192 in 2000
- Mickey Mantle created 188 in 1956
- Rogers Hornsby created 188 in 1929
That’s a heady crowd for Todd Helton to be hanging around with! Keep in mind, that Colorado baseball in the 1990s probably should have yielded a .400 hitter. Denver was a hitter’s dream. The ball carried so far (this was before the humidor partially deadened the effect of the altitude) that they had to put the fences back miles and miles. That left way too much open space for three outfielders to cover.
In 2000 Todd Helton was a 26-year-old Colorado Rockies first baseman when he had a remarkable year. His slash line was .372/42/147 from 216 hits and 405 total bases. Even with that monster year, Helton only came in 5th in the National League MVP vote.
Most Valuable Baserunner
Obviously you would want Rickey Henderson on base if you needed a baserunner you could count on, or maybe Ty Cobb right?
What if I told you that you would be overlooking the statistically best baserunner – 23-year-old Willie Wilson from 1979? Using the “Runs from Baserunning” statistic, which calculates the number of runs better or worse than average the player was for all baserunning events, Wilson is the all-time leader.
The next year Willie Wilson set two records and joined an extremely exclusive club in 1980. Wilson becomes the first player to have 700 at-bats in a season, set a new AL record for singles in a season with 184, and joined Garry Templeton as the second switch hitter to collect 100 hits from each side of the plate in the same season. Wilson also led the AL in runs with 133 and triples with 15. He won both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards and finished fourth in the AL MVP voting.
Wedged between the baserunning stats that Wilson put up is a 26-year-old Rickey Henderson in 1985 in the #2 slot.
A Batting Eye For The Ages
In 2019, Kevin Newman had the fewest strikeouts in major league baseball – 62 in 531 plate appearances while at the other end of the scale Ronald Acuna Jr. struck out 188 times.
Strikeouts have become more common in major league baseball, but that wasn’t always the case. For example, in 1941 when 26-year-old Joe Dimaggio compiled his 56 game hitting streak, he only struck out 13 times the entire season (unlike his lesser-known brother Vince who led the majors in strikeouts 7 times). But even that can’t compare with Hall of Famer Joe Sewell.
Joe Sewell got his “break” when Ray Chapman, a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, became the only player killed in a major league game, was struck by a pitch off of Carl Mays of the New York Yankees in August 1920.
Sewell would go on to play 14 big league seasons, the final three as a third baseman with the Yankees. He finished with 2,226 hits, good enough for a .312 batting average, but is renowned for his batting eye, as he struck out only 114 times in 7,132 career at bats. Ten of his seasons he had less than 10 strikeouts.
In 1925, the 26-year-old Sewell struck out only four times in 699 plate appearances.
“I took the third strike three of the four times I struck out,” Sewell said. “One of them was a bad call. I was in St. Louis and Bill McGowan, who was a good umpire and I respected his judgment, had a 3-and-2 count on me and the pitcher threw a fastball right at my cap bill and I took it. Bill McGowan says, ‘Strike three, you’re out, oh my God, I missed it,’ all in the same sentence. And you know what he did? He came out the next day and apologized to me.”
The Ichiro Line
It’s impossible for people today to compare anyone with Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth because we never saw them play in their prime. We may remember watching Pete Rose when we were kids, but even those memories are bolstered (or diminished) by highlight clips. Anyone over 30 can remember the most prolific hitter of the most recent generation – Ichiro Suzuki.
While still in Japan, when he was only 20-years-old he became the first professional to surpass 200 hits in a season. Keep in mind that was in 130 games, if we extrapolate that out to 162 games, it would be 262 hits.
From the time Ichiro became a full-time player in 1994, he led the league in hitting every year before leaving to play in the United States after the 2000 season.
By the time Ichiro was signed by the Seattle Mariners in November of 2000, he had already put up 1,278 hits, amassed a .353 career batting average, and won seven Gold Glove Awards in Japan’s professional baseball league over 9 years.
In his first MLB season, at 27-years-old, he led the league in hits (242), stolen bases (42) and batting average (.350)! He would collect over 200 hits each of his first 10 seasons in American baseball. His most amazing year with the bat was 2004, at age 30. He broke the all-time MLB record for hits in a single season.
It’s amazing when you think that a player reaching 200 hits is a big deal. Ichiro broke George Sisler‘s record from 1920. That year, while hitting .372, he led the league in plate appearances, at-bats, and intentional walks. His WAR that season was 9.2, yet he came in 7th in the 2004 AL MVP voting, no doubt hobbled by playing on a dreadful team headed for a 99 loss season.
What’s your baseball goal this season?