10 Degrees: It's the real 'Golden Era' as baseball today has the greatest group of young, prime players in the sport's history

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Here is a fact: There is more prime everyday talent in baseball today than ever in the game’s history. It is absurd, really, just how good today’s players are. Bud Selig used to jabber about how he oversaw the game’s “Golden Era.” No. That is right now. Those who won’t acknowledge it are ignorant. Those who disagree with it are wrong. And those not witnessing it, for one reason or another, are doing themselves a disservice.

First, it’s important to define prime. The long-held notion of age 27 to 32 no longer holds – and probably never did. A number of teams see players’ truest prime years as 24 to 26, and considering how baseball is skewing ever younger, it’s a reasonable supposition. And with that definition in place, here is the list of players in their primes in 2018:

Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Alex Bregman, Bryce Harper, Christian Yelich, Kris Bryant, Aaron Judge, Javier Baez, Matt Chapman, Trevor Story, Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner, Willson Contreras, Eugenio Suarez, Eddie Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, Gary Sanchez, Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto. There are more. Among those listed are the eight highest-ranking players on FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement leaderboard for 2018.

WAR, a flawed metric but one whose assessments improve as a sample size grows, believes this 24-to-26 class is unequivocally the best ever. Some of that is volume, sure, because young players are accounting for a higher proportion of plate appearances than ever. The productivity is clear nonetheless: The 196 position players in that age group have combined for 198.5 WAR – more than 25 WAR ahead of the next-best season, 2016.

Much of this, as Craig Edwards wrote at FanGraphs, is owed to an all-time age-25 class that has accounted for 85.8 WAR. The historically great group – Betts, Harper, Machado, Ramirez, Chapman, Turner, Story and others are members – set a record for best season as a 23-year-old class in 2016 and did the same at 22 in 2015. Only five groups of any age in the sport’s history have put up more WAR than the current 25-year-old class. By the end of this week, it may be just two.

There are plenty of excuses not to be a baseball fan today, whether it’s the interminable pace of game, the obscene number of strikeouts, the hefty ticket and concession prices, the rich-and-poor chasm, the tanking, the television blackouts, the ugly domestic-violence cases and a hundred other reasons more local in nature. Just don’t ever let the quality of the players be one of them. Because this sport never has seen anything like what …

Mookie Betts hits a double in the seventh inning Sunday against the Cleveland Indians. (AP)
Mookie Betts hits a double in the seventh inning Sunday against the Cleveland Indians. (AP)

1. Mookie Betts and his peers are doing, and every day one of them manages something sensational enough to reinforce the point of this exercise. It was Betts’ turn – again – on Sunday, when his 4-for-6 showing the night Boston unsuccessfully went for its franchise-record 106th victory, marked another coup-de-grace performance in a season full of them.

It was his seventh four-hit game this season. He also has a pair of three-homer games. And a three-steal game, too. He scored five runs once and drove in five runs twice. Each individual performance helps weave the tapestry of an all-time season. And the last hitter to put up triple-slash numbers better than Betts’ .343/.434/.636 was Miguel Cabrera in his Triple-Slash Crown-winning season in 2013. Before that it was Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez and Larry Walker and Todd Helton and Carlos Delgado and Jeff Bagwell and Albert Belle and Frank Thomas and George Brett. And that’s it in the last half-century.

Quite the company for Betts to be keeping. That he’s alongside …

2. Mike Trout at all puts him in a heady place, and while it’s not yet time to declare an MVP – check back in this space next week – Betts aligning himself with Trout for two of the last three seasons certainly says something.

Because once again Trout is doing his Trouty thing: putting up a 10-win season. He is freakishly consistent at it. Here are his WAR totals, by year, via FanGraphs: 10.0, 10.1, 8.3, 9.3, 9.6, 6.9, 9.4 – and in that 2017 outlier, he missed nearly 50 games due to injury. This year, in fact, is most reminiscent of his rookie season in which he put up those 10 wins in 139 games. His 9.4 this season have come in 134.

It all serves as a reminder that Trout is, through his age-26 season, the best player in the game’s history. Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, which produce the two most widely cited, publicly available WAR totals, are shockingly close in their assessments of Trout: 64.3 and 64.0 WAR, respectively. He has leapfrogged Ty Cobb, who for years was slightly ahead of Trout, and is a fair bit ahead of the rest of the top 10, whom both sites share as well: Mickey Mantle, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., Tris Speaker and Arky Vaughan.

Unlike every other degree this week, Trout will not be playing baseball in October. The notion of a sixth postseason in seven years without Trout – and the one exception ending in a three-game sweep against Kansas City – is brutal for the game. It needs its stars, and particularly one doing things baseball hasn’t seen in its century-and-a-half lifespan, to be front and center during October. It’s what makes …

3. Manny Machado’s October so tantalizing and Harper’s such a bummer. Harper gets to spend the postseason plotting out his free agency, while Machado has an opportunity to enhance his.

