June 19, 2013

Who are the best young hitters in Twins history?

best young hitters

Oswaldo Arcia has thrived as a 22-year-old rookie, Aaron Hicks has struggled as a 23-year-old rookie, and Twins fans are counting down the days until stud prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton arrive in Minnesota. All of which got me thinking about the best young hitters in Twins history, so I looked up the most productive seasons for each age based on OPS. No teenage hitter has even gotten regular playing time for the Twins, so let's start with 20-year-olds ...

AGE 20              YEAR      PA      OPS
Butch Wynegar       1976     622     .719

Butch Wynegar is the only hitter in Twins history to see regular action at age 20 and he logged 622 plate appearances, started 133 games at catcher, threw out 35 percent of steal attempts, and made the All-Star team while hitting .260/.356/.363 with more walks (79) than strikeouts (63) in a pitcher-friendly era. Adjusting for the time it was a Joe Mauer-esque year, which is why he was such a phenom and why, despite a solid 13-year career, he was ultimately a disappointment.

Bert Blyleven actually has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 100, because he was an amazing young pitcher who debuted before the designated hitter. In fact, he also has the most plate appearances by a 19-year-old in Twins history with 58. Through age 20 he hit .135 in 158 trips to the plate ... and tossed 442 innings with a 2.95 ERA. Blyleven ended up with 514 career plate appearances and hit .131 with a 193-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Among position players Luis Rivas has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 64. In the early days of this blog the Twins rushing Rivas to the majors and repeatedly handing him a starting job based almost solely on his age was a frequent source of frustration. He debuted at 20 and got the sixth-most plate appearances in team history through age 24--Wynegar got the most by a wide margin--but Rivas basically never improved.

AGE 21              YEAR      PA      OPS
Tom Brunansky       1982     545     .848
Rod Carew           1967     561     .750
Butch Wynegar       1977     617     .715
Zoilo Versalles     1961     542     .704
Luis Rivas          2001     619     .682
Cristian Guzman     1999     456     .543

Those are the only six 21-year-olds in Twins history to log at least 300 plate appearances. Tom Brunansky actually began that 1982 season at Triple-A in the Angels organization and was hitting just .205/.317/.330 in 25 games there when they traded him to the Twins in mid-May along with Mike Walters for Doug Corbett and Rob Wilfong. He was immediately handed a starting job and hit .272/.377/.471 with 20 homers, 30 doubles, and 71 walks in 127 games.

Rod Carew was also no slouch at 21, hitting .292/.341/.409 in one of the lowest-scoring eras in baseball history. Seriously, in 1967 the American League as a whole hit .236 with a .303 on-base percentage and .351 slugging percentage. If you adjust Carew's raw numbers to today's offensive environment he hit around .315/.360/.475, which is amazing from a 21-year-old second baseman and explains how he missed being the unanimous Rookie of the Year winner by one vote.

Wynegar cracks the list again and Rivas shows up too, along with shortstops Zoilo Versalles and Cristian Guzman. In six decades of Twins history only two regulars have been above-average hitters at 21, which is something to remember when Sano and Buxton show up. Mauer doesn't make the age-21 list because a knee injury cut short his rookie season, but he hit .308/.369/.570 in 122 plate appearances for what would be the top OPS by a wide margin.

AGE 22              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1982     591     .848
David Ortiz         1998     326     .817
Joe Mauer           2005     554     .783
Oswaldo Arcia       2013     133     .759
Tom Brunansky       1983     611     .753

I've included Arcia on the age-22 list despite his not having enough plate appearances to qualify yet because he's actually what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. Arcia has fared well enough in the early going that I wondered how his production compares to other 22-year-old Twins, discovering that he's in some pretty nice company with Kent Hrbek, David Ortiz, Mauer, and Brunansky.

In all a total of 12 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 22 and Hrbek leads the way by hitting .301/.363/.485 with 23 homers in 140 games as a rookie in 1981. The worst OPS in the group of 22-year-olds belongs to Wynegar, who fell to .229/.307/.308 in his third season after being an All-Star at 20 and 21. Rivas, Guzman, Versalles, Carew, and Carlos Gomez also posted a sub-.700 OPS at 22.

AGE 23              YEAR      PA      OPS
Joe Mauer           2006     608     .936
Justin Morneau      2004     312     .875
Kent Hrbek          1983     582     .855
Rod Carew           1969     504     .853
Cristian Guzman     2001     527     .811

Four of the truly elite hitters in Twins history ... and Guzman. He'd been terrible in his first two seasons with the Twins, but in 2001 he hit .308/.346/.507 with seven homers, 22 doubles, and an incredible 13 triples in the first half to make the All-Star team. And then just as everyone was getting excited about a switch-hitting 23-year-old shortstop emerging as a star Guzman hurt his shoulder, missed much of the second half, and resumed being a terrible hitter.

