Heyward and Greatness

A list:

Mel Ott, 1929: .328/.449/.635, 172 wRC+
Alex Rodriguez, 1996: .358/.414/.631, 169 wRC+
Ted Williams, 1939: .327/.436/.609, 168 wRC+
Al Kaline, 1955: .340/.421/.546, 160 wRC+
Frank Robinson, 1956: .290/.379/.558, 149 wRC+
Mickey Mantle, 1952: .311/.394/.530, 166 wRC+

In the history of baseball, those are the six seasons where a player has posted an OPS over .900 as a 20-year-old. Of those six players, five are in the hall of fame, and the other guy will be when he’s done playing.

To say that Jason Heyward is putting himself in some pretty impressive company might be the understatement of the year. And yet, here he is, a 20-year-old rookie putting up a .290/.409/.580 line for the season (166 wRC+), and showing absolutely no signs of slowing down.

In April, Heyward flashed some greatness but also looked young and inexperienced. He struck out 26 times in 89 trips to the plate, and while the walks and home runs still made him a valuable player, there was a pretty easy path to getting him out.

In May, he has 70 plate appearances and just five strikeouts. He hasn’t lost any aggressiveness, as he’s still drawn 12 walks, and his power is still there, as 10 of his 20 hits have gone for extra bases. In his second month in the big leagues, he’s hitting .357/.471/.661, good for a .481 wOBA.

Again, he’s 20 years old. Even the greatest players of all time have struggled to be impact players at age 20. Ken Griffey Jr hit .300/.366/.481. Willie Mays hit .274/.356/.472. Hank Aaron hit .280/.322/.447.

This is an astounding performance from a rookie, the best we’ve seen since Albert Pujols took baseball by storm in 2001. He hit .329/.403/.610 as a 21-year-old. Heyward is matching that performance, only doing it a year earlier in his career. He still has to keep it up for another four months, of course, but if anything, he’s gotten better as the season has gone along.

The hype surrounding Heyward was intense, but it apparently wasn’t intense enough. We’re in the midst of watching one of the great rookie seasons of all time from a player whose peers are still working out the kinks in A-ball.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


81 Responses to “Heyward and Greatness”

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  1. Tom says:

    In that line about Pujols, shouldn’t it read:

    He hit .329/.403/.610 as a “21-year-old”.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      What’s more likely?

      Pujols has lied about his age for a decade, never been caught, and was actually only capable of hitting 17 home runs in low-A ball at the of 24 or 25 before turning into one of the great hitters of all time overnight.

      or

      Pujols is actually how old he claims he is, so his performance makes sense relative to an expected aging curve.

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      • DonCoburleone says:

        If Pujols was 21 in 2001 then I’m a snow shoed hare…

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        It’s kind of ridiculous to claim with absolute certain-hood that Pujols is older than he claims. He’s proven that he’s one of the best players to ever swing a bat, its hardly surprising that he would play so well out of the gate.

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      • West says:

        Him pumping himself with steroids then becoming a great hitter is the most likely scenario.

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    • Kenny says:

      If he lied about his age and was dominating a minor league level where it appeared he was crushing opponents that were 2-3 years older than him but that wasn’t the case, that would be one thing.

      But he came into the major leagues and dominated people where your age doesn’t matter as much as your talent. What did he have to gain by lying about his age?

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    • Bill@TDS says:

      Neither is correct, because ages should not be hyphenated. It should read:
      He hit .329/.403/.610 as a 21 year old.
      “21-year-old” is an adjective. As in, we ordered a bottle of 21-year-old wine.

      …sorry. I’m with Dave and David. At this point, Pujols is as old as he says he is unless there’s convincing evidence to the contrary.

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      • Tom says:

        If we are skeptical about most batters in the so-called “steroid era” why wouldn’t we do the same for the birthdates of non-USA born players? Just like steroids there is too much incentive for players to lie about their birthdate.

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      • Teneleven says:

        Chicago 7.90 — Ages are hyphenated in both noun and adjective forms.

        But I agree with Dave, too. The convincing part of Pujols’ age for me is that the rest of his career isn’t some age-curve outlier. His peak wOBAs at age 26, 28, and 29? If he was lying about his age wouldn’t those have happened much earlier?

