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Sheehan: Young Man’s Game

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I’d like to raise a toast to some of the best stories of 2018, but it would have to be with sparkling cider, because many are too young to drink.

Ronald Acuna Jr. has helped push the Braves into first place as a 20-year-old rookie. Teammate Mike Soroka, also 20, took a shutout into the sixth inning in his big league debut. Juan Soto, who moved from low Class A to the majors in seven weeks, homered in his first start for the Nationals. At 19, Soto was the youngest player to hit a major league homer since Bryce Harper in 2012. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., also 19, is hitting approximately .975 in Double-A, making his callup to the Blue Jays an inevitability.

Just a tick older is the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres, who is making a run at the AL Rookie of the Year award so many have already given to Shohei Ohtani. Torres, 21, hit .323 with eight homers in his first month in the majors. Ozzie Albies, 21, leads the NL in runs and total bases, and had blasted 14 homers while standing a gentleman’s 5-foot-8. Righthander Jordan Hicks, 21, forced his way into the Cardinals’ bullpen this spring and led it with a 1.96 ERA. You may know him better as the guy who touched 105 mph in a May game against the Phillies, tying Aroldis Chapman for the fastest pitch in recorded history.

This is baseball now. Young players arrive on the scene fully formed and ready to contribute. Cody Bellinger hit 39 homers and won the NL Rookie of the Year last year at 21. Corey Seager won it at 22 the year before, and Carlos Correa was AL Rookie of the Year in 2015 at age 20. Bryce Harper was 19 and Mike Trout 20 when they nabbed the honors in 2012.

A decade ago, the Rookie of the Year award would often land at the feet of a Geovany Soto or an Angel Berroa or a Chris Coghlan, middling mid-20s players having career years amid weak rookie crops. Now, the award goes to young superstars at the start of big careers who chase MVP awards even as they’re taking down rookie hardware.

In the 2010s, there have already been 35 occasions when a position player 21 or younger contributed at least one win above replacement to his team—including Torres and Albies so far this year. There were just 20 of those in the 1980s, 19 in the 1990s and 19 more in the 2000s. There were eight such 21-and-under contributors in 2011, the most in any year in baseball history. More than ever before, teams are asking their youngest players to help them win, and being rewarded for doing so.

The "what” is easy. The "why” is harder. Some of it is business. Young players are where all the value lies. They make a minimum salary out of the gate, and not much more for a few seasons thereafter. Front offices are less inclined than ever to value service time or experience, especially when they have to pay market prices for it. The flip side of this is the way older players are being pushed out of the game. Just 2.8 percent of plate appearances this year had been taken by players 36 and older; over a full season, that would be the lowest figure since 1977.

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Studies have shown that the arc of players’ careers has changed as well. The idea of the age-27 peak, which stemmed from Bill James’ research in the 1980s, no longer holds. What we’ve learned is that players, collectively, are about as good as they’ll ever be when they reach the majors. One reason for that is the increased efficiency of the amateur and minor league pipeline. Players arrive in pro ball with more game experience than in previous generations. Travel ball has its issues, but the average American pro prospect has played a lot more organized baseball against good competition than did his counterpart a generation ago.

The way the game is played makes the transition easier as well. More than ever before, baseball is about the big skills: velocity for pitchers, strength for hitters. There’s less nuance in the game. With the rise in strikeout and home run rates, with singles rarer than ever before, with one-run strategies rarely used, being a good player is almost entirely about your physical ability. Defense is as much about positioning—data-driven in this era—as range or route-running or arm strength. Pitchers don’t have to have deep repertoires because they’re rarely asked to get hitters out a third time in a game, much less a fourth. Batters, similarly, don’t have to make in-game adjustments for the same reason. More than ever before, raw athleticism can make you a baseball player.

This trend shows no sign of abating. Behind Soto and Acuna and Guerrero are Luis Urias (21) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (19) of the Padres. Kyle Tucker (21) could make his debut for the Astros later this year, and the Braves still have Austin Riley (21) at Triple-A. The success of young players is producing a feedback loop; every time a team wins with one, it makes it that much easier to look at the next one and see a Correa or a Bellinger or a Torres. This is modern baseball: Youth will be served ...

Sparkling cider, I promise.

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