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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 10: Rise of the young player

Milwaukee Brewers v Washington Nationals

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 01: Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals throws the bat after singling in two runs in the eighth inning during a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park on September 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 10: The Rise of the Young Player

Since the advent of free agency in the 1970s, the deal has been pretty clear: baseball teams can control young players for a few years, paying them relatively little. When they reach arbitration they can begin to make a good deal more money, being rewarded for their performance. After three or, sometimes, four years of that, they can become unrestricted free agents at which point they can sell their services to the highest bidder and make a bunch more money.

If you didn’t know anything about baseball but just looked at the matter economically, you might think that such a system would inspire owners to immediately focus on younger players and eschew the older players who achieved free agency, but that didn’t really happen at first. There were a couple of reasons for this.

The most obvious reason was that young players, historically, weren’t as good. They were inexperienced and green and in a lot of cases not fully physically mature and you don’t necessarily want to teach kids on the job.

There was the “shiny new car” factor too. At first teams -- at least some of them -- looked to take advantage of the new free agency system as if it was a gift to their talent acquisition process by buying good players with some gray in their beards. Look at, say, the early 80s Phillies, who picked up a bunch of well-known veterans from other clubs or the Ted Turner Braves or George Steinbrenner Yankees teams which, in the early-to-mid 80s, collected well-known and well-paid veterans like a kid collects baseball cards.

Soon after that baseball owners, rather than try to refine their approach in free agency, tried to short-circuit it all together by colluding against free agents and not signing any of ‘em really. That held for a few years, but ultimately it cost them hundreds of millions of dollars when they got busted for the scheme. After that the money began flowing to free agents again. Flowing even more freely than ever before, actually. Partially because there was simply more money in the game. Partially because there was a generation or two of really excellent free agents out there in the 1990s early 2000s. Partially, because of performance enhancing drugs, players simply showed the effects of age less than they might have naturally, making it make more sense to give tens of millions of dollars to a guy who had played long enough to reach free agency.

In light of this, from the mid-70s until very recently, older players, despite costing more, were more important to teams’ plans. Younger players might be kept in the minors longer to keep them from becoming free agents, older players were playing better, and the free agents that were signed hung around on rosters longer too, likely because teams wanted their big investments to pay off. The net result was an increasingly older aggregate group of players in the game.

As Sam Miller of ESPN reported last year, by 2010 batters 25 and under accounted for about 21 percent of all plate appearances in the bigs. By 2018, however, that number had increased to 27.6 percent of all the plate appearances. That was the highest number since 1978, back when free agency was just getting going. Between 1978 and 2010 the number of young kid plate appearances kept shrinking but in this past decade it went up. More significantly, the share of production attributable to young players is higher than it ever has been.

Why did this all change? Why did the 2010s become the decade in which baseball experienced a youth revolution?

Part of it was that the old calculus of how bad young players are and how good old players are has changed. Whereas before the young kids needed longer time to develop, these days they’re far more fully formed. They play youth baseball at a higher level than their forerunners, they eat better, they work out in better and in more sophisticated ways and they’re analyzed and coached better by major and minor league staff. Younger players are simply ready to contribute at younger ages than they used to be.

Meanwhile, the vast decrease in PEDs in the game, an increased emphasis on aspects of the game which favor youth over age -- specifically defense and, for pitchers, velocity -- and simply better assessment of what makes a player productive or not has diminished the value of older players.

And, of course, then there’s the business side of things. That bit above about how focusing on the cheaper players would be better from a team owner’s perspective? Well, that’s finally started to sink in with team owners. They’ve chosen, when they have the free choice, to go with youth more often, reserving service-time manipulation for the best-of-the-best players when they’re very young and, even with manipulation, are still debuting at very young ages. What they’re no longer really doing is leaving moderately-talented 22 or 23-years-olds down on the farm as long as they used to back in the 70s or 80s.

There are also the structural changes to the business side of things such as capping the salaries of amateur free agents and draft picks, which encourages the use of younger talent and (a) imposing a defacto salary cap in the form of an increasingly strict Competitive Balance Tax; and (b) adding a free agent compensation system with teeth in the form of the qualifying offer, each of which discourages the signing of older players.

The many forces which have served to favor young players -- natural forces, competitive forces, and economic forces --has led to a league in which, increasingly, the biggest stars are all kids, relatively speaking. Indeed, we’re in a golden age of young players in which Fernando Tatís Jr., who turns 21 next week, Ronald Acuña Jr., who just turned 22, and Juan Soto, who just turned 21 this past fall, are faces of the league. Joining them are a host of young stars including Cody Bellinger, Pete Alonso, Yordan Álvarez, Alex Bregman, Shohei Ohtani and many others who are 25 or younger. Players are getting a chance to shine at younger ages now and they are, in fact, shining. It’s been a marketing boon for the league, that’s for sure.

The dark side to this, of course, is that a lot of players -- many well-known and sometimes fan favorites -- are being pushed out of the game earlier and earlier. Likewise, that old deal in which a player gets paid little when he’s young and cashes in when he’s older is breaking down. Teams are now taking advantage of these younger players and getting their best production when they are cheap and which point they either cast them off or, alternatively, sign them to much more team-friendly contract extensions before they are able to obtain negotiating leverage. All of this has put the players and their union in a bind, trying to figure out how to serve both the veterans and the younger guys without pitting them against one another. Ultimately, one assumes that the union is going to have to figure out how to get younger players paid sooner, but it’s unclear how that would work or, for that matter, why Major League Baseball would be amenable to such a thing when the current system serves them so well.

In the meantime, we know that youth is certainly serving Major League Baseball well.


No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

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