It’s official, with the ceremony scheduled for next Tuesday in Cincinnati: Baseball’s Next Generation is here.
Eighteen players in their age-25 season or younger have been named to the All-Star Game, including five voted as starters by the fans—Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and Angels outfielder Mike Trout—and the two most exciting rookies in the National League, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, added as reserves.
Talk about a revolution: Last year’s game featured only two 25-and-under starters, and the marquee act was a 40-year-old shortstop on his way to retirement, Derek Jeter. Moreover, this will be the first All-Star Game without a Yankees or Red Sox player in the starting lineup (pitchers included).
The game reflects two of the major trends in baseball: Offense may finally be reversing an eight-year downturn (runs and home runs are up, and strikeouts are down, though all just slightly), and teams are turning more often to young hitters.
Entering this week, 25-and-under hitters had accounted for 25.1% of all the hits in baseball, the second greatest percentage in the past 22 years. (Only 2008 saw a higher rate.) This trend is happening because:
A) Hitting has been down for so long that anyone with elite hitting skills is pushed to the majors quickly;
B) The cyclical nature of supply holds that we were due for a wave like this (10 of the first 13 picks in the draft last month were hitters);
C) Testing for performance-enhancing drugs and amphetamines has changed the game.
One weird byproduct of the era of Better Baseball by Pharmaceuticals was the plethora of dominant older players. Some players even got better as they got older. In 2004, when steroid testing began in earnest, a record 17 players age 35 and older hit 20 home runs. Last year, only three such elders did so: Marlon Byrd, Victor Martinez and David Ortiz.
In 2004, 25-and-under players accounted for only 16.8% of all hits—far below today’s rate. This year, three of the top five players as ranked by WAR are no older than 23: Harper, Trout and Manny Machado. And waiting in the wings—perhaps for the 2016 All-Star Game—are Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, Maikel Franco, Joey Gallo, Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell, Miguel Sano, Yasmany Tomas and the many other top young hitters who have debuted this year.
Where is baseball finding these young All-Stars? Most of them were elite right from the start, which means the top of the draft. Here are the 18 25-and-under All-Stars as grouped by how they were acquired:
Second-round picks (2): Stanton, Nolan Arenado.
International free agents (3): Altuve, Perez, Jose Iglesias.
By historical standards, this wave of young talent, especially among hitters, is not remarkable in its size. Players no older than 25 accounted for a greater chunk of hits 30 years ago (26.6%), 40 years ago (35.3) and 50 years ago (33.3). And for sheer impact, it’s hard to top 1956, when, in the first decade of integration, nine 25-and-under players with at least 100 games went on to the Hall of Fame: Hank Aaron, Luis Aparico, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson. Now that’s a great wave of young hitters.
This group remains a long, long way from Cooperstown. But for sheer entertainment, what if we held a second All-Star Game and included only the 25-and-under crowd? The edge, just as it should in the real game next Tuesday, would go to the National League, where young stars such as Bryant, Wacha, Jose Fernandez, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Steven Matz and Yasiel Puig can’t even make the cut.
Here are my picks for the 25-and-under All-Star teams:
J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
Salvador Perez, Royals
Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Eric Hosmer, Royals
Joe Panik, Giants
Jose Altuve, Astros
Nolan Arenado, Rockies
Manny Machado, Orioles
Bryce Harper, Nationals
Mookie Betts, Red Sox
Joc Pederson, Dodgers
Mike Trout, Angels
Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
George Springer, Astros
Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Sonny Gray, A's
Madison Bumgarner, Giants
Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox
Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals