Are Today's Top MLB Prospects Excelling at a Younger Age Than the Past?

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Are Today's Top MLB Prospects Excelling at a Younger Age Than the Past?
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Youth is a wonderful, scary, hopeful and dangerous thing to have in Major League Baseball. Stud prospects bring with them the dream that things will be better in the future. 

We see where the game has been headed in recent years, where it seems like the stars of today are younger and younger than ever before. 

Just look at some of the biggest names in the sport at this very moment. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Justin Upton, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Harvey, Chris Sale and Paul Goldschmidt are all 25 years or younger as of this moment. 

And that doesn't even factor in the less-heralded crop of emerging stars like Jean Segura, Starling Marte, Jedd Gyorko, Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler and Domonic Brown, who also have yet to make it past the quarter-century mark. 

Bob Nightengale of USA Today noticed the trend beginning, writing in 2010 that the sheer number of rookies, not just young players, dominating the league was off the charts thanks to players like Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson and Neftali Feliz

Baseball rookies are supposed to be seen and not heard.

The adage has become as obsolete as handlebar moustaches and 10-cent beer nights the way this season's rookie class is dominating.

"I can't remember the number of (rookies) that have come in and taken over the game like these guys have done," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.

But is this new age of prospects and young stars really a new trend in baseball? Or does it just get noticed more because the game and way that teams are run has changed so much over the last decade?

 

The past vs. present

Digging up the top 10 players 25 years or under from 2002-04*, based on Fangraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement (included in the table below), you can see that the rate of attrition in that group certainly appears to be much higher than it is today. Alongside those players are the top 10 players in WAR 25 or younger from 2011-today. 

*For the purposes of this discussion, the players must have been 25 years or younger through June 2004. These numbers will obviously change as things move on, since players tend not to stay on the same trajectory all season. But in order to provide context, we have doubled the WAR totals for the current players since the 2013 season is nearly half over in order to project what their WAR would be at the end of the year. 

 

 

Comparing the numbers

Since not everyone is entirely comfortable with the WAR stat, we are also including an average season for the 10 players in the 2002-04 group. 

PLAYER, TEAM AVG. SEASON STATS
 Albert Pujols  .334/.416/.628, 198 H, 47 2B, 41 HR, 125 RBI, 4 SB
 Adrian Beltre  .278/.328/.495, 162 H, 29 2B, 31 HR, 92 RBI, 5 SB
 Johan Santana  22 GS, 13-5, 164.2 IP, 2.84 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 190 K
 Ben Sheets  34 GS, 11-14, 224.2 IP, 3.74 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 197 K
 Mark Prior  23 GS, 10-5, 148.2 IP, 3.08 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 177 K
 CC Sabathia  31 GS, 12-10, 198.1 IP, 4.03 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 143 K
 Adam Dunn  .247/.384/.501, 122 H, 25 2B, 33 HR, 77 RBI, 11 SB
 Carlos Zambrano  26 GS, 11-9, 177.1 IP. 3.08 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 150 K
 Vernon Wells  .290/.335/.496, 176 H, 39 2B, 26 HR, 95 RBI, 7 SB
 Hank Blalock  .279/.347/.490, 124 H, 26 2B, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 1 SB

And now the average season for the current group of young players, with this year's stats doubled to reflect their current pace:

PLAYER, TEAM AVG. SEASON STATS
 Mike Trout  .307/.380/.532, 137 H, 26 2B, 20 HR, 67 RBI,  31 SB
 Clayton Kershaw  33 GS, 15-8, 234 IP, 2.33 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 238  K
 Justin Upton  .276/.360/.476, 153 H, 28 2B, 26 HR, 75 RBI,  17 SB
 Chris Sale  20 GS, 10-8, 159.1 IP, 2.91 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 166 K
 Madison Bumgarner   33 GS, 15-12, 210.2 IP, 3.27 ERA, 1.16 WHIP,  199 K
 Mat Latos  32 GS, 13-7, 206 IP, 3.39 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 193  K
 Kyle Seager  .265/.323/.426, 125 H, 31 2B, 16 HR, 57 RBI, 7  SB
 Jason Heyward  .246/.327/.428, 112 H, 22 2B, 18 HR, 52 RBI,  11 SB
 Giancarlo Stanton   .272/.357/.558, 111 H, 25 2B, 28 HR, 71 RBI, 4  SB
 Elvis Andrus  .275/.338/.353, 166 H, 24 2B, 3 HR, 58 RBI, 31  SB


Starting with the two best players of their respective era, Pujols and Trout are in a class all by themselves among the position players. 

