Sunday, July 14, 2013

Manny Machado, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper: Domination or Degradation?

Young Ones, They Are
Bryce Harper turns 21 in another three months, at which point he'll probably have around 50 career home runs in his first 1,000 major league ABs. At an age where most of his contemporaries are in college or the low minors, he's a two-time All-Star. Assuming health, ordinary development and a future free of PED convictions, he projects out to something in excess of 15 more years in the bigs, and it starts to get hard to see how he doesn't wind up with over 500 home runs.  None of that should come as any kind of surprise, or have any kind of outlandishness to the statement. And if you want to go to 20 years and 600 dingers, or even more extraordinary totals, I won't hold it against you.

Mike Trout turns 22 in less than a month. He also has 50 career home runs, and has hit and ran better than Harper to date. While many question whether or not he's really a 30HR+ per season guy, that's what he did last year, and that's what he's on pace to do this year. Give him another 15 years, and we're looking at power and speed numbers that could rival Barry Bonds, assuming that anyone will still be talking about, or recognize the accomplishments of, the disgraced steroid user.

Final one: Manny Machdo turned 21 last week. He's only got 14 homers in his first 600 MLB ABs, but he might already be the best defensive third baseman in the majors, and he's hitting .314 this year while on pace for over 70 doubles, which would only break a record (67) that has stood for 71 years, and hasn't been in serious peril for, well, ever. As he gets older, those doubles should start ending up in the seats. And since he's really got a shortstop's range, arm and glove, he might even be able to play for longer still, since he'll have plenty of places to go on the diamond if he needs to move.

Oh, OK, one more... Yasiel Puig is 22 and is also on pace for a 30+ HR season, though his late entrance into 2013 keeps that from being a given. Considering the home park where he works, his power might be the most striking of all four of these guys... so while it's foolish to judge based on this small of a sample size, well, 150 ABs isn't chump change anymore. He also hasn't hit a home run since July 2, and while he's lost 51 points off his batting average this month, he's still hitting .392. That's more than a little dominating.

Guys who are this young should not be able to do this. And it's been a very long time -- decades, really, and history will not judge Alex Rodriguez's early career kindly -- since we've had so many young phenoms with not only press clippings, but tangible results and solid power projections.

Now, I don't mean to demean the talent or accomplishments of any of these guys. They look special and they play special. But so many of them, all at once, also speak to a less happy idea: that the talent level and overall quality of play in MLB is on the wane.

Looking back at the history of the game, there are more outliers back in the day. Bob Feller pitched for the Indians when he was 17. There were a bunch of other 17 year olds playing with the lack of depth in MLB during World War II. Jimmie Foxx wasn't 18 yet before taking the field for the A's in 1925. Joe Nuxhall holds the record for being a 15-year-old in his debut, but that was pretty much a publicity stunt, and he didn't make it back to the majors until he was 23.

And there's a reason for that, in that the league's talent base wasn't as deep then (especially with the lack of talent from America's black population). Which, well, is what's true today as well. African-American talent has more or less deserted baseball for football and basketball, and the Latin American and Asian factories haven't really been able to match the drop off. We got fooled by this from the steroid era, but now that testing seems to be closer to the cheaters, maybe we're getting the real story now.

There will be, of course, outliers. Aroldis Chapman nearly touched 105 on the gun the other day against the Braves. Puig, Harper, Trout and Machado would be standout talents at any age. Clayton Kershaw could wind up as the best lefty starter for the Dodgers ever -- yes, better than Koufax and Valenzuela. Miguel Cabrera is ridiculous. A sport in decline will have more record breakers, not less, because that top-tier talent will be playing against a lower level of opponent, rather than getting neutralized by equivalent talents.

So if this is a trend, rather than an aberration, keep an eye out for the MLB debuts of top and overly young prospects like Byron Buxton (19 year old MIN OF), Xander Bogaretes (20 year old BOS SS/3B), Miguel Sano (20 year old MIN 3B), Taijuan Walker (20 year old SEA SP) and Francisco Lindor (19 year old CLE SS).

And if more of these guys come up to the majors and dominate right away, or we start to see pitchers hitting better for the first time in a century, which would be another sign of middling talent in the middles... well, it's not all good news for the league.

Though they will, of course, sell you an entirely different story...

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