Earlier today, a friend of mine asked me about the ideal starting lineup for the Cincinnati Reds I would make if I could use anybody, from any year. And, as I was thinking about outfielders that I would use, I decided that Vada Pinson would be one of my starting outfielders, but you hardly ever hear anyone talk about him nowadays.
Pinson made an all star team in 1959 as a 20 year old, and had a 129 OPS+ with 20 HR and 21 steals(I would prefer to use wRC+, but I’m going to use the good ol Play Index, and they don’t have that, boo).
As you can see, Pinson’s age 20 season is matched only by Mike Trout! If you remove the parameters of home runs and steals and just go with OPS+ there are still just 15 players to have a better age 20 season. By WAR there are only 6 players to top Pinson’s 6.5 in their age 20 season. He followed that up with a not as good, but still pretty good 1960 season. He led the league in doubles for the second straight season. He also made the all-star team that season. Sadly, he never made it again, even though he followed up that season with what was probably his second best in 1961: a line of .343/.379/.504 (good for a wRC+ of 132), and a league leading 208 hits. That season he finished 3rd in the NL MVP voting, behind his fabulous teammate Frank Robinson, and Orlando Cepeda. I’d imagine at this point if you were to go back in a time machine, Pinson would probably be, just like Mike Trout today, considered to be on a Hall of Fame pace. I guess that’s a cautionary tale for Trout, because even though I consider Pinson to be criminally underrated, I think he belongs in the Hall Of Very Good instead of the Hall of Fame.
After a merely pretty good 1962, in 1963 he rebounded to lead the league in hits again, and rode a league leading 14 triples (one of two times he led in that category) to a career best .514 SLG and a career best 143 wRC+. I believe a case can be made that he should have been in the top 5 MVP voting that year. The Reds won 86 games, so it’s not like they were bottom feeders, and Pinson was their best player that season. Oddly enough, even though he was just 24 years of age, that would be the best season he would ever have. He slumped in 1964, his age 25 season, to a wRC+ of 110, the worst of his career to that point but would bounce back nicely the next season to have a wRC+ of 129.
So, now he’s going into his age 27 season in 1966. You would think that he’s going to be at his peak, so, what the heck happened? In the four seasons that should have been his peak, his age 27-30 seasons, he put up wRC+ numbers of 104, 115, 99, and, after a trade to the Cardinals in 1969, 91 (As a side note, Pinson being traded to the Cardinals in 1969 landed Cincinnati 2 big pieces to their 1970 pennant winners: Bobby Tolan, and Wayne Granger. Those two players netted Cincinnati 17 WAR during their time with the Reds).
Why would a guy who was putting up MVP-type numbers every season and tracking to be a future Hall of Famer all of a sudden become just a league average type hitter during what would normally be his peak years? Was he injured? He did only play 130 and 132 games in 1968 and 1969. I can’t find anything online about an injury in 1968 but I know he did suffer an injury of some sort in 1969, but that was the end of that run so that doesn’t really explain anything, unless he was playing hurt the whole time and not saying anything. We can’t ask him, because he unfortunately passed away in 1995 at the age of 57. This would be a lot easier to figure out today, because we have pitch/fx data and spray charts and other things at our disposal to try and explain these things. But as it is, Pinson’s early decline is somewhat unexplainable.
So, what we really wind up with is the tale of two careers. A great one from 1959-1965, and an average one from 1966 until his final season in 1975. We all know that players decline as they age, but having a peak at 24 years of age is not the norm. Sure, there have been some flashes in the pan, who start out white hot but burn out quickly. Joe Charboneau comes to mind: he was the AL Rookie of the Year at age 25 but was out of baseball by age 28. I’m not talking about those guys. I’m talking about guys who played a full career. As it is, like I said earlier, I think Pinson belongs in the Hall of Very Good. But what, another 2 or 3 more good seasons and you’ve got to be thinking about him as a borderline candidate at the very least, don’t you?Next post: Almost Heroes: The Last Ten Franchises to Lose a World Series, Part 1 – Cardinals
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