Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #2, Dwight Gooden:
The best pitchers by age 19:
Bob Feller is the best teenage pitcher in baseball history, coming up at age 17, but maybe not the most dominant. Feller led the league in strikeouts (240 K) as a 19 year old, but didn’t have any control, as he also led the league in walks (208 BB). As 19 year olds, Dwight Gooden led the league in strikeouts and Gary Nolan led the league in strikeout rate, and both of them had strikeout-to-walk ratios above 3.3. Feller succeed through effective wildness, while Gooden and Nolan were perhaps more refined products.
The best pitchers by age 20:
At age 20, Feller cuts his walks from 208 to 142 — a figure that still leads the league — and strikes out 246. Gooden, on the other hand, has one of the best seasons in history, leading the NL in wins, ERA, strikeouts, and complete games. Feller still leads by nature of his high inning total, but inning for inning, Gooden is the more effective pitcher. Gary Nolan starts to drop off the list, as a pair of Hall of Famers, Blyleven and Mathewson, join the party.
The best pitchers by age 21:
Feller and Gooden still hold down the first and second spot, but Feller starts to move ahead. Feller is still getting better at age 21, leading the league in just about everything (except walks, for the first time in two years); Gooden has the third best season of his career, but is beginning a sharp decline into a lesser pitcher. Blyleven and Nolan hang on to spots in the top five, while Frank Tanana makes an appearance.
The best pitchers by age 22:
Gooden is just treading water at this point, failing to reach both the 200 inning and 200 strikeout marks for the first time in his career, though he still owns the best ERA+ on the list. Feller throws a league leading 343 innings as a 22 year old, and also leads in hits allowed, walks and strikeout, and Blyleven starts to make a serious push. But you can make a case that Gooden is the most dominant pitcher in baseball history through his age 22 season, based on his ERA/ERA+ lead.
The best pitchers by age 23:
Blyleven passes Gooden; Feller’s totals are frozen as he goes off to the military, but no one catches him anyway. Gooden throws 248.1 innings as a 23 year old, but hitters aren’t missing anymore, as he sets a career high in hits allowed and fails to strikeout 200 batters again. His ERA+ has also dropped into the pack, though he still has 91 wins as a 23 year old.
The best pitchers by age 24:
Gooden falls off the list here. So the question is: Was he on a Hall of Fame track before his career was derailed? Some of the best pitchers in baseball history appear on these lists — Feller, Mathewson, Blyleven, Johnson — but you also have a handful of burnouts — Nolan, Tanana, and Gooden himself. Success at a young age, particularly as a pitcher, is not a great indicator for sustained success in the major leagues. Gooden could have been on a Hall of Fame track, but it seems just as likely that he was not.
But Gooden, along with Feller, is one of the two best young pitchers in baseball history, and he is the second best player in Mets history.