Comparing MLB's New Generation of Young Megastars to Their Legendary Peers
It's tempting to say we've never seen anything like the current crop of young stars in Major League Baseball. But the truth is, we have.
This is baseball, after all. They've been playing the darn sport since around the dawn of time. Quite a lot of history has been made, and sprinkled throughout it are many, many great players.
For the sake of kicks and giggles, let's compare 15 great players from today's game to great players from yesteryear.
We'll keep the age limit at 25 and under—the list is the top half of my rankings for MLB's 25 under 25 plus a few 25-year-olds—and weigh a number of factors in looking for appropriate comps. Whereas some comps are screaming to be made, others are based on things like body type, stats and playing ability.
The objective here, in short, is to flatter the modern players while simultaneously being totally unfair to them. Should be fun.
Gary Sanchez: Johnny Bench
You know you're doing something right when you've played in only 55 major league games and you're already being compared to the greatest catcher ever.
Heck, it's slightly very surreal to even put Gary Sanchez in the same sentence as Johnny Bench. But it makes sense in at least one respect: their ability to hit for power.
Bench hit 389 home runs in his 17-year career and peaked early in doing so. Both of his 40-homer seasons happened when he was in his 20s, including the career-high 45 he slugged at age 22 in 1970.
Sanchez kept the power coming at a similar rate in his age-23 season in 2016, launching 20 dingers in only 53 games with the New York Yankees. Lest anyone doubt there was real power at work, Sanchez "barreled" his batted balls at a higher rate than any other hitter.
Bench was also known for controlling the running game. His caught-stealing percentage hovered around 50 early in his career, and the arm that did that was legit.
"Every time Bench throws, everybody in baseball drools," longtime executive Harry Dalton once said.
The same will be true of Sanchez. He posted a 41 percent caught-stealing rate last season. Mike Petriello of MLB.com highlighted how he did so with elite throwing strength.
Sanchez has a long way to go to be Bench, of course. But for now, darn it if he doesn't look like Bench.
Trea Turner: Hanley Ramirez
Never mind Tim Raines. It's another name that Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated threw out in comparison to Trea Turner that makes more sense.
"One of the closest and most surprising comps is Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez," wrote Verducci, "if only because we have forgotten what a dynamic young player he was."
The times have indeed changed Ramirez. Today, he's a hulking slugger. But as a rookie with the Florida Marlins in 2006, he was a lean shortstop with a lot of speed (51 steals) and decent power (17 homers).
If the 33 bags he swiped in only 73 games as a 23-year-old last season are any indication, Turner is at least as fast now as Ramirez was then. He also showed off good power of his own in popping 13 homers.
There's another reason power is part of Turner's game. The mantra goes that speedsters are supposed to hit the ball on the ground and leg out hits. Well, he has no time for that.
"People tell me that," he told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post last year. "And I'm like, 'Shut up.'"
Ramirez was the same way, hitting only 43.8 percent of his batted balls on the ground as a rookie. He was operating like a power hitter even before he became one. A fine example for Turner to follow.
Now, everyone just hope he doesn't also follow Ramirez's example on defense.
Carlos Martinez: Pedro Martinez
It's all too easy to throw out a Pedro Martinez comparison whenever there's an undersized right-hander with a big arm. It's even easier when said right-hander is from the Dominican Republic and is named Martinez.
But even Pedro himself may not mind being compared to Carlos Martinez. He ought to be used to hearing it by now, and he can thank his own tutelage if he sees himself in the St. Louis Cardinals ace.
To boot, Carlos does bear a resemblance to Pedro.
The younger Martinez is only slightly bigger, measuring an inch taller and 20 pounds heavier than the older Martinez. Just as Pedro mowed hitters down with an electric fastball, a knee-buckling breaking ball and a Bugs Bunny changeup, so does Carlos.
As he's carved out a 3.02 ERA over two seasons, the 25-year-old's fastball has sat in the 95-96 mph range with movement. He also features a slider with elite glove-side run and a changeup with elite arm-side fade.
In plain English: The dude throws GIFs.
The younger Martinez hasn't yet used these weapons to dominate like the older Martinez did when he was at the peak of his Hall of Fame career. But if you compare where Carlos has been at 23 and 24 to where Pedro was at 23 and 24, there's a surprising similarity.
To my future self: Don't say you weren't warned about Carlos Martinez.
Addison Russell: Barry Larkin
Shortstop has always been home to great defensive players, but it's only in recent decades that it's also been a haven for power hitters.
That leaves little history from which to draw comps for Addison Russell. One name that tends to come up, however, is Barry Larkin.
"He has that kind of look and feel," former Chicago Cubs great Ryne Sandberg told ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick last year. "He's very athletic, and he can improvise on making throws when he gets to balls. There's a little bit of an acrobat in there. But there's some steadiness with him too, which is what you want at the position."
