How Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto made 2021 the best year ever for 22-year-olds
MLB 

There is a youth movement taking over baseball.

It doesn’t take more than a glimpse at the promotions put out by MLB and the latest cover star of the league’s most popular video game franchise to see the new wave of talent already leaving its mark. 

And it’s not just talk. These young players are delivering like never before. In particular, it’s been the 22-year-old players who are playing at another level. The trio of Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Nationals outfielder Juan Soto have helped make this the best year for 22-year-old hitters in the history of the sport as each has posted an MVP-caliber season in 2021.

What makes this year so much different than others? Let’s take a look.

Baseball’s aging curve

Young players take time to adapt, and old players start to slow down. That’s how it is in every sport, and baseball is certainly no exception. 

There are maybe some people concerned that the former No. 1 overall prospect in the game, Rays phenom Wander Franco, is only slashing .266/.327/.443 in his first taste of MLB action at age 20. Those same people might have been concerned when Guerrero posted a .272/.339/.433 slash line at the same age. Hitting takes time to pick up at the big-league level, which is why younger players don’t often hit the ground running.

From age 27 to 35, with the exception of age 32, batters have posted a weighted average of 102, indicating the peak years of performance. If you want to look simply at average OPS+ — not accounting for plate appearances — 29- and 30-year-olds are tied for the highest at 102.

That means that for all the young hitters out there excelling now, their peak is likely still to come. Mike Trout has been one of the best players in the game since he was 20 years old, but he didn’t really start hitting his peak until he was 25, with his 198 OPS+ as a 26-year-old so far representing his best season. Bryce Harper has posted his third- and second-best seasons to date as a 27- and 28-year-old, respectively, with his best campaign coming in his 2015 season when he was 22.

What could that mean for this year’s 22-year-old stars? It could be the start of something special, given what they’ve done.

2021’s class of 22-year-olds

There have been 17 players in the big leagues who have logged at least 10 plate appearances this season at age 22. Obviously, there are the top three who are runaways. But don’t sleep on Akil Baddoo of the Tigers and Dylan Carlson of the Cardinals, both of whom have enjoyed standout campaigns in their own right.

And while the overall number of 22-year-olds in this year’s group doesn’t match some earlier years, the combined production relative to the league has made it the best in baseball history.

The class has combined to post a 125 OPS+, which is the best combined OPS+ of any group of 22-year-olds in a single year. This season’s 22-year-olds have also posted a higher OPS+ than any other sub-34-year-old age group in baseball history. In 1961, Norm Cash, Al Kaline, Roger Maris and Roberto Clemente led a strong group of 26-year-olds. The combined OPS+ for 26-year-olds that year? 117. Yeah, this year’s 22-year-old stars are so good that they’re out-hitting an age group that featured Maris’ 61-homer season.

While Carlson, Baddoo and other young players have had standout campaigns, we’re focusing on Tatis, Guerrero and Soto. Tatis is the favorite to win the NL MVP, so long as he can stay healthy the rest of the season, and Guerrero would be the runaway AL MVP favorite if not for the historic nature of Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 campaign. Only eight players in MLB history have won an MVP during their age 22 season: Harper, Trout, Willie Mays, Hal Newhouser, Cal Ripken Jr., Stan Musial, Johnny Bench and Vida Blue. None of the players reached this peak until later in their careers.

Even putting aside the award talk, what these three have done in general this season is impressive. Tatis (179), Guerrero (170) and Soto (166) make up the top three in OPS+ among all qualifed batters in 2021 even ahead of Harper (163) and Ohtani (163). Only Ted Williams in 1941, Harper in 2015 and Musial in 1943 led the league in OPS+ at 22, and never has the top three been entirely comprised of 22-year-old hitters during the live ball era.

All-time best individual seasons by 22-year-olds

If a player is having a standout season at 22 years old, it bodes well for the rest of his career.

Among Hall of Famers from the live ball era, the average age for the first year in the majors is 21.02 years old. Only 29 of the 147 players played their first season in the majors after age 22. That doesn’t mean that everyone who debuts at 22 is destined for Cooperstown, but it goes without saying that if you’re finding success at that age, your chances of continued success go up. 

Take a look at the only players in the live ball era with an OPS+ over 160 at 22 with at least 350 plate appearances.

Five of the nine are in the Hall of Fame. Harper seems like a good bet to make the Hall. Trout is a lock. Yordan Alvarez is still young, but the track record of DH-only hitters getting in is not great.

We’re not saying that Tatis, Guerrero and Soto are guaranteed to make the Hall of Fame; they are 22 years old and have a long way to go. But let’s also not take for granted the impact these young players are having on the sport. They’re the best in baseball. And they’re here to stay for a long time.

All stats are updated as of Aug. 25, and average OPS+ numbers by age do not include park factors. 

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