The 10 Greatest Individual Seasons by 20-Year-Olds in MLB History

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJune 12, 2012

The 10 Greatest Individual Seasons by 20-Year-Olds in MLB History

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    The Los Angeles Angels called Mike Trout up in late April, and he played his first game with the team on April 28.

    Since then, he's been one of the best players in baseball. 

    Trout has been excellent at the plate, hitting .354/.412/.565 with six home runs, 26 RBI, and 15 stolen bases. In the field, he's played Gold Glove-caliber defense, primarily in center field.

    Trout's presence has definitely energized the Angels, as they've gone 27-15 since calling him up.

    All this from a guy who's still only 20-years-old. 

    That got Hudson Belinsky of ESPN.com to wondering whether Trout may be in the midst of the greatest season ever by a 20-year-old ballplayer. 

    That thought got me to researching. A few long hours and several cups of coffee later, I came up with the following list.

    Behold the 10 greatest individual seasons by 20-year-olds in Major League Baseball history.

    Note: Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs for the vital intel. And for the record, I let the folks at Baseball-Reference.com determine which season was a given player's 20-year-old season.

Honorable Mention: Mike Trout, 2012

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    It's way too soon to include Mike Trout in the actual top 10 of this list. His 2012 season is only 40 games old, so there's a lot of time for things to go wrong.

    If Trout stays on his current pace, however, he's going to end up with truly remarkable numbers, and he'll probably head home for the offseason with a few awards in his back pocket.

    ESPN.com has Trout projected to finish the season with 91 runs scored, 39 stolen bases, 16 home runs and 68 RBI. Seeing as how he's projected to play in just 105 games, numbers like those would easily win Trout the AL Rookie of the Year award. I also wouldn't be surprised if he won a Gold Glove.

    Here's hoping he can keep it up. To this point, it's been a privilege to watch Trout play ball.

10. Mickey Mantle, 1952

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    Mickey Mantle got in 96 games as a 19-year-old rookie in 1951, hitting .267 with 13 home runs and 65 RBI for the New York Yankees.

    In 1952, Mantle morphed from a promising young player into a young superstar, hitting .311 with 23 home runs 87 RBI. He led the AL with 111 strikeouts, but he also led the AL with a .924 OPS (though nobody had any clue what the hell OPS was back then).

    Mantle made the first of 20 All-Star appearances (there were multiple games some years) that season, and finished third in the AL MVP voting.

    He ended up hitting 536 home runs in 18 seasons, winning three MVPs and seven World Series titles.

9. Frank Robinson, 1956

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    Frank Robinson ended up being one of the greatest power hitters to ever play the game of baseball when all was said and done, and he didn't waste any time getting into the swing of things as a young man.

    Robinson was 20-years-old when he played his rookie season in 1956 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. In 152 games, he hit .290/.379/.558 with a league-high 122 runs scored, 38 home runs and 83 RBI.

    Robinson's 38 home runs tied the then-record for home runs by a rookie, and he's also one of surprisingly few 20-year-olds to finish a season with an OPS over .900.

    Not surprisingly, he won the NL Rookie of the Year award. He went on to make 14 All-Star appearances and win an MVP award in each league.

8. Ty Cobb, 1907

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    Ty Cobb had already been playing pro ball for a couple of years by the time embarked on the 1907 season at the age of 20. However, he wasn't a star just yet.

    Cobb would cement himself as baseball's premiere superstar that season. He led the American League with a .350 batting average, becoming the youngest player in baseball history to do so. He also led the league with 212 hits, 53 stolen bases and 119 RBI.

    Amazingly, he was able to drive in those 119 runs despite hitting only five home runs. To boot, he only hit 28 doubles and 14 triples.

    Sadly, there are no records that can tell us his batting average with runners in scoring position. It must have been through the roof.

7. Ted Williams, 1939

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    Ted Williams arrived on the scene at the age of 20 in 1939, and it took him approximately five seconds to establish himself as one of baseball's elite hitters.

    Williams hit .327 that season for the Boston Red Sox with an AL-high 145 RBI. He hit 44 doubles, 11 triples and 31 home runs.

    The Splendid Splinter finished that season with a 1.045 OPS, which is tied for second-highest in baseball history among 20-year-olds.

    He would eventually retire with a .344 lifetime batting average and a 1.116 OPS. The latter figure ranks second all-time behind Babe Ruth.

