A time to be young

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I didn’t realize it at the time, but the late 1970s was an amazing time for young baseball players. I’m arbitrarily choosing 23-and-younger as “young” — but with that age in mind, the late 1970s gave us Hall of Famers Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Paul Molitor, Gary Carter, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith and some pretty awesome players like Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph and the rather outspoken Jack Clark.

All of those players, as young men, posted good seasons in the late 1970s. In 1978 alone, 14 young players posted a 3.0 WAR or better. That remains the record for a single season. You just don’t have seasons when THAT MANY young players are playing that well.

This year, though, there are 13 or 14 young players who COULD, with a nice finish, post a 3.0 WAR. It probably won’t be quite that many in the end — but it certainly could be 10. There are already seven players with a better than 3.0 WAR.

Anyway, we should celebrate the time. Here’s a quick look at the top 12 young players in WAR:

1. Obviously Mike Trout (6.6 WAR).

2. Obviously, Manny Machado (5.3 WAR), who finally stopped hitting doubles like he was Tris Speaker but is still having a fantastic year.

3. Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons (4.6 WAR) is hitting just .239 with a 74 OPS+ — but his defensive statistics at shortstop are not just good but tilt-the-pinball-machine good. Right now, the Dewan Plus/Minus has him at PLUS-FORTY, which is, well, more or less unprecedented. That means — and remember, there is still six-plus weeks left in the season — the stat estimates he has made FORTY MORE PLAYS than the average shortstop can make. That’s like two per week. According to Baseball Reference’s “WAR — Fielding Runs” he has saved 34 runs — already the second-highest total in the archives.* Fangraphs has a slightly more moderate reading of his defense, but still has him as the best defensive player in the National League.

*In 1975, Baltimore’s Mark Belanger saved 35 runs.

4. Milwaukee’s 22-year-old shortstop Jean Segura (4.3 WAR) leads the National League in hits, has stolen 35 bases, hit 12 home runs and seems to be playing very good defense. He came over from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade — and I’m thinking that will be one they regret in Anaheim for a long time.

5. We’re 62 games into this now, and Yasiel Puig (3.9 WAR) is still hitting .373 and he’s still slugging .589 and the Dodgers are an absolutely obscene 44-18 with him in the lineup (Making them 25-32 when he’s not in the lineup). I realize there’s no way Puig can keep this up, and I also realize that he IS keeping it up.

By the way: It is SO much fun to hear Vin Scully talk about Yasiel Puig. It’s worth a nightly check-in.

6. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman (3.8) is probably more famous at this point for hugging people, but he’s getting on base, hitting with at least some power and seems to be a at the center of the Atlanta mojo.

7. Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado (3.5) is not hitting much at all. So he’s posting most of his value with apparently spectacular defense. His Dewan Plus/Minus is a spectacular plus-30. Here is an amazing play. Here is another. This might be his best one. Here is a noble effort.

8. Jason Heyward (2.5 WAR) has already been up and down and over and out — it’s his fourth full-season in the big leagues. But he’s still just 23 and he still a solid contributor. Don’t know if he will ever become the big star that seemed certain after his 20-year-old season. You know who he kind of reminds me of? Von Hayes. Tall left-handed bat with some power, some speed, loads of talent, lots of charisma — Hayes was famously traded to Philadelphia for five players in the 1980s. He did have a handful of really good years for the Phillies.

9. I kept waiting and believing that Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer (2.3 WAR) would figure things out after a dreadful sophomore season and an even worse start in 2013. On June 5 — my 15th wedding anniversary, thanks for asking — the Royals did something startlingly smart — startling for those of us who have followed them closely for the last 15 or 20 years.They moved Hosmer into the No. 2 spot in the lineup. There are many studies that show lineup strategies make very little difference when it comes to scoring runs, but they do figure in a player’s head. By putting Hosmer in the No. 2 spot (at least this is my theory) they were telling him: Relax. You don’t have to hit home runs. You don’t have to crush the ball and drive in a million runs. Just put a good swing on the ball, keep things going.

For the next two and a half weeks, Hosmer hit .328/.387/.537. He just LOOKED different. The Royals moved him back to the No. 3 spot for a little bit, he’s hitting second again, but his swing has basically clicked back into place. He’s hitting .292/.336/.432, which isn’t All-Star stuff, but he’s slugging about .500 since the switch to the No. 2 slot, and the numbers climb, and he’s a big reason the Royals are playing their best baseball in decades.

10. Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo (2.2 WAR) just turned 24. He’s hitting just .234, but he’s drawing more walks, he will probably hit 25 homers, and he is EXACTLY the sort of guy (powerful lefty-handed hitter with developing plate discipline) who can develop into a big star more or less overnight. That’s what happened to David Ortiz and Chris Davis among others.

11. I love watching Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez (2.2 WAR) play. His offense has dwindled which is not unexpected — he’s never shown any plate discipline and the offense he flashed his first couple of years was a surprise. But he should improve as a hitter. And defensively — I think he’s the best defensive catcher in the American League.

12. Bryce Harper (2.0) was having the sort of follow-up season everyone expected when he ran into the wall and missed a month. He has looked pretty lost ever since, hitting .235/.331/.417 since his return at the beginning of July. Well, more or less everything has gone wrong in Washington. He’s too talented and too determined to be down for long.

Two other young players worth mentioning are Jose Iglesias, who figures to be Detroit’s shortstop for a good while now, and Tampa Bay’s Will Myers.

Ah, Myers. What is that Fitzgerald quote? “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

1. I think the Royals made a bad trade when they dealt Wil Myers to the Rays. He’s already hitting for average and power, he’s just 22, I think he will be one of the game’s really good hitters for the next decade. I think the Royals will regret the trade many times.

2. I think the Royals made the trade because they felt it was time to start winning — and it is working. Maybe the trade is a big reason. Maybe it isn’t. But, again, it is working. They have starting winning. Their surge has energized a great baseball town that was sunk by 20-plus years of incompetence and awfulness. The main pitcher in the deal, James Shields, has pitched well enough, and the Royals lead the American League in ERA. And so, the trade has been good for Kansas City.

I don’t know if those are exactly OPPOSING ideas, but I believe both.

Nick Markakis: ‘I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?’

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Earlier today, the Braves inked veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2020 season worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. Though Markakis is 35 years old, he’s coming off of a terrific season in which he played in all 162 games and hit .297/.366/.440 with 14 home runs and 93 RBI in 705 trips to the plate. Markakis had just completed a four-year, $44 million contract, so he took a substantial pay cut.

Per David O’Brien of The Athletic, Markakis asked his kids where they wanted him to play and they said Atlanta. O’Brien also asked Markakis about the pay cut. The outfielder said, “I’m not mad at all. I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?”

This seemingly innocuous comment by Markakis is actually damaging for his peers and for the union. Baseball as a game is indeed a “kids’ game,” but Major League Baseball is a billion-dollar business that has been setting revenue records year over year. The players have seen a smaller and smaller percentage of the money MLB makes since the beginning of the 2000’s. Furthermore, Markakis only gets paid “a lot of money” relative to, say, a first-year teacher or a clerk at a convenience store. Relative to the value of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, and relative to the value of Major League Baseball itself, Markakis’s salary is a drop in the ocean.

That Markakis is happy to take a pay cut is totally fine, but it’s harmful for him to publicly justify that because it creates the expectation that his peers should feel the same way and creates leverage for ownership. His comments mirror those who sympathize first and foremost with billionaire team owners. They are common arguments used to justify paying players less, giving them a smaller and smaller cut of the pie. Because Markakis not only took a pay cut but defended it, front office members of the Braves as well as the 29 other teams can point to him and guilt or shame other players for asking for more money.

“Look at Nick, he’s a team player,” I envision a GM saying to younger Braves player who is seeking a contract extension, or a free agent looking to finally find a home before spring training. “Nick’s stats are as good as yours, so why should you make more money than him?”

Contrast Markakis’s approach with Yasmani Grandal‘s. Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets early in the offseason and settled for a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Grandal said on MLB Network, “I felt like part of my responsibility as a player was to respect the guys that went through this process before I did. Guys like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, These are guys who established markets and pay levels for upper-tier catchers like me. I felt like I was doing a disservice if I were to take some of the deals that were being thrown around. I wanted to keep the line moving especially for some of the younger guys that are coming up … to let them know, if you’re worthy, then you should get paid what you’re worth. That’s where I was coming from.”

Grandal’s comments are exactly what a member of a union should be saying, unapologetically. The MLBPA needs to get all of its members on the same page when it comes to discussing contracts or labor situations in general publicly. What Markakis said seems selfless and innocent — and I have no doubt he is being genuine without malice — but it could reduce the bargaining power players have across the table from ownership, which means less money. They are already being bamboozled, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. They don’t need to be bamboozled any more.