Yes, there really is a surge in talented young baseball players now

Seems like the last 3 or 4 years there have been a lot of very excellent, very young baseball players in the major leagues.

Seems like, in that time, there has been a lot of talk about all the very excellent young baseball players in the majors, with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper leading the way. But our impressions are sometimes wrong, as analysis of the relevant data can reveal. So, to see if these impressions are right or wrong, I looked at the data.

The data agree, overwhelmingly.

Using Baseball-Reference.com, I looked at the highest-WAR seasons for players 22 and under from the last 40 years. Though rather than using WAR numbers outright, I scaled WAR to 150 games, to adjust for differences in playing time.  Because WAR behaves more like a cumulative statistic, like hits, than a rate statistic, like batting average, this effectively converts it to a rate statistic.  Because rate statistics are untrustworthy over small sample sizes, I only looked at seasons in which the player played in most of the games, so, at least 82 games.

Here are the top 40 such seasons from the last 40 years:

Year Player Lg Tm Age G WAR WAR/150
2012 Mike Trout AL LAA 20 139 10.8 11.7
2015 Bryce Harper NL WSN 22 153 9.9 9.7
1996 Alex Rodriguez AL SEA 20 146 9.4 9.7
1981 Rickey Henderson AL OAK 22 108 6.6 9.2
2013 Mike Trout AL LAA 21 157 8.9 8.5
1980 Rickey Henderson AL OAK 21 158 8.8 8.4
1998 Alex Rodriguez AL SEA 22 161 8.5 7.9
1983 Cal Ripken AL BAL 22 162 8.2 7.6
2014 Mike Trout AL LAA 22 157 7.9 7.5
2013 Yasiel Puig NL LAD 22 104 4.9 7.1
1998 Andruw Jones NL ATL 21 159 7.4 7.0
2015 Francisco Lindor AL CLE 21 99 4.6 7.0
1991 Ken Griffey AL SEA 21 154 7.1 6.9
2010 Jason Heyward NL ATL 20 142 6.4 6.8
2003 Hank Blalock AL TEX 22 143 6.4 6.7
2012 Giancarlo Stanton NL MIA 22 123 5.5 6.7
1982 Tom Brunansky AL MIN 21 127 5.6 6.6
2007 Troy Tulowitzki NL COL 22 155 6.8 6.6
2015 Manny Machado AL BAL 22 162 7.1 6.6
1999 Andruw Jones NL ATL 22 162 7.1 6.6
2005 Grady Sizemore AL CLE 22 158 6.6 6.3
2015 Carlos Correa AL HOU 20 99 4.1 6.2
2015 Mookie Betts AL BOS 22 145 6 6.2
2013 Manny Machado AL BAL 20 156 6.4 6.2
2001 Albert Pujols NL STL 21 161 6.6 6.1
1992 Ken Griffey AL SEA 22 142 5.8 6.1
1979 Paul Molitor AL MIL 22 140 5.6 6.0
1976 Willie Randolph AL NYY 21 125 5 6.0
1981 Tim Raines NL MON 21 88 3.5 6.0
1997 Alex Rodriguez AL SEA 21 141 5.6 6.0
1978 Robin Yount AL MIL 22 127 5 5.9
2008 Evan Longoria AL TBR 22 122 4.8 5.9
1987 Barry Bonds NL PIT 22 150 5.8 5.8
1977 Chet Lemon AL CHW 22 150 5.8 5.8
2002 Austin Kearns NL CIN 22 107 4.1 5.7
1978 Jack Clark NL SFG 22 156 5.9 5.7
2012 Jason Heyward NL ATL 22 158 5.8 5.5
2012 Bryce Harper NL WSN 19 139 5.1 5.5
2012 Brett Lawrie AL TOR 22 125 4.5 5.4
1979 Lou Whitaker AL DET 22 127 4.5 5.3

I then grouped these into 10 groups of 4 years. As it turns out, the period from 2012 to 2015 contains 5 of the top 10, 8 of the top 20, and 14 of the top 40 of these seasons, as shown by these charts. This, when the average group has 1 in the top 10, 2 in the top 20, and 4 in the top 40.

When the top 20 WAR seasons under 23 over last 40 years occurred

When the top 40 WAR seasons under 23 over last 40 years occurred

Of course, sometimes a single player produced more than one of these seasons. But these past four years also dominate in terms of the number of different young players on these lists. Here are all the players having top 40 seasons, listed under their 4-year groups, with their overall placements on the list next to their names. I’ve bolded those with top-20 seasons.

1976 – 1979 1980 – 1983 1984 – 1987
Paul Molitor (27) Rickey Henderson (4, 6) Barry Bonds (33)
Willie Randolph (28) Cal Ripken (8)
Robin Yount (31) Tom Brunansky (17)
Chet Lemon (34) Tim Raines (29)
Jack Clark (36)
Lou Whitaker (40)
1988 – 1991 1992 – 1995 1996 – 1999
Ken Griffey (13) Ken Griffey (26) Alex Rodriguez (3, 7, 30)
Andruw Jones (11, 20)
2000 – 2003 2004 – 2007 2008 – 2011
Hank Blalock (15) Troy Tulowitzki (18) Jason Heyward (14)
Albert Pujols (25) Grady Sizemore (21) Evan Longoria (32)
Austin Kearns (35)
2012 – 2015
Mike Trout (1, 5, 9)
Bryce Harper (2, 38)
Yasiel Puig (10)
Francisco Lindor (12)
Giancarlo Stanton (16)
Manny Machado (19, 24)
Carlos Correa (22)
Mookie Betts (23)
Jason Heyward (37)
Brett Lawrie (39)

Again, these past 4 years dominate.

Now that we know for certain that we’re experiencing a very special surge of young talent, the next thing to ask is, why? Has the surge in the amount of free analysis available (on the web and in ESPN in-depth commentary) over the last decade or so allowed parents to self-coach their youngsters more effectively? And is this finally coming to fruition? Or is this just a fluke? Is it a Cuban invasion? Or something else?

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