By In Stuff

A Time To Be Young

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the late 1970s was an amazing time for young baseball players. I’m arbitrarily choosing 23-and-younger as “young” — but with that age in mind, the late 1970s gave us Hall of Famers Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Paul Molitor, Gary Carter, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith and some pretty awesome players like Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph and the rather outspoken Jack Clark.

All of those players, as young men, posted good seasons in the late 1970s. In 1978 alone, 14 young players posted a 3.0 WAR or better. That remains the record for a single season. You just don’t have seasons when THAT MANY young players are playing that well.

This year, though, there are 13 or 14 young players who COULD, with a nice finish, post a 3.0 WAR. It probably won’t be quite that many in the end — but it certainly could be 10. There are already seven players with a better than 3.0 WAR.

Anyway, we should celebrate the time. Here’s a quick look at the top 12 young players in WAR:

1. Obviously Mike Trout (6.6 WAR).

2. Obviously, Manny Machado (5.3 WAR), who finally stopped hitting doubles like he was Tris Speaker but is still having a fantastic year.

3. Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons (4.6 WAR) is hitting just .239 with a 74 OPS+ — but his defensive statistics at shortstop are not just good but tilt-the-pinball-machine good. Right now, the Dewan Plus/Minus has him at PLUS-FORTY, which is, well, more or less unprecedented. That means — and remember, there is still six-plus weeks left in the season — the stat estimates he has made FORTY MORE PLAYS than the average shortstop can make. That’s like two per week. According to Baseball Reference’s “WAR — Fielding Runs” he has saved 34 runs — already the second-highest total in the archives.* Fangraphs has a slightly more moderate reading of his defense, but still has him as the best defensive player in the National League.

*In 1975, Baltimore’s Mark Belanger saved 35 runs.

4. Milwaukee’s 22-year-old shortstop Jean Segura (4.3 WAR) leads the National League in hits, has stolen 35 bases, hit 12 home runs and seems to be playing very good defense. He came over from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade — and I’m thinking that will be one they regret in Anaheim for a long time.

5. We’re 62 games into this now, and Yasiel Puig (3.9 WAR) is still hitting .373 and he’s still slugging .589 and the Dodgers are an absolutely obscene 44-18 with him in the lineup (Making them 25-32 when he’s not in the lineup). I realize there’s no way Puig can keep this up, and I also realize that he IS keeping it up.

By the way: It is SO much fun to hear Vin Scully talk about Yasiel Puig. It’s worth a nightly check-in.

6. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman (3.8) is probably more famous at this point for hugging people, but he’s getting on base, hitting with at least some power and seems to be a at the center of the Atlanta mojo.

7. Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado (3.5) is not hitting much at all. So he’s posting most of his value with apparently spectacular defense. His Dewan Plus/Minus is a spectacular plus-30. Here is an amazing play. Here is another. This might be his best one. Here is a noble effort.

8. Jason Heyward (2.5 WAR) has already been up and down and over and out — it’s his fourth full-season in the big leagues. But he’s still just 23 and he still a solid contributor. Don’t know if he will ever become the big star that seemed certain after his 20-year-old season. You know who he kind of reminds me of? Von Hayes. Tall left-handed bat with some power, some speed, loads of talent, lots of charisma — Hayes was famously traded to Philadelphia for five players in the 1980s. He did have a handful of really good years for the Phillies.

9. I kept waiting and believing that Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer (2.3 WAR) would figure things out after a dreadful sophomore season and an even worse start in 2013. On June 5 — my 15th wedding anniversary, thanks for asking — the Royals did something startlingly smart — startling for those of us who have followed them closely for the last 15 or 20 years.They moved Hosmer into the No. 2 spot in the lineup. There are many studies that show lineup strategies make very little difference when it comes to scoring runs, but they do figure in a player’s head. By putting Hosmer in the No. 2 spot (at least this is my theory) they were telling him: Relax. You don’t have to hit home runs. You don’t have to crush the ball and drive in a million runs. Just put a good swing on the ball, keep things going.

