As a relatively new baseball writer, I’m constantly trying to expand my knowledge by watching games, reading other writer’s work, and listening to the thoughts of analysts and pundits from outlets such as MLB Network and MLB Radio. I don’t always agree with what I hear or read, but that’s okay. Diverse opinions help broaden perspective.
A popular topic that I’ve encountered during my quest for added baseball intelligence is the belief among pundits that the current crop of 25-years-old and younger position players is historically special. Perhaps, you agree.
Although I believe in heeding the baseball opinions of others, I’ve also quickly learned that hyperbole can overshadow reality, especially when there’s airtime to fill or clicks to gather. With that in mind, I decided to determine for myself whether today’s 25-and-under ball players were a truly special group.
Before getting very far into my research though, I realized that Dave Cameron of FanGraphs had already done an excellent job of providing detailed analysis on younger players.
Cameron noted that players under 26-years-old accounted for 33-percent of plate appearances in 2015 — a normal portion for their age group. Yet, these youngsters tallied 39-percent of the total wins above replacement (WAR) produced by position players last year. That’s the most value delivered by this age group since 1974, when they accounted for high 44-percent of plate appearances.
The following table is my creation. It looks back to 1985 in five-year intervals and lists players who produced a WAR of four or higher and were age-25 or younger during the season noted.
Although it didn’t require higher-level thinking to create, the table quickly illustrates and supports Cameron’s conclusion that we may be looking at best group of young hitters in the history of the sport. As you can see for yourself, there are many impressive names on the list, including several Hall of Famers.
|Top Young Players (+4 WAR)|
|Tim Raines||Barry Bonds||Alex Rodriguez||Albert Pujols||Evan Longoria||Bryce Harper|
|Jesse Barfield||Ron Gant||Andruw Jones||Mark Teixeira||Troy Tulowitzki||Mike Trout|
|Don Mattingly||Jose Canseco||Troy Glaus||Grady Sizemore||Jason Heyward||Kevin Kiermaier|
|Ryne Sandberg *||Roberto Kelly||Richard Hidalgo||Miguel Cabrera||Austin Jackson||Manny Machado|
|Cal Ripken *||Ken Griffey *||Vladimir Guerrero||Jhonny Peralta||Ryan Zimmerman||Jason Heyward|
|Rich Gedman||Matt Williams||Luis Castillo||David Wright||Carlos Gonzalez||Anthony Rizzo|
|Tony Gwynn *||Rafael Palmeiro||Scott Rolen||David DeJesus||Daric Barton||Mookie Betts|
|Darryl Strawberry||Billy Ripken||Geoff Jenkins||Carl Crawford||Jay Bruce||Kris Bryant|
|George Bell||Rafael Furcal||Coco Crisp||Nolan Arenado|
|Felipe Lopez||Ender Inciarte|
|Note: 1995 omitted due to shortened season * Denotes Hall of Famer|
It’s clear that the current group of 25-and-under players is delivering historic value, but the importance placed on age is both excessive and misleading.
Why such a strong statement? A player’s service time is far more critical than his age when constructing a roster. This is especially true for a veteran-laden team like the Seattle Mariners. Before discussing the Mariners any further, let’s briefly review service time.
For those not familiar with the term, “service time” refers to the number of years and days a player has spent on a major league roster. A year of service time — as defined by the current collective bargaining agreement — is 172 days.
Baseball information resources, such as Baseball Reference, represent service time in a “years.days” format. For example, Felix Hernandez started 2016 with ten years and 60 days of service time — expressed as “10.060.” Generally, teams maintain the rights to a player for six “service time” years.
During the first three years, clubs don’t have to pay players more than the league minimum salary — $507,500 in 2016. In the final three years of team control, players are eligible for arbitration, which allows players to earn more money based on their performance. However, their wages won’t ever reach the level of free agent money.
There are exceptions to these guidelines. For instance, international professional free agents such as Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu, and Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma don’t fall under the same criteria as other new players, although these players have accrued six years of Major League Baseball (MLB) service time. If you’d like to read more about service time, you can find a great rundown at FanGraphs here.
Why is service time so important to the current version of the Mariners? Payroll. A review of how general manager Jerry Dipoto re-constructed his roster during the offseason helps illustrate the club’s payroll challenges coming into this season.
After taking the reins of baseball operations last September, Dipoto aggressively added pieces to complement the veteran foundation that he inherited — King Felix, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Kyle Seager, plus the re-signed duo of Iwakuma and Franklin Gutierrez.
Since he and team president Kevin Mather stated that the organization’s goal was to compete in 2016, Dipoto brought in more veterans — Adam Lind, Joaquin Benoit, Wade Miley, Nori Aoki, Chris Iannetta, and Steve Cishek.
All told, the 47-year-old general manager fashioned a 13-player veteran core designed to be competitive. But, there’s a price tag with having so many vets — $121.8 million. That’s more money than the payrolls of 15 clubs.
With so much committed to his experienced players, Dipoto had to find bargains when filling out the rest of his 25-man roster and adding much-needed minor league depth. This is where service time — not age — enters the picture.
Look at the players from Seattle’s Opening Day roster, who hadn’t reached arbitration eligibility prior to this season. There are several notable names that aren’t that young — relatively speaking. But, they’re inexpensive and valuable to Mariners manager Scott Servais.
|Seattle Mariners “Pre-Arb” Players (As of Jan 1)|
The inherent flaw with using an arbitrary age — such as 25-years-old — when discussing new players is that the practice can lead to fans overlook slightly older contributors with similarly low service time and value.
Not only has Dipoto added controllable and inexpensive talent at the big league level, he’s built “layers of depth” throughout his 40-man roster. Look at the service time of the following players. Some could potentially find themselves in Seattle by the end of the season; some already have.
|Seattle Mariners “Ready Reserve”|
|Evan Scribner||30||Relief Pitcher||2.142||60-day Disabled List|
|Mike Zunino||25||Catcher||2.084||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|James Paxton||27||Starting Pitcher||2.027||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|Steve Johnson||28||Relief Pitcher||1.046||Recalled to Seattle|
|David Rollins||26||Relief Pitcher||1.000||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|Stefen Romero||27||Outfield/First Base||0.170||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|Chris Taylor||25||Shortstop||0.139||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|Cody Martin||26||Relief Pitcher||0.075||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|Shawn O’Malley||28||Infield/Outfield||0.063||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|Mayckol Guaipe||25||Relief Pitcher||0.054||Recalled to Seattle|
|Jonathan Aro||25||Relief Pitcher||0.040||Class-AAA Tacoma|
|Steven Baron||25||Catcher||0.027||Class-AA Jackson|
|Boog Powell||23||Outfield||0.0||Class-AAA Tacoma|
Thanks to Dipoto skillfully taking advantage of service time, Seattle has a relatively low $5 million committed towards two starting pitchers, four relievers, their starting shortstop, and two bench players. How else could this club possibly compete with $122 million already committed to 13 veterans?
While the exploits of young players such as Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte capture the imagination of fans and pundits, where would the Mariners stand today without the contributions of “older” players with similarly low service time? Specifically, Nate Karns, Nick Vincent, Vidal Nuno, Mike Montgomery, and Steve Clevenger? Probably not first place.
Age is just a number for the Mariners.