The Most Perfect Career

Since you are here at FanGraphs, you likely already read August Fagerstrom’s recent piece on Getting Mike Trout to 168.4 WAR. It’s a pretty fun thought experiment, but I’d like to take it one step further and create the best possible player by using the best season in history by age. I’m not sure the exact methodology August used to get his seasons, but mine is going to use the same baseline:

  • Position players with at least 100 PAs only
  • No Bonds or Ruth (we’ll take a look at them later)
  • No duplicates, always take a players best year
  • No pre-1900 guys

I’m also not going to adjust anyone’s numbers for the time period like August, mostly because I don’t feel like it, but also so we can get some silly years that would not play today at all. Anyway, let’s create a magical mystery player!

Age 18: Phil Cavarretta – 1935

WAR: 1.2

FanGraphs’ player search is kind enough to go back to age 14, but there is no one who fits my above criteria with positive value before 18, so we’ll just ignore them. The only pre-18 player who was worthwhile at all was Bob Feller at 17, but he’s a pitcher.

As for Cavaretta, he had a decent career, although his best seasons came during World War II when the rest of the league was in the service. Cavarretta had hit for a cycle the year prior to this one, which is cool I guess, but he wasn’t all that impressive, aside from the fact that he was, from what I can tell, the only 18-year-old who started a full season. Whitey Lockman in his age 18 season was almost as valuable in one-fourth the PAs.

Age 19: Bryce Harper – 2012

WAR: 4.6

It’s amazing that, prior to this season, there were people disappointed with Bryce Harper. He had the best seasons of any teenager ever (runners up, Mel Ott and Edgar Renteria, who you never put together in your head before right now).  What else did people expect? Harper to moonlight as the Nats’ set-up guy?

Age 20: Alex Rodriguez – 1996

WAR: 9.2

You knew this guy was lurking somewhere around here. He was Bryce Harper when Harper was a toddler. It’s actually rather amazing the number of spectacular young players we’ve seen in recent years. Between Harper, A-Rod and Mike Trout, we’ve seen the four best seasons from a player younger than 22 since 1943.

Age 21: Mike Trout – 2013

WAR: 10.5

You already know about this guy. He’s pretty good I hear.

Age 22: Eddie Collins – 1909

WAR: 10.0

You think Harper and Trout are a brilliant pair of young players? Try Eddie Collins and Ty Cobb. Both were 22 in 1909 and they put up WARs of 10.0 and 9.7 respectively. Luckily (or unluckily) for American League fans, both would go on to have brilliant careers, with both in the top 15 for career position player WAR. If just one of our two youngsters puts up a career of this quality, we’ll be lucky to see it.

Collins is a bit of a forgotten man compared to Cobb, but his career ought not be. He had a career .333/.424/.429 batting line, despite playing in deadball, and he was also an elite defender at second base and an excellent base runner. He’s probably best known today for being one of the clean players on the Black Sox, which is sort of like Frank Sinatra being known for his roll in High Society.

Age 23: Cal Ripken – 1984

WAR: 9.8

Cal Ripken actually was the fifth best 23-year-old player, but the other four were good enough to appear further down the list. Not that I’m complaining, because Ripken was pretty good this year. For being a guy known for his durability, Ripken was a great young player as well; probably the best between Mays/Mantle and A-Rod.

Age 24: Lou Gehrig -1927

WAR: 12.5

I love that these two guys slot in back-to-back. I also love that Gehrig wasn’t even the most valuable player on his team in 1927, with Ruth slotting in a slightly better mark of 13.0 WAR. What an absurd team that was. Seriously, imagine that Harper and Trout were on the same team this past season. Now imagine they were 35% better than they actually were. Now imagine that this team also had Manny Machado and Jason Heyward, who are standing in for Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri on the ’27 Yankees. Now imagine yourself, rolled up on the floor in the fetal position, weeping silently as these guys make your favorite team look like little leaguers. You think to yourself, “eventually they’ll get old and bad and my team will have a chance at a championship.” Then you wake up from your coma thirty years later and the Yankees are still the best team in baseball. Because of the next guy.

