The plaque dedicated to Sanford 'Sandy' Koufax at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Credit: Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport
137 G, 77 GS, 516.2 IP, 28-27,
486 K, 305 BB, 4.16 ERA, ERA+ 100
I was watching a documentary this morning, which was talking about Sandy Koufax and how, at the start of his career, he wasn't anything special, infected with a wildness that made him likely to walk batters as strike them out. It was only half a dozen years into his career that a lightbulb went on, he stopped trying to throw as hard as possible, and developed the pin-point control that would bring him three Cy Youngs and six consecutive All-Star appearances, before retiring at the top of his game after the 1966 season.
The line on top are Koufax's stats through his first five major-league seasons, and there's nothing there to indicate he would end up being inducted into the Hall of Fame. It got me wondering, did any other inductees get off to a slow start on their journey to Cooperstown?
Let's start off with the pitchers. Here are the list of players in the modern (i.e. post-19th century) period, who had an ERA+ of 100 or less over the first five seasons of their major-league careers, with a minimum of 100 innings of work.
There are some striking names on that list, but the thing which stands out immediately is that most of these started their career at a very young age. Daron Sutton's father, Don, is the only one to debut after his 21st birthday, and he managed that by less than two weeks. To some extent, that's a result of the era before free agency. Now, teams want their six years of control to be a player's peak years; then, you didn't have to worry about that, The last season more than a handful of pitchers aged 20 or younger were seen in the majors was 1991.
Contrast that with the early sixties; every year from 1961-67, there were a dozen or more youngsters, peaking in 1963, with no less than 24. A couple of years later, there were 22, and three of them would go on to Cooperstown - as well as Catfish Hunter, Steve Carlton and Jim Palmer were among young pitchers in that class of '65. The following year saw Nolan Ryan in the same group, another arm that struggled early in his career, though in his defense Ryan was never really about ERA (his career ERA+ was a surprisingly-average 112). His sixth season, he led the league in K's, the first of eleven times he did so, and his modern-era record of 383 may never be matched.
Herb Pennock is another interesting case, simply because his early problems were so terrible. To put that 70 ERA+ into context, if he was playing today, he'd be tied with JoJo Reyes for the worst active pitcher with 300 IP. Much as with TV shows, one imagines that less patience would likely be shown with a struggling creation these days, though again Pennock was a very early arrival in the majors, making his debut three months after his eighteenth birthday, He was a true late bloomer. Through age 28 - his 11th year! - he had an ERA+ of 92, then over the next six years went 115-57 with a 133 ERA+. Maybe there's hope for JoJo yet...
Let's do the same for hitters now, though we have to be a little more cautious, because there are a number of names who made it to Cooperstown as managers, rather than on the strength of their playing days. Even if we draw the cutoff at a thousand PAs, top of the list would still be Leo Durocher, who managed a feeble 60 OPS+ in his first five seasons. We also have to take fielding into account, otherwise the list would include Ozzie Smith, who managed a 69 OPS+ early on, but whose value with the glove was likely far more than that with the bat. So we'll use bWAR as our measure here.
That's a real surprise at the top of the list: the player generally regarded as the best defensive third-baseman in baseball history was not even replacement level overall, during his first five years in the majors. Even then, it was his glove that prevented Robinson from being completely worthless, with 1.5 fielding WAR almost balancing the -1.7 WAR from his bat. But he was still a very long way from being the player who would post nine seasons above four WAR, and finish in the top three of MVP voting on four occasions.
Don't forget, we're talking not just a bad rookie year: this was over the first five seasons. Robinson stands out as the only Hall of Fame position player to be below replacement level, but there were others who were pretty mediocre. Nellie Fox, for example. His numbers, 4.2 WAR in 1,500 PAs over his opening half-decade, are comparable with someone like Mike Aviles [4.0 WAR in 1,325 PAs in the same timeframe] Pie Traynor? Slightly worse than Jay Bruce (6.3 WAR, 2076 PA). Even the great Roberto Clemente was less productive at the beginning of his career than Stephen Drew (9.3 WAR in 2,736 PAs).
This would likely also appear due to the youth of the players concerned, and it's unfair to compare Clemente with Drew, because the latter was a more mature 23 when he debuted. Robinson was younger still, only 18, and there's a reason only one 18-year-old, Alex Rodriguez, has appeared in the majors since the seventies. They're generally not very good. 91 position players have had their age 18 or younger seasons in the majors, but only one - Robin Yount in 1974 - has produced even one WAR, with about 60% below replacement level. That's the kind of historical track-record even a Hall of Fame caliber player will find hard to go against.
But it does go to show, sometimes even the best players need a significant amount of time in the majors to reach their apex.