Into the New Age of MLB Sluggers

2017

The 2017 MLB season has been a very interesting one so far. It’s been filled with many previously average players suddenly playing like stars, such as Marcell Ozuna, Aaron Hicks, and Zack Cozart among others. It has had underachieving former top prospects finally coming into their own with Logan Morrison, Yonder Alonso, and Justin Smoak all top 10 in wRC+. We’ve seen young sluggers like Cody Bellinger, Joey Gallo, Miguel Sano, Aaron Judge, Scott Schebler, Ryon Healy and others be among the league leaders in home runs without all that much MLB experience. It is this last idea that seems the most interesting at the moment because of where the MLB seems to be going.

After perusing the offensive leaderboards and noticing all of the things above, I realized this has been a very different year for this year’s home run leaders than the ones from the past. In the past 15 years or so, we have been used to seeing guys like Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Miguel Cabrera and other big time sluggers dominate the leaderboards year to year. However, as time has passed, we have seen many of these guys either retire or reach a point in their careers where their power just is no longer prolific.

A Change to New and Young

We are now at a point where we are seeing some of the newest blood in the home run leaderboards that we have seen in a couple of decades. In looking back at the top 30 home run hitters each season going from 2016 back until 2000, the average age of those players is 29.3 years old. Now if you look at the average age of the top 30 players in home runs in 2017, it drops to the lowest of any year in the 2000s all the way down to 27.67 years old. In fact, only other four seasons in that time below the average age of 29 are 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2012, still none below 28. The oldest average age was in 2003, all the way up to 30.5 average age.

The younger age of sluggers is not the only difference from the past to now. Going from 2000-2017 and taking 30 players a season, that gives us a total of 540 players who have been top 30 in home runs overall. When you look year to year at the number of combined seasons those players have been in the top 30 from 2000-2017, this season has brought in a huge change.

(Just to show an example of what I am talking about below this, from 2000-2017 Albert Pujols has been in the top 30 home run leaders 15 times. He has done this every season of his career outside of 2013 and 2017 so far. Therefore any season outside of 2013 or 2017 adds 15 to seasons to the number of combined seasons on the leaderboards. Miguel Cabrera has done this 11 times, so this would add 11 to any season in which he has done it to the number of combined seasons.)

The Past to Now

From 2000-2016, the average number of combined seasons by players in the top 30 in home runs was almost 144 seasons. This ranged from 114 in 2014 all the way up to 170 in 2006. In 2017, the MLB is all the way down to just 67 combined seasons. This is the lowest of any season in the 2000s by 47 combined seasons.

Average Age Number of Combined Seasons On Leaderboards
2000 29.4 121
2001 29.433 140
2002 29.6 144
2003 30.5 140
2004 29.9 164
2005 29.867 158
2006 29.633 170
2007 28.4 164
2008 29.133 156
2009 28.3 138
2010 29.1 161
2011 28.8 154
2012 28.4 128
2013 29.333 138
2014 29.167 114
2015 29.267 135
2016 29.667 119
2017 27.667 67

What we have seen to this point in 2017 is a huge change in which sluggers are hitting home runs. Not only do we have the least amount of combined seasons from players in the top 30, but just 14 of the ones from this season have ever been in the top 30 from any other season. That means that we have 16 brand new players to the home run leaderboards.

As mentioned before, some of these 16 new top 30 home run leaders are young in their first two to three seasons (Bellinger, Judge, Schebler, Healy, Bour, Gallo, Davidson, Lamb, Springer, Sano) or they are veterans who have finally put it all together (Morrison, Ozuna, Smoak, Thames, Moustakas, Alonso). There are still some established power hitters in the group of the 14 who have done this multiple times (Goldschmidt, Votto, Arenado, Reynolds, Trout, Bruce, Stanton, Rizzo, Encarnacion), but nothing like we’ve had in years past.

In fact, the gap from 2000-2016 to 2017 is so big, Encarnacion is the slugger who has been on the most top 30 home run leaderboards having done it six times, by far the lowest leader of any year since 2000.

Future Sluggers

Recently I have written about some of these players doing amazing things so young and so early into their careers that this shouldn’t necessarily be a huge surprise. What’s more of a surprise is seeing players like Smoak, Alonso, Thames, Morrison and others play for so long without much real success, and finally explode in their late 20s. Still, the potential was always there for these guys to do this, and it makes sense to finally see this for some of them.

Age plays a huge factor in this as well. Of the top 30 home run hitters in 2017, a whopping 22 of them are below 30 years old. This is the lowest amount of any season of the 2000s. There are only three other seasons with either 20 or 21 players below 30. The average number of players below 30 years old from 2000-2016 is actually just 17. Seeing 2017 have five more than the average shows how unique this season truly is.

Of course, the season is still just under half way over, and there is time for sluggers like Cabrera, Pujols, Bautista, J. Upton and other older players to go on a tear and make their way back to the top 30 changing the complexion of this data. But even if they do, it’s clear that we are starting to see a change in the power hitters of the game, and that we are likely to be seeing these new names many times more in the near future rather than the relics from the past.