Age 25: Mickey Mantle – 1957

WAR: 11.4

Okay, the 1957 Yankees weren’t quite as good as their predecessors, losing the World Series to Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves. Mantle and Berra weren’t quite Ruth and Gehrig. But they were still pretty good. Mantle put up a .512 OBP in 1957, which is silly, and would be even sillier had Barry Bonds not desensitized us from silly OBPs.

Age 26: Norm Cash – 1961

WAR: 10.6

Norm Cash is not a name you see come up very often, but for one year, he was just as good as all these all-timers. The rest of his career he was basically a 3-4 WAR player, but in 1961, Cash caught the BABIP bug. His .370 mark this year was nearly one hundred points higher than his career mark. It also helped that he hit a career high of 41 home runs.

Age 27: Ted Williams – 1946

WAR: 11.8

This was the Splender Splinter’s first year back from three years of service in WWII. Depriving us of three years of Ted Williams hitting is probably at the bottom of the list of Nazi war crimes, right next to stealing the Ark of the Covenant, but it’s there.

Age 28: Rogers Hornsby – 1924

WAR: 12.5

Okay, we’ve mentioned Collins and Cobb, Mantle and Mays, and Trout and Harper as great pairs of contemporaries, but how about Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby? Ruth also managed a 12.5 WAR in 1924, which is pretty funny. This was the year that Hornsby hit .424. This is also the best year for our magical mystery player. His career 104.1 WAR is basically Frank Robinson. We still have 18 more seasons to go.

Age 29: Al Rosen – 1953

WAR: 9.1

Al Rosen is sort of like Norm Cash in that he only had one season of this caliber, but, unlike Cash who played for seventeen years, he only played seven full seasons. Who knows what might have been if not for injuries and other such circumstances that cut Rosen’s career short. He was probably the best executive of the guys on this list, guiding the 1989 Giants to a pennant as General Manager.

Age 30: Ty Cobb – 1917

WAR: 11.5

I think that Ty Cobb came up the most of any player I ran into while researching this list. He was a great young player, a great old player, and a great normal-aged player. I rank Ty Cobb’s second to only Barry Bonds’ as my favorite player page to marvel at.

Age 31: Joe Morgan – 1975

WAR: 11.0

At this point, some of these legendary seasons are starting to look ordinary at this point. Only a .466 OBP? Gotta pick of the slack Joe! In all seriousness, Morgan was a great player and this was his best year. I haven’t been keeping track of stolen bases so far, but 67 at age 31 is really impressive.

Age 32: Sammy Sosa – 2001

WAR: 9.9

Sosa hit 64 dingers this season, which makes for our magical mystery player’s career high mark. Of course Barry Bonds hit 9 more than Sosa in 2001. Sosa doesn’t have a reputation as a single-season hero like Norm Cash, mostly because he was a a legitimate star for a good while, but its amazing how much this season stands above the rest in his career. The only other time he broke 6 WAR was 1998 and his 186 wRC+ is 25 points higher than any other season in his career.

Age 33: Willie Mays – 1964

WAR: 10.5

You knew this guy was going to show up sooner or later. I probably could have picked one of about a dozen Mays seasons for this thought experiment and it wouldn’t have changed the results much.

Age 34: Honus Wagner – 1908

WAR: 11.8

You probably knew this guy was going to be here as well. While his 11.8 WAR isn’t quite as high as some of the more ridiculous years from Ruth, Bonds, and Hornsby, this might have been the most dominant season ever. Joe Tinker placed second in WAR this year with 7.5. Wagner had over 50% more value.

