The talent on display in Major League Baseball right now is as good as it’s ever been. It’s also as young as it’s ever been. With each passing year, the proportion of plate appearances and pitches thrown by players under 30 grows higher, and along with it the amount of on-field value generated by these young players. There are certainly some business reasons why this is happening—young, pre-free agency players require a fraction of the financial commitment that a veteran might. But it’s mostly because we’re seeing young players develop who are just better than the rookies of days gone by. It seems like every season some new face—or even more than one new face—takes baseball by storm, shattering long-held rookie records, and just generally making us all wonder how someone so young could possibly be able to do that.
It’s not just the rookies, either. There are young players with raw talent who don’t quite manage to use that talent to its full potential—until, all of a sudden, they do. There are players who find themselves battling the huge expectations of their sophomore seasons after setting the world on fire in their debut campaigns. There are players who, after several years of being consistently good, finally take that next step forward into a being a superstar. There are players who came out of nowhere, and there are players who step onto the field for the first time with the unrelenting confidence of a veteran. And the 2018 postseason promises to be a venue for just such storylines to unfold, magnified by the size of the stage and the height of the stakes.
The American League Rookie of the Year should be Shohei Ohtani—after all, he did things that no one has done in baseball for centuries. But his clear runner-up can be found on the New York Yankees, who are getting ready to play in the American League Wild Card game on Wednesday. Miguel Andujar, at only 23, established himself as one of the Yankees’ best players. He made up for his still-shaky defense at third with his excellence at the plate: a .297/.328/.527 line, with his 47 doubles tying Fred Lynn’s 43-year-old record for doubles by an AL rookie. His teammate and fellow top prospect Gleyber Torres—even younger, at age 21—was similarly impressive in his debut season, batting .271/.340/.480. The presumptive National League Rookie of the Year, the still shockingly young and shockingly talented Ronald Acuna Jr., will be making his postseason debut against the Dodgers on Thursday, his final regular season line standing at .293/.366/.552.
Among the many surprises that propelled the surprising A’s to the postseason, perhaps the most important was Matt Chapman, who made a huge leap forward in his second major-league season. Batting .278/.356/.508, Chapman also made a name for himself as perhaps the premier defensive third baseman in all of baseball. In the National League, another defense-first infielder who took a massive step forward was Trevor Story, who slashed his strikeout rate and turned into one of the National League’s best hitters, making Colorado’s Arenado-populated infield all the more frightening.
There weren’t many surprises in the AL division races—the three AL division champions are all repeat title-holders from last season, and thus are mostly comprised of familiar faces. Still, it’s still worth remembering just how good these repeat title-holders are. Players like Francisco Lindor (.277/.352/.519), Jose Ramirez (.272/.388/.555, with 34 stolen bases to boot) and Mookie Betts (.346/.438/.640, 30 steals, the clear MVP frontrunner) have been around and been good long enough that it’s easy to overlook how young they still are — Ramirez, at 26, is the oldest. All have had great success thus far in their careers; all had the best seasons of their lives in 2018, and all will be looking to build on that success with postseason glory. And on the defending World Series champion Astros, whose virtues are well-known, Alex Bregman made the leap from very good player to something otherworldly. His batting line on the season was .286/.394/.532. He added 12 to his home run total from last year fo finish the regular season with 31, and became yet another franchise player on a team seemingly full of them.
One needs to look no further for illustration of the dynamism of baseball’s young stars, though, than Monday’s pair of division tiebreakers. While not technically part of the postseason, they felt as charged as any playoff game. The Brewers and the Cubs faced off at Wrigley, and it was only fitting that the game brought each team’s respective breakout players and MVP candidates to the plate in crucial moments. The first came with two out and a runner 90 feet from home in the third: Christian Yelich, chasing the NL’s first Triple Crown in almost 81 years, drove in the game’s first run with a single up the middle as the crowd roared its combined elation and outrage. In the bottom of the sixth, the Cubs had two men on first, two out, the game tied at one apiece, when Javier Baez came up to the plate. The crowd rose to its feet, urging him on as he worked the count full. Brewers reliever Joakim Soria challenged Baez with a fastball; Baez swung through it, ending the Cubs’ threat.
And in the eighth, after the Brewers had broken the tie, Yelich came up to bat again, this time with runners on the corners and nobody out. He had three hits already—another could be the final nail in the Cubs’ coffin. But after falling behind 0-2, fouling a pitch off and watching two balls, Yelich struck out on a 2-2 cutter from Steve Cishek. The Cubs fans packed into the seats behind home plate, all of them on their feet, screamed their vindication. But while Baez lined a hit into left center with two out in the bottom of the ninth, briefly keeping hope alive in a two-run game, the Cubs would do no further retribution to the damage Yelich did.
Down on the West coast, the focus was on the starting pitching. Taking the mound for the Dodgers was rookie revelation Walker Buehler, a hard-throwing and preternaturally confident can’t-miss prospect who started his career with the Dodgers very well—in his first start, he threw five scoreless innings, allowing four hits, walking three and striking out five—and has with each successive appearance drawn closer to looking unhittable. The Rockies countered with German Marquez, who emerged apparently out of nowhere in his second season in the majors to become one of the NL’s best starters this season. Wielding a wicked slider and a fastball at 98, Marquez posted a 2.16 ERA with a WHIP of just 0.90 after the All-Star break, all with Coors Field as his home ballpark.
The matchup lived up to the hype. Marquez struck out nine in his four and two-thirds innings, including four in a single frame. But the Dodgers capitalized on his mistakes, including one of those strikeout victims reaching base on a passed ball, hitting two home runs to put them ahead by four. Buehler, meanwhile, continued his recent dominance, holding the Rockies to just one hit and three walks over seven and two thirds despite appearing to lose his release point at various times. He drove in a run for good measure. Buehler, the College World Series veteran who doesn’t seem to believe himself capable of losing, was in complete control. And the Rockies, forced to face off against the Cubs in a one-game playoff, will be sending their young ace Kyle Freeland to the mound.
Marquez is 23. Buehler just turned 24. Baez is 25, and Yelich is 26. These are the players who are going to be at the center of the action this postseason, and these are the kinds of games we have to look forward to. The future is now. Get ready.