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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

MLB’s First-Year Stars Are Historically Great This Season

As happened with NFL quarterbacks and pro tennis players, the traditional learning curve for Major League Baseball hitters has been re-drawn, if not outright obliterated. Apprenticeships no longer are required.

For a second consecutive year, first-year players are dominating baseball in numbers like we’ve never seen before. In the footsteps of Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr., Gleyber Torres, Shohei Ohtani and others last season, Pete Alonso, Yordan Alvarez, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Eloy Jimenez, Fernando Tatis Jr. and their fellow freshmen are blowing up the idea that young hitters can’t be trusted until they are allowed time and reps to adjust to big league pitching. This is the era of Plug-and-Play Superstars.

Until last season, there had never been a season in which more than five first-year players hit 15 home runs. Then seven freshmen did so last year. And so far this season, 10 can claim the Freshman 15.

...


Set aside for now the more aerodynamic baseball, which this season is inflating home run numbers. This young hitters trend began a few years ago and has just exploded this year. The game is getting younger because the numbers show young hitters can be trusted–in many cases, more than older players.

So, how much do we buy this particular argument, and, if not, where do we see issues?

 

QLE Posted: September 10, 2019 at 01:45 AM | 20 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: fernando tatis jr., home runs, pete alonso, rookies, vladimir guerrero jr.

Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. TomH Posted: September 10, 2019 at 08:41 AM (#5877995)
a blip/random or a huge trend?

I offer one countering set of data; the average age of top 10 MLB pitchers in WAR is 30.5 (taking age as of today, but integer value only; rounding down to last birthday).

The young position players are very exciting, and very good. But you can't pretend the other part of the game doesn't exist. Older guys are still doing OK.
   2. Howie Menckel Posted: September 10, 2019 at 09:03 AM (#5878000)
on the PGA Tour, players used to peak in their 30s.

now, kids just out of college are contending for and winning Tour events. Apprenticeships are no longer required, indeed.
   3. PreservedFish Posted: September 10, 2019 at 09:06 AM (#5878002)
I don't feel like these guys were brought up any earlier than they would have been in years previous.

It's possible that a guy like Alonso would've gotten the Ken Phelps or Roberto Petagine treatment for a while. Tatis was pushed along quickly, but everyone knew he was a stud. Alvarez, Guerrero, Jimenez, Torres were just flatout great prospects that hit too much to stay in the minors. Bichette earned his promotion. These guys would've been brought up quickly in any era.

Soto was called up in an emergency situation, right? If anything, callups like his should be more rare these days, what with all the emphasis put on service time clocks. Acuna might've been brought up the previous year were it not for this.

So I think that the way teams are treating young studs isn't novel. What's novel is how many young studs there are. And I certainly can't say whether that's a fluke or if it's representative of something. I think it would be difficult to identify some significant trend that cuts across the diverse backgrounds of these rookies that can explain why they are all so good at a young age.
   4. Lest we forget Posted: September 10, 2019 at 09:45 AM (#5878026)
"Set aside for now the more aerodynamic baseball"

Sorry, but no.

Everything else is ok; but that? No.
   5. Davo Posted: September 10, 2019 at 10:31 AM (#5878048)
My operating theory is that, while the elite MLB pitchers are still as good as ever, the bell curve flattens really quickly after that, and as such, the difference in pitching quality between AAA and MLB is the smallest it’s ever been. (The way teams like the Rays constantly shuttle pitchers from MLB to AAA and back is part of this; we’re seeing like 15-man pitching staffs, with 3 guys randomly stuck in AAA at a time.)

Combine that with aces pitching fewer innings than ever before*, plus the juiced ball, plus delaying promotions to manipulate service time, plus the tanking teams (who go through more minor leaguers than good teams), and we have a perfect setup to see minor league sluggers continue to dominate in the Majors.

* As a parenthetical, I saw the other day that (I think) Pete Alonso’s 47 home runs this year have come off 47 different pitchers!
   6. Davo Posted: September 10, 2019 at 10:33 AM (#5878050)
Who was the last rookie starter to enter the league and dominate right out the gate? Jose Fernandez?
   7. DCA Posted: September 10, 2019 at 11:36 AM (#5878072)
Walker Buehler's been pretty good. Jack Flaherty too.

   8. What did Billy Ripken have against ElRoy Face? Posted: September 10, 2019 at 11:37 AM (#5878073)
"Set aside for now the more aerodynamic baseball"
I tried to just set it aside, but it flew 400 feet anyway.
   9. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 10, 2019 at 11:45 AM (#5878076)
Alonso's pretty good, but the best rookie this year is Alvarez. If you project each of them to a 162 game season, they're tied in strikeouts, but in every other category (including home runs) Alvarez has a lead, and sometimes quite a comfortable one.

EDIT: Okay, upon further review Tatis is right up there in the mix, given his positional advantage.
   10. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: September 10, 2019 at 11:49 AM (#5878078)
Who was the last rookie starter to enter the league and dominate right out the gate? Jose Fernandez?