Age 35: Nap Lajoie – 1910

WAR: 9.3

Lajoie was so good that they named the team after him. I imagine our magical mystery player would also have a team named after him at this point, as he has now passed Babe Ruth in career WAR. He still has another decade left to play. Then again, I imagine there are some obnoxious fans who think he’s done. I mean, he only hit 4 home runs this year when he hit 47 two years ago and 64 the year before that.

Age 36: Luke Appling – 1943

WAR: 7.8

Interesting run of middle infielders we’ve had here. Appling is well behind Bonds and Ruth in this age bracket, but that doesn’t diminish how great of an old player Appling was. He missed 1944 and most of 1945 to war, but then proceeded to put up four more All-Star level seasons. He would also hit a home run off Warren Spahn in 1982 at age 75.

Age 37: Hank Aaron – 1971

WAR: 7.1

This season was probably Aaron’s ninth or tenth best year, but he hasn’t been particularly close to make this list prior to this point. I guess that shows how consistent of a hitter Aaron was.

Age 38: Bob Johnson – 1944

WAR: 6.4

No, I did not make that name up. But I don’t blame you for thinking that, as Wikipedia has him listed behind thirteen other Bobs Johnson including a weatherman, a butcher, a psychiatrist, an Arkansas State Representative, three other major leaguers, and a squirrel boy.

Johnson actually was a pretty good player in his day, although this season was likely exaggerated due to the paucity of good players left in the game in 1944. That being said, he’s a pretty solid Hall of Very Good type player who had a fine season when he was 38.

Age 39: Dummy Hoy – 1901

WAR: 4.8

I swear I’m not making these up! Hoy’s nickname actually comes from the fact that he was deaf, not because he was unintelligent. In fact, it seems he was quite smart for a ballplayer at the turn of the century. Hoy was also pretty good at playing baseball, as he managed a .400 OBP despite his old age and stole 27 bases.

Wait, did I just gloss over the fact that he was DEAF! In 1901 there was a 38-year-old, deaf, All-Star level player. He produced more WAR than Ted Williams did at age 38. He also got hit by 14 pitches in this season, which my brain wanted to blame on his deafness for about a third of a second before I realized how little sense that made.

Age 40: Sam Rice – 1930

WAR: 4.6

WAR rates this as Rice’s best season in his twenty year career. It seems he never peaked and just spent his entire career as a 4 WAR type guy. It managed to get him into the Hall of Fame. Our magical mystery player at this point has a career WAR four times Rice’s career mark.

Age 41: Stan Musial – 1962

WAR: 4.0

Stan Musial hit .330/.416/.508 in 1962. That is a better batting average and on base percent than Mike Trout had this season. I think that requires no further comment

Age 42: Carlton Fisk – 1990

WAR: 5.0

Our poor magical mystery player has taken up catching for the first time in his career, here at age 42. A least he hasn’t caught 2000 games already like Fisk had. It’s actually incredible that Fisk was able to pull his broken body out of bed, let alone put up a 133 wRC+. Just to put in perspective how slim the pickins are getting, only nine players put up at least 1 WAR in their age 42 seasons. Four of them have already appeared on this list, and Barry Bonds is a fifth that I am not allowed to take. Luckily, Fisk was better than all of them with the exception of Luke Appling.

Age 43: Tony Perez – 1985

WAR: 1.5

Perez and Fisk are the only two batters to manage a 1 WAR season at age 43. Interestingly enough, Perez was not a very good old player, with his last 1 WAR season prior to this one coming at age 38.

Of note is that of the twelve players to manage 100 PAs in their age 43 seasons, eight are in the Hall of Fame. The only one who is neither in the Hall nor otherwise mentioned here is Graig Nettles.

Age 44: Pete Rose – 1985

WAR: 0.8

Pete Rose stuck around this long because he was aiming for the all time hits record. This doesn’t concern our magical mystery player, who achieved that four years ago.

