The notion of baseball’s best days being behind it continues to gain traction. Pundits seem to think that, although ballpark attendances and local television deals are raising revenue through the roof (baseball’s revenue has grown 14 straight years—reaching $10 billion in 2016), it’s a novelty amongst a majority of Americans.
There’s a paradox here that I seem to be missing. The scrutiny of this popularity is a puzzling problem for those who ardently defend the game. While there is some truth to the fading fan support idea, especially stacked against the continually growing NBA and NFL, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The bigger issue baseball faces, although not the only one, is a lack of individual star power that appeals to the younger generations. The average age of a baseball television viewer is hovering around 53 years old. The data is tougher to trust as more young viewers cut the cable cord daily, but the facts can’t be denied. There’s a popularity problem for kids, and it’s something that the rookie class of 2017 can fix.
Each year there is a popular narrative that takes place. Whether it’s a team nobody saw coming, a player rebounding from the depths of career despair, or some over-arching statistical anomaly we, as writers, always have something fresh to focus on when the year has taken shape.
This year in baseball is no different. Sure, one could write on the historic pace of the Dodgers and Astros—they are both on pace to be historically better than their competition if they maintain their current pace. Something could also be written on the surprise in the NL West with two contenders, the Diamondbacks and the Rockies, emerging from their perennial cellar to hold a firm grip on the Wild Card spots.
I want to focus on something bigger than that. I want to focus on the boom in young talent we are seeing in 2017.
We all know about Mike Trout (although we still undervalue his greatness—thanks, Angels) and Bryce Harper. The popularity of pitchers differs due to their schedules. It’s tough to keep someone into a sport daily when their favorite guy only plays once every five days. We know all about the great pitchers too: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber.
We get it, there’s an abundance of talent. But what is worth noting is that thanks to this rookie class we have more talent than ever, and it’s spread out to markets that need them. What’s great is that it’s not just the obvious names of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger. Plenty of column inches have been spent on those guys, and rightfully so. Those two are on their own historic pace on opposite coasts. I want to focus on the depth of the class a whole because it is alarming how much quality talent we have coming into the big leagues right now.
It’s only August 4 and we already have four rookies with over 20 home runs, and two more are approaching that number. It’s not unreasonable for this group to have eight rookies with 20 homers, two of which could easily have 40 plus, and two others reach 30. This is unparalleled in the past five to six years. 2016 saw six players reach the 20 home run mark, and that began the trend, but this class has some high-end long ball talent – one of which will challenge Mark McGwire’s rookie record. It’s not entirely fair to compare across eras, though. This season every team, other than Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, are averaging a home run per game. That has led to a league average (1.26) by far the most we’ve seen in MLB history. Hitters are focusing more and more on driving the ball in the air, and they are obsessed with swing stats such as exit velocity and launch angle. Home runs get contracts, and we all know the phrase about fans digging the long ball. Here’s a look at which rookies hitters are thriving the most and backing up my claims.
*Stats accurate at time of writing
A drop-off since the All-Star break has brought his numbers back down to earth (.167 average with 4HR and 9RBIs since the July 14th). Although his average has dipped below .300, he is still leading the league in fWAR, and he is still on pace to break McGwire’s rookie home run record of 49. Judge, 25, is a massive athlete and a face of the game already. If it weren’t for Jose Altuve in Houston, the MVP would be a lock.
Through 87 games Bellinger is already at his career high home run mark of 30, having hit 30 homers in A+ ball in 2015. 22-year old Bellinger, a late April call-up, arrived with little MLB wide fanfare outside of the west coast. His talent was known, but this production is beyond the expected. His 30 home runs are tied for 4th in the league, and he is carrying the Dodgers to a .700 win percentage. A case can even be made for him to be the NL MVP, although Bryce Harper has something to say about it.
A bright light in an ugly season on the South Side. The White Sox had expectations for 2017, but those went up in flames as the veterans failed to produce. So, after a fire sale of trades – including a stretch of 18 days that included five deals and seven goodbyes – the Sox need a new direction and a new face. Sure, Jose Abreu is still there, and Yoan Moncada gets the top prospect attention, but it’s been the low key 3rd baseman who has carried their power this year. Davidson, 26, doesn’t play great defense (-7.1 Defensive rating), he hasn’t produced a great average (.232) and strikes out plenty (38% K%), but in a year where hope is needed, his home runs and clutch hitting of late have given the Sox another interesting piece to work with.
Renfroe, 25, has been a breath of fresh air in a season with little promise for San Diego. Renfroe’s average isn’t great (.233), but his .274 BABIP and low strikeout totals suggest he’s been more than a little unfortunate. Those numbers will straighten out. He has a shot at reaching 30 home runs and he will be a future pillar of what San Diego attempts to build.
Although Zimmer, 24, isn’t on top of the rookie leaderboards in home runs, his value is as impactful in 67 games as any other rookie not named Bellinger or Judge. Zimmer carries a 2.1 WAR, good for 3rd in the class, and much of it comes from his all-around game. As MLB.com columnist Mike Petriello noted in his column earlier this week on Zimmer, he is doing it in a variety of ways. He leads the rookie class with 13 stolen bases, has a respectable eight home runs and 37 RBIs, and he is filling a huge need for a playoff contender in center field. His numerous diving grabs have been all over the highlight reels, and he is a StatCast hero with his 100+ MPH throws from center field for multiple outfield assists.
Another player called-up later than most in this group, DeJong has played only 55 games, but he has a 1.2 WAR already and has already made Cardinals fans move on from 2016 All-Star Aledmys Diaz. DeJong, 24, is a plus fielder at short with a fantastic throwing arm and has already accounted for 14 home runs. He needs to take more walks and be smarter on the base paths, but Cardinals fans have to love having another outstanding young shortstop.
Talk about an under the radar season. Mancini, 25, isn’t mentioned often when this class is being discussed, but he needs to be. His numbers are nothing to be frowned at as Mancini is slashing .302/.352/.524 with 17 home runs and 57 RBIs. He has been just what the Orioles needed to hold down the middle of the lineup that was without Chris Davis for a long stretch. Mancini has every chance to get to 30 home runs, and probably will.
Another first base slugger who has a shot at 30 home runs. Bell, 24, is sitting at 19 home runs on the year, and although his average isn’t pretty (.247), he’s another victim of some bad luck in the BABIP department (.268). He doesn’t walk enough, but he also doesn’t strike out much. He puts the ball in play from both side of the plate as a valuable switch-hitter, and he has shown he has the clutch gene for the Pirates. Potential franchise building block.
Benintendi, 23, came into the year as the overwhelming favorite for AL Rookie of the Year after his splash performance late in 2016 – a performance that included an ALDS home run off Trevor Bauer in Game 1. Things haven’t gone smoothly for him as he is struggling to hit left-handed pitching, hitting just .224 with no home runs and only 5 RBIs. He’s done almost all of his damage against righties (12 home runs, 49 RBIs) and John Farrell has gone to platooning him when the Red Sox face a lefty. He still has plenty of value as a building piece for the Sox but he needs to refine his approach against southpaws to become the full-blown star many think he will be.
Another young player brought up out of necessity. Bonifacio, the younger brother of Emilio, has found his rhythm is a Kansas City outfield that has needed production due to the struggles of Alex Gordon. Bonifacio, 24, has a respectable 14 home runs for a rookie, and a real chance to reach 20 by season’s end. He gets on base, drives the ball, and plays respectable enough defense – just what the Royals needed.
A May call-up meant fewer games for Happ, 22, but he has maximized his time with the Cubs. He has provided plenty of position flexibility having played every outfield spot and second base for the Cubs this year. What has surprised some is the power – 14 home runs in 65 games. The most Happ hit in a minor league season was 15 total in 2016 between A+ and AA. He is driving the ball well, brings a presence to the bottom half of the order, and could be the perfect replacement for Ben Zobrist once his average improves. A terrific find for the Cubs.
Here’s another example of necessity over desire. Goodwin, 26, has filled in well in a depleted outfield in DC. Between Michael Taylor, Jayson Werth, and Adam Eaton the Nationals outfield has been at a disadvantage all season. Goodwin has stepped in and they haven’t missed a beat. He’s provided unexpected power (already 11 home runs in only 237 PA’s) and has played solid defense in all three outfield positions. He has done enough to warrant an everyday job in 2018, even when Eaton/Werth/Taylor return.
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