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      • Bill@TDS says:

        Huh. The hyphen comment was mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I’m surprised by that. Everything else I’ve ever seen has said no hyphens (and actually I think my adjective comment was wrong, you just never use the hyphens; the example I was thinking of was the “21 year-old” variation, which really means 21 things, each one year old).
        But anyway. Tom, you’re starting the assumption that “we are skeptical about most batters in the so-called ‘steroid era.’” When I could care less.
        Anyway, as has been pointed out elsewhere here, Pujols has less incentive than most to lie about his age. I just think he would’ve been found out by now if he were lying.

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  2. Garrett says:

    Not to nitpick, but what about Braun’s .324/.370/.634 line as a rookie in 2007?

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    • Braun was 23. The aforementioned are the best seasons by a 20-year old ever, with Pujols’s age-21 performance thrown in for good measure.

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      • Garrett says:

        “This is an astounding performance from a rookie, the best we’ve seen since Albert Pujols took baseball by storm in 2001.”

        Sorry — didn’t see where it mentioned anything like that when talking Pujols, that’s what I meant. Not including him in the list.

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    • Jeremy says:

      Braun was 24 as a rookie. Not 20, which is the age we are discussing.

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  3. Heyward has one advantage over the others: Pujols, Ott, Aaron, Griffey, Rodriguez, Robinson, Kaline, Mays, and Mantle are all mere mortals.

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    • DonCoburleone says:

      How long does the battery that keeps the Pujols machine going last though? I think in ‘Terminator 2′ Arnold’s model only had a shelf life of 100 years but the T-1000 (I think) had a 1000 year shelf life…

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  4. Cooper says:

    “We’re in the midst of watching one of the great rookie seasons of all time from a player whose peers are still working out the kinks in A-ball. ”

    Sentences like this give me chills. I love in baseball when you’re fully aware of witnessing something spectacular and can really enjoy it.

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    • DonCoburleone says:

      Totally agree. As a Braves fan since 1991 (I was 9 years old and jumped on the bandwagon, sue me) it makes it even more exciting for me… Now if Freddie Freeman can become the next Todd Helton and Julio Teheran the next Pedro the Braves should be able to repeat those 14 straight division titles!!!

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  5. skillings24 says:

    If Stanton is called up and continues his current level of play, that elite list could increase by 25% in a single year.

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    • TCQ says:

      And the chances of that are basically non-existent. There’s a reason it’s so rare.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      Highly doubtful.

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    • Temo says:

      I wouldn’t say it’s that unlikely. Stanton is really, really good.

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      • KG says:

        Given how many people have done it in the history of baseball, I think it’s fairly easily to call it unlikely.

        They also have very different skill sets. Heyward showed MUCH MUCH BETTER plate discipline and contact ratios in his minor league career – last year, Stanton walked about 9% and struck out 33%(!) in AA, while Heyward was at 15% and 11% respectively. Huge difference. There are a lot of sluggers that strike out a lot in the minors whose holes are exploited by major league pitchers.

        Stanton has made strides, walking a ton this year, but he’s still striking out over once per game. This is a MAJOR RED FLAG. He has great power, but we can be almost 100% positive he won’t have the immediate impact that Heyward has made.

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      • longgandhi says:

        Stanton’s power and eye have many similarities to that of Adam Dunn. Dunn’s debut as a 21-year old produced a .949 OPS.

        There’s more than one way to post a great OPS. Making contact like Heyward does is one way. Putting the ball over the wall as frequently as Dunn and Stanton do is another.

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  6. Will says:

    I’ve got a few nits to pick:

    1) “We’re in the midst of watching one of the great rookie seasons of all time from a player whose peers are still working out the kinks in A-ball. ”

    I’m not sure this is one of the great rookie seasons of all time (stop). Its one of the greatest rookie seasons from a 20 year old, which is also cool and awesome, but is a seperate issue. As other commenters have mentioned, these are actually two distinct points that seem to get conflated at times.

    2) Moreover, it is May 25th. Heyward’s been awesome, but if we’re going to start breaking out the historical comparisons, we would do well to mention that we are talking about 40 odd games.

