Yasiel Puig’s Historic Start

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+
1 Frank Thomas 22-23 1990 1991 941 179
2 Yasiel Puig 22-23 2013 2014 641 170
3 Johnny Mize 23-24 1936 1937 1090 169
4 Fred Lynn 22-23 1974 1975 656 167
5 Benny Kauff 22-24 1912 1914 683 164
6 Kal Daniels 22-23 1986 1987 637 162
7 Dick Allen 21-22 1963 1964 734 161
8 Ted Williams 20-21 1939 1940 1336 161
9 Mark McGwire 22-23 1986 1987 699 157
10 Mike Trout 19-20 2011 2012 774 154

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.

Player PA H 2B 3B HR R RBI SB CS
Fred Lynn 621 185 46 9 23 103 110 10 4
Yasiel Puig 641 183 33 5 29 93 80 16 11
Frank Thomas 640 160 29 4 23 95 92 1 2
Kal Daniels 507 141 28 5 25 89 65 33 9
Mike Trout 644 178 28 6 30 127 90 46 4
Mark McGwire 617 148 24 4 46 96 114 1 2
—– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —–
Fred Lynn 11% 14% 0.245 0.382 0.348 0.418 0.592 0.447 179
Yasiel Puig 10% 21% 0.233 0.389 0.327 0.407 0.560 0.416 172
Frank Thomas 19% 20% 0.208 0.376 0.314 0.447 0.522 0.428 171
Kal Daniels 13% 14% 0.258 0.340 0.322 0.411 0.580 0.422 160
Mike Trout 9% 21% 0.227 0.356 0.311 0.374 0.538 0.389 152
Mark McGwire 11% 21% 0.315 0.276 0.275 0.355 0.590 0.395 147

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.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

Does OPS+ take into account the fact that he does not play the game the right way and does not respect the game?

8 years ago
Reply to  Tim

All that brooding and now Kemp is the one who is benched. Mattingly has resorted to just benching great OFs at his leisure

The Foilsmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Kris

what is this

8 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Yasiel Puig is a weed diminishing the beauty of baseball with his slow pace http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/mlb/news/20140527/pace-of-game/

8 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Does not respect the game? Improving one’s skill, making progress in your understanding of the game, hustling harder defensively than anyone on your team, and putting up All-Star caliber numbers on offense is a disrespect to the game of baseball? Those are all things we might broadly classify as refining one’s craft. So stop all this non-sense already. Disrespecting the game is seen in laziness, cheating, incessant whining, only performing in contact years, signing huge contracts and then underperforming, etc. Baseball is a game about numbers so if you have any numbers to back up your cliche comments please post them, and we would all like to discuss those. You may not like his personality, the way he plays or the culture he is from but stop hiding those personal feelings and opinions behind meaningless and empty phrases like “he doesn’t play the game the right way.” The guy doesn’t disrespect the game. Welcome to the 21st century where sports can celebrate diversity in personality and culture.

8 years ago
Reply to  Aaron

I think they were being sarcastic, Tim. #BrianMcCann (if hashtags meant something on Fangraphs)

8 years ago
Reply to  Aaron

Yeah, there was some pretty heavy sarcasm there. “Old School” baseball writers constantly talk about his disrespect.

8 years ago
Reply to  Tim

It’s incredible the degree of ignorance that Puig brings out in people. Kid had ~250 professional PA’s before appearing in the big leagues at the age of 22, in a country drastically different than where he came from, on a team with one of the biggest markets in the bigs. Not everywhere in the country plays the same as we do here in North America, and to *expect* someone to come over from where he came from at that young of an age and play like Derek Jeter on day 1 is insane. Throw in the fact that he plays as hard as anyone on the field… quite frankly it’s embarrassing to read/hear things like this comment.

Not Sure
8 years ago
Reply to  RT

Hey I was just thinking the same thing, cuz of *whooooosh*

8 years ago
Reply to  RT

Sarcasm does not play well on Fangraphs apparently. Noted.

8 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Whine whine whine. Quit bitching.

8 years ago
Reply to  Billy

The location of the emergency GPS beacon has led the determination that Sarcasm is lost somewhere on Billy. Stay tuned to our ongoing coverage of the search for Sarcasm. Repeat: recent evidence proves that Sarcasm is lost on Billy.

8 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Hey Tim I don’t think you know the right way to be a fan. Respect the game and give this guy his due. He’s amazing. May be just as good as Trout (or better) when all is said and done.

8 years ago
Reply to  John

Haha, what a joke