Is 2013 Rookie Class' Rapid Rise to Stardom a Sign of Things to Come?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterNovember 11, 2013

It's fitting that Rookie of the Year is the first of Major League Baseball's individual awards, because the youngsters in the game are so impatient these days. In a good way.

More and more, baseball is becoming a young man's sport, which is evident in just how quickly these newbies—many of whom are debuting in their early 20s, like Mike Trout and Manny Machado, or even in their teen years, like Bryce Harper—are making an immediate impact upon arrival in the big leagues.

This kid craze wasn't always the case, of course. It used to be that players would pay their dues by climbing the minor-league ladder one step at a time over two or three (or more) years before getting to The Show. Now? Well, it's not all that unlikely for talent to prove so precocious that major-league debuts occur a year after being drafted. Or less.

Should you need a reminder, perhaps the name Michael Wacha will ring a bell? You know, the St. Louis Cardinals right-hander who was the breakout star of the postseason after making his first-ever start in May of this year—not even 12 months removed from being the 19th overall draft pick the previous June.

Despite winning the NLCS MVP Award, Michael Wacha isn't even in the league's top three rookies this year.
Despite winning the NLCS MVP Award, Michael Wacha isn't even in the league's top three rookies this year.Elsa/Getty Images

What's scary, then, is that a player who was so incredibly good this October, when he went 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, wasn't even up for this year's Rookie of the Year in the National League.

Nor were young up-and-comers and breakout stars-to-be like Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves, Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Christian Yelich of the Miami Marlins, Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies, Matt Adams of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals.

Instead, the honor of cream of the NL crop would be bestowed upon the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig or Wacha's rotation-mate, Shelby Miller.

On the American League side, rookie arms like Sonny Gray and Dan Straily of the Oakland Athletics and Martin Perez of the Texas Rangers were passed over in favor of putting the following names on the ballot: Wil Myers and Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays and Jose Iglesias, who spent the first half of 2013 with the Boston Red Sox before being traded to the Detroit Tigers, both of whom made it to the AL Championship Series.

In fact, of the six final candidates, five of them were key pieces to their club reaching the playoffs. And Fernandez, whose rebuilding Marlins team did not, was pretty much inarguably the best of this year's rookie class, despite the fact that he made it to the majors at the tender age of 20, only 18 months after signing in August 2011, having never even thrown a pitch above A-ball.

Fernandez may be a bit of an extreme example of just how precocious a player can be, but the fact is, folks, this is a trend, not a fad. Not only is baseball getting younger, but players are having more success sooner after arriving, too.

The Rays' Wil Myers may have taken longer than others in his rookie class to debut, but he was still only 22 at the time.
The Rays' Wil Myers may have taken longer than others in his rookie class to debut, but he was still only 22 at the time.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Consider that in 2013, the average ages of hitters and pitchers were 28.5 and 28.4 years old, per Baseball Reference. By comparison, those numbers 10 seasons ago, in 2004, were 29.3 and 29.1, respectively. That may not seem like a huge difference, but with the entire league having cut three-quarters of a year off its average age over the past decade, it really is.

Then there's the immediate-impact aspect. Among the leaders of the 2013 rookie class, for starters, Fernandez and Puig jumped from High-A and Double-A, respectively, to the majors. That's not your everyday, run-of-the-mill promotion path.

Archer and Miller debuted after making all of 37 and 27 starts, respectively, in Triple-A. Iglesias, meanwhile, was pushed to the bigs in May 2011, after only 87 at-bats above Double-A. And Myers got the call after 163 games (basically one full big-league season) at the minors' highest level; although, he would have come up sooner had the Rays not kept him down for two-plus months to stall his service-time clock.

Not all of them were hugely successful out of the gate—Iglesias hit just .135 in his first 74 at-bats across 2011 and 2012—and some of them went back to the minors before returning this past season. But it's safe to say that these six are now here to stay.

To continue with this youth-is-served concept, let's look back at the career WAR leaders, per Baseball Reference, among players who debuted in each of the past five seasons, from 2008 through 2012.

(For these purposes, since we're trying to focus on youth, any international signing with prior professional experience, like Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alexei Ramirez, will not be included. They qualify under MLB's rookie guidelines, though, and certainly have proved to be especially productive players.)

2008 Debuts
Evan Longoria36.34.822.1883
Clayton Kershaw32.21.420.0673
Carlos Gonzalez19.61.022.2262
Denard Span19.54.424.0390
Brett Gardner19.31.324.3110
David Price18.60.923.0193
Max Scherzer18.01.323.2771
Pablo Sandoval17.31.022.0032
Jay Bruce15.80.821.0542
Johnny Cueto15.51.522.0480
Baseball Reference
2009 Debuts
Andrew McCutchen26.92.322.2373
Buster Posey17.53.722.1682
Elvis Andrus17.13.620.2232
Doug Fister14.50.625.1850
Jhoulys Chacin14.02.621.1990
Matt Wieters13.11.423.0082
Mat Latos12.8-0.121.2220
Colby Rasmus12.61.922.2390
Gerardo Parra11.60.222.0070
Jordan Zimmermann11.90.722.3321
Baseball Reference
2010 Debuts
Austin Jackson19.15.223.0630
Jason Heyward18.46.420.2391
Chris Sale16.32.321.1292
Giancarlo Stanton14.82.720.2121
Carlos Santana14.12.024.0640
Craig Kimbrel9.72.421.3443
Freddie Freeman9.31.720.3541
Alexi Ogando9.31.926.2531
Josh Donaldson9.11.524.1430
Stephen Strasburg8.41.521.3231
Baseball Reference
2011 Debuts
Mike Trout20.810.919.3352
Jason Kipnis11.01.124.111
Paul Goldschmidt10.70.423.3251
Brett Lawrie10.23.621.1990
Salvador Perez8.61.521.0921
Brandon Belt8.00.922.3450
Dustin Ackley7.63.723.1110
Kyle Seager7.50.723.2460
Matt Carpenter7.51.125.191
Jarrod Parker6.13.922.3070
Baseball Reference
2012 Debuts
Andrelton Simmons9.72.922.2720
Manny Machado8.11.620.0341
Jose Quintana7.92.423.1040
Matt Harvey6.91.723.1211
Bryce Harper6.83.519.1952
Starling Marte6.61.123.2910
Brian Dozier4.50.724.3580
A.J. Griffin4.32.124.1480
Drew Smyly4.21.622.3040
Jean Segura4.10.222.1291
Baseball Reference

There are a lot of names and numbers in those five tables, but the key takeaway is the figure in the average-age box. That proves that the best of the best to make it to the bigs over that span have done so by their age-22 season—and in many, many cases, before even that.

In other words, all of these youngsters are showing just how fast they can rocket through the minor leagues, as well as just how ready they are to be not only contributing players but impact ones.

There are a number of reasons why baseball is skewing younger in recent years, including: testing and penalties for performance-enhancing drugs and amphetamines, which likely helped prolong and improve the careers of older players in the previous decade; the change in the most recent collective bargaining agreement that moved the draft signing deadline up a month, from August to July; and the willingness of teams to fill lineup and rotation holes by calling up prospects with upside from Double-A, rather than retread veterans from Triple-A.

Which brings us back around to Fernandez, Puig and Miller, Myers, Archer and Iglesias, and this year's rookie class. For their outstanding 2013 seasons, Fernandez and Myers added Rookie of the Year to their already impressive résumés on Monday in decisive fashion.

It's an appropriate and promising honor, given what should be remarkably clear by now: Baseball is getting younger, and some of the sport's very best players are among that crowd.

Indeed, youth is being served.


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