Behind the unprecedented rise in young impact players in baseball

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The Athletic

“Thank you for not calling me old.”

Freddie Freeman is sitting alone behind a long table serving as a podium. It’s media day at the All-Star Game and the 34-year-old Freeman, who was referred to as an older player – but not an “old player” – is reminiscing about being an unsure 20-year-old debuting for the Atlanta Braves.

“I wasn’t very good,” Freeman said of his first taste of MLB, a 20-game stint in 2010 in which he hit .167/.167./333.  “These guys come up now at 20, 21 years old and they’re superstars already. It’s just amazing to watch Elly de La Cruz, or Ronald (Acuña, Jr.) when he debuted. Corbin Carroll, I mean, how? It just baffles me. It feels like they’re ready for stardom so much earlier. There’s a big shift.”

Young players are reshaping the game. Last year, rookie hitters amassed a 68.6 WAR, the second-most ever, according to FanGraphs (behind 2015’s 75.1). Along with rookie pitchers’ 46.3 WAR, the combined impact on the sport is 114.9 WAR, which also trails only 2015 (a class led by Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa) as the best of all time. There has been no recent change in the average age of hitters (27.8), and only a six-month dip for pitchers (from 28.5 to 28 years old), but first-year players are increasingly making  their presence felt.

In 2023, five different position players 22 and under had a WAR above 4, which is generally considered to be All-Star caliber. In 2013, there were only two players that young, Mike Trout and Manny Machado, who reached that mark. In 2003, just one: Hank Blalock.

In 2022, then-21-year-old Julio Rodríguez made the Mariners Opening Day roster as their everyday center fielder, and was at his first All-Star Game three months later. Last year, the New York Yankees made 21-year-old Anthony Volpe their youngest shortstop since Derek Jeter. Jordan Walker became the only Cardinal not named Albert Pujols to post a 16-homer season at age 21 or younger.

When the Cincinnati Reds called up Elly de la Cruz in June, the 22-year-old hit cleanup. Eury Pérez was inserted into Miami’s starting rotation from Double A, less than a month after turning 20. Both of the consensus top two prospects, Carroll and Baltimore’s Gunnar Henderson, played pivotal roles in their organization’s playoff runs on the way to Rookie of the Year awards. They started the season at 22 and 21 years old.

“Now we have grizzled veterans like (Juan) Soto at 25, right?,” laughed Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who has been in the game for more than four decades.

“Look at De La Cruz. He’s thrown into the middle of the lineup. (The Reds) had high expectations for the season, and are throwing young rookie players in there with the expectation that they will play significant games,” Rizzo said. “That is the thing that has changed. When we had these old September call up rules, you saw a lot of kids come up and just get a feel for it or watch on the bench. The difference now is guys are getting thrown into the fire and compete right away.”

The proliferation of young impact players in the game is the result of a confluence of events: The explosion of cutting-edge data and training methods, along with a shift in mindset among many front offices about developing big-league players; the 2022 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which disincentivizes service time manipulation; and the era of tanking and rebuilding that means using younger – cheaper – players.

Developing in the big leagues is “a more recent trend,” said Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes, who played in the big leagues from 2011-15 with Tampa Bay.

The emergence of bat path tracking and velocity training – as well as advances in nutrition, weight training and recovery – have spearheaded improvements at the big-league level. In 2024, every team has a group of analysts and data researchers. Most have pitching labs and/or velocity camps, and players still often seek help from a growing sector of independent training facilities in the offseason to refine skills or resuscitate a stalled career.

Current Pirates general manager Ben Cherington was the Boston Red Sox farm director from 2002-05 . Back then, “we weren’t thinking about skill development in the major leagues,” Cherington said. “Now there’s so much more awareness of what’s possible for a player to keep getting better — of course you have to continue (developing up here). If the industry decided we are going to do all that in the minor leagues, players would be in the minor leagues a lot longer.”

When the Pirates were weighing whether infielder Ke’Bryan Hayes would make their Opening Day roster, Cherington said part of the discussion around Hayes — who debuted as a 23-year-old during 2020’s shortened season — was that he needed to be in the big leagues to accelerate his growth. Some members of the Pirates front office believed Hayes could get better quicker if he saw big-league pitching, not Triple A, every day.

“There’s significant upside to having guys who you can plug in and then they take the next step up here and get to be All-stars sooner in their career,” said Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes. “We talk about this a lot: you can get really close in player development in Triple A, but I’m not sure you can put the ball in the end zone.”

According to multiple people interviewed for this story, the jump from the minor leagues to MLB — long considered the hardest in sports — keeps getting bigger.

“Players in the big leagues are improving like they never have before, and there’s no next league for them to go to,” said Seattle Mariners assistant GM Andy McKay. “So this gap keeps getting wider and wider. And I do think that trend is here to stay.”

In December 2020, MLB announced 43 minor league franchises had lost their affiliations, a streamlining move that limits an organization’s total headcount and can have ripple effects up the chain. Let’s say a team had one of their rookie ball teams eliminated. All of those guys instead go to Low A now, and most of those Low A guys go to High A, and so on. That means a team’s Triple-A roster is filled with younger players, squeezing out some veteran Triple-A players.

Skyrocketing injury rates may also be a factor for the rise in young impact players, as teams are constantly in need of fresh arms. Gone are the days when teams might need a dozen pitchers for a season. It’s not uncommon now for a team to need 30-40 arms a year, which can force them to dip into the lower levels of the minors. If you think a guy has big-league stuff and he’s in Double A, why not give him a shot rather than making a waiver claim or trying to acquire another player?

