Last Thursday, 20-year-old Padres shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. led off the first inning in Petco Park by taking Rockies starter Jon Gray deep. Tatís, who had homered on back-to-back-to-back days, singled, reached on an error, and scored again later in the game as the Padres beat the Rockies 9-3. He now leads all rookies in Baseball-Reference WAR despite having played only 84 games, and he’s slashing .317/.379/.590.
Shortly before Tatís circled the bases in San Diego, 21-year-old Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. launched an oppo blast of his own in Miami, crushing a 100 mph pitch from Marlins reliever Tayron Guerrero. Acuña, who had singled earlier in the game, had homered in each of his previous two games and would clear the fences twice the next night. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year, who leads the majors with 10 homers in August, has posted a .298/.378/.544 line this year.
Just before the first of Acuña’s two big flies last Friday, 20-year-old Nationals left fielder Juan Soto drove a dinger off the Mets’ Marcus Stroman. Soto doubled, singled, and stole a base later in that game, and then he homered twice the next day. Soto, who finished second to Acuña in last year’s NL Rookie of the Year race, has hit .290/.404/.545 in his sophomore season.
Yes, the ball is flying farther than ever, and yes, leaguewide scoring has reached its highest level since 2006, the first year covered by MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. But even after adjusting for this season’s elevated offensive baseline, Tatís, Acuña, and Soto are supplying unprecedented production for players so young. Not since 1965, when Baltimore’s Curt Blefary and Boston’s Tony Conigliaro posted wRC+ marks of 145 and 131, respectively, have even two hitters 21 or younger qualified for the batting title in the same season while hitting at least 30 percent better than league average. Tatís (149), Acuña (135), and Soto (142) are on track to be the first trio of qualifying 21-or-under hitters to clear that mark in one year. And their precocious performance is just the most salient sign of a season of historic success by young hitters.
Hitters 21 and under—led by Tatís, Acuña, and Soto, and backed up by the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette and hot-hitting Home Run Derby dominator Vladimir Guerrero Jr.—have collectively recorded a 129 wRC+, which would be the highest full-season mark ever managed by hitters that young. The tallies by hitters 22 and under (117), 23 and under (108), and 24 and under (101) are also at all-time highs. Although some seasons have featured more playing time for hitters in their teens or early 20s, batters that age have never been this good as a group.
Propelled partly by the spectacular play of the season’s youngest stars, almost every group of 20-something hitters has outpaced its counterparts from past seasons. This season has also seen what would be the best offensive showings by hitters 26 and younger, 27 and younger, 28 and younger, and 29 and younger. And only in 1928, when Lou Gehrig led a list of 11 qualifying future Hall of Famer hitters, did 25-and-under players hit better relative to the league than they have thus far in 2019. And if recent Reds call-up Aristides Aquino keeps raking, 2019 might take that top spot, too. (Aquino, 25, who hit nine homers in his first 13 career starts, overhauled his swing this spring and has stayed slugging ever since.)
Thanks largely to all of that offense, hitters under 30 have accounted for 77.2 percent of the leaguewide WAR produced by position players this year. That would be a new high, narrowly topping last season’s record-setting 76.4 percent. As has been apparent for a few years now, MLB is enjoying an extraordinary youth movement, especially on the offensive side. Its latest faces are the freshest yet.
What we’ve witnessed lately is a sea change in how hitters age. The graph below, provided by sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, shows hitter aging curves (in runs produced per 500 plate appearances) for three 13-year periods: 1980-1992, 1993-2005, and 2006-18. We could classify those samples as before, during, and after the so-called steroid era, although steroid usage in baseball began before 1993 and continues today. The graph also includes a blue line that covers only the most recent seven full seasons (2012-18).
The 1993-2005 period was a tough time for young hitters and a heyday for old hitters who aged in abnormally graceful fashion, presumably because chemical helpers propped up their performance. The current era—especially the most recent subset of seasons—evinces the opposite pattern: Even though teams are devoting more resources than ever to nutrition and training, over-30 hitters are tailing off faster than they did during the 1980s and early 1990s, when many players were still skeptical about lifting weights and postgame spreads still looked like a college kid’s drunk dining. Young hitters, however, are having a field day. Although the typical player’s peak age hasn’t moved by much relative to the pre-steroid era, hitters are arriving much closer to their prime performance level than they used to.
It’s possible that this is all cyclical and the product of a wave of young talent that just happened to crest at one time. But this may become the new normal, thanks to improved player evaluation and optimized player development in both the amateur and professional spheres.
Teams are more effective than they used to be at picking young players to sign and draft, and an influx of new technology, information, and data-driven, individualized coaching has made players better at valuing and enhancing their skills. Teams have also gotten better at promoting players only when they’re prepared to perform in the Show (assuming service-time considerations don’t delay their arrival regardless). That’s in part attributable to tools like TrackMan at minor league levels that have made gauging major league readiness a less subjective exercise. And for now, baseball’s free agency–centric CBA makes it more rewarding for teams to double down on development and build around the cost-controlled stars who keep coming in droves.
When I interviewed Rangers veteran Hunter Pence, 36, last month about his late-career swing reinvention and ensuing All-Star season, he claimed that he could have been even better as a young player had he applied the lessons he learned recently at the start of his career. “I believe if I would’ve known this when I was younger, it would’ve been really, really good for me,” he said. “Knowing my swing is such a powerful tool.” Pence continued, “For most of my career I would say that I was literally just, ‘I’m gonna see the ball and hit it.’ It was all feel, and I didn’t really know my swing. I just was competing with athleticism.”
