Major League Baseball launched a new promotional campaign before Spring Training this year. “These are the good old days of baseball,” Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter intoned. In the commercial, which has been aired quite prominently throughout the season, established players like Adam Jones, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Mike Trout, and Felix Hernandez appear. Not a single player from the Chicago Cubs or Houston Astros appears. Joe Maddon makes a brief cameo, capping off the Chicago representation.
There is no Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Noah Syndergaard, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Michael Conforto, or Dallas Keuchel in the television spot. Bryant, Correa, Schwarber, and Syndergaard, and Conforto had not appeared in the big leagues before the season. Conforto and Schwarber were not even drafted until 2014. Soler played just 24 games for the Cubs in 2014. Keuchel was just a solid pitcher on a bad team with a nice beard. Then 21-year-old starter Lance McCullers was also noticeably absent from the #THIS campaign. All of the players I just mentioned have had a massive impact in the 2015 postseason, and none had truly impacted the national baseball consciousness before the season in a meaningful way other than having a lot of potential to be great. Stephen Piscotty can barely crack that list, and he hit three postseason home runs before the St. Louis Cardinals were run from the postseason. Twenty-two-year-old Miguel Sano flashed jaw-dropping power for the surprising Minnesota Twins. Even the Kansas City Royals, who are seemingly slightly forgotten this postseason, are led by two players, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, who debuted at 21.
The rookie class in the 2015 playoffs has already shattered the all-time record for rookie home runs in a single postseason. The previous record of nine was set in 28 games in 2007. It took only 16 games for that number to go down this year. Correa became the first 21-year-old to bat third in a postseason game since Mickey Mantle in 1953. All he’s done in his first postseason is hit two home runs and drive in four runs. Chicago Cubs rookies have hit six of the team’s 12 home runs so far in the postseason. The Texas Rangers have a 21-year-old second baseman who has hit a home run. Rougned Odor exceeded the rookie limits last year as a 20-year-old. The longest-tenured member of the Cubs is 25-year-old Starlin Castro who has already been in the big leagues for six years. Young players have not batted an eye in the postseason so far, and are turning the notion that playoff experience is a requirement for postseason success on its head. What’s more, this talented crop of under-25’s is playing the game with a special energy and exuberance that is fun to watch.
The game of baseball is in the midst of a youth revolution. Teams are drafting players and getting them to the Major Leagues faster than ever. Manny Machado just turned 23, and Bryce Harper is still only 22. Both debuted under the age of 20. Francisco Lindor may actually have been better than Correa. Every single team in the league (even the New York Yankees, shocker, I know!), has young players under the age of 25 that they drafted and moved through the farm system in an accelerated fashion. Why are players ready for the big leagues so quickly in this day and age?
Two words — travel baseball.
You can bemoan the specialization of youth athletes all you want, but playing only one sport, year-round from a young age does prepare players to excel as professional athletes at an age that was unheard of in the past. The generation of players taking the league by storm right now is the first generation to grow with the mentality that you focus on one sport and play it really, really well. The kids on elite tournament teams are shuttled around the country taking on the very best players in their age groups. Gone are the days where you simply played against the best players in your area in the local All-Star tournament, or were limited to playing only alongside mediocre high school teammates all spring. Of course, elite travel teams have been around for more than the past two decades, but the requirement to join one to set yourself up for future success was never there.
Baseball, and other sports, have benefitted from the increased focus on youth sports specialization, and there has never been a time to be more excited about the future faces of the game. In less than a single season, the game has added at least ten new faces that deserve to be featured prominently alongside whatever hashtag the league cooks up to promote the 2016 season, and most of them will still be under the age of 25. By the end of 2016, there could very well be ten more ready to join the ranks.
Baseball’s good old days truly are just getting started.