New-Age MLB Athlete Is Shifting What Drives Star Power in Baseball

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New-Age MLB Athlete Is Shifting What Drives Star Power in Baseball
Gene J. Puskar/AP Images

It's said that one of the great things about baseball is that you don't need to be a physical specimen to excel at it. Jose Altuve's very existence sort of proves the point.

If you were to imagine an exemplary image of a modern baseball star, however, you might picture somebody:

  • A) Who is a physical specimen.
  • B) And is also young.

Basically, imagine Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and Yasiel Puig being fed into a Picasso-ization machine and coming out the other end. The resulting image would be reflective of the kind of young, ultra-talented player that seems to be prevalent these days.

We'll get to why this is no mirage soon enough. But first, let me ask you this: Are you used to it yet?

I mean, let's face it. The idea of young, ultra-talented players running wild around MLB is quite the departure from what we went through in a certain recent era.

You know the era I'm referring to, but I'll introduce it with a Dun-Dun-Dun anyway:

The steroid era.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

If you do the above image-conjuring experiment with the idea of a typical steroid era star in place of the idea of an average modern star, the first thing that comes to mind is:

  • A) A dude who has more muscles than Drax the Destroyer.
  • B) And is a little on the old side.

Some notable exceptions come to mind (i.e. Ken Griffey Jr.). For the most part, though, it was indeed the age of the older slugger.

 

Blair Bunting/Getty Images
"Hey, A LOT of guys hit over 300 home runs after turning 35!"

You think of Mark McGwire having back-to-back 60-homer seasons at ages 34 and 35 in 1998 and 1999. Sammy Sosa's first 60-homer season in 1998 came when he was 29, but his next two came in his 30s. It wasn't until his season at age 35 in 2000 that Barry Bonds started doing his slugging thing.

Not that they were the only aging stars going bonkers in the power department. According to Baseball-Reference.com, there have never been more 30-homer seasons authored by 30-or-older All-Stars than there were in 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2004.

It was largely because of this power surge—according to FanGraphs, the only two seasons in that nine-year window in which 29-and-younger hitters compiled more isolated power than 30-and-older hitters were in 1997 and 2000—that players in their 30s experienced an upswing in overall production.

With a focus on that 1996-2004 window, here's a look at the percentage of the league's total batting WAR (FanGraphs version) that 30-and-older players were responsible for between 1989 and 2004:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Not everyone who contributed to this was juicing, of course. But we certainly know there were more than a few aging juicers, and we know that this production could not have happened without them. 

What threatened to kill this trend was a long-overdue system of testing and penalties for performance-enhancing drugs. After experimenting with testing in 2003, MLB finally introduced testing and penalties in 2005 and subsequently increased the penalties for getting caught in 2006.

Not surprisingly, both 30-and-over power and 30-and-over production have gone down:

30-and-Over ISO and WAR, 2000-2013
Season ISO WAR
2000 .165 241.5
2001 .167 245.1
2002 .158 254.9
2003 .163 227.2
2004 .162 243.0
2005 .152 214.6
2006 .159 230.5
2007 .148 209.1
2008 .146 221.2
2009 .153 212.3
2010 .146 210.5
2011 .142 176.7
2012 .154 183.8
2013 .145 194.8

FanGraphs

Pictured here, essentially, is a return to normalcy.

Regardless of whether the precise number is 27, 28 or 29, it's generally agreed that hitters peak in their late 20s and decline in their 30s. Some remain productive into their 30s but, you know, not a whole bunch at the same time.

There may be no better sign that MLB's introduction of PED testing and penalties did what it was designed to do: rid the game of unnatural happenings.

It also happens that the introduction of PED testing and penalties coincided with a rebirth of young talent. Where the 30-and-older crowd had ruled between 1996 and 2004, it was time for the 25-and-younger crowd to to make a comeback beginning in that 2005 season.

RON SCHWANE
Reminder: Young Grady Sizemore was amazing.

Here's a look at how much of the league's batting WAR 25-and-younger players have been responsible for ever since 1996:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Between 1996 and 2004, 25-and-younger hitters produced an average of 92.6 WAR per season. Between 2005 and 2013, their average WAR is 131.2. 