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    • Temo says:

      Age is an aspect of his season. I don’t see a great difference between “One of the best rookie seasons ever” and “One of the best rookie seasons ever because he’s a 20-year-old”.

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  7. Gomer says:

    Which is why Dave mentions:

    “He still has to keep it up for another four months, of course, but if anything, he’s gotten better as the season has gone along”.

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    • Will says:

      Mike Sweeney has gotten better in May too. I see your/Dave’s point, but I’m just not sure the timing of the hot streak matters much.

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      • KG says:

        The timing matters because Heyward is embarking on his major league career, and it shows that he can make adjustments once pitchers adjust to him. For instance, when he first came up, it was a breaking ball down and away that often got him to swing and miss- but since then, he has started to see it better and lays off of it now.

        Sweeney, on the other hand, has been around a long time. His hot streak, the timing probably doesn’t matter. But big difference.

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      • Wally says:

        Its such a small sample in total that breaking it in two parts and trying to get a trend line is probably pretty difficult. However, since he’s so young and we don’t have much data on him, its difficult to ignore entirely.

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      • R M says:

        Decreasing your K rate isn’t a “hot streak”. I don’t really see what Mike Sweeney has to do with this.

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  8. Kenny says:

    Not to mention we still his name atop that WPA board every day!

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  9. mowill says:

    Which one of those six seasons doesn’t match. Oh yeah, Aroid’s ’96 season. He worked out with his neighbor Canseco all throughout the ’95 offseason. He’s admitted to using PED’s. It’s not hard to put together, Aroid’s entire career is fraudulent. Now he is linked to Galea and HGH. Alex Rodriguez will never be voted to the HOF by the baseball writers. When a significant number of cheats make it in to the Hall because they never got caught, then a sham veterans committee will vote in the likes of McGwire, Bonds and A Fraud.

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    • mowill says:

      Also, Mel Ott and Ted Williams put up their numbers in a league that excluded a significant number of the most talented players.

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      • Trent says:

        Excellent point. I suspect Ott and Williams will be removed from the Hall say…Saturday?

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      • mowill says:

        It’s all about context, the best players before integration faced less than top flight competition. I’d like to think the “Modern Era” of baseball started about 1950 and should be viewed as distinct from pre-integration baseball.

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    • max says:

      Steroids were not illegal when Alex Rodriguez used them. Also, you are talking about Alex Rodriguez in 1996. He was Manorexic back then. You can discount ’01-’03, (even though he would have put up those numbers even w/o steroids) but while we’re talking about great rookie seasons I don’t think that there is any reason to put an asterisk next to A-Rod’s name.

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      • mowill says:

        There is no period of Arod’s career where he can’t be linked to steroids. Steroids were against the rules of MLB starting with an executive order from Fay Vincent during the ’91 season. And when you first start taking steroids you lower body fat percentage to unnatural levels before adding hollow muscle. Unless you focus entirely on powerlifting, which baseball players do not.

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      • Adam says:

        Saying that steroids were not illegal when A-Rod used them is incorrect. While they may or may not have been against the rules of baseball, the use of anabolic steroids without a proper prescription for a legitimate medical reason has been illegal for a long time.

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  10. It’s a much, much smaller sample so far and it’s inflated a bit by a high BABIP and more power than I expect to see out of him the rest of the year… but Starlin Castro has an OPS of .909 as a 20 year old SS.

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  11. Steve says:

    -”This is an astounding performance from a rookie, the best we’ve seen since Albert Pujols took baseball by storm in 2001. He hit .329/.403/.610 as a 21-year-old.”

    Ryan Braun says hello with his .324 /.370 /.634

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  12. Steve says:

    not Brauns fault he didn’t start the season in the bigs, and since theres no pretty much zero letdown, (i.e. Braun is obviously legit) I think its a slight to Braun when its said “best since Pujols”

    Brauns rookie campaign was ridic

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  13. Circlechange11 says:

    Heyward is reminding me of Cliff Floyd … Only better at a younger age.

    All the talk of Pujols causes me to think back to how dissapointed Stl was when Bobby Bonilla got hurt. Had Bonilla stayed healthy who knows how long he would have had to wait.