Age 45: Julio Franco – 2004

WAR: 1.2

I could give this season to Omar Vizquel to allow magical mystery player to hang on with one more season from Julio Franco but I’d rather he go out with a bang. Or at least as much of a bang as a 45-year-old can provide. Franco was actually an above average hitter with a 113 wRC+ in 2004. He would hang on for three more seasons, but the rules prevent me from tacking those on here at the end. Not that it matters much, since Franco was basically replacement level from here on out.

Finally, the greatest player of all time is riding off into the sunset at age 45. How good was he? He managed 4892 hits in his career with 620 of them being home runs. His career batting line was .333/.421/.549. He played all around the field, spending at least one full season at each position. Seventeen Hall of Famers contributed to his career. Somehow, he only won 5 MVP awards (1927, 1946, 1953, 1957, and 1975).

Career Wins Above Replacement: 220.4

That’s Babe Ruth plus Will Clark or Larry Doby. Here’s his full ‘career’ if you want to call it that:

Age Player Year PA Hits Home Runs BA OBP SLG WAR
18 Phil Cavarretta 1935 636 162 8 .275 .322 .404 1.2
19 Bryce Harper 2012 597 144 22 .270 .340 .477 4.6
20 Alex Rodriguez 1996 677 215 36 .358 .414 .631 9.2
21 Mike Trout 2013 716 190 27 .323 .432 .557 10.5
22 Eddie Collins 1909 660 198 3 .347 .416 .450 10.0
23 Cal Ripken 1984 716 195 27 .304 .374 .517 9.8
24 Lou Gehrig 1927 717 218 47 .373 .474 .765 12.5
25 Mickey Mantle 1957 623 173 34 .365 .512 .665 11.4
26 Norm Cash 1961 672 193 41 .361 .487 .662 10.6
27 Ted Williams 1946 672 176 38 .342 .497 .667 11.8
28 Rogers Hornsby 1924 640 227 25 .424 .507 .696 12.5
29 Al Rosen 1953 688 201 43 .336 .422 .613 9.1
30 Ty Cobb 1917 669 225 6 .383 .429 .515 11.5
31 Joe Morgan 1975 639 163 17 .327 .566 .508 11.0
32 Sammy Sosa 2001 711 189 64 .328 .437 .737 9.9
33 Willie Mays 1964 665 171 47 .296 .383 .607 10.5
34 Honus Wagner 1908 641 201 10 .354 .415 .542 11.8
35 Nap Lajoie 1910 677 227 4 .384 .445 .514 9.3
36 Luke Appling 1943 677 192 3 .328 .419 .407 7.8
37 Hank Aaron 1971 573 162 47 .327 .410 .669 7.1
38 Bob Johnson 1944 626 170 17 .324 .431 .528 6.4
39 Dummy Hoy 1901 641 155 2 .294 .407 .400 4.8
40 Sam Rice 1930 668 207 1 .349 .407 .457 4.6
41 Stan Musial 1962 505 143 19 .330 .416 .508 4.0
42 Carlton Fisk 1990 521 129 18 .285 .378 .451 5.0
43 Tony Perez 1985 207 60 6 .328 .396 .470 1.5
44 Pete Rose 1985 500 107 2 .264 .395 .319 0.8
45 Julio Franco 2004 361 99 6 .309 .378 .441 1.2
Career 17295 4892 620 .333 .421 .549 220.4

Speaking of Babe Ruth, I almost forgot our other, very important exercise. In creating the magical mystery player, I purposely left out any seasons from Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds, who were both a completely different level of silly good. In the comments of the aforementioned article from August Fagerstrom, I took the best season between just Bonds and Ruth, much in the same way as I did with everyone else here. Now, there is a bit of smudging. Ruth’s pitching stats are included, but it’s not a whole lot. Furthermore, neither player managed 100 PAs in their age 19 or 40 seasons, but I included the best of them anyway. But here’s the player I got.