For the next two and a half weeks, Hosmer hit .328/.387/.537. He just LOOKED different. The Royals moved him back to the No. 3 spot for a little bit, he’s hitting second again, but his swing has basically clicked back into place. He’s hitting .292/.336/.432, which isn’t All-Star stuff, but he’s slugging about .500 since the switch to the No. 2 slot, and the numbers climb, and he’s a big reason the Royals are playing their best baseball in decades.

10. Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo (2.2 WAR) just turned 24. He’s hitting just .234, but he’s drawing more walks, he will probably hit 25 homers, and he is EXACTLY the sort of guy (powerful lefty-handed hitter with developing plate discipline) who can develop into a big star more or less overnight. That’s what happened to David Ortiz and Chris Davis among others.

11. I love watching Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez (2.2 WAR) play. His offense has dwindled which is not unexpected — he’s never shown any plate discipline and the offense he flashed his first couple of years was a surprise. But he should improve as a hitter. And defensively — I think he’s the best defensive catcher in the American League.

12. Bryce Harper (2.0) was having the sort of follow-up season everyone expected when he ran into the wall and missed a month. He has looked pretty lost ever since, hitting .235/.331/.417 since his return at the beginning of July. Well, more or less everything has gone wrong in Washington. He’s too talented and too determined to be down for long.

Two other young players worth mentioning are Jose Iglesias, who figures to be Detroit’s shortstop for a good while now, and Tampa Bay’s Will Myers.

Ah, Myers. What is that Fitzgerald quote? “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

1. I think the Royals made a bad trade when they dealt Wil Myers to the Rays. He’s already hitting for average and power, he’s just 22, I think he will be one of the game’s really good hitters for the next decade. I think the Royals will regret the trade many times.

2. I think the Royals made the trade because they felt it was time to start winning — and it is working. Maybe the trade is a big reason. Maybe it isn’t. But, again, it is working. They have starting winning. Their surge has energized a great baseball town that was sunk by 20-plus years of incompetence and awfulness. The main pitcher in the deal, James Shields, has pitched well enough, and the Royals lead the American League in ERA. And so, the trade has been good for Kansas City.

I don’t know if those are exactly OPPOSING ideas, but I believe both.

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38 Responses to A Time To Be Young

  1. Unknown says:

    “and I’m thinking that will be one they regret in Anaheim for a long time.”

    Joe, there are many things in Anaheim right now that they will regret for a long time.

  2. Theo says:

    And just think, this is with a down year from Giancarlo Stanton too. I wonder what people would have thought if you told them before the season that all these 23-and-under players would do well, but Harper, Heyward, and Stanton would all slump.

    Also, I think Heyward will be fine. This season is, in my mind a horrendous fluke. He’s having the highest line-drive rate and the lowest K% of his career, yet he had a sub-.200 BABIP for part of the year. It was still as low as .224 by mid-June (that’s the best solid date I can manage, as I wrote about it then:, and since his recent “comeback” has seen his BABIP spike all the way to .285, still well-below his .305 career mark. Given that he seems healthy, he’s hitting the ball harder and striking out less, he’s still only 23, the BABIP gremlins seem to have left… I can’t help but think that he’ll still be great.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Agree. The biggest component of his slumps has been injuries. He slimmed down last year & that seemed to help… appendix surgery is flukey. And yes, he was hitting the ball hard right at people at an unnatural rate. That stuff evens out. He still has 5 tool ability & his fielding has gotten better every year to where he is now one of the best outfielders in the league. All that said, the thing I like best about him is he runs HARD on every groundball. A little yip or a slightly off target throw and he’s on base. It happens infrequently, but he always runs as though it might.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Oh, and the other thing that I think has impacted his development is over-coaching. His first year, he came in as a very disciplined hitter. He walked 90 times. But in the mind of the Braves brain trust (Yes, Bobby Cox), he was taking his walk too easily for a guy in the middle of the order & they wanted him to “be more aggressive in RBI situations”. So, he was. And swung at a lot of bad pitches and struck out a bunch. Heyward seems to have gradually returned to a more patient approach that suits him better. His walk rate has almost gotten back to where he began. I never understood the attempt to change him to a LESS patient hitter. I mean, who does that?

