Future is now: Phenoms soaring at highest level
Coaching, player development helping fuel Majors' rapid influx of young talent
Mike Trout. Bryce Harper. Stephen Strasburg. Aroldis Chapman. Yu Darvish. Patrick Corbin. Manny Machado. Chris Davis. Yasiel Puig. Matt Harvey.
Yeah, you could say Major League Baseball has recently had its fair share of up-and-coming stars -- and then some.
It's a phenomenon that just may be once-in-a-lifetime in its timing. The juxtaposition of so many natural athletes playing the same game at the same time isn't just pure luck, though. It owes to good coaching, good investments by clubs in player development, and plain-old dedication: more players refining their talent at younger ages and thus speeding their own path to the Majors.
And for us, the fans, it can mean only one thing: The national pastime is in a prime period to showcase its true colors -- and for years to come. Baseball may be a sport hundreds of years old, but it's one currently being dominated by stellar young figures who will serve as the game's future.
"It's a new wave," explained Torii Hunter, "and some of these guys are going to be around a long time. What you're witnessing right now -- their first All-Star Games, second All-Star Games ... they're going to be in here forever. So when you see these guys, you're looking at greatness."
Hard to argue against that logic, especially when you consider that only Miguel Cabrera (30) and Robinson Cano (30) are the only players age 30 or older among the Top 10 in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) this season. It's become a young man's game.
"It's been outstanding," said 15-year big leaguer Tony Clark, who earlier this week was named Deputy Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "For as much as I was fortunate enough to play, being a fan of the game and being able to watch all these young players come into the game collectively and excel the way they have, just doesn't happen very often.
"Guys usually go through growing pains as they get settled and acclimated, but it's a testament to their talent and their ability to adjust and apply what they're learning on the fly that they've had the amount of success they're having."
Veteran Rangers closer Joe Nathan also was quick to praise his younger peers.
"They let you know that this game is going to be special to watch ... a lot of superstars in the game that are going to be around for a long time. We expect more and more coming into this game," Nathan said.
The Pirates' Jeff Locke agreed.
"I think someone brought to my attention today that it's probably the most 25-and-under people we've had at an All-Star Game before. Just to look around the room [at the All-Star Game] and see some of the people, it's very special," said Locke, 25.
And indeed, this year's All-Star rosters boasted a grand total of 30 first-time All-Stars.
So is there something in the Minor League waters that's making players mature and develop so quickly, with such a large degree of early success?
"When you combine outstanding coaching with very talented, gifted players, you put yourself in position to have the results that you've had here," Clark said. "So it's very possible that has happened. You've also got a lot of young players these days devoting themselves to baseball and playing more often than they have in the past, and that's also going to take the very talented and gifted players and put them in position to hone their skills earlier, so that by the time they do get to this point -- even at 20, 21 years old -- they can enjoy some level of success.
"I think we're fortunate. It just doesn't happen very often, and I'm not so sure when it may happen again. That's why having the influx of young talent come in and all have the level of success they've had is different. Oftentimes guys will come up, or a group of guys will come up, and do well and maybe battle a little bit. But to have this many guys at this many different positions and have success on the field and on the mound really is unprecedented in a lot of ways."
"I don't know if it's an aberration, what's going on right now, but there definitely is a youth movement of some up-and-coming players that are going to be very exciting and good for baseball," said veteran pitcher Cliff Lee.
Some, like White Sox left-hander Chris Sale, chalk it up to a combination of nurture and nature.
"I think it's just a testament to their upbringing, the people that they are, how hard they work -- and the farm systems, too. They're getting coached down there before they come up to the Major Leagues and you've got to give credit where credit's due," Sale said.
Some, like Paul Goldschmidt, will tell you it's owed to good coaching.
"I think probably, if you're going to put your finger on it, the coaching that you get at the Minor League levels is pretty good. All the Major League orgs are putting a lot of emphasis on developing their Minor Leaguers. And when you're getting great coaching at an early age in the Minor Leagues, it helps you get better," Goldschmidt explained.
Others have no idea.
"Maybe guys are playing earlier and playing year-round and they're better now younger than they used to be," Twins closer Glen Perkins said. "I don't know. But it's a good thing."
"They just know how to play the game. They're catching on fast. They're learning from their mistakes real early. Maybe we don't know that much about them yet, but they're playing good baseball, regardless. And if you go out and play the best way you know how and have success, it doesn't matter if you're young, old, whatever. As long as you're out there making your team better, that's what it's all about," said the Reds' Brandon Phillips.
That's the viewpoint shared by many at the management level of the game, like Cardinals GM John Mozeliak.
"I think part of it is the investment you make in a Draft. You're seeing a new group of young players. Is it [a trend]? I don't know. I haven't studied it well enough to answer that. But I do think it's exciting for the game because it brings some new energy that it needs," Mozeliak said.
But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the reasoning is behind the influx of young stars hitting their stride at once -- or even if there is any reasoning at all.
"It's a new era of baseball," Hunter concluded. "So enjoy it."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.