There is something to be said about how the two play defense. Russell is a great defender who can make any play thanks to his quick-twitch athleticism and high-running motor. Larkin was a great defender with similar attributes when he was at his best.
The two are less similar on offense. Russell doesn't have the speed to match the 379 bases Larkin stole in his Hall of Fame career. He may not be able to match Larkin's .295 career average either.
But if nothing else, Russell will match the power Larkin had at his peak. It took Larkin until he was 32 in 1996 to top 30 homers. After hitting 21 homers as a 22-year-old in 2016, Russell could have his first 30-homer season as soon as 2017.
If so, that'll be one thing he'll have on his baseball twin.
Aaron Sanchez: Kevin Brown
Aaron Sanchez is a tall drink of water who throws hard. Baseball has seen plenty of those and seemingly more and more every year.
The twist with Sanchez is that he's a tall drink of water who throws a hard sinker. There have been fewer of those.
Brandon Webb struggled to touch 90 with his Cy Young-winning sinker, so that's one comparison begging to be made that can't really be made.
Kevin Brown, on the other hand...
For starters, that's a name that we don't speak as often as we should. Although Brown was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011, he spent much of his 19-year career as an ace. His weapon of choice was a sinker that sat in the mid-90s with explosive movement.
"That thing is so heavy and explosive—it's like lead," a rival general manager once said.
That might as well be the book on Sanchez's sinker. The Toronto Blue Jays ace sat at 94.7 mph with it in his first full season as a starter last year, and it featured both good sinking action and elite arm-side run.
"Sanchez's combination of velocity and two-plane movement makes his sinker truly unlike any other offering in the game," wrote August Fagerstrom at FanGraphs.
Whereas Brown didn't settle in as an ace until he was in his late 20s, Sanchez just put up an American League-best 3.00 ERA as a 23-year-old in 2016. He has a head start on his stardom.
Xander Bogaerts: Edgar Renteria
Xander Bogaerts is one of today's best shortstops and the closest thing the game has to an Edgar Renteria.
It's understandable if Boston Red Sox fans shudder at the mention of that name. But Renteria's one disastrous year in Boston was an anomaly. He had a fruitful 16-year career, making five All-Star teams and winning two World Series.
Renteria went 6'1" and 200 pounds, compared to 6'1" and 210 pounds for Bogaerts. And the two are more than just physically similar. Renteria was a .283/.341/.380 hitter with 39 homers through his age-23 season. Bogaerts is a .286/.337/.411 hitter with 41 homers through his own age-23 season.
These similar numbers came from similar hitting profiles. Go back in time and watch Renteria, and you'll see a hitter with an eye for the strike zone who could punch the ball to all fields with a loose and easy swing. Watch Bogaerts today, and you'll see basically the same thing.
The one thing Renteria had on Bogaerts was speed. He had already swiped 147 bags by the time he was 23 and went on to finish with 294 career steals.
Yet Bogaerts might actually be the better baserunner. Although he only has 26 stolen bases to his name, he checks in as one of the best in the business at accumulating total baserunning value.
So you see, Boston fans, it's not such a bad thing to compare Boston's current shortstop to one of the many who kept the position warm for him.
Noah Syndergaard: Nolan Ryan
Has anyone this big ever been so dominant while also being totally in control? Short answer: no.
But let's face it: None of us will feel happy moving on until we've compared Noah Syndergaard to Nolan Ryan.
The comparison doesn't work to some extents. The 6'2" Ryan was big for his time, but he's puny next to the 6'6" Syndergaard. While the current New York Mets ace has already established control with a rate of 2.0 walks per nine innings, the might-have-been Mets ace retired with a rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings.
But it's all about the velocity.
Legend says Ryan, holder of the MLB record of 5,714 strikeouts, is the hardest thrower in baseball history. And legend may be correct. The recent documentary Fastball took aim at finding the true velocity of one particularly impressive fastball Ryan threw in 1974. Its ruling, according to Carnegie Mellon University physicist Gregg Franklin, via Scientific American:
"Franklin...estimates that when Ryan's 1974 pitch was 50 feet from home it was traveling at better than 108 mph. 'So we believe that once we make corrections,' Franklin says, 'this is really the fastest pitch recorded.'"
Although Syndergaard is officially the hardest-throwing starting pitcher on record with an average fastball of 97.5 mph, he's topped out at a mere 101.4 mph. He has a ways to go to match Ryan's best heat.
...for now. If Syndergaard's offseason weight gain leads to the added velocity he craves, what's only a token comparison for now could get real.