The Los Angeles Dodgers need to keep winning, of course. Their lead over the Colorado Rockies is 1½ games. And Machado hasn’t exactly been the walk-year monster he looked like in the first half since the All-Star break and his subsequent trade to L.A. His .264/.332/.477 line as a Dodger is good. It’s just not $300 million good.

And yet with the Dodgers primed to fare well should they crash the postseason party, Machado gets the opportunity to show postseason mettle, which may not be a thing but unquestionably is believed by many affixing zeroes to paychecks to be a thing. For that opportunity he can thank the Dodgers’ rotation, which is like a reality show with how many members it has booted. Mainly because Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu have been so good. Among starters with at least 40 second-half innings, their ERAs rank eighth, ninth and 10th in the big leagues. And if the Dodgers so desire, they can line up Kershaw and Buehler for two starts apiece on full rest this week and still have them on an extra day of rest for the NLDS.

How much does starting pitching matter in the postseason anymore? Well, the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs may try to answer that question while …

4. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez do their best to carry an offense that may wind up playing second fiddle to its rotation.

While Indians relievers have looked solid this month, they understand they’ll go only so far as their starting pitching – and their starting pitching might be the best in a postseason full of good arms. The best in the second half has been Carlos Carrasco, who over 80 innings put up a 105-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.36 ERA. Not far behind: Mike Clevinger, whose 2.44 ERA in the second half personified a season in which he became the fourth Indians pitcher to strike out at least 200 batters, a new major league record.

That Corey Kluber – two-time Cy Young winner, Indians ace – is playing third fiddle is telling, as is the return of the best Indians pitcher this season, Trevor Bauer, to the rotation following a freak comebacker breaking a bone in his leg and preventing him from running away with the AL Cy Young Award. More on that next week, too, though the fight among Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Blake Snell and Bauer – yes, Bauer, whose numbers are incredibly similar to Snell’s – is worth watching this final week.

Keeping a particularly watchful eye on Bauer will be …

5. Alex Bregman, whose Astros are facing the Indians in what is the only playoff matchup locked in at this point. It is going to be a baseball lover’s dream. Verlander vs. Kluber in Game 1. Perhaps Bauer vs. his college teammate and not exactly friend Gerrit Cole in Game 2. Carrasco and Dallas Keuchel in Game 3. Clevinger and Charlie Morton in Game 4 – or maybe one of the aces on short rest, with Clevinger or Morton being used as a multi-inning bullpen weapon?

The series is delicious with possibilities. Cleveland’s Terry Francona and Houston’s A.J. Hinch might be the two best managers in baseball. Cleveland represented the AL in the World Series in 2016 and lost. Houston won the pennant in 2017 and the World Series, too. They’ve got the brains and the pitching and young stars like Lindor and Ramirez and Carlos Correa and Bregman, who this season is trying to stake his claim as the best third baseman in baseball, a lofty title considering how deep the position is.

(A break from all the young-person talk to acknowledge the other third baseman in Texas. If Sunday really was Adrian Beltre’s last home game, and this really is his last season, what an incredible career and an amazing way to finish it. Beltre has the quietest 3,162 hits and 476 home runs imaginable. He played take-your-breath-away defense for almost the entirety of his 21-year career. And now, in September of what may be the 39-year-old’s final season, he is hitting .303/.361/.712 with seven home runs, only one behind an unlikely trio this month: Daniel Palka, Hunter Renfroe and Conforto. Here’s to Adrian Beltre, a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer.)

So, yeah, there are a lot of great third basemen out there. And while …

6. Matt Chapman is the least-known of them, he’ll soon have an opportunity to acquaint himself with the masses. With one more Oakland win (or a Tampa Bay loss), Chapman’s surprising A’s will clinch a wild-card spot and face the New York Yankees in a winner-takes-all, one-game playoff. Whether the stage is Yankee Stadium or Oakland Coliseum – the A’s are 1½ games back in the standings – Chapman will be batting second and playing third.

The notion that a pair of 100-win teams could be facing one another in a one-game playoff boggles the mind, though it remains realistic and highlights just how have/have-not the American League truly is. Boston already has 105 wins. The Astros are at 98 and should hit 100 as they try to clinch the division. The Yankees need to win five of seven to hit 100. The A’s must have all six of their remaining games at Seattle and the Los Angeles Angels – not likely but not out of the realm of possibility, either.

The record for one season: three 100-win-plus teams, including last season, when it was done for the sixth time. No league has ever had three with triple-digit wins, let alone a shot at four. That’s the AL in 2018. A place where Baltimore has lost 110 and Kansas City 102 and Chicago could reach that ugly low as well.

Thankfully, those good teams can spend October making up for it. Remember what …

7. Aaron Judge did during the wild-card game last season? Yankees go down 3-0 in the first. He follows a Brett Gardner leadoff walk with a single and scores on Didi Gregorius’ three-run homer that sent Yankee Stadium into a frenzy? Then three innings later he hit a home run that took literally three seconds to get out of the stadium? It was the kind of night for which the Yankees had waited a long time.