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  14. CCW says:

    Anyone else worried about Heyward’s proclivity for injury. It hasn’t seemed to affect his performance when he plays, but he sure has missed a lot of games to injury for a 20-year old.

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    • Bronnt says:

      4 games = A lot of games?

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      • TCQ says:

        And it’s really more Bobby Cox being super careful, I think.

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      • CCW says:

        He hasn’t missed as many games as I would have thought, given the variety of different injuries he has played through – shin splints, hamstring issues, groin, thumb. Still, if you extrapolate, and he misses 16 games through the course of the season, yeah, that’s quite a few. And injuries tend to add up, especially tightness-related injuries like shin splints, groin and hamstring issues. Plus, he’s a really large man playing the outfield, which is a bit of a red flag itself. Finally, he’s 20… I would think that 20 year old position players generally shouldn’t have a hard time staying healthy.

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      • neuter_your_dogma says:

        Are you saying that Heyward = Dunn in a few years?

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  15. neuter_your_dogma says:

    I am still most amazed by Andruw Jones’ overall game at his young age. Sad.

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  16. Dave says:

    “five are in the hall of fame, and the other guy will be when he’s done playing”

    Whatever you think of it, I don’t think you can take A-Rod’s HOF induction for granted until other known PED users start getting voted in.

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  17. Bill says:

    Since when is a 300/.366/.481 line “struggling”?

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  18. Sj123 says:

    I agree. Heyward is siiiiiick.

    But can somebody explain this to me please?

    http://www.sportsgrid.com/power-grid/mlb-players/jason-heyward-3/

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  19. Jimmy says:

    Hahaha, come on, brother…

    He’s 54th in the majors in batting average and he’s tied with 15 guys for 21st in home runs. Good young player? No question.

    But let’s stop comparing him to Willie Mays after 2 months of .290/.409/.580.

    It’s ludicrous.

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    • Mike says:

      lol @ AVG and HR. Seriously, you’re on fangraphs and you’re using those as bases of comparison?

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    • Creek Johnson says:

      You are comparing him with guys who have been in the league for quite some time. The topic is “Best Rookie Seasons by a 20-Year-Old,” correct?

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    • KG says:

      Ha, are you stuck in the 80s? Yep, you definitely make a persuasive argument with average and home runs. You even put the slash stats down, and don’t recognize how impressive it is for a 20 year old to be slugging .580 and have a .409 OBP, let alone his K/BB ratio and many, many other stats that prove he’s done great (so far).

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    • Trent says:

      lol Jim is jealous and/or stupid.

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  20. Steve says:

    Mel Ott was 19 and put up a .900 OPS in 499 PA…pretty amazing.

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    • nmh says:

      What’s even more impressive about Ott was that he didn’t even start taking advantage of the Polo Grounds unique dimensions until about 1930. Before that, he was hitting the same or more home runs on the road as he was at home.

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  21. Jon says:

    Uhh….I hate to be that guy (despite being a fan of the Yankees), but it’ll be a cold day in hell when A-Rod enters the hall of fame. Unless the voters basically say they don’t care about tainted numbers.

    I’m fully aware that a lot of great players were on speed back in the day. But Steroids>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>speed. Speed was just something they used to stay awake.

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    • theDAWG says:

      Why do people keep saying this? Is there any evidence it’s true?

      I would think exactly the opposite. Steroids will add 20 feet to your fly balls when combined with good nutrition and a lot of weightlifting.

      Speed lets you make contact with balls you would have missed if clean AND lets you run faster AND lets you get a better break on balls playing the field AND lets you play 10 games in a row on a road trip without falling apart.

      Which is going to have a bigger effect on your numbers and keep you in the major leagues?

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      • longgandhi says:

        Perhaps people should understand what steroids actually do before they comment on what they can and can not affect. Your understanding of their and amphetamine’s impact is severely flawed. I suggest you read any of the numerous studies by Shalender Bhasin on the topic. There are literally dozens of scientific, peer-reviewed studies on this topic, but Bhasin’s are among the most accessible.