Francisco Lindor: Roberto Alomar
As a slick-fielding, switch-hitting shortstop who plays for the Cleveland Indians, Francisco Lindor invites a comparison to Omar Vizquel. However, Lindor would prefer Vizquel's old double-play partner.
He wears Roberto Alomar's No. 12 for a reason. In his own words, he "grew up idolizing" the Hall of Fame second baseman. Were it not for the position difference, that would be obvious.
Lindor is a Gold Glove shortstop in much the same way Alomar was a Gold Glove second baseman. Alomar was the highlight portion of the double-play combination the Indians had in the late 1990s and early 2000s, using his athleticism and energy to do amazing things on a seemingly nightly basis. Lindor has plenty of athleticism and energy of his own and puts them to similar use.
Even more appropriate is the offensive comparison between the two.
Alomar was primarily a speed-based hitter early on, but he developed into a more well-rounded force. Between 1993 and 2001, he hit .316 and averaged 17 homers and 28 steals per year. That's roughly where Lindor is now. He's hit over .300 with double-digit homers and steals in both his major league seasons.
For perspective, Vizquel was a .272 career hitter who topped double-digit homers only once. While he was a great defender, he was great more so in a technical way than an "OH NO HE DIDN'T" highlight-reel way.
In other words: not like Lindor at all.
Corey Seager: Troy Tulowitzki
At 6'4" and with a powerful left-handed swing, Corey Seager is to shortstops what Noah Syndergaard is to pitchers: one of a kind.
But whenever there's a tall shortstop, the name Cal Ripken Jr. inevitably comes up. Before Ripken was being compared to Seager, he was being compared to a more appropriate comp for the young Los Angeles Dodgers star: Troy Tulowitzki.
The two are similar in size, with Seager (6'4", 215) edging Tulo (6'3", 205) by just an inch in height and 10 pounds in weight. The two also had similar breakout seasons at the age of 22. Tulowitzki hit .291/.359/.479 with 24 homers in 2007. Seager hit .308/.365/.512 with 26 homers in 2016.
Like Ripken, the rookie versions of Tulowitzki and Seager proved that big guys can play shortstop too.
"I wasn't gonna play short. I was gonna move to third," Seager recalled hearing in a chat with Kyle Glaser of Baseball America. "So that was something that I always worked hard at. I kind of used it as a little edge to prove people wrong and prove that I could play there to people who really had never even seen me play."
Carlos Correa: Alex Rodriguez
Carlos Correa is like Alex Rodriguez? That one's old news.
Just as A-Rod was seen as a gifted shortstop with all the tools when he was drafted at No. 1 in 1993, so was Correa when the Houston Astros drafted him at No. 1 in 2012.
"He's a bat, a glove and an arm," one scout told Jon Heyman, then of CBSSports.com.
Because the 6'4" Correa stands an inch taller than the 6'3" Rodriguez, there was a question about whether he would stick at shortstop. He's answered that by handling the position much like A-Rod handled it. Although Correa doesn't have great range, what he gets to is as good as an out thanks to his rocket arm.
On the other side of the ball, Correa's hit, power and speed tools haven't produced the gaudy surface-level numbers that A-Rod's did early in his career. Compare their careers through their age-21 seasons, and A-Rod comes away with a 71-point advantage in OPS, 22 more homers and 24 more steals.
Their adjusted offense marks get closer to the truth, however. A-Rod had a 128 wRC+ through his age-21 season. Correa is at 127.
In a related story, Correa is very much like A-Rod when he's in the box. He begins with a discerning eye and does damage with a quick swing that makes loud noises.
As long as Correa keeps the A-Rod comparison alive on the field only, he's destined for great things.
Bryce Harper: Mickey Mantle
Why compare Bryce Harper to Mickey Mantle? In part because he's brought it on himself.
"I've always tried to [model] my game after his," said Harper, who wears No. 34 (3+4) in honor on Mantle's No. 7, to Joe Saraceno of USA Today in 2013.
The key differences are obvious. Harper isn't a switch-hitter like The Mick was. He's played mostly right field, not center. And he doesn't have the speed Mantle had at his peak.
But here's the way to make this comparison sing: Focus on the bats.
What Harper has done through his age-23 season isn't a carbon copy of what Mantle had done through his own age-23 season. But it's surprisingly close, particularly where their power is concerned. Harper's .222 ISO is just a hair under the .229 ISO Mantle had at his age, and they both hit exactly 121 home runs.
Being Mantle's peer in a power discussion is no light matter. As former Yankees manager Billy Martin said: "No man in the history of baseball had as much power as Mickey Mantle. No man. You're not talking about ordinary power."
If we're speaking practically, however, it doesn't get better than 80-grade power. That's what Harper was considered to have when Baseball America ranked him as the sport's top prospect in 2011. He's hit enough rockets since then to validate that, all with a swing that may compare better to Babe Ruth's than Mantle's.