While Judge is back from the wrist injury that sidelined him for seven weeks, the six games’ worth of swings he has taken aren’t indicative of a whole lot. Gregorius, meanwhile, may miss the remainder of the season after tearing cartilage in his wrist on a headfirst slide. The Yankees have sufficient depth to weather the injury, even if Gleyber Torres isn’t nearly the defender at shortstop that Gregorius is.

It’s why depth is important – and where the larger-market, higher-payroll teams do some of their best work. The Dodgers’ depth saved their season. The Yankees’ depth allowed them to shrug off injury after injury. When …

8. Kris Bryant went down for all of August with a left shoulder injury, the Chicago Cubs didn’t panic. They had plenty of players who could fill his spot. Javier Baez was playing MVP-caliber baseball and took some reps. David Bote was like the Cubs’ version of Bo Hart, the folk hero come to life. Tommy La Stella played a few games, Ian Happ a few others. Manager Joe Maddon has the tools at his disposal, and one thing he does awfully well is utilize players’ versatility.

It’s amazing to think the Cubs could play the first game of the division series as the No. 1 seed in the National League without either Bryant or Addison Russell on the left side of the infield. Bryant has played more in the outfield of late than at third. Russell is on administrative leave following the disturbing allegations from his ex-wife that he abused her – allegations that mirrored those of a friend’s Instagram comment from last year that said “(h)e hit her.”

In a blog post, Melisa Reidy wrote of the pain, fear and chaos she said Russell caused in their lives. MLB, after apparently keeping its investigation into the matter open for nearly a year and a half, may levy discipline. The Cubs, who traded for Aroldis Chapman the year after a domestic incident with the mother of his child, again must face the question of: Do they want to be a team where those alleged to have committed domestic violence are welcome?

That may sound black and white, binary, reductive. It’s also fair. When general manager Jeff Luhnow talks about the Astros having a zero-tolerance policy against domestic violence and then trades for Roberto Osuna, it’s clearly spin – and bad spin at that. Certainly the Cubs understand that having multiple cases in which they sought or stood by players marked with domestic issues would tag them as a team that believes misbehavior toward women does not disqualify them from playing baseball.

Some believe it does. Some believe it doesn’t. As important a discussion and debate as that is, most would just rather ignore it and talk about whether Javier Baez or …

9. Christian Yelich deserves to win the NL MVP. As much as Jacob deGrom is the one who really should win it – he’s got the Cy Young locked up, and he has been the best player in the NL this season, which means he has been the most valuable, which makes him the most valuable player – it’s looking more like a race between Baez and Yelich.

Because … their teams are good. And … the Braves and Dodgers really don’t have anyone. Plus … the Rockies’ offensive stars like Story and Nolan Arenado get dinged for Coors Field. Oh … Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rendon’s teams are out of it.

Look, Yelich and Baez have had great seasons. Yelich especially. He’s been the best hitter in baseball since the All-Star break. His .322 batting average and .577 slugging percentage lead the NL. His .391 on-base percentage is 63 points higher than Baez’s, which should settle almost every argument, even when accounting for Baez’s versatility and greater acumen in the field.

The Yelich argument isn’t about him hitting for the cycle twice; those just make for good talking points. It’s about his on-base superiority making up for an inferiority with the glove – and that being enough to hold off a pitcher who quite clearly contributed more value to his team, even if his team was a mess. For a classic MVP-type season, just go to the AL, where Trout or Bregman or Ramirez or Lindor or …

10. Mookie Betts cuts the figure a tad better. Everything about Betts’ season has been superlative, from the bat to the glove to the sublime fashion in which he runs the bases. Watching the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Betts rocket-launch home runs into center field with such a simple swing is mystifying. How can someone that size generate that much power? How can someone so fast be so strong?

Betts is a freak because he can do all that and still make contact with the ball like he’s some kind of present-day Victor Martinez. His career ended Saturday after stints in Cleveland, Boston and Detroit, and in all three places, Martinez’s reputation as the consummate hitter – the hitter’s hitter – flourished. It was not just his bat control but the disdain with which he approached strikeouts. In his best season – as a 35-year-old, no less – Martinez walked 70 times and struck out 42 times in 641 plate appearances. His control of everything that season was mystical.

That is Mookie Betts right now: master of his domain. He patrols right field at Fenway Park like he owns it. He steps into the batter’s box ready to hit the ball – or not hit it, if the pitcher doesn’t give him anything. He runs with the urgency of a delivery guy who’s already 5 minutes late. Every facet, every element, every part of the game is Mookie Betts’.

And with this momentous set of peers, so many, so great, so early, baseball has turned even more into a young man’s game, its era exciting, fun to watch and, no doubt, golden.

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