6. Al Kaline, 1955

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    Al Kaline broke into the big leagues at the age of 18 in 1953, and he played his first full season with the Detroit Tigers at the age of 19 in 1954. 

    So Kaline was already pretty well established in the majors when he played the 1955 season as a 20-year-old. All he did that season was establish himself as a superstar.

    Kaline led the American League with a .340 batting average, finishing with exactly 200 hits. He hit 27 home runs and drove in 102, scoring 121 runs of his own.

    He was selected to the All-Star team for the first time that season, and ultimately finished second in the MVP voting behind Yogi Berra.

    Amazingly, Kaline never actually managed to win the MVP. He did, however, make 18 All-Star appearances and he won a ring in 1968. Not a bad career.

5. Bob Feller, 1939

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    Unlike the other individuals on this list, Bob Feller was already a star by the time he was 20-years-old in 1939. He had won 17 games in 1938, making his first All-Star team at the young age of 19.

    Feller was even better at the age of 20. In 1939, he went 24-9 with a 2.85 ERA and 246 strikeouts in 296.2 innings pitched. He pitched 24 complete games, including four shutouts.

    Feller made his second All-Star appearance that year, and he finished second in the AL MVP voting.

    Feller finished his career with 266 wins. Had he not missed three years in the prime of his career due to military service, he would have ended up with well over 300 wins.

4. Dwight Gooden, 1985

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    Like Feller, Dwight Gooden also had an impressive season at the age of 19, going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 1984.

    That, however, was a mere tease for what would come in 1985.

    That season, Gooden went 24-4 with an absurd 1.53 ERA. Both those figures led the National League, as did Gooden's 16 complete games, 276.2 innings pitched and 268 strikeouts. It's one of the most dominant seasons ever by a pitcher.

    Naturally, Gooden won the NL Cy Young award that year, and he finished fourth in the MVP voting. 

    According to Baseball-Reference.com, Gooden's WAR that season was 11.9. That makes his 1985 season the best season by a 20-year-old pitcher after the year 1901.

3. Mel Ott, 1929

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    Mel Ott had a pretty good season when he was 19-years-old in 1928. He hit .322 with 18 home runs in 124 games for the New York Giants.

    Compared to what would come in 1929, that was nothing.

    That season, Ott hit .328 with 42 home runs and 151 RBI, and he led the National League with 113 walks.

    Despite his remarkable season, however, Ott finished 11th in the NL MVP voting that season. His accomplishments just didn't stand out next to guys like Rogers Hornsby, Chuck Klein and Hack Wilson.

    Ott's accomplishments that season should stand out today. His 1.084 OPS that season is the highest ever by a 20-year-old. The same goes for his 42 homers, 151 RBI and .635 slugging percentage.

2. Alex Rodriguez, 1996

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    Not unlike Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb and Al Kaline, Alex Rodriguez had already broken into the big leagues by the time his 20-year-old season came along in 1996. The '96 season was to be his first full big league campaign. 

    It suffices to say A-Rod made the most of it.

    In 1996, A-Rod led the American League with a .358 batting average, and he also led the league with 141 runs scored and 54 doubles. He hit 36 home runs and racked up 123 RBI, tacking on 15 stolen bases. He made his first All-Star team, and finished second in the AL MVP voting.

    According to Baseball-Reference.com, the 9.2 WAR A-Rod posted in 1996 is the highest ever for a 20-year-old position player.

    Yes, this was nearly 20 years ago. You are old.

1. Silver King, 1888

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    Back on the Dwight Gooden slide, I wrote that his 20-year-old season in 1985 is the best in baseball history since 1901.

    The "since 1901" was required because Gooden's 1985 season looks rather petty compared to Silver King's 1888 season.

    That season, the 20-year-old King won 45 games for the St. Louis Browns with a 1.63 ERA. He pitched (are you ready for this?) 584.2 innings, throwing 64 complete games and six shutouts.

    When it comes to old-timey pitching stats, the pitchers who put up the gaudy numbers typically did so with high WHIPs. Not so with King, as he had a WHIP of 0.87 in his 580-plus innings of work.

    Alas, King never won as many as 45 games ever again.

    He did, however, win 35 games in 1889 and 30 more in 1890.

    Yeah, 19th-century ballplayers laugh at today's MLB.

     

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