In These Baseball Playoffs, Very Young Is Old Enough – The Wall Street Journal


In almost any other era of baseball, Gavin Lux would have been watching this year’s playoffs on television. Four months ago, the 21-year-old infielder had never spent a day above Double-A. His major-league team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, was already one of the best and deepest in the sport.

“If you had told me at the beginning of this year that I’d be playing in the postseason,” he said, “I don’t know if I’d completely believe you.”

But age and inexperience are quickly fading as barriers to opportunity. And already, these playoffs are showing why.

In Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday night, Lux became the youngest player ever to hit a pinch-hit home run in the postseason. The Dodgers’ opponent, the Washington Nationals, had won the wild-card game just two nights earlier on a late, key hit from another young phenom, Juan Soto.

In the raucous Champagne celebration in the clubhouse after that contest, Soto pulled an empty bottle out of a recycling bin so he would have something to hold. He won’t turn 21 for another three weeks.

“When you’re ready for the big leagues, it’s not dictated by birthdays,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said.

Washington Nationals left fielder Juan Soto hits a go ahead single during the eighth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 NL wild-card game.


Photo:

geoff burke/Reuters

The more these bets on talent over experience pay off in October, the more emboldened teams are to keep making them. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series last year in part thanks to the breakout performance of third baseman Rafael Devers, now 22, who drove in nine postseason runs.

This year, the Dodgers put four rookies on their NLDS roster, three of whom are under 25. The Minnesota Twins named five players to their ALDS squad who debuted in the majors during the regular season. They included 22-year-old Luis Arraez, a surprise choice to start ALDS Games 1 and 2 at second base against the New York Yankees.

“How do I feel about sending inexperienced players out in playoff games? I feel really good about it,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I really don’t believe in guys being behind the eight ball just because they haven’t done something before.”

It wasn’t always that way. Jeff Francoeur, a former major-league outfielder and current TBS analyst, recalled a much harsher reality for very young players when he entered professional baseball at the beginning of the last decade. Back then, he said, “You could be 21 and could be hitting .400 in Double-A with 30 home runs, and they just weren’t going to bring you up.”

The landscape has changed dramatically, giving way to a parade of burgeoning superstars who are changing the way the industry views players in their early 20s. Soto and Lux have already put their stamps on the postseason. So have Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., 21, and Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres, 22.

Gleyber Torres hit the go-ahead, two-run double to propel the Yankees over the Twins in Game 1 of the ALDS.


Photo:

Elsa/Getty Images

Torres hit the go-ahead, two-run double to propel the Yankees over the Twins in Game 1 on Friday, then drove in a run in Saturday’s Game 2, another victory. “I’ve never seen anything like Gleyber,” teammate Aaron Judge said. “Especially at his age, 22, to be doing what he’s doing in the big leagues is something that’s unheard of.”

Ultimately, whichever team wins the World Series will almost certainly do so thanks to the significant contributions of a player who in another life would still be spending his weekends at frat parties.

There have been young standouts in the playoffs before. Alex Rodriguez was barely 20 when he made his postseason debut in 1995. A year later, Andruw Jones, just 19, became the youngest player ever to homer in the playoffs. But never before have so many players both this young and this freakishly talented come together on the stage of October.

To compare production across eras, baseball wonks use a metric called wins above replacement (WAR). A WAR of 4 or higher generally represents an All-Star caliber performance. For the first time in 110 years, seven different players aged 22 or younger reached that total in 2019, as calculated by the statistics website Baseball-Reference.

Five of them are in the playoffs: Acuña, Soto, Nationals outfielder Víctor Robles and two more Braves, infielder Ozzie Albies and pitcher Mike Soroka. (The other two are Devers and San Diego Padres infielder Fernando Tatís Jr.) Meanwhile, Torres and 22-year-old Houston Astros first baseman Yordan Álvarez both fell just short, at 3.9 and 3.7 WAR, respectively.

For much of baseball history, extremely young players were stigmatized. They were hazed mercilessly by teammates and viewed with skepticism by higher-ups, who often valued experience over ability—especially in the playoffs.

Then a few young superstars, notably Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, redefined the notion of “old enough.” In recent years, many of the longstanding, unwritten clubhouse rules requiring young players to show deference to their elders have been all but abolished.

Before homering in his first playoff at-bat, Lux received guidance from veteran teammate Justin Turner and recently retired infielder Chase Utley about how to calm his nerves in October. Their advice? “Just breathe. It’s the same game,” Lux said. “Very simple stuff, but it goes a long way.”

With so many young players around, it’s not as if the old-timers have much of a choice but to adjust. “It’s the whole mind-set, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “There’s so many young players around, so you’ve got to conform, and you’ve got to understand the way they think.”

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. hits a two-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the ninth inning of Game 1 of the NLDS.


Photo:

brett davis/Reuters

With players this young in such integral postseason roles, mistakes can happen. The Braves saw that during their Game 1 NLDS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, when Acuña neglected to run out a ball he hit off the right-field wall, keeping him to a single.

A few innings later, Acuña demonstrated why he’s worth the occasional lapse. He blasted a home run that traveled 455 feet. It served as an important reminder: Experience matters in October—but nothing matters more than sheer talent.

“The best players are going to make plays,” Baldelli said. “Sometimes it’s the guy that has the experience, and a lot of the times it’s not.”

Share Your Thoughts

For much of baseball history, extremely young players were stigmatized. Is it nice to see more teams opting for talent over experience in the postseason?

Write to Jared Diamond at jared.diamond@wsj.com and Brian Costa at brian.costa@wsj.com

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