Youthful vitality is useful, but combining raw athleticism with a more refined approach to practice and preparation is an even more potent path to early excellence. “There’s not even a question that there’s way better instruction and way better information out there [today],” Pence said, adding, “if you really want to learn, you can search and find whatever it is you need from the greatest minds in baseball.” Pence, whose 127 wRC+ is his highest since 2013, noted that when players his age were coming up—before YouTube, iPads, swing sensors, and ball trackers—“We were on our own, we just had to figure everything out. It’s really incredible, all the training and all of that. The young kids are coming up way more prepared and really, really good at the game of baseball.”
Pence is one of a growing group of players who’ve revitalized their careers by making mechanical or philosophical adjustments during what otherwise would have been their decline years. Granted, smart players have always compensated for declining physical capabilities by becoming more adept at whatever aspects of the job they could control despite slower reflexes and reduced durability. Often, though, the knowledge needed to make those changes took years, if not decades, to acquire. Today’s up-and-coming players are learning those lessons early in their careers, without having to fail first. As a result, they’re making the majors more fully formed or, like Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger, leveling up earlier than they might have in a less open-minded era.
At 20 or 21, Tatís, Acuña, and Soto encompass every skill a player can possess. Tatís, the youngest of the three, may be baseball’s most compelling player. He strikes out a lot, has a habit of throwing balls away, and has probably been a bit lucky, but it’s easy to ignore his few flaws in light of his age and his superlative strengths. He hits skyscraping, outfielder-freezing home runs, makes physics-defying grabs both vertically and laterally, throws harder than any other shortstop, runs faster than all but the fleetest of foot, and converts his speed, daring, and agility into productive, controlled chaos on the basepaths. Off the field, he wears suits with no shirts, and why would he wear shirts? Collect the signature skills of, say, Billy Hamilton, Andrelton Simmons, and J.D. Martinez, take a tad off the top of each of them, and roll them into one player, and presto, you’ve got Tatís.
That cocktail of talent makes Tatís the one player who may be more visually arresting than Acuña, who robbed a homer and hit one himself on Thursday night. Like Tatís, Acuña possesses a rare blend of power and speed: With 35 dingers and 28 steals, he’s two swipes from becoming the youngest player since Mike Trout to join the 30-30 club, and he may have 40-40 in his future. At the plate, he’s almost perfectly replicated the rate stats that helped him beat out Soto for ROY last season, and he’s been even better in the field and on the bases than he was last year.
Only compared to Tatís and Acuña could Soto seem underwhelming. Soto, too, is almost matching his mind-blowing rookie-season stats; no sophomore slumps here. This week, he passed Ted Williams—Ted Fucking Williams—for the second most batting runs through age 20, which leaves only fellow legend Mel Ott (who made many more plate appearances) ahead of him. As an average-ish left fielder and a middling runner (albeit one with 11 steals this season against only one time caught stealing), Soto doesn’t inflame the imagination the way the other two all-around human highlight factories do, but thanks to his preternatural plate discipline, his bat may be the best of the three. Only three qualified hitters boast better ratios of zone swing rate to chase rate this season, reflecting Soto’s precise sense of the strike zone. As an NL East outfielder, Soto may be destined to stay where he started: in Acuña’s shadow. But playing the Tim Raines to Acuña’s Rickey Henderson wouldn’t prevent Soto from attaining immortality, too; Rock’s plaque hangs in the same room as Rickey’s.
Speaking of Cooperstown: Although the prospect of induction seems too distant to contemplate for players who just exploded onto the scene, it’s not too soon to start sizing up the odds of elites like Tatís, Acuña, and Soto. All three players surpassed 4 career WAR by the end of their age-20 seasons, something only 27 now-retired position players have accomplished. Of those 27, 13 are in the Hall of Fame, one (Adrián Beltré) is a cinch for election, and one more (Alex Rodriguez) would be a first-ballot lock if not for his history of steroid use. With or without A-Rod, then, more than half of the retired hitters who began their careers the way these three have went on to have Hall of Fame careers. Any of the three could decline early like Vada Pinson or suffer a serious injury like Conigliaro, but until then, there are rational reasons to dream.
Between 1871 and 2009, a span of 139 seasons, only those 27 past standouts accrued 4 or more WAR through age 20. Counting Tatís, Acuña, and Soto, eight players have joined them in the past 10 seasons alone. It’s not a coincidence that the ranks of young studs are swelling. We could keep naming high-profile, impossibly polished players who haven’t yet turned 25 (and in some cases haven’t come close): Carlos Correa; Shohei Ohtani; Rafael Devers; Pete Alonso; Yordan Álvarez; Gleyber Torres; Ozzie Albies; Keston Hiura; Yoán Moncada; Bryan Reynolds. This is the era of breakout batters, but the extreme turnover at the top of the leaderboards stems mostly from the fact that stars suddenly seem like a renewable resource. That’s a boon to baseball.
In an era when fans follow prospects more closely than ever, future heroics are almost as prized as present stardom. Tatís, Acuña, Soto, and other ultra-talented 20-somethings deliver the best of both worlds. Not only are they among baseball’s best players now, but there’s reason to expect them to remain at the top for the next decade or longer, which means we can watch and cherish them without wondering when the ride will end. Every athlete’s career comes with a built-in countdown clock, but for today’s best batters, the ticking has never been harder to hear.
An earlier version of this piece referred to Guerrero as the Home Run Derby champion.