Matt Harvey? Rookie qualification aside, he put up a 2.73 ERA (140 ERA+) in 10 starts in 2012, followed by 26 starts with a 2.27 ERA (157 ERA+, 2.01 FIP) and starting in the All-Star Game in 2013.

EDIT: Just realized Fernandez and Harvey were both dominating in the same season (2013). I thought Harvey was later.
   11. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: September 10, 2019 at 11:56 AM (#5878081)
* As a parenthetical, I saw the other day that (I think) Pete Alonso’s 47 home runs this year have come off 47 different pitchers!

Close, but it's only 44 different pitchers. He's doubled up Walker Buehler, Merrill Kelly and Julio Teheran.
   12. Walt Davis Posted: September 10, 2019 at 05:28 PM (#5878188)
Hard to say if it's a trend or not. It's hard to see why the "true" aging curve would shift so dramatically (for hitters but not so much pitchers) but there are some ideas worth investigating before we get to random blip ...

1. Let's clarify the question. Are we talking about the way some 20-21 year-olds are dominating or are we, for some reason, gonna focus on "first-year" players. Alonso was well over 24 when he debuted, Vlad Jr barely over 20. Alonso served an "apprenticeship", he just did so in the minors. I'm really only interested in the young phenom question -- if "first-year" performance is primarily due to boosts from players aged 24-25, I'm not intrigued.

1A. Which raises college draftees as a topic. I haven't noticed any shift towards or away from college draftees but I don't really follow it (note Alonso was not). College draftees will generally debut at a fairly mature age which should boost the production of first-year players.

2. Costs. Older position players are being shoved aside. "Deservedly so" in that they're certainly not particularly good but maybe not deservedly so in that they might still be better than the AAA scrub. If true, then overall position player quality is down meaning relative (OPS+, WAR) of the remaining good players should go up (on an individual basis). But if this is so, we should see it up for all remaining good players (i.e. are 27-year-olds doing better too?) I'm guessing this is not a big factor if it's even one at all.

2A. That said, I'd think the Petagines of the world would be more likely to get a shot in today's game and some of them will stick.

3. Certainly hitting theory has transitioned over the last few years -- launch angle and such. Young hitters would have been learning it essentially from scratch for 3+ years now while older hitters have to overcome a lifetime of training to make the adjustment.

the difference in pitching quality between AAA and MLB is the smallest it’s ever been.

But the young phenoms are barely touching AAA. Even Alonso had just 300 PA there.
   13. Walt Davis Posted: September 10, 2019 at 06:12 PM (#5878198)
As pointed out by many, using HR as the criterion, especially in this season, is not a useful way to go about this.

1st-year players with 115 or higher OPS+ in 300+ PAs:

2010: Stanton, Heyward, Ike Davis (flashback!), Danny Valencia
2011: Hosmer, Dustin Ackley
2012: Harper, Cespedes
2013: Myers, Puig
2014: Springer, Abreu, Danny Santana
2015: Kang, Bryant, Correa, Lindor, Sano
2016: Story, Aledmys Diaz, Hyun Soo Kim, Schimpf, Naquin
2017: DeJong, Bellinger
2018: Ohtani, Acuna, Torres, Soto
2019: Alonso, Alvarez, Vlad, Tatis, Yaz, Bryan Reynolds (the Bene Gesserit at work)

So 2015, 2018 and 2019 really stand out. 2010 and 2016 are interesting in how quickly some of those names faded.

Then I tried WAA>0.5 which of course brings in defense and position ... and, in terms of number, the last couple of years don't stand out at all. In 2013, 7 players made that cut, including non-luminaries like Gyorko and Nick Franklin (and Arenado), while this year it's just those same 6. But the players added by using WAA are not a particularly impressive bunch generally but it does also pick up Chapman and Merrfield.

Ignoring first year and looking at 22 or younger, regardless of "first year" or not, seems more interesting. Using the 115 OPS+ criterion this also turns up Freeman (2011), Rizzo (2012), Sal Perez (2012), Trout (2012), Yelich (2014), Betts (2015), Machado (2015), Franco (2015), Seager (2016), Devers (2019) ... only first year passing threshold listed. Those extra names in 2012 and 2015 help even out that earlier list. Also thee are almost no misses in that list -- Franco joins Hosmer, Myers, Puig and Heyward as the offensive disappointments.

That second list makes it pretty clear that "first year" is not a particularly fruitful way to view this. Team decision-making on that might well have shifted enough even from as recently as Trout -- no more Aug-Sept debuts for studs unless maybe the team is in the race. "First year" now is probably much closer to a full year than it used to be which I can add to my #2 above. Obviously to the extent that a first year is a full-ish year (i.e. their debut traditionally would have been 1-2 months in the previous season), players are certainly more likely to hit counting stat targets.

Anyway, who knows, maybe it was always this way but tradition kept players down too long or new cost-control measures have given them more/earlier chances to prove themselves at this level.

