Danny Tartabull was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1980 Major League Baseball Draft out of Carol City High School in Opalocka, Florida. He was just 17-years-old at the time. The Reds sent him out to Billings where he played for the Mustangs that season and hit .299/.436/.401 with nearly 50% more walks than strikeouts in 59 games.

The 1980 season was an impressive showing for the young outfielder. So much so that the Cincinnati Reds felt comfortable sending the 18-year-old to the Florida State League and bypass the Midwest League’s Cedar Rapids squad.

The Florida State League has long been a pitchers paradise, and in 1981 it was no different. The league hit .258/.340/.345 as a whole. Two teams in the league failed to hit 25 home runs, AS A TEAM. To more failed to top 35, and another only had 36. That meant that half of the teams in the league didn’t hit more than 36 home runs in a schedule that featured at least 132 games for all of those teams.

The Cincinnati Reds affiliate in the league, the Tampa Tarpons were one of those teams. They hit just 36 home runs on the season in a 134 game schedule. 18-year-old Danny Tartabull hit a lot of those home runs. He finished tied for 4th in the league with 14 of them. No other teenager in the league topped four on the season.

It wasn’t just the home runs that set Danny Tartabull apart, though. He also had 28 doubles and 10 triples that season. His 28 doubles were best in the league. His 10 triples were tied for fourth in the league. Tartabull had 52 extra-base hits on the year. The next best in the league was from his teammate, 23-year-old Cressy Pratt, who had 42. Oh yeah, he also finished second in the league with 90 walks – all while striking out just 77 times in 521 plate appearances.

In total, Danny Tartabull hit .310/.431/.524 in 1981 for the Tampa Tarpons. All three of those slashes led the league among players who spent more than 70 games in the league. Which also meant he led the league in OPS. Tartabull was barely a man by age, but in 1980 he played like a man among boys for Tampa as he crushed his way through the Florida State League.

Stacking up with the contenders

There were some real contenders here. Some of them even came from some good big future big leaguers. Let’s take a look at how some of the other standout seasons stack up from the 1980’s.

Let’s start out with Jeff Jones and his 1982 season. He was certainly old for the Midwest League – spending his third season in the league, but he went nuts that season hitting a league record 42 home runs (that still stands) and driving in 101 runs while hitting .301/.426/.662 and posting a 203 OPS+. His age really pushed his contention backwards a bit, but the season he put together was crazy. The following season he actually made the team out of spring training, but struggled to hit, going 10-44 (.227) with three doubles in the first 16 games of the season before he was sent back to the minors. He never made it back to the Major Leagues.

Jones had the best OPS+ season by far of anyone on the list. The next best mark came from the best Major Leaguer from the group: Eric Davis. He actually showed up on the list twice. In 1981 he put up a 189 OPS+ as a 19-year-old at rookie-level Eugene. Not only did he absolutely RAKE while hitting .322/.467/.561, he also stole an insane 40 bases in half of a full season. If I were ranking the seasons in terms of “best”, this would have been the runner up. Davis was a year older, and two levels lower than Tartabull’s 1981 season. Half of a season versus a full season played a big role as well in Tartabull’s favor.

In 1983 Davis beat up the Double-A and Triple-A levels to the tune of .292/.415/.522 with 48 steals. That’s a 175 OPS+, and in the upper levels of the minor leagues with a ton of steals by a 21-year-old. It was a real contender, too – probably the third best season on the entire list.

Kal Daniels, like Davis, is on the list twice, too. His 1982 season in Billings was outstanding. As an 18-year-old he hit .367/.445/.517 and stole 27 bases. But that wasn’t the best season he had in the 1980’s. Two years later he was in Double-A Vermont and put up a .313/.418/.525 line. The context of the two leagues matters here because that’s a significantly better slash line when compared to the league. That he did it as a 20-year-old, and also stole 43 bases was something else.

And then there’s Gary Redus. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be talking about him a bit next week when we look at the decade of the 70’s. But Redus is on the list for the 1980’s twice. In the first year of the decade he hit .301/.393/.487 for Tampa. We need to be sure to utilize the league context here, because despite “just” an .880 OPS, that’s a 162 OPS+. And he did that while stealing 50 bases for the Tarpons. He was a bit old for the league that year, playing it while being 23-years-old. But two years later he showed up on the list again as a 25-year-old in Triple-A Indianapolis where he hit .333/.400/.604 with 24 home runs, 29 doubles, nine triples, and 54 steals.

There were more than a few choices that could have a very good argument for season of the decade among the position players here. I chose Danny Taratbull for the combination of outstanding overall performance combined with the age at which he did it in the league in which he did it. Your mileage may vary on that one.

In 1983 Tartabull moved up to Double-A and struggled a bit with Waterbury. Not only did he fail to qualify for the PGA Tour by not winning The Waterbury Open (if this movie reference goes over your head you are living your life incorrectly), but he also hit just .227 on the season. The on-base ability (.366) and power (17 doubles, three triples, 17 home runs) were still there for the then 19-year-old, but there were some struggles.

Following the season the Seattle Mariners selected Danny Tartabull from the Reds in the January Free Agent compensation draft. The Reds failed to protect Tartabull from the draft for some reason that year and the Mariners took advantage. They too messed up, though, trading him after his rookie season where he posted a 125 OPS+ in the Major Leagues. He would go on to a 14-year big league career with a .273/.368/.496 line with 289 doubles, 22 triples, and 262 home runs before retiring following the 1997 season.

Here are the other winners for Season of the Decade:

Decade Hitter Starter Reliever
2010’s Devin Mesoraco Tony Cingrani Donnie Joseph
2000’s Adam Dunn Travis Wood Robert Manuel
1990’s Jason LaRue Curt Lyons Victor Garcia
1980’s Danny Tartabull Mike Dowless Clem Freeman
1970’s Gary Redus Keefe Cato
1960’s
1950’s

8 Responses

  1. Little Earl

    He may have been older, but Jeff Jones’ season was better. After the 101 loss season, he provided some hope over that long winter.

    • Doug Gray

      But was it better? He was 6 years older and did it at a level lower than the one Tartabull performed his season at.

  2. Jack

    Pretty Meh baseball career in the end but really came into his own as an actor, what a performance on Seinfeld!

  3. wutinthehail

    Per fangraphs, he appears to have been a really bad defender. Like elite bad.

    • Doug Gray

      Defensive stats still kind of stink now. Defensive stats from before people were even charting where the ball landed or was fielded on a chart of the field (which is what is everything from, I believe, 2001 and earlier) is absolutely garbage and should be just tossed out of the window.

  4. Tony Cloninger

    During those lean in between years why they would not protect Danny just like Hoffman is beyond me. I know defense is important but the lack of power they had made Danny an asset. At least keep him for trading purposes. The Reds let a lot of good relievers go through trades that did not work out as well.

    • Doug Gray

      I think if this situation were to present itself today, with the understanding of hitting statistics we have now, there’s no way on the planet he would have been left unprotected. But back then average was seen as far more important than it actually is, so they probably took a chance he’d get looked over.