There is always an adjustment period no matter how talented a player is.

“You can’t simulate Yankee Stadium or the pressure of pitching in the playoffs,” said Cleveland’s president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti. “You try to do the best you can to develop guys and prepare them for those moments, but there are some things that are unique to MLB that guys need to do to succeed. We look at it as, even if they don’t succeed (initially), there’s learning and developing going on so the next time they are more prepared.”

Players like the Reds’ De La Cruz are not only coming up sooner, but are being asked to contribute in meaningful games right away. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

Until the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, it behooved teams to keep their best prospects in the minor leagues to start a season and “delay the clock” on their big-league service time. The most jarring example is Bryant, who didn’t make the Chicago Cubs out of spring training in 2015  — despite having a monster spring training camp — and instead was called up less than two weeks later. That left the 23-year-old with 171 days of service time, one shy of the requirements for a full season, which meant Bryant’s free agency was delayed another year.

The new system, as part of the CBA established in 2022, now rewards teams with extra draft picks if they promote their top prospects on Opening Day. A player who receives a full year of service time and finishes in the top three in Rookie of the Year voting or top five in MVP/Cy Young voting will earn his team an extra draft pick after the first round. (And no matter when a player comes up from the minors, he’ll be awarded a full year of service if he finishes first or second in Rookie of the Year voting.)

In 2022, Rodríguez, Detroit’s Spencer Torkelson, Kansas City’s Bobby Witt Jr. and Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene were all top prospects who made their team’s Opening Day rosters.

Teams being incentivized to promote players is one thing. But how have so many thrived so quickly? There are a few theories.

First, the rise of travel ball teams and amateur tournaments over the past decade means many of MLB’s best young stars have already been playing against the best competition in the world for years. While previous generations may have been the best player on their high school team or in town, guys now play all summer with players from all over the area and the country, meaning the competition is stronger. As one AL executive puts it, in many high schools you may have seen one lefty throwing mid-90’s the entire season. On a competitive teenage travel team, everyone is throwing mid-90s. And the kids who commit to a top college program? Many of those facilities are state-of-the-art, and utilize Trackman and biometric technology that simply didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago.

The improved conditions of the minor leagues, which was a stipulation when MLB reduced the number of teams, and was further enhanced when minor leaguers unionized, means even guys who aren’t playing for top college programs have access to more resources than their predecessors did.

Finally, in the free agency era teams only have a finite amount of time to win with their young players. If guys aren’t staying with one team their whole career, why not get them up here and maximize what they have now, before the next wave of young players comes in ?

“We view finished products differently than in previous generations,” said the AL exec. “Before (the thinking) was, ‘We aren’t going to call a starter up until he threw his third pitch, his changeup, well, so go refine that at Triple A.’ Now it’s, ‘We don’t care about the third pitch, we’re just going to maximize the two he does throw.’ Teams care less about eliminating deficiencies and instead maximize what they do really well.”

“It’s: What can you do in a short period of time? No one is overexposed. It’s what can you do in 1-2 innings out of the bullpen, what can you do for a couple at-bats before we match up, what can you do 1-2 times through the order. It’s a game of efficiency.”

As a result, some execs and coaches believe some of the game’s nuances and skill has been lost.

Since singles are devalued and bunting is non-existent, you don’t need to teach that to hitters if they can slug. Power stuff trumps command in pitching development. Baserunning and fundamentals are often being taught at the big-league level because players simply didn’t get the time in the minors that previous generations did.

“You have to have a lot more patience. You have to do a lot more coaching,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said last season of managing a young team short of big-league experience. “We just had an advanced meeting and there’s always some teaching points, Baseball 101, rules, things like that that you are still having to remind guys of, really hammer home. There’s still a ton of teaching that goes on even though these guys are big-league players.”

Last year, Hyde’s staff had three hitting coaches to aid in that. More and more teams are bulking up their on-field staff, adding offensive coordinators, dual pitching and hitting coaches and assistant managers at the big league level as player development — and keeping up with the explosion of data — is an increasingly integral part of the big-league game.

“It’s important when you think about your staff to have guys who love teaching, because you are having to develop at the big league level way more than you’ve ever had to,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said during the season.

The league is trying to inject some action back into the game. The new rules put in place prior to the 2023 season, which include bigger bases and limit pitcher pickoffs, favor teams who are young and athletic on the bases. The ban on shifts has led to more balls put in play, making defense even more important. This, too, could help the steady stream of young players.  The data suggests defense and baserunning often peak earlier in a player’s career, so teams who feel like they have a young talented player who could be a weapon in those areas may pull the trigger, if they feel like he can handle the mental aspect of any potential offensive slump.

Rebuilding teams like the Nationals and the Orioles, who graduated out of their rebuild with an AL East title last year, will always employ more young players because they are cheap and under team control, two magic phrases in an efficiency-obsessed industry. But if it were just about cost, we wouldn’t be dazzled by the likes of Rodríguez or Henderson or Carroll.

As each successive generation gets bigger, faster and better at baseball, no one interviewed for this story thinks this trend is going away.

This spring, we could see the Orioles’ Jackson Holliday, the Brewers’ Jackson Chourio and the Pirates’ Paul Skenes make their big-league debuts, as well as full-seasons from young standouts Evan Carter (Rangers) and Junior Caminero (Rays). The wait to see baseball’s best young talent isn’t as long as it used to be.

“If you’re good enough to help the team win, even if the team thinks there’s still 15 percent of improvement left in you, you are still going to get called up,” Cherington said. “I do think that’s changed.”

(Top photos: Jamie Sabau, Steph Chambers, Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)