Pujols, regardless of the struggles he is having with the Los Angeles Angels right now, is going to be regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of baseball. Trout, for all the hype tossed around about him, and deservedly so, still isn't at the level—particularly as a hitter—that Pujols was in his day. 

However, one place Trout does have the advantage is in age, as he has played the last three seasons at 19-21 years of age. Pujols, between 2002-04, was in his age 22-24 seasons. 

Kershaw holds a slight edge over Beltre in WAR, and the three seasons that we are comparing are the exact same, based on age, for these two players (23-25). 

The next three comparisons on the graph (Santana-Upton, Sheets-Sale, Prior-Bumgarner) are decided advantages, based on WAR, for the older generation, with at least 1.9 wins above replacement separating them. 

That is a huge difference when you are talking about value added on the field. To provide context, a 1.9 WAR gap, using last year's stats, was greater than the difference between being Joe Mauer and A.J. Pierzynski. 

Looking at the seasons based on age again, Santana and Upton were both in their 23-25 seasons, as were Prior and Bumgarner (21-23). Sheets (23-25) was a year older than Sale (22-24). 

Things get much closer when you look at the last four groups in the graph. There is not enough of a gap in value to say that one was better than the other, and the only gap in age that favors the current group is Wells (23-25) and Stanton (21-23). Two of them are equal (Andrus-Blalock, Zambrano-Heyward). The remaining pairings (Sabathia-Latos, Dunn-Seager) favor the previous generation based on age. 

Ed Szczepanski/Getty Images
As a member of the Cardinals, there wasn't a better player in baseball than Albert Pujols

Stanton is the most likely candidate to exceed that WAR total, because he missed a lot of time with injuries and has only amassed a 0.4 WAR thus far. 

Because a number of other players—like Harvey, Segura and Machado—are playing their first full season in 2013, there was no way that they were going to crack this list. Harper, whose total WAR dating back to 2012 is at 6.3, would, in all likelihood, have edged out Seager for the last spot on the list if he hadn't missed the last 30 games for Washington. 

Since we did want to include those players, because they are a huge part of the reason for this piece, here is what their career WAR totals look like as of this moment. 

PLAYER, TEAM

TOTAL WAR

 Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

 6.3

 Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles

 5.1 

 Matt Harvey, New York Mets

 4.9

 Jean Segura, Milwaukee Brewers

 3.4

 Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

 3.2

 

How the average ages stack up

But it should be noted that with the 2002-04 class, there were some emerging superstars who also didn't have enough experience yet to crack that list—like Miguel Cabrera and Carl Crawford. Both of whom were under the age of 23 and would lower the overall age of that group if they had qualified. 

All of those numbers are great and do tell a compelling story in their own right, but we also want to factor in how quickly the impact these young players are making happens, and the age that it is happening. 

In order to do that, we have calculated the average age of the 10 players from the group in 2002-04, and 15 players we have mentioned from 2011 to today. We tabulated the ages of the former group based on how old they were on the last day of the 2004 regular season (October 3). For the second group, we calculated the age as of June 26, 2013.

GROUP AVERAGE AGE
 2002-04  24 yrs, 6 mo. 19 days
 2011-present  24 yrs, 7 mos, 17 days

Based on the sample of 10 players from 2002-04 and 15 from 2011 to today, there really isn't much separation in age between the impact of stars 25 or younger. 

If we were to add Harper, who is 20 years, 8 months and 10 days old as of June 26, the average age for the present group would drop a full year to 23 years, 7 months and 16 days. 

That difference of a year is notable, and one that teams would look at when it comes to drafting a player or signing someone in free agency. 

For instance, looking at the 2012 draft that featured Carlos Correa going to the Houston Astros and Byron Buxton going to the Minnesota Twins with the first two picks, there really wasn't a lot separating them at the time. It's entirely possible that Correa being nine months younger was the difference for the team making the pick. 

 

How the game has changed in the last 10 years

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There really isn't much evidence that today's players are performing better at a younger age than what we were seeing even 10 years ago, when this whole paradigm shifted. 

There are, however, some differences in the game today compared to where it was a decade ago. 