Mauer hit .347/.429/.507 in 140 games at age 23, becoming the first catcher in AL history to win a batting title. He likely should have finished either first or second in the MVP voting, but instead placed sixth while teammate Justin Morneau won the award based largely on racking up RBIs with Mauer on base in front of him. Two years earlier Morneau posted the second-best OPS by a 23-year-old in Twins history, hitting .271/.340/.536 in 74 games after a midseason call-up.

Carew, like Mauer, won his first batting title at age 23, hitting .332/.386/.467 in 1969 to boost his OPS by 200 points compared to 1968, which happened to be one of the lowest-scoring seasons in baseball history and the final season before MLB lowered the pitching mound. In all 28 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 23 and 13 failed to crack a .700 OPS, including Torii Hunter and Roy Smalley.

Hicks hasn't reached 300 plate appearances yet, but his current .575 OPS at age 23 would rank third-worst ahead of only David McCarty (.542) and Danny Thompson (.482). Greg Gagne (.596) and Rich Becker (.599) also aren't very far ahead of Hicks and two guys who preceded him in center field, Gomez and Ben Revere, posted an OPS under .625 at 23. Next season Arcia will try to become the sixth Twins hitter to crack an .800 OPS at 23.

AGE 24              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1984     635     .906
Delmon Young        2010     613     .826
Denard Span         2008     411     .819
David Ortiz         2000     478     .810
Joe Mauer           2007     471     .808

Hrbek has the best OPS for 22-year-olds, the third-best OPS for 23-year-olds, and the best OPS for 24-year-olds. In his age-24 season listed above he hit .311/.383/.522 with 27 homers in 149 games, finishing runner-up in the MVP voting behind Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez despite not even making the All-Star team. Hrbek never finished in the top 15 in MVP voting before or after that season, although he had plenty of other productive years.

Delmon Young appeared to have a breakout season in 2010, hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers and 46 doubles in 153 games at age 24 to convince a lot of people he was finally living up to the hype he received as a prospect. He finished 10th in the MVP balloting because some voters overlooked his terrible defense and focused on his high RBI total, but in three seasons since then he's hit just .263/.297/.404.

Ortiz has the second-best OPS for 22-year-olds and the fourth-best OPS for 24-year-olds, so while no one could have predicted that he'd become one of the elite hitters in baseball after leaving the Twins there was certainly plenty of promise shown at a young age. In all Ortiz hit .266/.348/.461 in 455 games for the Twins through age 25. In team history only Mauer, Hrbek, Morneau, and Rich Rollins had more plate appearances and a higher OPS than Ortiz through age 25.

By age 24 plenty of hitters are regulars in the majors and a total of 38 different Twins hitters got at least 300 plate appearances as 24-year-olds. Kirby Puckett ranks 34th out of 38 with a .655 OPS, hitting .296/.320/.336 with zero homers in 128 games as a rookie. Carew would hold the top spot among 24-year-olds with a .930 OPS in 1970, but a knee injury ended his season after 51 games with a .366 batting average.

AGE 25              YEAR      PA      OPS
Harmon Killebrew    1961     656    1.012
Justin Morneau      2006     661     .934
Tony Oliva          1964     719     .916
Bobby Kielty        2002     348     .890
Joe Mauer           2008     633     .864

Harmon Killebrew couldn't crack any of these lists before age 25 because the team didn't move to Minnesota until then. In his first Twins season Killebrew hit .288/.405/.606 with 46 homers and 107 walks. Five decades later he's still the only Twins hitter to top a .950 OPS by age 25. Tony Oliva also cracks these lists for the first time at 25 because it was his rookie season. He led the AL in batting average, runs, doubles, and total bases, winning Rookie of the Year.

Morneau's aforementioned MVP-winning 2006 season came at age 25, as he hit .321/.375/.556 with 34 homers and 37 doubles in 159 games. Morneau has the second-best OPS for 23-year-olds and 25-year-olds, but hit just .239/.304/.437 in between as a 24-year-old. Mauer cracks the top five in OPS for ages 22, 23, 24, and 25. And he likely would've had the top OPS for 21-year-olds too if not for the knee injury.

