Tim Lincecum and the 25 Most Amazing Prodigies in Baseball History
The word prodigy is sometimes a confusing term often lending itself to open debate and/or argument.
But the definition of prodigy is an indelible adjective that can be safely used to describe the following 25 players I have for you today.
Prodigy: Noun – 1 a : a portentous event : omen b : something extraordinary or inexplicable
2 a : an extraordinary, marvelous, or unusual accomplishment, deed, or event
b : a highly talented child or youth or individual
OK, the idea here is we are looking at 25 amazing baseball prodigies. To give a few ground rules, I already know there are a ton of players throughout history who could technically qualify here, so these are simply my 25 LIST—this is not a power ranking.
I chose this specific list based on individual accomplishments both as a rising star and how it translated in the bigs.
I also dug up a few obscure players who did some pretty amazing things, which technically categorizes them as a prodigy, since their natural skill set was a part of them from the get go.
Mike Leake – SP – Cincinnati Reds
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Some of you may argue with Leake being on this list, considering he hasn’t done in the majors what players such as Tim Lincecum have.
But Leake was a prodigy just the same.
To his credit, Leake was the first player to enter the majors without any time in the minors since Xavier Nady and the first pitcher to do it since Jim Abbott in 1989.
In high school, Leake had a combined 20-4 record with two back-to-back years with a 1.87 ERA, while hitting .387 alongside 18 home runs.
At Arizona State, Leake set school records in the win/loss column (40-6) and had a stellar 2.91 ERA while batting .299.
Today, as a pitcher for the Reds, Leake is currently 8-4 with a 4.08 ERA and has a two-year combined 16-8 record accompanied by a 4.15 ERA.
Tim Lincecum – SP – San Francisco Giants
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I don’t think there is much I can say about “The Freak” that he himself hasn’t already shown in his short life as a baseball player.
His kooky delivery, repertoire of laser type pitches and background all combine for one of the biggest baseball prodigies to come along in years.
And one of only a few who not only has lasted at the MLB level, but also conquered it as a two-time Cy young award winner and World Series winner.
In high school, Lincecum led his team to the 2003 AAA state championship, and as a member of the University of Washington’s baseball team, he compiled a 12-4 record with a 1.94 ERA, 199 strikeouts and even saved three games within a short 125 inning span.
Lincecum is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards dating back to as early as 16 years of age and is currently one of the most dominate pitchers in all of baseball.
Albert Pujols – 1B – St. Louis Cardinals
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How about this for a prodigy?
When Pujols was in high school (Fort Osage High School, Missouri), he finished his time there with a batting average over .500, only to go onto college where he hit a grand slam and turned an unassisted triple play in his FIRST game while also hitting .461.
Pujols, since then, has remained one of the most—if not the most—dominating hitters in the game for nearly a decade, and one of the best first baseman in all of the game.
Pujols was destined to be one of the greats in this game from day one.
Stephen Strasburg – SP – Washington Nationals
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At 21, he boasted a 100-plus MPH fastball and a funky modification to the curve ball called the circle curve that froze even the best batters high school and college had to offer.
He was called the "most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball" by Sports Illustrated, and could perhaps give Tim Lincecum a run for his money in time.
In college, Strasburg stood as out as one of baseball’s biggest prodigies with these accolades:
- 8–3 with a 1.58 earned run average and 134 strikeouts in 98.3 innings for San Diego State in 2008.
- In that year, four of his 13 starts were complete games, and two went for shutouts.
- Struck out 23 batters on April 11th against University of Utah.
- In 2009, Strasburg 13–1 with a 1.32 ERA, 59 hits allowed, 16 earned runs, 19 walks and 195 strikeouts in just 109 innings pitched.
- On May 8, 2009, Strasburg threw his first career no-hitter while striking out 17 against Air Force.
Buster Posey – C – San Francisco Giants
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Posey began his baseball prodigy journey in high school earning multiple awards including the Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year and the Louisville Slugger State Player of the Year.
Posey was also an EA Sports All-American.
Posey has always been known for his unusual power and heightened ability to hit, let alone doing all of this as a catcher, which is rarely accomplished at the level Posey is.
At FSU, Posey hit .364 with seven home runs and an amazing 113 RBI between 2006 and 2007.
The following year, Posey did even better hitting .463 with 24 home runs and 93 RBI, earning him—among many other awards—the Johnny Bench Award while also being names Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year.
Also to his credit, is a nifty 1.17 ERA and six saves while growing up…betcha didn’t know that one.
Alex Rodriguez – 3B – New York Yankees
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Everyone knows A-Rod for what he has done in New York as well as for being the youngest player to hit 500 home runs since Jimmy Foxx (1939). We also know of his incredible speed, his unmatched defense and for just simply being one of the best baseball players in history.
But A-Rod’s journey began as a high school student, and in case some of you didn’t know, A-Rod was in fact a prodigy.
At Miami's Westminster Christian High School, A-Rod batted .419 with an amazing 90 steals in just 100 games, and A-Rod was the first team prep All-American as a senior as he hit .505 with nine home runs, 36 RBI and 35 steals in 35 tries in 33 games.
Also to his credit during that time, A-Rod was selected as the USA Baseball Junior Player of the Year and as Gatorade's National Baseball Student Athlete of the Year.
A-Rod’s prodigal list is probably best supported by the fact that he is the youngest player to ever try out for Team USA back in 1993.
A-Rod was not only slated to play baseball for Miami in college, but he was also expected to play quarterback—none of which ever occurred, as A-rod skipped college ball altogether and entered the bigs at the ripe age of 18 for the Mariners.
The rest, as you know, is history.
Nolan Ryan – SP – (various) Houston Astros
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Nolan Ryan is known for several accomplishments at the major league level.
Let see, there’s his 5,714 career strikeouts, his seven combined no-hitters (leads the majors). Heck, the guy was even known for throwing 100 MPH fastballs, even at the age of 40.
But Ryan’s career as a thrower began at roughly nine, and his first no-hitter came a couple of years later.
Suffice to say, the prodigal son of baseball greatness was already well on his way before he even mastered his basic math.
Ken Griffey Jr. – OF - (various) Seattle Mariners
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Ken Griffey Jr.—son of baseball great Ken Griffey, who was also a prodigy in his own right—was one of the most exciting players of our generation.
His time in the game began as a teenager in Archbishop Moeller High School, when he was named Baseball Player of the Year in 1986 and 1987.
He was one of the best home run hitters (fifth all time) and defenseman in the game, as well as, one of the most famous baseball players of all time, particularly as a Seattle Mariner.
Derek Jeter – SS – New York Yankees
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One of the most famous players to ever wear a Yankees’ uniform, Jeter’s journey as a prodigal player began—as most—in high school.
He was a standout at Kalamazoo Central High School earning an All-State honorable mention as well as, being inducted into the Kalamazoo Central High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
Jeter batted .557 as a sophomore, .508 as a junior, and as a senior, he batted .508 with 23 runs batted in, 21 walks, four home runs and 12 stolen bases (in 12 attempts), while only striking out only once that year.
Jeter has accomplished many milestones and has been an indelible mark on Yankees’ baseball history since his first day.
Roger Clemens – SP – (various) Boston Red Sox
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Roger Clemens began his prodigal journey at Spring Woods High School where he soon developed the fastball that eventually nicknamed him “The Rocket.”
During his time at the college level, Clemens pitched two All-American seasons for the University of Texas and is the only player to also have his jersey retired there as well.
He was also a standout basketball and football player.
If we look beyond his controversies, Clemens was a player who was well ahead of his time in regard to his skill set and had nearly every season fast become a famous one—each one being different from the next.
Mike Schmidt – 3B – Philadelphia Phillies
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He was known as “Michael Jack” or Schmitty”, but to Phillies fans, he is known as the greatest third baseman in history and one of the greatest players to ever play for Philadelphia.
Schmidt was picked up in the 1971 Major League Baseball draft, but the scouts had followed his penchant for promising power and stellar fielding since his days as a little leaguer.
In his unofficial debut, the Phillies played an exhibition game against the Reading Phillies.
Schmidt, who played shortstop in that game for the real Phillies, wound up hitting the game-winning home run.
The rest was history.
Ricky Henderson – OF – (various) Oakland A’s
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Arguably one of the fastest men in baseball, Henderson began his time in the very city that he first played in as a professional player—Oakland—at Oakland Technical High School.
Henderson was already known for his speed, which was his claim to fame, but he is also one of just 59 baseball players in history to bat right and throw left.
As a professional player, what can I tell you that you don’t already know?
He is the only AL player in history to steal 100 bases in a single season—he did that feat three times in his career.
Henderson is also one of the greatest leadoff hitter all-time in baseball.
Henderson even has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a high school football player to his credit.
Reggie Jackson – OF – Oakland A’s
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Sometimes prodigy is also defined by how many odds you defy, especially while growing up.