3208 hits

833 home runs

.336 batting average

.483 on-base percent

.692 slugging percent

210.0 WAR

Oh… oh my. That WAR is awfully close to our magical mystery player. And magical mystery player has 5000 more career plate appearances. If you prorate the home runs to even just 15,000 plate appearances (still over 2000 behind magical mystery player) you end up with exactly 1000 home runs. With that, I leave you with this. It is tangentially related.

Jaack is a pseudonym bestowed by one Jeff Sullivan upon a humble Fangraphs participant. His interests include Barry Bonds, Rutherford B. Hayes, and very bad baseball players.

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Bobby Muellermember
8 years ago

Well done. I knew there would be a Julio Franco sighting at some point.

Barney Coolio
8 years ago

Amusing Read. Some thoughts:

1. What about stolen bases? While perusing the list, I doubt it would be overly impressive. A-Rod stole 15, Mays stole 19, and Trout stole 33, probably this player’s career’ mark.

2. Phil Cavarettqa (age 18) had a very interesting career. 22 years from 1934-1955, age 17 to 38 (almost 39). .293/.372/.416. Came just short of 2000 hits and 100 homers. Born in Chicago and spent entire career in Chicago, mainly with Cubs. Exempt from WWII for hearing problem, was player-manager of Cubs for 3 seasons. 1945 NL MVP. Somehow lingered on HOF ballot from 1962-1975.

3. The fact that this “mythical player” played almost all positions kind of ruins it for me. Others might not think like that.

4. I am looking forward to a pitcher article!

Barney Coolio
8 years ago
Reply to  Jaack

If a person is new to reading about baseball, then Cavaretta is definitely one of the least interesting players. However, Cavaretta is one of the few players on this list who made me want to look him up on wikipedia and I felt no compulsion whatsoever to look up Joe Morgan because I’ve already looked at his career. If I had posted, “Joe Morgan had an interesting career,” and listed some fun facts, I doubt many people reading this page would have benefited.

Barney Coolio
8 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

I mean, you say Julio Franco is a “fun one,” and he is. I think that Cavaretta is interesting in a similar vein.

Willie Mays isn’t really fun. If a player is completely butt kicking and everyone knows tons about him, “fun” isn’t the right word to describe him.

Barney Coolio
8 years ago

The writing style could be much clearer. But what do I expect from a guy named “Jaack.”

18: Cavarretta had hit for a cycle the year prior to this one, which is cool I guess, but he wasn’t all that impressive, aside from the fact that he was, from what I can tell, the only 18-year-old who started a full season.”

You go from discussing his age 17 season, to his age 18 season without a clear separation.

19: “(runners up, Mel Ott and Edgar Renteria, who you never put together in your head before right now)”

Did you mean, “Ott and Renteria, who you never thought of in the same sentence before now”?

23: “Ripken was a great young player as well; probably the best between Mays/Mantle and A-Rod.”

Usually, when you say, “between A, B, and C,” you choose one of those three options, not option D.

31. “At this point, some of these legendary seasons are starting to look ordinary at this point.”

So many points

39: “He produced more WAR that Ted Williams did at age 38.”

Should be “than,” minor peccadillo

40: “Our magical mystery player has at this point has a career WAR four times Rice’s career mark.”

Should remove the second “has.”

Mark Davidson
8 years ago

That’s such a fun idea – nice work. If this was a real player, people would be so freaked out by a guy who compiled 93 HR through his age 22 season and then only hit 3 at 22. CHECK THE AVG FLYBALL DISTANCE! HOW MANY OF HIS 93 HR WERE OF THE JUST ENOUGH VARIETY! HOW MUCH BAD LUCK COULD HE HAVE INCURRED IN TERMS OF HR/FB RATIO? I wish someone was this erratic.

Mark Davidson
8 years ago
Reply to  Mark Davidson

However, Cavaretta didn’t have a double in his age 17 season, so I don’t know if he hit for the cycle. And did Joe Morgan really have a .566 OBP?!!

Christopher Rinaldi
8 years ago

Great article. Fun read.