Bobby Kielty is the odd man out on the age-25 list, which reminds me that I've never been more wrong about a player. He was a switch-hitting outfielder with power and plate discipline, and as you can see Kielty put up big numbers at an early age. When the Twins traded Kielty to the Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart in 2006 he was a 26-year-old .269/.375/.444 hitter. I thought they'd made a terrible mistake. And then Kielty hit .246/.333/.389 after the trade, flaming out at 30.

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March 30, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #22 Zoilo Versalles

Zoilo Casanova Versalles | SS | 1961-1967 | Career Stats

Washington signed 18-year-old Zoilo Versalles out of Havana, Cuba in 1958 and rushed him to the big leagues nearly five months before his 20th birthday. Versalles debuted on August 1, 1959, starting at shortstop against the White Sox and going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and an error as the Senators' leadoff man. He saw limited action down the stretch in 1958, hitting .153 in 59 at-bats spread over 29 games, and then batted .133 in 45 at-bats the next season.

Versalles arrived in Minnesota along with the rest of the team when the Senators became the Twins in 1961 and immediately stepped in as the starting shortstop, notching two hits and two steals in a 6-0 win over the Yankees on Opening Day. Despite being a 21-year-old rookie with 104 career at-bats he started each of the first 15 games and went on to hit .280/.314/.390 in 129 games for a Twins team that finished near the bottom of the league with a 70-90 record.

At first glance a .704 OPS doesn't look like much, but as a whole MLB shortstops combined to hit just .257/.324/.358 in 1961, meaning Versalles' bat was above average for his position as a 21-year-old rookie. And much like his first full season Versalles' entire career can be better appreciated by placing his raw numbers in the context of both the era in which he played and the position he manned.

Rarely did Versalles post raw numbers that would turn heads today, but for a shortstop in the pitcher-friendly 1960s he was an excellent hitter. He never topped the .280 batting average from 1961 and hit above .260 just twice more, but made up for it by adding significant power. After going deep just seven times in 510 at-bats as a rookie, he homered 17 times in 1962 to kick off a four-year stretch with double-digit long balls.

In fact, from 1961 to 1965 he led all major-league shortstops with 73 homers. Contrary to the past two decades or so, shortstop back then was simply not played by guys capable of hitting the ball out of the park. All of which is what made the two-year run Versalles put together starting in 1964 so impressive. Playing in 320 of 324 games the man they called "Zorro" batted .266/.315/.447 with 39 homers, 22 triples, 78 doubles, 41 steals, 141 RBIs, and 220 runs.

During that two-year span Versalles ranked second among all MLB hitters in doubles and runs, eighth in extra-base hits, and 10th in steals and total bases. That kind of offensive production was largely unheard of from a shortstop at that time and the position as a whole hit a measly .248/.312/.348 between 1964 and 1965. To put that in more recent context, consider that four decades later MLB shortstops combined to hit .271/.324/.401 between 2004 and 2005.

If you adjust Versalles' raw 1964/1965 totals to fit the 2004/2005 environment he comes out batting .290 with a .515 slugging percentage, which is Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki territory these days. The second of those two seasons was Versalles' finest and one of the most memorable years in Twins history. After finishing 79-83 in 1964 the Twins blitzed through the AL in 1965, posting a 102-60 record that still stands as the team's all-time best.

Versalles was the shortstop and leadoff man in 155 of the 162 games, hitting .273/.319/.462 with 19 homers and 27 steals while winning a Gold Glove and leading the AL in runs, doubles, extra-base hits, and total bases. He was particularly outstanding in the second half, batting .303/.349/.500 after the All-Star break, including .353 in August and .337 in September as the Twins put away the White Sox and Orioles to take the AL pennant.

And while most of the Twins' hitters flailed away at Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in a World Series loss Versalles put the finishing touches on his great season by batting .283/.333/.500 with three extra-base hits, three runs, and four RBIs in seven games. Versalles blew away the competition in the AL MVP voting by receiving 19 of 20 first-place votes, with the lone dissenter casting a ballot for teammate Tony Oliva, who finished a distant second.

Decades later it became popular to use his MVP win as a way to identify and attack perceived flaws within sabermetrics, the thinking seemingly being that because his raw numbers weren't particularly impressive in 1965 most "stat-heads" probably think Versalles receiving the award was some sort of travesty brought about by the unenlightened. For instance, friend of AG.com and Twins blogger Seth Stohs once opined:

Zoilo Versalles won the 1965 American League MVP award. He had a really great season. Believe me, if it happened now, SABRmetricians would probably take issue with that decision.

