Welcome back to another This Particular Week In Baseball, the baseball column that baseballs your baseballs until you baseball all over your baseball. Now that's baseball™!
Another Red Sox (Sorry)
It seems every week I'm writing about some young Boston Red Sox player and his latest feat of strength. Be it Mookie Betts hitting five homers in seven plate appearances, Jackie Bradley running up his 29-game hitting streak (and generally breaking through), or Travis Shaw actually contributing to a Major League Baseball roster, all have been keys to Boston's resurgent season. Pull up the leaderboards on FanGraphs, however, and you'll see one name above all others, including Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado. It's a name belonging to one of the few Red Sox players I haven't written about yet: Xander Bogaerts.
Bogaerts leads baseball in WAR and the American League in batting average, is 12th in on-base percentage, and 26th in slugging percentage. His overall offensive package is pretty damn impressive, like a six-year-old in a spelling bee; given that he's a shortstop, we're approaching MVP territory.
Bogaerts was widely discussed as a franchise cornerstone when he took apart High-A ball in 2012 as a 19-year-old. He zoomed through the system, and started at third base as a 20-year-old for Boston in their 2013 World Series win. He hit a speed bump the next year, when major league pitchers realized he'd swing over any kind of breaking pitch provided it was low and away. By the end of the 2014 season, Bogaerts had over 600 plate appearances that said he just wasn't a very good hitter. Then, last season he learned to cover the same sliders that had shredded him in 2014, reinventing himself as a slappy singles hitter. He was a productive player at last, but the power that was his hallmark in the minors was nowhere to be found.
This season, with a slugging percentage well above .500, it appears Bogaerts has found it.
And now the qualifiers: Bogaerts might not yet be quite this good—his .408 BABIP is pretty high for a player without blazing speed—but his walk rate is up, his strikeout rate has remained at a steadily acceptable level (about 15 percent), and he's already surpassed last season's home run total. It's a good season from anyone, but Bogaerts is just 23 years old, which means for the next four seasons or so he should keep getting better. The franchise player the Red Sox thought they had a half-decade back is here, and still improving. It's daunting to think about what he might figure out next.
There's something else notable about that list topped by Bogaerts, beyond his presence—specifically, everyone on it is roughly as young as he is. The top six WAR earners on FanGraphs as of this writing are 23, 24, 26, 23, 30, and 24. I stopped at six because the seventh is Daniel Murphy and the eighth is David Ortiz, which means my cover is blown. But still, look at that list. Other than Dexter Fowler, who got off to a silly-hot start and is gradually coming back to Earth, nobody is over the age of 26. Even counting Fowler, the average age among that top six is 25, and the average age of everyone who isn't Fowler is 24. For comparison, the average age in Double-A is 24.9 and the average age in High-A is 23.3, which means that the best players in MLB are the same age low-to-mid minor leaguers. If we extend the list to the top 15 we pull in Corey Seager (22), Marcell Ozuna (25), Mookie Betts (23), and Francisco Lindor (22) as well. The point: that's a lot of young talent.
Go back a decade and the ages of the top 10 in WAR were 26, 23, 29, 27, 23, 32, 30, 29, 29, and 26. That's an average age of 27.4, which makes sense. We know that 27 is the age at which hitters peak; it stands to reason that any larger sample of the best players in baseball would wind up in that general area. And yet that is somehow not happening now. So do we have an unprecedented youth movement in baseball? I haven't done the research necessary to make such a statement, but honestly, who cares? The game is in excellent hands, and there's a good chance that your kids will be rooting for these same players a decade from now. Well, minus Dexter Fowler. Probably.
The MLB Draft is where most of that young talent mostly comes from, so you'd think everyone would be paying close attention as teams made their picks last week. But no, not really, thanks. Baseball's draft is exciting if you follow a team extremely closely, but even if you do, you likely won't have much of a clue what you're looking at. The draft is like an ancient scroll, and not just because of the ambient mustiness of all those speaker-phoned war rooms. It might reveal something incredible, but the amount of time and effort to extract that knowledge presents a near-insurmountable a barrier to entry. Ultimately it's best to let the experts go through the painstaking steps to figure things out and trust that, if they find anything worthwhile, they'll let you know when they finish six years from now.
