We’re in the midst of something truly historic in baseball this year. We may be seeing the best crop of young players to come into the league ever. That’s not to say that someone new on the diamond this season is going to become the “best-ever”, but that the incredible volume of great rookies and sophomores collectively may never have been surpassed.
Almost every year, one or two kids come up and have great seasons. Many of them go onto bigger and better; some will find their way to Cooperstown a couple of decades or so down the road. This year however, the list that potentially fit that category is long, and spans at least half the teams in the Majors. It’s so amazing that players like outfielders Bryan Reynolds (with Pittsburgh) and Alex Verdugo (Dodgers) are going almost unnoticed. Reynolds is hitting .322 with 83 runs scored and 16 homers. Verdugo, .294 with a WAR of 3.1 before being shut down with a back injury last month. This week, MLB ranked him as the 10th best “young” (under 25) rookie so far this year. Makes it hard to imagine times like 2004 when Bobby Crosby of Oakland won the Rookie of the Year award with a .239 average and 70 runs scored, or 2009 NL winner Chris Coghlan from the Marlins whose career WAR was 0.2.
In a dismal season so far for Toronto, fans have been able to get excited about their rookie contingent including Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. MLB still rank Guerrero as the best rookie, although noting he likely won’t win the Rookie of the Year and suggest his “offensive upside ranks with any prospect in recent memory”, while Bichette is ranked 5th, they point out traling only Alex Rodriguez and rookie classmate Fernando Tatis Jr. of San Diego for best slugging percentage for a rookie shortstop under 22 years old – .592.
In between the two Jays are the aforementioned Tatis (.317 with 22 HR in 83 games), Astros OF Yordan Alvaraez , (.315, 25 HR, 75 RBI in 77 games, plus 48 walks resulting in an OPS an extraordinary 78% better than league average), and Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox (28 HR.) Somehow, Pete Alonso of the Mets, with his NL rookie record 47 homers, comes in only 8th on the MLB list! Fans in cities like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington all have new faces putting in remarkable performances.
While the ranks of pitchers aren’t being filled with so many budding superstars, we can’t discard the importance of the likes of Chris Paddack of San Diego and Mike Soroka of Atlanta can’t be discarded. Soroka is considered the top rookie pitcher, a 21 year old who’s 14-5 with a 2.70 ERA and 190 innings logged for the Braves so far. His WAR is 5.6.
Compound all these players in with last year’s rookie stars – Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna, Washington’s Juan Soto and Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler and you have a remarkable class of newcomers who are dominating the game after only a few months on the field.
This may lead to problems for the league not too far down the road. The past couple of seasons have already seen a slower market for free agents, with fewer teams bidding and some veterans who were still capable of playing fairly decently (think Dallas Keuchel, Evan Gattis) missing out entirely by the start of the year. The union is quick to call “collusion”’ savvy owners have pointed out that more and more value is being added by young, low-paid players and too many long-term contracts to veterans have come back to bite them.
The end result of this is that the next labor negotiations after 2021’s season, could be quite nasty and contentious. The union is going to be bitter, young stars are going to want a bigger piece of the pie and veterans are going to be fighting for rules to protect their ground. But that’s in the future.
For now, MLB has a unique opportunity. Never have so many young players on so many teams given their fans cause to celebrate. To root on the home team, buy new jerseys and learn a whole roster full of new names.
Basketball leaped forward in popularity with Michael Jordan; the NHL became popular in sunny Hollywood with Wayne Gretzky on ice and Tiger Woods made golf popular TV viewing for Gen X-ers. It’s been widely noted that baseball has failed to capitalize similarly on the great nature and outstanding performance of Mike Trout If it can’t sell one superstar, perhaps it can with eight or ten.
Job One for Rob Manfred this off-season should be getting together with PR consultants to figure out how to do just that. Because the MLB has a golden egg right now… they need to keep that goose healthy. If baseball can’t skyrocket in public interest by marketing Mike Trout, let’s hope it can with the combined effects of Guerrero, Tatis, Alonso, Bichette, Acuna and Alvaraez. The long-term well-being of the sport may rest on it being able to do so.