Between 1893-2012, there were five seasons in which a hitter in the second year of his career qualified for the batting title and posted an OPS+ of at least 170. No one has ever done it in his debut season, with Johnny Mize's 162 in 1936 the top mark for a freshman.
Among the handful of players to have reached that height in a second season, there are three -- Mize, Ralph Kiner and Eddie Mathews -- who were eventually honored with a plaque in Cooperstown, and one -- Frank Thomas -- who will grace the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time later this year. The fifth member of this group is the reigning American League Rookie of the Year Award winner, Mike Trout. After playing 40 games and producing an OPS+ of 89 over 135 plate appearances in his debut season in 2011, Trout posted a 171 in 2012, which not only placed him alongside the four greats, but also happened to be the highest OPS+ since 1893 for any qualifying player in his age-20 season or younger.
1893-2012: Second-Year Players to Post OPS+ of at Least 170
Trout's campaign in 2012 was extraordinary on a number of levels, but it's his age that really should resonate and make questions about the future so exciting. Certainly, joining Mize, Kiner, Mathews and Thomas is special, and worthy of some glory. But there is another list, focused on age, that produces an equally (actually, probably more) impressive group of peers. It is one that, astonishingly, has Trout at the very top: highest OPS+ for qaualifying player in his age-20 season or younger from 1893-2012.
To give a perspective on the seven players immediately below Trout on the list, consider that among all players in history with at least 5,000 plate appearances, they own these respective ranks on the OPS+ chart: Ted Williams (second), Rogers Hornsby (fifth), Mickey Mantle (sixth), Ty Cobb (tied for ninth), Mel Ott (tied for 21st), Alex Rodriguez (tied for 46th) and Al Kaline (tied for 98th).
The accolades for those seven go beyond OPS+, of course. Four of them went on to hit more than 500 home runs (Rodriguez, Mantle, Williams and Ott); two (Cobb and Kaline) are members of the 3,000-hit club; Cobb and Hornsby rank first and second, respectively, in career batting average; Williams is tied for sixth in batting average, is first in on-base percentage and is second in slugging; Ott captured six home run titles; Hornsby owns seven rate-stat triple crowns; Williams and Hornsby are the only two players in history to win the traditional Triple Crown multiple times; and Cobb and Mantle also claimed a traditional Triple Crown.
From virtually any angle, these players are inner-circle-level Hall of Famers. And none of them had -- by OPS+ -- a better age-20 season than Mike Trout. Trout's brilliant campaign doesn't simply rely on an historic OPS+ to move toward rarely charted waters.
Became the youngest player in history to produce a 30-homer, 30-steal season (the previous youngest had been Rodriguez, who was a 40-40 player in his age-22 season in 1998).
Became the first player since Cobb in 1907 to be in his age-20 (or younger) season and steal as many as 49 bags.
1893-2012: Highest OPS+ for Qualifying Player in Age-20 Season or Younger
Collected 315 total bases (seventh most in history for a player in his age-20 season or younger) and 65 extra-base hits (eighth most in history for that age group).
Reached base safely 255 times, the eighth most in history for a player in his age-20 season or younger.
Joined Rodriguez (1996), Vada Pinson ('59) and Frank Robinson ('56) as the only players in history to be in their age-20 or younger season and lead the league in runs scored.
Joined Cobb (1907) and Jimmy Sheckard (1899) as the only players since 1876 to be in their age-20 or younger season and lead the league in steals.
Joined Cobb (1907) as the only players in history to be in their age-20 or younger season, qualify for the batting title and lead the league in OPS+;
Joined Rodriguez (1996), Williams ('39), Kaline ('55) and Cobb ('07) as the only players in history to be in their age-20 or younger season, qualify for the batting title, and lead the league in at least three top-line offensive categories.
Interestingly, among this last group -- Rodriguez, Williams, Kaline and Cobb -- only Trout and the Splendid Splinter were rookies under the current definition. By the time 1907 commenced, Cobb had already accumulated 558 plate appearances in 139 games; Kaline had appeared in 168 games and had amassed 565 plate appearances prior to his extraordinary '55 campaign; and Rodriguez owned 208 plate appearances in 65 games before his otherworldly '96. So in one respect -- intertwining age with the modern definition of a rookie -- Trout and Williams share something special.
In 1939, Williams -- fresh off a year in the American Association in which he batted .366, slugged .701 and had 82 extra-base hits (30 doubles, nine triples and 43 homers) -- made his Major League debut on April 20 and, batting sixth, went 1-for-4 with a double and a pair of strikeouts. In a contest famous for its number of future Hall of Famers (there were 10 who played in the game, plus Yankees manager Joe McCarthy), Williams' debut was certainly a quiet one. It would be one of the few times all season that such a description would be apt. In his final game that year -- also against New York -- Williams hit his 31st home run, drove in his 145th run (led AL), collect his 106th and 107th walks of the year and finish the season with a .327 batting average, a .436 on-base percentage, a .609 slugging mark, 344 total bases (led AL) and 86 extra-base hits (led AL). For both rookies and players in their age-20 or younger season, this was an extraordinary year with the bat.
From his age-21 season through his age-30 season, Williams would win two MVP Awards (and would finish second three other times), would claim both of his traditional Triple Crowns and posted a 200 OPS+ that is the second highest for any player (behind Babe Ruth's 211) with at least 4,000 plate appearances through those age-seasons: clearly, Williams' age-20 season, that remarkable rookie campaign, was just the first salvo in a barrage of historic accomplishments. We can only hope that Trout's 2012 one day even approaches such an interpretation.