The Youth of America

Word is that the 2008 Bill James Handbook will include a new measure developed by James, called the Young Talent Inventory. From the ACTA press release: “‘We are sitting in a historic bubble of young talent,’ James says. ‘Arguably there is more outstanding young talent around right now than at any other moment in baseball history.’”

In the Handbook, James ranks the top young talent in the majors. He also ranks teams by the amount of young talent on each team’s major league roster, the top seven being the Rockies, Devil Rays, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Indians, Brewers and Pirates.

This is pretty exciting to me, because this a trend we mentioned last year, when the 2007 THT Annual featured a couple of articles about this subject. Rich Lederer contributed an article called “2006: The Year of the Rookie,” in which he noted that last year’s stellar rookie class outplayed every other rookie crop of the 2000′s. And I made the rather prescient statement that “…2006 will be viewed in history as the year in which a new breed of stars emerged. Book it.”

I give myself credit for a pretty good insight there (something that doesn’t happen too often), but Bill James seems to have taken the thought further, claiming that today’s young talent may be at historic levels. That piqued my interest and, being a naturally curious guy, I decided to redraw a graph I I first created almost two years ago, updated through 2007. It’s a graph of the Win Shares age of players in each year of baseball history:

image

There are many, many stories in that graph, most of which I did my best to cover in the original article (go on and give it a read; it’s not too bad). But today I’d like to talk about that drop in 2006 and 2007.

The average major league Win Shares age was 29.34 years in 2004, the highest figure outside of World War II. In many ways, that peak was the culmination of a trend that began with free agency in the late 1970′s and was perhaps fueled by performance-enhancing drugs in the 1990′s. It was led by some of the greatest ballplayers ever, such as Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens.

As these older stars reached their rocking chair phase (as opposed to their La-Z-Boy phase), the average major league age was bound to drop. And it has.

 Year      WS Age   Change
 2004       29.34     0.21
 2005       29.27    -0.06
 2006       29.03    -0.24
 2007       28.83    -0.20

That’s a drop of half a year’s age in three years. Yes, that’s a good turn to youth, but it’s not a historic turn. These are the five largest one-year decreases in Win Shares age since 1900:

1909      -1.01
1946      -0.80
1948      -0.39
1934      -0.38
1954      -0.37

1909, the year that youngsters Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins took over major league ball, is still the greatest generational shift in baseball history. But what we’re seeing right now is pretty special too.

Here is a table, by age group, of the change in the number of Win Shares each contributed in one year vs. the next year (in other words, someone who was 25 years old in 2006 and 26 in 2007). I’ve listed both the average historical change (includes all years since 1900) and the difference between 2006 and 2007. As you can see, virtually every young group exceeded its historical mark this year, while most age groups between the ages of 29 and 35 didn’t.

Age Group      Historic   2006/07    Diff
21/22              88%      152%     64%
22/23              61%       75%     14%
23/24              39%       25%    -14%
24/25              25%       38%     13%
25/26              12%       28%     16%
26/27               2%        3%      1%
27/28              -3%        6%      9%
28/29              -7%        2%      9%
29/30              -9%      -21%    -12%
30/31             -13%      -13%      0%
31/32             -17%      -18%     -2%
32/33             -18%      -15%      3%
33/34             -21%      -48%    -27%
34/35             -25%      -32%     -7%
35/36             -27%      -34%     -7%
36/37             -32%      -21%     11%

The 21/22 group, which saw a huge increase in Win Shares, featured a new wave of talent including Troy Tulowitzki, B.J. Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Melky Cabrera, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley and Joel Zumaya.

The 22/23 group had a healthy 75% increase. That’s fitting as 23-year-olds Prince Fielder, Hanley Ramirez and Fausto Carmona are at the top of the Handbook‘s Young Talent Inventory.

Even the “veteran” youngsters, 27 and 28 years old, managed to beat their actuarial aging records. Unexpectedly great years by players like Jack Cust and Carlos Pena helped a lot.

I’m also interested in the declining years. For instance, what happened to the players who were 33 in 2006? Well, three of the five biggest declines were players who didn’t play at all in 2007:

Player             2006 2007    Diff
Schmidt, Jason       16   0     -16
Bell, David          13   0     -13
Walker, Todd         11   0     -11
Radke, Brad          10   0     -10
Koskie, Corey        10   0     -10

Bell, Radke and Koskie didn’t play in 2007, and Schmidt and, Walker played very little. More importantly, only two players had significantly better years in 2007 to pick up the slack: Cardinals Ryan Franklin and Jason Isringhausen. And their improvements weren’t enough to prop up the entire age group.

But we’re not here to mourn the decline of baseball stars; we’re here to celebrate a new generation of players, a generational shift that may eventually challenge the 1909 class of legendary Hall of Famers. Here is the list of James’s top 25 young talents in 2007:

1. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman, age 23
2. Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins shortstop, age 23
3. Fausto Carmona, Cleveland Indians starting pitcher, age 23
4. David Wright, New York Mets third baseman, age 24
5. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners starting pitcher, age 21
6. Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay starting pitcher, age 23
7. Jose Reyes, New York Mets shortstop, age 24
8. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants starting pitcher, age 22
9. Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians center fielder, age 24
10. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher, age 23
11. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals third baseman, age 22
12. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies shortstop, age 22
13. Miguel Cabrera, Florida Marlins third baseman, age 24
14. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers third baseman, age 23
15. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers starting pitcher, age 24
16. Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles right fielder, age 23
17. Jake Peavy, San Diego starting pitcher, age 26
18. Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego Padres first baseman, age 25
19. Tom Gorzelanny, Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher, age 24
20. James Shields, Tampa Bay starting pitcher, age 25
21. C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland starting pitcher, age 26
22. Curtis Granderson, Detroit Tigers center fielder, age 26
23. Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher, age 26
24. Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher, age 22
25. Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder, age 23

The fun part will be seeing which players of the latest “greatest generation” will take their place next to the Big Train and Cobb in Cooperstown. Take a seat and enjoy the ride.

References & Resources
Win Shares Age is simply the age of a group of players, weighted by the number of Win Shares each contributed.

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