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.
Most First-Year Players With 15 HR
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.
This generation of hitters is more advanced because of how technology helps training, more amateur games among high-level competition (travel ball, showcases, scout teams, etc.), personalized, better coaching and–though old-timers would hate to hear it–a more immersive training experience. Pining for the glory days of three-sport athletes sounds romantic, but our specialized world is producing specialized baseball players who dedicate themselves to the game year-round.
Nobody complained much for years when families shipped off pre-teen prodigies to Florida academies to specialize in tennis or golf. Now baseball (like many other sports) is getting its first full generation of specialized athletes.
Training advances in the international free agent market appear to be especially pronounced. Of the nine freshmen to hit 20 home runs the past two seasons, seven of them were signed as international free agents.
These hitters have grown up facing velocity and understanding the mechanics of the modern swing. On the other hand, Boston’s J.D. Martinez, 32, was taught to be short and quick to the ball, which meant bringing the hands down to the pitch. In 2014 he learned, “Everything I was taught about hitting was wrong.” Much of his epiphany was seen through improvements in high-speed video.
Martinez re-made his swing. At the risk of simplifying a long, arduous process, he learned to get the barrel of the bat into the strike zone earlier and to swing on an upward plane that matches the downward plane of the pitch. No more swinging down on the ball.
The young hitters today don’t need to change their swings. They grew up learning the swing that produces the most damage possible. Many of the swing thoughts and methodologies in the major leagues have bubbled up through amateur ranks, a complete reversal of the traditional model.
Take a look at the chart below and you can see the profound difference in how the game has changed in the past five years.
The three lines represent the annual OPS over the past decade by three groups of hitters based on age. Let’s call them Young (blue line; ages 25 and younger), Prime (orange; 26-30) and Veteran (gray; 31-35).
As recently as five years ago, 2014, the gap between Young hitters and Prime and Veteran hitters was severe. This fit the traditional school of thought: don’t trust young hitters. They need time.
But look how over these past five years the blue line first closes the gap and then overtakes both the orange and gray lines. Young hitters out-performed not just Veterans last year but even Prime hitters. (This year Young and Prime are about the same; Veterans still lag.) Young hitters don’t need time.
Let that settle for a minute: last year the young guys out-performed players in their traditional prime, while the gap between Young and Veteran completely flipped in a four-year window.
These young guys know how to get the ball in the air with power. Never before have young hitters slugged like they are this year:
Highest Slugging by Players Under 25
Think about all the older hitters in the past two free-agent classes who had difficulty finding work: Nick Markakis, Matt Adams, Adam Jones, Brian Dozier, Jordy Mercer, Yonder Alonso, Carlos Gonzalez, Logan Morrison, Carlos Gomez, Austin Jackson, et al. The market for such veteran hitters has cratered because of how those lines in the above chart have flipped. Young hitters, and the trust they have earned from front offices, are squeezing out older ones.
Let’s get back to home runs, and do so with an historical view to soften the impact of the Great Home Run Explosion of 2019.
Let’s examine first-year players who hit 20 home runs, and do so by grouping them by the 10 decades in the Live Ball Era (since 1920).
Until this decade, there had never been a decade in which more than nine freshmen hit 20 homers. Now we get 25 this decade, with Mike Yastrzemski of the Giants soon to make it 26. More freshmen have hit 20 homers this decade than in the previous 43 years combined.
The freshmen Class of 2018 continues to prove its worth, especially with stars such as Acuna, Ohtani, Torres and Soto. But this year's may be even deeper. So let’s rank the freshmen Class of ’19 draft style, with a heavy emphasis on the first impressions they’ve made in 2019.
1. Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres. Much of the talent in this class plays on the corners. Tatis is a gifted defender at shortstop who slugs .590. That’s a franchise player and generational talent.
2. Vlad Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays. The hype was so big that .276/.350/.459 seems disappointing. It’s not. Guerrero still profiles as a high-average hitter with power and scary-good bat-to-ball skills. I still don’t buy him as a third basemen, though. The footwork just isn’t there.
3. Pete Alonso, Mets. The defense is a work in progress, but he has game-changing power and strong leadership skills. This says it all:
Most Home Runs by First-Year Player
1. Pete Alonso, 2019
2. Cody Bellinger, 2017
T3. Frank Robinson, 1956
T3. Wally Berger, 1930
4. Yordan Alvarez, Astros. Knee issues and lack of range appear to consign him to being a full-time DH, but there’s nothing wrong with being the next David Ortiz. Alvarez has a veteran’s knack for sitting on pitches and sniffing out pitch patterns. Check this out, which includes a couple of his classmates:
Highest Slugging by First-Year Player (min. 300 PA)
1. Yordan Alvarez, 2019
2. Ryan Braun, 2007
3. George Watkins, 1930
4. Wally Berger, 1930
5. Albert Pujols, 2001
6. Ted Williams, 1939
7. Pete Alonso, 2019
8. Fernando Tatis Jr., 2019
5. Bo Bichette, Blue Jays. A hitter with lightning-fast hands, Bichette, a second generation big leaguer, typifies this generation of hitters: they’re not awed by their surroundings and not beaten by velocity.
6. Gavin Lux, Dodgers. A recent addition to the freshman class, the 21-year-old dLux makes it here mostly because of how he tore up the minors this year (.347/.421/.607). He profiles at second base with exceptional power, thanks to a beautiful swing honed in the Los Angeles system (see Cody Bellinger).
7. Keston Hiura, Brewers. He’s going to hit a ton of home runs with a high average. Hiura hits with two timing mechanisms (toe tap and leg kick) but still has an uncanny ability to almost always be on time. He leaves the yard to all fields. His throwing at second base is a major issue.
8. Eloy Jimenez, White Sox. Like Alonso, Jimenez has massive middle-of-the-field power. There remains an awkwardness and some anxiety in his swing. He has fared poorly with two strikes, with runners in scoring position and against secondary pitches. But that’s not unusual for a 22-year-old.
9. Luis Arraez, Twins. His setup in the box looks almost exactly like Victor Martinez from the left side, and like Martinez, he walks more than he strikes out. Arraez is a high-contact hitter with outsized confidence that already rubs some opponents the wrong way. “He’s going to get hit,” said one manager, “or at least he would have back in the day.”
10. Bryan Reynolds, Pirates. The outfielder with the quiet personality may be quietly on his way to a batting title. He is a good hitter from the right side but an exceptionally good one from the left. Only one first-year player has hit .330 since Richie Ashburn did it 71 years ago: Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Reynolds might be the second.
Honorable mentions: Michael Chavis, Red Sox; Oscar Mercado, Indians; Austin Riley, Braves; Nick Senzel, Reds; Will Smith, Dodgers; Mike Yastrzemski, Giants.