MLB's 5 Best Late Bloomers in History
Baseball is the most specialized of sports. While the concept of throwing a ball and hitting it seems simple, only the players that truly focus on the minute details of their craft are the ones that excel.
Learning how to hit and pitch is a process that can take years. Some players get it down early and have a great career from the time they are drafted to the day they retire. But other players take a little longer to work out the kinks and don't make a legitimate impact until later in their careers.
These late bloomers are testaments to the hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in pro sports. We love late bloomers. And when some players figure it out late and become a dominant force, it's a sight to behold.
The five players on this list have proven that it's possible to succeed after years of struggle. They turned their careers around and became All-Stars and MVPs.
Most of all, they showed that a never-say-die attitude can translate into real success on the biggest stage.
Curt Davis was a career minor leaguer before he exploded on the scene in 1934. Prior to making his MLB debut that year, Davis pitched 242 minor league games and was decidedly average. He only once posted an ERA under 3.98 in six minor league seasons and had no reason to expect success at the next level.
Then, he was called up in 1934 at age 30 and pitched 51 games for the Philadelphia Phillies. He won 19 of those games and put up an ERA of 2.95.
Davis went on to pitch until he was 42, winning 158 games with a 3.42 career ERA. Add in his 141 complete games and 24 career shutouts and Davis is clearly a player who managed to turn a mediocre (and non-existent) career into an All-Star one.
Hoyt Wilhelm—or Old Sarge, as he was also known—fell victim to the trials of war when he became one of the many professional baseball players to enter World War II.
Following a brief career in the minor leagues, Wilhelm went off to war from 1943 to 1945. After returning, he went back to the minor leagues.
After 226 games in the minors, Wilhelm was finally called up to the major leagues in 1952 at the age of 29.
He promptly put together one of the best rookie seasons ever. Wilhelm won 15 games, but his workload as a bullpen pitcher was enormous: he played in 71 games (leading the league) and had a microscopic 2.43 ERA.
Wilhelm never pitched a huge amount of innings until 1959 when, as a 36-year old veteran, he went 15-11 with a 2.19 ERA.
Despite starting his career a shade under 30 years old, Wilhelm still managed to play for 21 years. His final numbers of 143 wins and a 2.52 ERA make him one of the better pitchers in baseball history. Wilhelm was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985.
Lefty O'Doul played sparingly in the major leagues from age 22 to 26, but was mostly an average minor league player who couldn't catch on.
Then, he figured it out. O'Doul hit .319 in limited action in 1928, but it set up a monstrous season in 1929. After turning 32, O'Doul led the league with 732 plate appearances and hit a superb .398.
O'Doul never won an MVP award, but he had a stretch of four years from age 32-35 where he hit .398, .383, .336, and .368. It was even more amazing considering he wasn't just making the best of limited plate appearances. O'Doul averaged 640 plate appearances in those seasons, regularly among the league leaders.
O'Doul retired in 1934 at the age of 37. In 11 years, he hit .349, cementing his status as one of the great late bloomers in MLB history.
Randy Johnson was a solid but decidedly below-average pitcher for the first half of his career. He never dominated and sandwiched a 19-win season between several mediocre years.
Then, he turned 31 and became unhittable.
Johnson had proved he had the ability to be a great pitcher, but it became reality in 1995 as a 31-year old starter for Seattle. He went 18-2 with a 2.48 ERA and captured the first of five Cy Young awards. After an injury-ravaged 1996, Johnson continued his dominance.
From 1999 to 2002, he put together one of the greatest stretches of all time. He went 81-27 with a 2.48 ERA and won four consecutive Cy Young awards. Johnson was simply the best pitcher in the game at the time. And he was well over 30.
The Big Unit won 303 career games and retired after a 22-year career. A future Hall of Famer, his career is the ultimate late bloomer.
Jose Bautista is one of the most amazing stories in baseball history. The guy played eight seasons in the minor leagues at a very average level. He hit .285 with 54 home runs in 417 games.
After several season of playing sparingly in the majors, Bautista had never hit more than 16 home runs in a season. As a full-time player in 2009 for the Blue Jays, he hit 13.
Then, 2010 happened. Bautista absolutely exploded, smashing 54 home runs and defining what it meant to be a late bloomer. At age 29, he had finally figured it out.
Joey Bats proved that his breakout year was no fluke, hitting 43 more gopher balls in 2011 (including a .302 average).
2012 was a down year for Bautista, but he still hit 27 home runs despite playing in only 92 games.
Fans will cry foul because of the advent of steroids, but nothing has been proved yet. I like to believe Bautista is for real. It's an awesome story that baseball needs. Bautista won't make the Hall of Fame, but he can still fashion a great career after years of mediocrity.