Harper's not Mantle in reality. But in spirit? Maybe.
Mookie Betts: Rickey Henderson
Outfielders with power and speed are a dime a dozen. But if you're looking for an undersized outfielder with power and speed who's also fit for the leadoff spot, you're left with just two names.
Mookie Betts and Rickey Henderson.
With Betts listed at 5'9" and 180 pounds and Henderson listed at 5'10" and 180 pounds, we're at least dealing with remarkably similar body types. Within the last four decades, they're the only two guys in their size bracket to hit 25 homers and steal 25 bases in a season.
Betts joined that exclusive club by boosting his power and clubbing 31 homers last season. He's come a long way from hitting zero homers in his first minor league season in 2012.
Alex Speier of the Boston Globe wrote that Betts may have bowling to thank for that. It's the other sport he's really good at, and it's just the kind of activity that would lead to the lightning-quick wrists that are the foundation for his power.
Just sayin': Henderson had some quick wrists of his own when he started hitting for power later in his career.
Of course, Betts doesn't have the same kind of speed that netted Henderson (aka "The Greatest of All Time") his 1,406 career stolen bases. That's not stopping him from being the league's best baserunner, though. While he doesn't draw walks like Henderson did, his batting eye is none too shabby either.
Manny Machado: Alex Rodriguez
Sometime after Alex Rodriguez was the first Alex Rodriguez, Manny Machado was the next Alex Rodriguez before Carlos Correa was the next Alex Rodriguez.
Like with Correa, the early comparisons of Machado to Rodriguez stemmed partially from optics and partially from abilities. The 6'3" Machado was a tall shortstop prospect with a bucket of plus tools. So, obviously he could be A-Rod.
No thanks to surgeries on both knees in 2013 and 2014, Machado isn't the athlete Rodriguez was in the prime of his career. But at age 22 and 23 in the last two seasons, the Baltimore Orioles stud has become a solid hitting doppelganger for Rodriguez at the same point in his career.
One key has been toning down his free-swinging ways and working more counts. Machado has also taken what was doubles power and turned it into over-the-fence power, mashing 72 home runs. Where Correa has A-Rod's youthful bat speed, Machado's looping swing comes closer to having A-Rod's loft.
While it could be seen as a missed opportunity that Machado moved to third base instead of sticking at shortstop, this much can be said: He plays third base like a younger A-Rod probably would have played it. It's all silky-smooth actions and eye-popping throws.
If it's a question of whether Correa or Machado is more deserving of the Rodriguez comp, here's one suggestion: Can't they both have it?
Kris Bryant: Troy Glaus
Beyond being a No. 2 pick, a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and a World Series champion, Kris Bryant checks three key boxes: He's a third baseman who's big, powerful and useful even outside the batter's box.
Throughout history, Troy Glaus is the only other guy who's checked the same boxes.
As it happens, Bryant's age-23 and age-24 seasons bear a resemblance to what Glaus was doing at the same point in his career. The numbers paint pictures of two hitters who worked counts and clobbered the ball.
Glaus clobbered more balls, tallying 88 homers to Bryant's 65. Nonetheless, these are two similar power strokes. Glaus channeled his immense raw power into a long hack made for getting under the ball. Bryant puts his raw pop into a long swing of his own, and he's one of the very best at getting under the ball.
Now the comparisons come to a stop. Where Glaus only held his own on defense and wasn't much of a baserunner, these are two of Bryant's not-so-secret qualities.
Bryant is a good defender not just at third base, but at first base and in left field and right field. Although he's not speedy, he's been more productive on the bases over the last two seasons than everyone not named Mookie Betts.
It's like the baseball gods took Glaus back to their labs to perfect him, and out popped Bryant.
Mike Trout: Willie Mays
The tricky part is that there's nobody quite like Mike Trout.
Ability-wise, though? Willie Mays. Definitely Willie Mays.
As San Francisco Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper put it in 2015: "Watching Willie, the beauty of that was it didn't matter whether he had a glove on or whether he had a bat in his hand or whether he was standing at first. It was always excitement, because you never knew what he was going to do. And I think you can say the same thing about Trout."
The one thing Trout doesn't have is Mays' arm. Otherwise, it is indeed the same skill set. Like Mays before him, Trout can hit for average and power, run the bases and track down anything in center field.
As explosive as Trout's young stardom has been, Mays' young stardom was the prototype for it. What Trout has done between the ages of 20 and 24 looks a lot like what Mays did between the ages of 23 and 27.
Mays, of course, went on to become maybe the greatest player of them all. ESPN's Howard Bryant's description of him as "a living scouting report for baseball perfection" rings true.
If Trout's plan is to be compared to Mays in the end, being compared to him at the beginning is a good start.