    • Wilbur says:

      Cub fans on a blog I frequent are very down on the Cub’s coaching approach with Starlin Castro. They assert the Cubs have ruined Castro’s successful free-swinging approach with efforts to have him be more selective and take more walks.

      Maybe the Cubs and Braves can swing a trade: Castro for Haywood, or maybe they can trade hitting coaches.

  3. mickey says:

    You forgot to mention that Eric Hosmer’s improvement was engineered by an infusion of TWTW (copyright Hawk Harrelson) from that magical genius George Brett, who like the dying Capt. Miller’s farewell to Private Ryan, told the team as he left the stage, “Earn this.”

    • Bob Post says:

      Not sure how much Brett had to do with the mechanics of his swing. Most people are giving credit to Grifol. But there’s no doubt Brett did give Hos and Moose a dose of TWTW. Great point.

  4. Wilbur says:

    Another young player having a very off-year is Starlin Castro.

  5. 543 says:

    I suppose you’re not talking about pitchers, because if that was the case, Julio Teherán with 2.8 WAR and 22 years old, would be in the list

    • Jake Bucsko says:

      Not to mention Jose Fernandez. And I would still not say that the Royals made a good trade, even with their current record. Sure, its nice that they’ve been on such a tear, but all its got them is 5th place in the WC standings, 4 games out, just 1.5 over the Yankees. If they called Tampa right now and offered them back Shields for Myers, the Rays would laugh and hang up the phone.

    • Alex Watkins says:

      Ditto Shelby Miller (22, 2.9).

    • FranT says:

      And Marvelous Matt Harvey (5.4 WAR) just missed this counting as his age-23 season, turning 24 less than a week before the season.

    • Tampa Mike says:

      And when was the last time the Royals were 4 games out of the Wild Card in Mid-August? Probably 2003. The Royals haven’t been to the playoffs since 1985, so being that close is a pretty big thing to KC fans.

      Consider this as well…the #1 pitcher for the Royals last year was Luke Hochevar. The Royals traded Myers for Shields and Wade Davis, and Luke Hochevar started the year in the bullpen. The pitching was so atrocious that the Royals had to make this move because they had to fix the starting rotation.

    • frightwig says:

      Consider this, as well… management did a lot to fix the rotation by acquiring Santana and Guthrie, and plugging Chen back in when Mendoza didn’t work out. Guthrie especially has been helped by team defense, but that just goes to show that Moore didn’t have to do anything drastic to improve the rotation. None of those three would have been highly coveted last winter, but they’ve been significant to the Royals’ success this season.

      Shields has done his job as hoped, too, but one problem with the trade to get him is that it brought Wade Davis into the rotation as well, which has negated a large part of Shields’ value. To date, Sheilds has been worth 2.7 rWAR; Davis, -1.9 rWAR. Do you think Dayton Moore could have found another way to add 0.8 rWAR to the rotation, without giving up Wil Myers?

  6. Rob Smith says:

    Regarding batting order and the psychology behind it…. Chris Johnson of the Braves, who was essentially a throw in in the Upton/Prado trade, was batted 8th for almost half the season, despite leading the league in hitting. Johnson said that batting 8th made him be more patient, since he knew in a lot of situations he wouldn’t be seeing many strikes with the pitcher up next. With the approach that he needed to be selective & pitchers wouldn’t throw him strikes, he began waiting on a good pitch to hit. That’s his words…. he still doesn’t walk much, but if what he says is true, he’s not swinging at pitcher’s pitches.

  7. I think the ban of amphetamines has a lot to do with this. In a zero-sum game, young players succeed when older players fail. It’s hard to be a 35-year-old baseball player when you can’t pop a greenie before a day game after a night game in the dog days of August.

    I expect baseball to be a young man’s game until a supplement as effective as the amphetamines that permeated the game for the last several decades achieves similar popularity.

    • Wilbur says:

      I suspect they’re using coffee now. Maybe Cuban coffee.