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  22. @West, RE: Him pumping himself with steroids then becoming a great hitter is the most likely scenario.
    Of course there’s a good chance that you’ll be saying this about Strasburg come September as well, given how we’ll read similar articles to this relating rooking performances to all time greats. But, wait. Strasburg is white. So never mind.
    And I don’t mean to call you out specifically. But it’s just funny, and by ‘funny’ I mean ‘sad,’ how the MSM and many anonamous message board posters will jump to ‘roids and fake ages to attack non-white players much more frequently.

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    • TomG says:

      …Or it’s probably because Strasburg is a pitcher and pitchers almost never are accused of steroid abuse since there is nothing simplistically tangible like power numbers for hitters to back up their ridiculous claims.

      But, hey, race works just as well. Let’s go with that.

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      • Derek says:

        Yeah, it’s not like that Roger Clemens guy was ever linked to steroids, or Jason Grimsley, or Rafael Betancourt, or Juan Rincon, or Ryan Franklin, or Guillermo Mota, or Edinson Volquez, or Felix Heredia, or Clay Hensley…

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      • TomG says:

        Aside from Clemens, none of the those players were ever villified for steroid abuse prior to being caught. Charles Gates’ point was that Heyward (and Pujols) are being accused of steroids use and not the strawman Strasburg is because of race. I suggested that pitchers are rarely, if ever, given the witch-hunt treatment without being caught first.

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  23. Brian says:

    This is a terrible thread. people can say whatever they want if Albert had all this controversy that everyone claims it would be out by now. Members of the media would love to tear down the mlb more than they already, but the problem is they have no evidence facts even strong rumors. So drop the BS about albert hes the best in the game and he did it the right way. As for Heyward hes doing a great job but hes not even the best rookie right now so lets let the season progress past two months before we start comparing him to albert and ted williams and willie mays its still a little premature.

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    • Eric says:

      So who is the best rookie right now?

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    • Josh says:

      …. who is better?

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    • Scott says:

      Seriously who’s a better rookie than Jason Heyward because if there is one I really want to see him play.

      Heyward’s only leading the national league in OPS by several points right now. He’s also leading the league in slugging and 3rd in on base percentage. But there is someone better as a rookie than him? I got to see this guy!

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  24. John says:

    Dave,

    As I noted in another post, I have been saying that the mere fact that Heyward is going to get over 400PA at 20 gives him a strong HOF chance. If he produces even a league average OPS I would think his chance is over 50%. Do you have the list of all players who have had 400 PA in their age 20 year? Thanks

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  25. Justin says:

    A-Rod will be in the Hall of Fame, you say?

    Right next to Maguire and Bonds?

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  26. Pachoo says:

    This highest OPS+ by a 20 year old is 165 post by Mel Ott. Heyward right now has an OPS+ of 169!!

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  27. pete says:

    This thread is pretty full of fail. Heyward right now is a borderline MVP candidate, and is not only a rookie, but a 20 year old rookie. Put two and two together and you’ve got something extremely special going on this season. Yes, he has to do it for another four months, and it’s not at all unlikely that a prolonged slump gets thrown in there and takes him out of the MVP race, but to say that he’s “not even the best rookie right now” is absurd.

    As far as the A-Rod comments, I think it’s a little ridiculous to suggest that Alex not make the HOF (or Bonds, for that matter). He took steroids at one point, yes, but he was unquestionably one of the most spectacularly talented players in the history of the game. You’re talking about an elite defensive shortstop with (for the first five or so years of his career) 40 SB ability, and one of the best bats in the majors for several years. The man was, for all intents and purposes, the ideal baseball player. He was one of the most complete talents in the history of the game, right up there with Willy Mays, and he managed to translate all of that talent into on-field results. To ignore a player like that just because he did something that countless other players did (some of whom will never even be suspected and coast easily into the HOF) would be a travesty to the game.

    Same goes for Bonds. If you were to make a list of the 20 best offensive seasons of all time, Bonds would have at least 5 or 6 of them. His 2004 was arguably the best offensive season of all time. I certainly hope that he makes it into the hall. It would do baseball a great disservice to allow lesser players into the hall of fame (lesser players who may also have taken steroids) simply because they don’t have steroid controversies to their names.

    The Hall of Fame should recognize the game’s greatest players, plain and simple. Alex and Bonds are two of the most talented human beings ever to step on a baseball field. Both are easily among the ten best baseball players of all time. They belong in the hall. Period.

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