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Youth Movement

June 14, 2015

With the promotion of 20-year-old Carlos Correa to the surprising Houston Astros’ major-league squad last week, as well as Francisco Lindor and Byron Buxton over the weekend, MLB has had not only a big-time influx of top prospects this year, but also a big-time influx of youth – scarily talented youth, at that – in the last couple of years.

I do not mean youth like 27-year-olds, hitters just entering their prime. I mean youth like ‘these guys can’t buy alcohol, let alone run for Congress” young. And this is a good thing.

Here are the top five players on FanGraph’s WAR leaderboard as of Sunday, June 14th:

1. Bryce Harper (22 at end of season)

2. Mike Trout (24)

3. Josh Donaldson (29)

4. Jason Kipnis (28)

5. Paul Goldschmidt (27)

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WAR is not the definitive statistic. But it’s a useful jumping off point. And I don’t think you’d get much argument from anybody that these five guys have indeed been the best position players this year. Nonetheless, the average age of these players is 26.

Earlier this week before Goldschmidt went goldbananas, Joc Pederson held the fifth slot here. He’s 23. His inclusion in Goldy’s place brings the average age down to 25.2.

The most recent season the youngest average age of the five players with the best overall WAR was under 26 was 2006, when it was 25.8 (bookended by Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera). In fact, this year there isn’t a guy on the wrong side of 30 until Russell Martin, currently at #12 on the leaderboard. Other top 10 WAR folk include usual suspects Anthony Rizzo (26) and Giancarlo Stanton (25).

We’re in the middle of a big-time youth revolution, a far cry from, say, 2001, when Bonds, Sosa, Giambi, and Luis Gonzalez – all 30 or over – dominated the game. If Pederson finishes in the top 5 – very likely at this point – you’d have to go back to 1983 when the WAR leaderboard was dominated by Cal Ripken (22), Wade Boggs (25), Dickie Thon (25), Rickey Henderson (24), and Dale Murphy (27) to get an average age less than 2015’s.

MLB has an excellent opportunity on its hands in its ongoing, quixotic attempt to appeal to a younger generation, a marketing effort which opera enthusiasts can tell you is a futile effort at best; and considering the substantial and healthy profits the game continues to reap, not as pressing and dire as alarmists would have us believe.

Since the start of the year-long indulgence that was the Derek Jeter Tear-Jerking Farewell Tour, much has been made of “Who’s the New Face of Baseball,” to the extent that there was even one of those ridiculous polls on MLB.com, which resulted in a couple of preposterous contests, one of which, surreally, ended up with Eric Sogard claiming the title.

They’ve begun in earnest with Mike Trout – and to some extent, the mercurial Yasiel Puig – but MLB would do well to market the ever-living crap out of these guys who are barely above college age: Trout, Harper, Pederson, Correa, and Kris Bryant. Arbitration rules are bit different now, but it’s certainly worth noting that three of those five guys in 1983 became first ballot Hall of Famers, and another was a borderline candidate. And three of those guys became synonymous with their clubs for the entire decade.

The 2015 wunderkinds are locked up with their teams for the next – at least – four years, are cornerstones of their franchises, and (probably) perennial All-Stars. Fans will know their names and faces for years to come, and as with Jeter before them, we’ll watch these golden talents grow up through the lens of the game; and then wistfully watch them become 38-year-old diplomats enjoying their own celebrations of gifts at ballparks, and being subjected to embarrassing pictures of their out-of-shape bodies that the New York Post runs in spring training 2030. MLB would do well to start plastering their faces everywhere, right now.

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