Or it is just a random blip/wave. The players who debuted from about 1975-85 weren't all that impressive, especially in career terms (lots of pitchers got hurt) which was followed by Bonds, Clemens, Maddux, Pedro, Johnson, Mac, etc. who caused a HoF-ballot glut such that even 10 slots wasn't enough room to list all the worthy candidates. Starting around 2000, things seem to fall off again such that somebody like Hamels might be in the top 5 pitchers of his "generation" and Nelson Cruz is the only hitter over 36 having a good season.

HOLY CRAP, NELSON CRUZ HAS AN OPS OVER 1000!
   14. Moses Taylor, aka Hambone Fakenameington Posted: September 10, 2019 at 06:29 PM (#5878201)
* As a parenthetical, I saw the other day that (I think) Pete Alonso’s 47 home runs this year have come off 47 different pitchers!

Close, but it's only 44 different pitchers. He's doubled up Walker Buehler, Merrill Kelly and Julio Teheran.


I've been posting that about Bellinger, and I believe it's still true (I know for sure it was for #43).
   15. The Yankee Clapper Posted: September 10, 2019 at 06:41 PM (#5878209)
1st-year players with 115 or higher OPS+ in 300+ PAs
That’s going to miss anyone called up for a “cup of coffee” even if they crush it the following year in their official rookie season.
   16. Colin Posted: September 10, 2019 at 06:48 PM (#5878211)
Sort of amusing to see pro tennis held up as a parallel to this when it's being dominated by guys in their thirties. Because of the dominance of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, men's tennis has yet to have a grand slam winner who was born since 1990. The women's game is an entirely different matter, though, with the US Open having just been won by a woman born in 2000.
   17. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: September 10, 2019 at 07:31 PM (#5878229)
Pete Alonso, Yordan Alvarez, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Eloy Jimenez, Fernando Tatis Jr.


One of these is not like the other. Jimenez has a mere 101 OPS+, and due to his atrocious defense, is barely above replacement level.
   18. Walt Davis Posted: September 11, 2019 at 12:16 AM (#5878294)
That’s going to miss anyone called up for a “cup of coffee” even if they crush it the following year in their official rookie season.

First-year players was the article's criterion, blame them.
   19. QLE Posted: September 11, 2019 at 05:28 AM (#5878325)
on the PGA Tour, players used to peak in their 30s.

now, kids just out of college are contending for and winning Tour events. Apprenticeships are no longer required, indeed.


I find this claim suspect, based on an overview of the couple-hundred golfers who have won five or more PGA TOUR events.

On the one hand, yes, six have managed to win five or more who were born in 1990 or after.

On the other hand, looking at some of the greats of the game:

Tiger Woods: Won 46 events before his 30th birthday.
Jack Nicklaus: Won 30 events before his 30th birthday.
Gene Sarazen: Won 26 events up to the end of the 1931 season.
Sam Snead: Won 26 events up to the end of the 1941 season.
Tom Watson: Won 18 events before his 30th birthday.
Walter Hagen: Won 16 events up to the end of the 1922 season- in the proto-TOUR era.
Byron Nelson: Won 16 events up to the end of the 1941 season.
Phil Mickelson: Won 16 events before his 30th birthday.
Cary Middlecoff: Won 13 events up to the end of the 1950 season- and had only fully made up his mind to follow golf rather than dentistry in 1947.
Billy Casper: Won 13 events before his 30th birthday.
Arnold Palmer: Won 12 events before his 30th birthday- and then another eight at 30.
Ben Hogan: Won 10 events up to the end of the 1941 season.

Collectively, these performances demonstrate that obtaining a considerable number of PGA TOUR wins before one is 30 is not unprecedented in the slightest- in comparison, note that the young player with the most wins now, Jordan Spieth, 1) only has 11 victories, and 2) hasn't won anything in two years.

Moreover, even having the bulk of one's tournament success before 30 isn't unprecedented- even ignoring the figures of pre-WWII golf like Horton Smith and Leo Diegel, Gene Littler had 15 of his 29 victories before turning 30, Johnny Miller 18 of his 25, Doug Sanders 12 of his 20, Hubert Green 11 of his 19, and Ken Venturi 10 of his 14.

Finally, it should be noted that these points are also predicated on the future careers of the golfers under consideration- as a result, we may need to wait a quarter of a century before being able to fully answer it.
   20. manchestermets Posted: September 11, 2019 at 06:06 AM (#5878326)
Who was the last rookie starter to enter the league and dominate right out the gate? Jose Fernandez?


Matt Harvey? Rookie qualification aside, he put up a 2.73 ERA (140 ERA+) in 10 starts in 2012, followed by 26 starts with a 2.27 ERA (157 ERA+, 2.01 FIP) and starting in the All-Star Game in 2013.


Jacob deGrom had a 2.61 ERA in 331.1 innings across his first two years (2014-15).

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