    • Rob Smith says:

      No. Energy drinks are the rage as far down as high school. Red bull, Monster, 5 Hour Energy, you name it. Probably not really that different from greenies with all the herbal stimulants they contain….which are not necessarily safe. It’s nonsense to think that the lack of greenies is an issue. They’ve got plenty of legal replacements available to them.

    • Wilbur says:

      Cuban coffee assuredly qualifies as an energy drink; we call it rocket fuel.

  8. jim says:

    Would love to read any of the “many studies that show lineup strategies…figure in a player’s head.”

    • Rob Smith says:

      True, it seems more anecdotal. I know I absolutely loved batting leadoff. It made me feel that the coach had confidence in me & it was a big adrenaline rush when the umpire yelled “play ball!” to start the game. Freshly chalked batters boxes, fresh virgin raked dirt. To me, that was pure heaven. Not surprisingly, I hit better batting leadoff.

    • KCJoe says:

      I think you either intentionally or unintentionally misquoted that line. The ellipsis in your repost removed the point of the “studies”. I read it to say that there are studies that show lineup strategies do not affect overall results but it is Posnanski’s opinion that they affect a player’s self expectations and level of pressing. Or maybe I’m just a Posnanski disciple and you see everything more clearly than I.

  9. djangoz says:

    So young players are learning how to cycle on and off steroids and HGH at an earlier age? Is that the point of this?

  10. Evan says:

    ^—— Reads only what he wants to hear.

  11. Kansas City says:

    There is no objective reason to credit Shields, Davis and Johnson with the Royals success. I think they are 24 adn 23 when Shields or Davis starts.

    It turned out to be a stupid trade for the Royals. They did not think Myers would be near as good as he turned out to be.

    • Ed says:

      That’s a little misleading. It’s entirely possible that they’d be 10-37 with two different guys starting; especially if you take Shields out of the picture.

      Don’t get me wrong, it was still a terrible trade. James Shields is a great pitcher, but when you’re not a championship contender, you don’t trade an elite hitting prospect for a pitcher in his 30s. I just don’t think it’s accurate to say, “Oh, they are only .500 when these two guys pitched, so obviously it hasn’t made them any better.”

    • clashfan says:

      It’s obviously made them better, because of who they’d have had to run out there if they *didn’t* have Shields. Their rotation was a shambles.

      It was still a bad trade–agreed with you both there.

    • Wilbur says:

      You mean they’d have to run a replacement-level pitcher out there … uh-oh, that gets some folks riled up around here, talking about WAR. Wouldn’t want to throw a broom in the henhouse.

    • Tampa Mike says:

      Shields has a 3.33 ERA. Davis has a 5.29 ERA. By comparison, Hochevar had a 5.73 ERA and has been relegated to the bullpen. To say that has made no difference is absurd.

      And let’s not put Myers in the Hall of Fame just yet. It is way too early to say if the trade is a good one for the Royals or not and we really won’t know for another 3-5 years. How about Myers fantastic defense?

    • clashfan says:

      Wilbur, I know you’re funning me, but here’s a serious answer. The Royals’ rotation did not have more than a couple replacement level starters. I’m tellin’ ya, it was *bad*.

    • Wilbur says:

      I believe you.

      I’d love to see the Royals do something this year. I know people from there and I’d like to see it for them.

    • Which Hunt says:

      What would the rotation have been? E Santana, Chen, Hochevar ummm….
      Maybe it was a good trade. if they can get some butts in seats and their games watched on TV by breaking .500 and maybe they are setting themselves up for Butler, Moustakas, and Hosmer to break out next year. It seems like they at least addressed an area of need.
      I still don’t actually think it was a good trade, but I don’t think its catastrophic. They’d have been lucky to field replacement level starting pitching in my opinion.

  12. Rob Smith says:

    The Royals may be happy about the trade for a couple of years, especially if they snag a wild cards spot & become relevant again. However, long term, think Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz or Jim Fregosi for Nolan Ryan. Both of those trades could be defended for a year, or two (not even that for the Ryan trade)…. but after that…. not so much.

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