Jackson was already a standout player in baseball, football, basketball and track as a high school student, but during his time at Cheltenham High School, Jackson faced never playing football and sports on more than one occasion.
In a football game, Jackson shredded his knee and was told he probably wouldn’t ever play football again, only to finish the year in the last game—a game where he wound up fracturing five cervical vertebrae which led doctors to then say he may never walk again.
He wound up defying those odds, by hitting .550 on Cheltenham’s baseball team, as well as, throw seven no-hitters the next year.
Jackson defied the color barrier with his skill set due to the interest of Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama who were willing to branch beyond that barrier, but Jackson wound up playing for Arizona State.
His professional career precedes him, and his legacy still lives on to this day as one of the all-time greats.
Cool Papa Bell – CF – St. Louis Stars
1922 was a very unforgiving time for Negro baseball players since the Negro League was not widely recognized, but that didn’t mean a ton of great players never emerged, and some of them—like Cool Papa Bell—were considered prodigies from day one.
Not a lot of statistical data is available on Bell, but what is available is the fact that this is a guy who ran the entire basepath in 12 seconds flat, making him arguably—probably—the fastest man to ever play baseball.
Bryce Harper – OF – Washington Nationals
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Harper entered the June 2010 amateur draft as a technical sophomore in high school (via completion of his GED) and was subsequently drafted by the Washington Nationals as the No. 1 ranked prospect in all of baseball.
At 17, Harper enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada in the SWAC, a league that uses wood bats in conference play.
In just 66 games, he hit 31 home runs, 98 RBI, hitting .443/.526/.987 which began a dizzy media frenzy covering one the best hitting prospects to come along in a very long time.
Harper hit 31 home runs which broke the school's previous record of 12, and he was named the 2010 SWAC Player of the Year.
Harper had been a prodigy at the early age of 15 where his hitting and power display were off the charts, and one can only imagine what the kid will do when he gets a full-time gig for the Nationals.
Babe Ruth – SP, of – Red Sox, Yankees and Boston Braves
Everyone knows Ruth as the unstoppable hitting machine that defined Yankee baseball from 1920 to 1934, but what many may not know is how he got into baseball, which was as a starting pitcher.
Ruth was a natural on the bump ever since he was a young teenager, and at the age of 18, Jack Dunn—manager of the then minor league club, the Baltimore Orioles—signed Ruth to a contract after watching him pitch for no more than 30 minutes.
Ruth finished 89-46 with a 2.19 ERA in six years as a pitcher for Boston and ironically enough was undefeated at 5-0 with the Yankees.
His hitting prowess is obviously what makes Ruth famous by any measure, being known as "the Sultan of Swat,” but his all-around ability that began at 17-18, makes him one of the most famous baseball prodigies in all of baseball.
Aroldis Chapman – SP/RP – Cincinnati Reds
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While Chapman has yet to really cement himself in the bigs, what he has already made clear is just how fast this kid can throw.
Aroldis' claim to fame, among other things, is a fastball thrown at a documented speed of 105.1 MPH.
Chapman was throwing such heat as early as 19 years of age and also has a developmental repertoire of above-average slider and changeup.
Currently a member of the Cincinnati Reds, Chapman was relegated to the bench by manager Dusty Baker for several reasons, mainly for preservation and development and is currently 2-0 with a 5.50 ERA.
Steve Carlton – SP – (various) Philadelphia Phillies
While attending Miami-Dade Community College, Steve Carlton—also known as “Lefty”—was offered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965 and quickly became one of the most well-known pitchers to play for the Cards.
At 6’4”, his presence on the mound was as dominating as it was intimidating, and by 1967, Carlton had already reached his first World Series—he was 22.
But Carlton’s early prodigal arm didn’t truly reach top-notch familiarity until he joined the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972, via a trade for Rick Wise.
His legend still lives today in the City of Brotherly Love.
Lefty Grove – SP – Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox
Lefty Grove was a sandlot star in Baltimore before ever getting to the bigs, and by 20, he was well on his way to being recognized by the minor sector, and big league reps, with his then 1.68 ERA.
Grove quickly rose to the higher ranks of MLB history becoming one of the greatest left-handed pitchers in the bigs.
Grove led the American League in wins four separate seasons and in strikeouts seven straight years.
He also had the league’s lowest earned run average for a record nine times.
From 1929 to 1931, Grove won the pitcher’s Triple Crown twice for leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA.