For instance, in 2004, the average runs scored per game in baseball was 4.81, and ERA was 4.46, according to Baseball Reference.

Compare that to today, where the average runs scored per game is 4.24, and ERA is 3.94. The game has evolved into developing more pure athletes, which means the bashers who used to rule the game have been parsed out in favor of players with better all-around skill sets. 

Also, with regards to the improved pitching stats, the easy argument that a lot of fans and bloggers like to talk about is the testing for performance-enhancing drugs and steroids. But what they are failing to realize is that the kinds of pitching being drafted and developed, like the position players, has changed. 

There has been a major shift towards power arms who can miss bats and keep the ball in the park, since the easiest way to keep runs off the board is to prevent hitters from making contact.

According to Fangraphs, the average fastball per team ranged from 91.5 mph to 88.5 in 2004. Today, it goes from 92.8 to 89.9. That one mile per hour difference is huge, because it requires a quicker reaction time from hitters and gives the pitcher more of an advantage.

It also lends a little more credence to what players like Trout, Harper and Machado have done at the beginning of their career than it does to Pujols, Beltre or Wells, though all of these players were clearly incredible talents right out of the gate. I don't think we can say that they are excelling at younger ages, but it is certainly something we notice more. 

I think one of the reasons that we notice players like Machado, Heyward, Trout, Harper, Harvey and others, aside from the fact that they are really good, right out of the gate more now than we did before is because of the way the game gets covered. 

A decade ago, while Baseball America was around, the fascination with prospects hadn't really kicked in yet. The draft wasn't televised, it was just an event that streamed in the afternoon on MLB.com. You had to really dig around in order to find information on players. 

Today, in addition to Baseball America, you can go to dozens of sites strictly dedicated to the draft and prospects. We have Mike Rosenbaum covering them everyday for this site. Keith Law, Christopher Crawford and Jason Churchill do it for ESPN. Baseball Prospectus has a team of writers devoted to writing about prospects. 


Awards voting for the two generations

Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
We can't forget how great Adrian Beltre was in his early days, not that he is a slouch now.

In terms of players receiving MVP/Cy Young votes at a young age, Johan Santana is the only player among the 2002-04 group that won an award with the 2004 American League Cy Young, but Pujols, Beltre and Prior all received at least one first-place vote for one of the two awards. 

The new crop of players has received a little more hardware, with Trout winning AL Rookie of the Year in 2012, and Kershaw winning the NL Cy Young award in 2011. Trout and Upton also received first-place votes for AL and NL MVP, respectively. Heyward was a runner-up in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. 

For example, while the home run leaders in 2004 did include Beltre (48), Pujols (46) and Dunn (46), there were also the usual assortment of older players at the top of the boards with Barry Bonds (45), Manny Ramirez (43), Jim Thome (42), Jim Edmonds (42), Paul Konerko (41), David Ortiz (41), Moises Alou (39) and Vladimir Guerrero (39).

Five of those players (Bonds, Ramirez, Thome, Edmonds and Alou) were at least 32 years old, and even Guerrero, Konerko and Ortiz were closing in on 30. 

Looking at the home run leaderboard this year, there are a fair share of players nearing or over the age of 30 (Cabrera, Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Beltran). But it is mostly comprised of players who are on our list of young players or not that far removed (Chris Davis, Carlos Gonzalez, Domonic Brown, Pedro Alvarez and Goldschmidt).

 

The cycle repeats itself

Courtesy of MLB Highlight Reel

With the game getting younger—the average age of a player this year is 28.8, compared to 29.3 in 2004, per Baseball Reference—it is easier to pay attention to what the new wave of players are doing, because they are the ones you will see on highlights most nights. 

Certainly there will always be exceptions to the rule. No one is going to deny that Trout is an incredible talent, or Harvey and Kershaw are rare pitching talents that you want to go out of your way to see. 

But what we are seeing in baseball isn't that different from what we see in everyday life: Things tend to circle back and repeat themselves, even when we don't realize it. 

Trout has taken Pujols' spot as the best talent of this current generation. Kershaw and Harvey can battle it out to take the spot of best pitcher in baseball that we thought Prior was going to hold for a long time. Machado is the younger version of Adrian Beltre. And so on. 

The top prospects aren't exactly doing new things, though it would be hard for anyone in any season to match what Trout did last year. But the coverage of them has made it seem like all these youngsters are coming up and changing the game in exciting ways. 

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