Six-pack of young sluggers powering long-sought return of offense
On the same day last week that Joey Gallo, 21, hit a home run in his major league debut, Giancarlo Stanton (25), Mike Trout (23) and Joc Pederson (23) also homered. Meanwhile, Bryce Harper, 22, continued to lead the majors in home runs, and people still were talking about the 477-foot homer Kris Bryant, 22, smashed off the newly-installed Jumbotron at Wrigley Field on May 26.
Say hello—and thank goodness they’re finally here—to what just might be the greatest group of young sluggers in almost 60 years. I don’t know about you, but I’m fine if they re-write the All-Star Home Run Derby rules this year and make it a 25-and-under event. Nolan Arenado (24), Mookie Betts (22), Wilmer Flores (23), Maikel Franco (22) and Manny Machado (22) can fill out the field.
Offense is back, and even if it’s by just a smidgen, we’ll take it. After years of pitchers gaining every advantage in the game and threatening to sink baseball back to 1968 depths of nothingness, a generation of young power hitters finally has arrived to give us hope that we may be pulling out of this run prevention trough.
Runs, home runs, batting average and slugging percentage are up this year, and strikeouts have decreased for the first time in a decade. Now, let’s not get carried away: The differences are barely noticeable, and we still haven’t even made it back to 2013 levels. The rate of runs per game still is the second worst in the past 23 years. On-base percentage remains the lowest since the DH was added in 1973.
But when was the last time you saw six young power hitters like this? It’s not just that they hit home runs, it’s how they hit them—the distance and the panache. Stanton, Pederson and Bryant have hit three of the five longest home runs this year. Trout and Harper make the top 16 (454 feet or more). Gallo will join the longest-drive club any day now.
• CORCORAN: How to fix the AL's All-Royals All-Star team
What’s fascinating about this group is that it already smacks of greatness. Stanton, Trout and Harper have put up early career numbers that rank with historically elite players. Pederson, Bryant and Gallo, despite signing up for huge numbers of strikeouts, hit the ball so hard and so far that their power cannot be disputed.
Of Pederson, his manager on the Dodgers, Don Mattingly, said, “He swings like CarGo [the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez] or a little like [the Mariners' Robinson] Cano. He has great plate coverage and a flat swing. When he gets in trouble—when the strikeouts come—it’s when he tries to turn on the ball and his swing gets too big. He’ll open up too soon trying to pull it. He can hit the ball out easily to the middle of the field, and when he’s going well, that’s what he does.”
Pederson has hit 15 of his 17 home runs to the middle of the field, with one each to the pull and opposite fields.
Gallo, called up by the Rangers on June 2, has even more raw power than Pederson. With a similar mindset as highly-touted Cubs rookie Bryant—launch fly balls as often as possible—he will strike out at Adam Dunn-like rates. Gallo punched out 13 times in his first six games. Only Domingo Santana of the 2014 Astros ever struck out more times in his first six games (14—in only 17 at-bats). But Gallo did hit .292/.370/.583 in that first week.
• CORCORAN: Carlos Correa debuts, but Chris Sale steals show
Bryant has displayed his athleticism with more infield hits (eight) than home runs (seven). His command of the strike zone has been impressive, as has his approach with runners in scoring position for such a high-strikeout guy (.395).
While Trout and Stanton already have posted multiple MVP-type seasons, a healthy Harper is joining them among the game’s elite. He is making good on his intention to be more selective at the plate: He leads the league in walks, and when he is ahead in the count, he is hitting .383/.657/.917.
Time, not the first half of this season, will tell where this group of young sluggers rates historically. Just six years ago, 13 players who were 25 or younger hit 25 home runs—the third most all-time. The group included Matt Kemp, Adam Lind, Jose Lopez, Mark Reynolds, Ian Stewart and Pablo Sandoval.
This year’s group is important not because of quantity, but because of timing—the game needs offense—and because of star power. If someday we look back on Stanton, Trout, Pederson, Harper, Bryant and Gallo in 2015 as one of the best classes of young sluggers, this is the kind of company in which we will place them:
1956: The gold standard. This is the only season in history with seven future Hall of Famers in the 25-25 club (at least 25 home runs and no older than 25): Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson.
1977: The 25-25 club included future Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice and Dave Winfield. Oh, and also three players who combined for one Hall of Fame vote: Butch Hobson, Jason Thompson and Ellis Valentine.
1987: A record number of 25U players hit 30 home runs that season: 10. But this record class should be discounted because an anomalous spike in home runs that was likely caused by a juiced baseball. Half of the class never hit 30 homers before or after this strange season: Will Clark, Wally Joyner, Matt Nokes, Ruben Sierra and Cory Snyder.
1993: One Hall of Famer (Frank Thomas), two likely Hall of Famers (Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza), two sluggers associated with PEDs (Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa) and three who didn’t quite rise to Cooperstown consideration (Dean Palmer, Phil Plantier and Tim Salmon.)
1999: This has to be mentioned for sheer quantity. It was the height of Silly Ball, or three years before the steroid bubble burst. A record 16 players age 25 and under hit 25 home runs, but only one has a very good chance of being enshrined in the Hall of Fame: Vladimir Guerrero. The others are Edgardo Alfonzo, Tony Batista, Sean Casey, Jermaine Dye, Nomar Garciaparra, Troy Glaus, Ben Grieve, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Magglio Ordonez, Alex Rodriguez, Scott Rolen, Richie Sexson, Fernando Tatis and Preston Wilson.
2009: We still have to wait and see how this one pans out, but it includes four of the top seven picks from the 2005 draft: Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki. The group also included Prince Fielder, Evan Longoria, Kemp and Joey Votto.