Grove was 79-15 for the Athletics in his time.
Pictured is him as a member of the Red Sox.
Bob Feller – SP – Cleveland Indians
Bob Feller is another fastball pitcher—clocked at around 107 MPH officially—who was a raised prodigal pitcher who claims he got his arm strength from working on his father’s farm.
Feller became the first pitcher to win 20 games in a season before the age of 21 and was a member of the “Big Four” which also included Bob Wynn, Early Garcia and Mike Garcia.
Feller pitched in 279 complete games, threw three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters and led the majors in strikeouts for seven straight years.
Joe Nuxhall – SP – Cincinnati Reds
Nuxhall was one of the most famous players to have ever donned a Reds uniform—an accomplishment that still holds true to this day, including his record for games pitched (484).
But the real prodigal tag comes into play with Nuxhall being the youngest player to have ever played in a major league game at 15 years of age.
The majority of this was due to a player shortage during WWII (1944).
But there was also his natural ability as a true left-handed pitcher that eventually brought him back to Cincinnati in 1952, only to wind up making the All-Star team three years later.
Nuxhall finished with a 135-117 record over 16 years with the Reds with 130 being all earned.
Mickey Mantle – OF, 1B – New York Yankees
If anyone deserves to be on this list it’s Mickey Mantle, or as Tony Castro described in his book “America’s Prodigal Son.”
Mantle defied many odds as a player, avoiding amputation to his leg due to an infection sustained as the by-product of getting kicked in the leg in a football game, and disappointment and disapproval of many fans for not being able to be drafted during war time.
But Mantle didn’t just rise above those odds, he also became one of the most famous Yankees’ players in the history of the club.
Mantle was an all-around, All-American athlete from the start of his teenage years and one of the greatest athletes in the history of the game.
Willie Mays – OF – New York/San Francisco Giants
Considered one the greatest all-around players in the history of the game, Mays also became one of the most decorated players in the game.
But it was his early prodigal talent that afforded him such great feats later in his career.
Mays displayed multiple gifts for multiple sports including basketball (averaging 17 points per game which was a record in the 40s), football (he could punt the ball more than 40 yards and excelled at quarterback) and of course baseball where he began his career in the Negro League while still in high school.
“The Say Hey Kid” was best known for his slugging power in the bigs, as well as, his almost constant appearance in the All-Star game year in and year out.
An excerpt from his bio says it all:
Joe DiMaggio said Mays had the greatest throwing arm in baseball. Mays's 7095 putouts are the all-time record for an outfielder, but Mays excelled as a hitter as well. His career batting average was .302. For eight years running, he drove in more than 100 runs a year, and his 660 home runs put him in third place for the all-time home run record. He won the Gold Glove Award 12 times. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League in both 1954 and 1965. Small wonder one sportswriter remarked that "Willie Mays should play in handcuffs to even things up." – Academy of Achievement
Ty Cobb – OF – Detroit Tigers
Ty Cobb has got to be one of the most interesting baseball players all time, not just for his unusual ability that started at a young age, but for his controversial style of play, and how it was born.
But that is for another article that perhaps I will write in the future.
Cobb was one of the best players in baseball hands down and one of the best hitters to ever play the game hands down.
When Cobb debuted for Detroit, he not only was the youngest player to play the game at the time, he also kicked off his career by doubling off of Jack Chesbro who had won a record-setting 41 games the previous year.
Record setting achievements, curious controversies, usual life changes, a pseudo-psychopathic playing style…this guy had it all.
Perhaps, I will do that piece.
Joe DiMaggio – OF – New York Yankees
At 19, DiMaggio started his career with the San Francisco Seals with at least one PCL hit in 61 consecutive games—a tear he continued until his end in the PCL with a .328 average with 34 homeruns, 154 RBI and a PCL title in 1935.
Then came the Yankees.
“The Yankee Clipper” helped the Yankees to nine titles in 13 years, set a bevy of power hitting and small-ball hitting records and played at such a palpable rate, that even the most diehard Yankee hater, couldn’t ignore what DiMaggio was doing as a youth.
It was history in the making.
But, it wasn’t just his offense that helped DiMaggio‘s fame, it was also his defense with his unnatural speed and range that was the reason behind the his nickname.
To date, the Yankees have had some exceptional players indeed, but not one has truly measured up to what DiMaggio did in his career, or as a Yankee.
Hope you guys enjoyed this piece. Got a name you didn’t see on the list? Leave it below, I'd love to hear your mentions.