A Special Group of Young Talent

Keith Law’s list of the best players in Major League Baseball under the age of 25 is exceptional for several reasons, but perhaps the most notable is that the cream of the crop aren’t even anywhere close to the age limit. In fact, when you look at what Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and Jason Heyward did in 2012 — with Stanton and Heyward being the veterans at age 22 — it becomes clear that we just saw a season for the history books.

Much has been written about Trout and Harper, who both had all-time great seasons for their age bracket, but baseball has seen two phenomenal rookie hitters come up together before. Baseball has not, however, seen four players this young who were this good in the same season in nearly 50 years. Trout, Harper, Stanton, and Heyward combined for a truly remarkable 27.3 WAR in 2012 – for reference, here are the best combined WAR totals for four position players, all 22 or younger, in baseball history:

1964: Dick Allen, Jim Fregosi, Boog Powell, and Bill Freehan: 29.8 WAR
2012: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Jason Hewyard: 27.3 WAR
1972: Cesar Cedeno, Chris Speier, Ted Simmons, Greg Luzinski: 25.0 WAR
1939: Ted Williams, Buddy Lewis, Ken Keltner, Charlie Keller: 25.0 WAR
1970: Johnny Bench, Bernie Carbo, Aurelio Rodriguez, Richie Hebner: 24.8 WAR
1956: Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Bill White: 24.2 WAR

Only the 1964 group bested last year’s quartet, and it’s worth noting that all four players in that season were the maximum age of 22. Given that Trout and Harper weren’t even of legal drinking age at the time, you might even give a slight edge to the modern day group, even though Allen and company posted a slightly higher WAR. And, of course, there’s some pretty illustrious company looking up at last year’s phenoms, including several inner circle Hall of Famers. Any time you end up on the same list as Ted Williams, Johnny Bench, and Hank Aaron, you’re doing alright for yourself.

Of course, there are some less famous names on the list that serve as a reminder that some players just peak early, for various reasons. Carbo, for instance, had one of the great rookie seasons in baseball history in 1970, hitting .310/.454/.551 as a 22-year-old. The next year, he hit .219/.338/.339, and he started 1972 so poorly that he was traded to the Cardinals. He never came close to repeating his early success, and was out of baseball by 1980.

But, for the most part, being great in the big leagues an early age is a sign of rare talent. Even the guys who didn’t end up enshrined in Cooperstown generally had pretty terrific careers, and were among the best players of their time. There aren’t too many guys who fluke their way into terrific seasons when most players their age are still riding the buses in the minor leagues.

Trout, Harper, Stanton, and Heyward are all special talents. In most other years, they’d be easy picks for the best under-25 player in the sport. Right now, though, the sport is experiencing a renaissance of absurdly good players at a young age. When you’re looking through the list, keep in mind that this is not an ordinary class of players. We don’t usually have this kind of greatness on display at an early age. Enjoy it, because you probably won’t ever see four outfielders this good come up together again.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

One Response to “A Special Group of Young Talent”

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  1. chuckb says:

    Great article. It’s worth noting also, though, that in comparing this year’s group to the 1964 group, that Freehan was a catcher — one who was generally regarded as a good defensive catcher. Therefore, it’s likely that his WAR underrepresents his actual value since catcher defense is so difficult to capture. The same is almost certainly true of Bench in 1970, though probably not to the degree that their total WAR would have caught this past year’s group.

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