Fun fact: over the last 365 days, the best hitter in baseball has been neither Miguel Cabrera nor Mike Trout. Instead, Yasiel Puig has ascended to the top of the charts, posting a 172 wRC+ that just edges past both superstars. Also fun fact: that 172 wRC+ is Puig’s career mark, because his entire Major League experience has been contained within the last calendar year. He’s a dozen games shy of one full Major league season, and he has a 172 wRC+.
Let’s try and put that start in some historical perspective. Tony already noted how good Puig’s rookie season was, relative to other 22-year-olds, but let’s see if we can go a little further, and isolate the best debut years in baseball history. This is actually a little difficult, because querying gamelog totals is not particularly easy, but we can hack together a list of comparisons using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index and our summable game logs here on FanGraphs.
To get a starting list, I used B-R’s Play Index to show me hitters with the best performances in their first two seasons, minimum 600 plate appearances, sorted by OPS+. This isn’t perfect — some players get a few quick stints in the Majors, so they’d fall through the cracks here — but for the purposes of what we’re looking for, most of the guys who come up and mash from day one should appear on this list, and by measuring across the firs two seasons, we should be able to capture guys who debut too late in one year to show up on qualifying rookie leaderboards. So here are the top 10 hitters in MLB history by OPS+, over their first two seasons, minimum 600 plate appearances.
|Rk||Player||Age||Year 1||Year 2||PA||OPS+|
Puig ranks behind only Frank Thomas, who was one of the greatest hitters of all-time, but there are a few problems here. Because we’re measuring two seasons, most of these guys were given extra time to regress to the mean, and I’d argue that Johnny Mize’s 169 OPS+ is more impressive than Puig’s 170, given the extra 450 plate appearances. By setting the bar towards Puig’s PA total, we’re skewing things in his favor, so we really just want to compare Puig’s performance to other players through the first 150 games of their career.
This can be done through the summation of game log data. On FanGraphs, we don’t have historical game log data for all of history, but we do have it for more recent players, such as Thomas, so we can actually compare his first 150 games directly to Puig’s. In Thomas’ case, he debuted on August 2nd, 1990, so his 150th game occurred on July 21st, 1991. For the players that we have game log data on — our game data goes back to 1974 — I’ve gone through and summed the data for their first 150 games.
While Thomas came out on top in the “first two years” query, it’s Fred Lynn who stands the tallest through the first 150 games. Puig scratches ahead of Thomas, and then there’s a big gap down to Daniels, Trout, and McGwire.
Of course, the fact that Fred Lynn is the best hitter identified through this method — a better database query writer than I could do a more exhaustive search on the complete Retrosheet database, and may very well find someone better than Lynn — is a nice reminder that sometimes great hitters do peak very early on. Lynn had a nice career, but he only had one more season as good as his rookie year, and settled in as more of a good player than a great one. That Puig has destroyed Major League pitching for the first 150 games of his career does not automatically guarantee that he will sustain this level of dominance going forward.
But, it’s still pretty freaking impressive. We’re talking about a guy who, through this point in his career, has been a better hitter than almost all of the greatest hitters of all-time. And he seems to be getting better. The story of Puig’s rookie year focused heavily on the parts of his game that reminded everyone of Manny Ramirez. Perhaps we shouldn’t miss out on the fact that he’s hitting like an in-his-prime Manny Ramirez as well.
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