Since athleticism is practically synonymous with youth, it's no surprise that athleticism has played a notable part. Of the 20 hitters who have compiled at least 13 WAR by the age of 25 in the last nine seasons, over half have rated as above-average hitters, fielders and baserunners:

25-and-Younger Stars, 2005-2013
Player OPS+ BsR Def WAR
Grady Sizemore 128 28.1 37.4 26.8
Evan Longoria 136 11.9 70.2 26.8
David Wright 141 11.4 9.6 25.7
Ryan Zimmerman 121 8.5 57.7 24.9
Hanley Ramirez 138 21.0 -2.8 23.7
Mike Trout 166 22.3 18.7 21.1
Miguel Cabrera 147 -9.8 -34.1 19.2
Andrew McCutchen 134 12.7 -11.7 18.9
Jose Reyes 104 34.2 44.5 18.8
Joe Mauer 127 11.0 27.9 18.6
Justin Upton 118 20.1 -39.0 18.6
Troy Tulowitzki 114 2.3 45.2 16.7
Jason Heyward 115 10.6 28.1 16.4
Elvis Andrus 84 38.1 65.2 16.0
Brian McCann 121 -20.3 42.6 15.8
Pablo Sandoval 128 -8.8 13.7 15.5
B.J. Upton 103 21.1 17.0 14.8
Nick Markakis 118 7.2 -12.5 14.5
Dustin Pedroia 112 2.7 24.5 13.9
Giancarlo Stanton 138 -16.2 -8.4 13.4

Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs

OPS+ is a version of OPS that's adjusted for home ballparks and league quality. It works on a scale where 100 is average, so anything above that constitutes above-average hitting.

Elsewhere, "BsR" measures baserunning runs above average and "Def" measures runs above and below average a player is worth on defense, with an adjustment for the position he plays.

At any rate, 11 out of 20 young players who are above-average hitters, baserunners and defenders is pretty good, and it's certainly worth acknowledging that the highlighted group doesn't include McCutchen, Hanley Ramirez or Justin Upton. They're solid athletes, and so are a couple guys who didn't make the cut: Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Adam Jones.

And lest you think the influx of athletic young talent is slowing down, well, don't count on it.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The 25-and-under crowd has continued to be productive over the last two seasons, accounting for 246.2 total batting WAR. Mike Trout is owed a big thanks for doing his part, as 20.4 of that WAR is his. 

But let's not overlook Bryce Harper, who racked up a 125 OPS+, 42 home runs and 29 stolen bases in 2012 and 2013, as well as 8.3 WAR. That's the fourth-most ever for a player through the age of 20.

Paul Goldschmidt is another guy who deserves a mention. His last two full seasons have seen him compile a 144 OPS+, 56 home runs and 33 stolen bases. The only first baseman close to him in the stolen-base department is Eric Hosmer, who is yet another athletic young talent.

Other young athletic types worthy of a name-drop are Manny Machado, Starling Marte, Andrelton Simmons and, of course, Yasiel Puig. It may be a while before he's a polished player, but his hitting, baserunning and defensive talents were good enough even as raw materials to make him one of the best players in baseball upon his promotion last June.

Behold the reason why that exemplary image of a modern baseball star is liable to come out looking like a young guy with heaps of athleticism. We've seen quite a few come through since MLB nudged the steroid era out the door, and more keep coming.

Now, exactly how revered these guys are on the national landscape is difficult to determine. We have many geeky methods for quantifying the quality of various skills, but quantifying star power is like tracking down the Millennium Falcon in an asteroid field. It's elusive.

However, we can see that Goldschmidt, Harper, Wright, Pedroia, Trout, McCutchen, Machado and Puig accounted for half of the hitters who made the top 20 in jersey sales last year, according to MLB.com. While the presence of sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, David Ortiz and Robinson Cano show that there's still plenty of love for slugging types, this'll do for a sign that today's young athletes are getting the appreciation they deserve.

Which makes sense. Appreciation for young all-around talent isn't a new phenomenon, but coming on the heels of the steroid era has helped. The youth movement has been a breath of fresh air. 

Also noteworthy is that the influx of youth has coincided with the ever-increasing influence of advanced statistics. In an age of WAR and everything that comes with it, any talents that might have remained hidden in the old days are now one geek going "Hey guys, check this out!" away from being exposed.

Looking ahead, there's certainly no shortage of all-around talents down on the farm who could soon join the party. Byron Buxton. Carlos Correa. Francisco Lindor. Addison Russell. Gregory Polanco. Albert Almora. And the list goes on.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

True, it's not unusual for there to be an abundance of toolsy players waiting in the wings. They're always there, and they always look good while they're nothing but bundles of potential. The trick is molding that into bundles of production at the major league level.

If what's happened with the 25-and-under crowd since 2005 is any indication, though, said trick has seemingly become more of an exact science. 

Meggie Zahneis of MLB.com tackled this topic last July, writing that the rise of youthful talent is owed to "good coaching, good investments by clubs in player development, and plain-old dedication: more players refining their talent at younger ages and thus speeding their own path to the Majors."

In the words of MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark: "When you combine outstanding coaching with very talented, gifted players, you put yourself in position to have the results that you've had here."

The young athletic talent has been coming on a consistent basis for almost a decade now, and in the process, it's helped do away with the ill-begotten image of the baseball star as characterized by big muscles and thinning hair. There's plenty more where this talent came from, and the odds of it spoiling before it can make an impact in the majors may be lower than ever.

Music to the ears of those who have been digging these new-age stars.

And I think that's all of us.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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