Taking it several steps further Jim Thielman, the author of a book about the 1965 Twins called Cool of the Evening, wrote:

Statistically, 1965 was a mixed bag for Versalles, and in recent years those who scrutinize numbers have suggested he did not deserve to win the 1965 Most Valuable Player award. ... Researching an era or epoch to see how it was, reading what people of the era did and said at the time, rather than cast a revisionist layer over it all, is actually an approach to studying history that was introduced around 1800. Applying this research to baseball is preferable to creating designer metrics with a computer in an attempt to ascertain how it was.

It is not difficult to find those who have done that in regard to Versalles, and printed their conclusions in books and on various Web sites, stating Versalles was undeserving. Facts suggest otherwise. A thorough review of Versalles' season--what he actually did during games, what managers and other players said at the time, not years later, shows that becoming an MVP is more than just piling numbers high.

If you're a Twins fan harboring resentment toward stats-based analysis it's tempting to set up that argument. "Versalles was great in 1965, but those dorks with their calculators don't think so!" Unfortunately, that's inaccurate and ultimately nothing more than attacking a strawman. The premise that those who "scrutinize numbers" don't view Versalles' season as special is flawed because of a failure to realize that any stat-head worth a damn looks past raw stats.

Versalles' stats aren't eye-popping at first glance, but one of the main goals of sabermetrics is placing stats like that in proper context. Depending on the circumstances, that means looking beyond oft-quoted numbers like batting averages and RBIs, adjusting for era and offensive environment, and making additional positional adjustments. In all cases it means doing things that Versalles' supporters would surely agree with, which makes the entire "argument" silly.

Plus, in an ironic twist the so-called "designer metrics [created] with a computer" that Thielman rails against so strongly actually show Versalles' MVP-winning 1965 season in an extremely favorable light. For instance, here is the American League leaderboard in 1965 for a prominent numbers-driven metric called Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which compares a hitter's production to others at the same position:

Jim Fregosi           45.1
Carl Yastrzemski      44.1
Tony Oliva            42.3
Leon Wagner           38.9

VORP represents only offensive contributions, yet Versalles still comes out on top of the heap by a relatively wide margin despite the presence of sluggers like Olivo and Carl Yastrzemski. Considering that Versalles was also a Gold Glove-winning shortstop in 1965 it's not difficult to understand why he also does exceptionally well in a metric such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) that incorporates both offensive and defensive contributions:

Don Buford            7.2
Jim Fregosi           6.3
Brooks Robinson       6.1
Tony Oliva            5.9

Thielman uses all kinds of strong language to protest the unattributed idea that Versalles was an undeserving MVP, saying "facts suggest otherwise" while taking unnamed masses to task for their apparent decision to "cast a revisionist layer over it all." In reality, the same "designer metrics" he scoffs at are in agreement with the "facts" he's chosen to trust, with both "sides" showing that "becoming an MVP is more than just piling numbers high."

Those nasty stat-heads with their calculators and spreadsheets aren't so bad after all and in fact sometimes those designer metrics their computers spit out can actually serve to illuminate a subject, like showing that a .273/.319/.462 hitter can be perfectly worthy of an MVP award. Deserving or not Versalles followed his MVP season with two ugly years, hitting .249/.307/.346 in 1966 and .200/.249/.282 in 1967 as back problems plagued him.

No amount of contextual adjustments make those hitting lines pretty and in November of 1967 the Twins sent Versalles and Mudcat Grant to the Dodgers for Johnny Roseboro, Bob Miller, and Ron Perranoski. Grant still had some strong years left in his arm, but Versalles was done as an effective player. He batted .196 in 122 games as the Dodgers' starting shortstop in 1968 and was left unprotected in the expansion draft that winter, going to the upstart Padres.

Traded to the Indians a month later, Versalles batted .226 in 72 games as a utility man before being let go and ended the season with a stint in Washington. He spent 1970 in the Mexican League before signing with the Braves in 1971, batting .191 in his final season. Versalles went from a 25-year-old MVP to losing a fight against the Mendoza Line within two years and never recovered, which perhaps fuels some of the perception that he wasn't a deserving MVP.

His career was among the worst ever for an MVP winner and both his on- and off-field declines were sudden and sad, but none of that takes away from the quality of a brief peak that ended in 1965 with one of the greatest years in Twins history, for one of the greatest teams in Twins history. Along with Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau he's one of five Twins to win an MVP and Versalles joins Carew and Mauer in also pacing the AL in WAR.

Triples                56     4th
Hits                 1146    10th
Runs                  564    11th
Total Bases          1604    11th
Plate Appearances    4500    12th
Steals                 84    12th
Extra-Base Hits       330    12th
Games                1065    13th
Doubles               188    14th
Times On Base        1333    15th
RBIs                  401    18th
Runs Created          481    18th
Homers                 86    19th