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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Behind the unprecedented rise in young impact players in baseball

Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa (1) and José Altuve (27) celebrate after winning Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. Last year, MLB rookie hitters and pitchers amassed a combined 114.9 Wins Above Replacement, which trails only the class of 2015, led by Correa and Kris Bryant, as the league’s best ever. (Annie Mulligan/The New York Times)

By Brittany Ghiroli / The Athletic

Young players are reshaping MLB.

Last year, rookie hitters amassed 68.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the second most ever, according to FanGraphs. Along with rookie pitchers’ 46.3 WAR, the combined impact on the sport was 114.9 WAR, which trails only the class of 2015, led by Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa, as MLB’s best.

There has been no recent change in the average age of hitters (27.8), and only a six-month age dip for pitchers (from 28 1/2 to 28 years old), but first-year players are increasingly making their presence felt.

In 2023, five position players 22 and under had a WAR above 4, which is generally considered to be the level of an All-Star. In 2013, there were only two players that young, Mike Trout and Manny Machado, to reach that mark. In 2003, just one: Hank Blalock.

In 2022, Julio Rodríguez, then 21, made the Seattle Mariners’ opening day roster as their everyday center fielder, and was at his first All-Star Game three months later. Last year, the New York Yankees made 21-year-old Anthony Volpe their youngest shortstop since Derek Jeter. Jordan Walker became the only St. Louis Cardinal not named Albert Pujols to post a 16-homer season at age 21 or younger.

When the Cincinnati Reds called up Elly De La Cruz in June, the 22-year-old hit cleanup. Eury Pérez was inserted into the Miami Marlins’ starting rotation from Class AA, less than a month after turning 20. Two top prospects, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Corbin Carroll and the Baltimore Orioles’ Gunnar Henderson, played pivotal roles in their team’s playoff runs on the way to Rookie of the Year awards. They started the season at 22 and 21 years old.

“Now we have grizzled veterans like Soto at 25, right?” Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said of Juan Soto, whom the Yankees acquired in December.

Rizzo added: “When we had these old September call-up rules, you saw a lot of kids come up and just get a feel for it or watch on the bench. The difference now is guys are getting thrown into the fire and compete right away.”

The proliferation of young impact players in the game is the result of a confluence of events: The explosion of cutting-edge data and training methods, along with a shift in mindset among many front offices about developing big-league players; the 2022 collective bargaining agreement, which discourages service time manipulation; and the era of tanking and rebuilding that means using younger, cheaper players.

Developing in the big leagues is “a more recent trend,” said Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes, who played in the big leagues from 2011 to 2015 with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The emergence of bat path tracking and velocity training — as well as advances in nutrition, weight training and recovery — have spearheaded improvements at the big-league level. In 2024, every team has a group of analysts and data researchers. Most have pitching labs or velocity camps, or both, and players still often seek help from a growing sector of independent training facilities in the offseason to refine skills or resuscitate a stalled career.

“Players in the big leagues are improving like they never have before, and there’s no next league for them to go to,” said Andy McKay, a Seattle Mariners assistant general manager. “So this gap keeps getting wider and wider. And I do think that trend is here to stay.”

In December 2020, MLB announced 43 minor league franchises had lost their affiliations, a streamlining move that limits an organization’s total head count and can have ripple effects up the chain. Let’s say a team had one of their rookie ball teams eliminated. All of those guys instead go to Low A now, and most of those Low A guys go to High A, and so on. That means a team’s Class AAA roster is filled with younger players, squeezing out some veteran Class AAA players.

Rising injury rates may also be a factor for the rise in young impact players, as teams are constantly in need of fresh arms. Gone are the days when teams might need a dozen pitchers for a season. It’s not uncommon now for a team to need 30 to 40 arms a year, which can force them to dip into the lower levels of the minors. If you think a guy has big-league stuff and he’s in Class AA, why not give him a shot rather than making a waiver claim or trying to acquire another player?

There is always an adjustment period no matter how talented a player is.

“You can’t simulate Yankee Stadium or the pressure of pitching in the playoffs,” said Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s president of baseball operations. “You try to do the best you can to develop guys and prepare them for those moments, but there are some things that are unique to MLB that guys need to do to succeed.”

In 2022, Seattle’s Rodríguez, the Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson, the Kansas City Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr. and Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene were all top prospects who made their team’s opening day rosters.

The league is trying to inject some action back into the game. The new rules put in place before the 2023 season, which include bigger bases and limit pitcher pickoffs, favor teams who are young and athletic on the bases. The ban on shifts has led to more balls put in play, making defense even more important. This, too, could help the steady stream of young players. The data suggests defense and base running often peak earlier in a player’s career, so teams that feel as if they have a weapon in those areas may pull the trigger, if they feel he can handle the mental aspect of any potential offensive slump.

Rebuilding teams will always employ more young players, who are inexpensive and under team control, two magic phrases in an efficiency-obsessed industry. But if it were just about cost, we wouldn’t be dazzled by the likes of Rodríguez, Henderson and Carroll.

This spring, we could see the Orioles’ Jackson Holliday, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jackson Chourio and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Paul Skenes make their big-league debuts, as well as full seasons from young standouts like Evan Carter of the Texas Rangers and Junior Caminero of the Rays. The wait to see baseball’s best young talent isn’t as long as it used to be.

“If you’re good enough to help the team win, even if the team thinks there’s still 15% of improvement left in you, you are still going to get called up,” said Ben Cherington, the general manager of the Pirates. “I do think that’s changed.”

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