Unlike the NFL and NBA, getting hot and bothered because your team drafted an 18-year-old lefty who just finished his chemistry finals has the emotional return of falling in love with a towel rack. There are only so many hours in the day to waste on something like an 18-year-old baseball player who might, someday, half a decade from now, be good enough to consider paying attention to. So hooray for the future of baseball. Wake me when it gets here.
Top Three Of The Moment
Nobody likes a copycat, but the Top Three Of The Moment are exactly the same as last week. It's not because I'm lazy. I absolutely am, but that's not the reason. This is legitimate. It just means last week I, uh, did an awesome job.
3. Texas Rangers
Since this is apparently the youth episode of TPWIB we'd be mistaken if we left Nomar Mazara out. After starting last season in Double-A as a 19-year-old, Mazara now finds himself batting third for the team with the best record in the American League as a 20-year-old. He's hit 10 homers in just 213 at-bats so far this season, and he's getting on-base as well, suggesting this isn't a childish fit of swinging hard with his eyes closed. This kid can play.
2. Washington Nationals
After hitting .330 last year, Harper—oh, come on, who'd you think we were about to discuss?—finds himself at a lowly .258. That sounds bad. It sounds bad because we're conditioned to judge hitters by their batting average. Over .300 is good, below .250 is bad, and Harper is floating around just over that latter mark. So yuck, right?
Problem is, this is a terrible way to evaluate hitters, and misses the fact that Harper has been quite good this year. He's not getting the sheer number of hits he did last season, but his power is still there and he's getting on base at an All-Star level as well. He's 23 and, insane as it is for a guy coming off an unanimous MVP season, maybe still learning. If this is a slump, good lord.
1. Chicago Cubs
Unlike the Rangers and Nationals, the Cubs are lousy with young talent, with Kris Bryant maybe the most notable player. Bryant isn't the best hitter in baseball and he's not the best defensive third baseman either, but he's damn good at both and his overall package is astonishing. As great as Fowler has been this season, Bryant has passed him. Don't expect Fowler or any other Cub to catch him, either.
Bottom Three Of The Moment
The rich got richer and the poor got poopier. You know how this goes.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Only the Atlanta Braves have scored fewer runs, they've lost 14 of their last 20, their run differential is a still a stupendously nice minus-69, and their sugar-high overachieving of the first month is pretty well in the rearview mirror. It doesn't help that they keep playing the Cubs and Nationals, and it won't help that they're about to play two against Toronto. But is it really making that much of a difference, really?
2. Minnesota Twins
The Twins got totally taken apart in two games against Boston, losing by a combined score of 23-5. On Sunday, they got to extra innings and won despite committing a two-run error in the eighth inning when Red Sox manager John Farrell elected not to use his best reliever for the 10th inning for ... a reason, probably. Credit the Twins for taking advantage, as prospect Max Kepler smashed a game-winning three run homer. That granted the Twins their 19th win and kept them from falling 15.5 games back in their division. Congrats!
1. Atlanta Braves
The only question facing the Braves is who will they trade at the deadline. Surprisingly or not, they do have a few players who could fetch something useful in return. Reliever Arodys Vizcaino is striking out a third of the hitters he faces while keeping walks in check, and he's done it without the benefit of facing the Braves lineup. Teams always go ape for relievers at the deadline, and the Braves could get an embarrassing haul should they decide to make the 25-year-old available. The same is true for starter Julio Teheran, who is having a good season, though one that might not be quite as good as his 2.85 ERA suggests; FIP loves him far less than ERA. Still, teams will look at that shiny ERA and line up for Tehran ... if the Braves are selling. Beyond that, watching the Braves is like watching an old abandoned barge sink, slowly, slowly, sssssllllloooooowwwwwllllyyyyy over six months. But maybe not quite as exciting as that.
The Match-Up of the Year of the Week: Cubs at Nationals
There will be bigger match-ups as the year progresses, but for now, the best team in baseball against arguably the second-best is as good as it gets. And, to even things out, let's do it all at the second-best team's home park. On top of that, the Nationals will throw their three best pitchers in Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, and Stephen Strasburg, all while managing to miss both of the Cubs two best starters, as both Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester pitched over the weekend. So things point to the Nats making a statement in this series. If they do, note how things were tilted in their direction. If they don't, note how things were tilted in their direction. Or don't. I'm sure Cubs fans will happily remind you either way.
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