Why So Many Rookies Are Debuting In 2020

This season's rookie class is large, and oh yes, they're in charge.

The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.

Except in baseball, the youth of today are the leaders of today. Rookies are making their debuts in baseball just about every day – you can track them here – but the impact this rookie class is having on the game is difficult to quantify.

After all, there’s an accepted narrative we tell about rookies: It takes time for rookies to acclimate to the speed of the pro game, to find their voice in the clubhouse – it takes time to gain the respect of their peers enough to truly lead their teammates on the field.

Take a look at the young players in this league, and you tell me how much more time they need to acclimate.

Rookie Classes

The Graduating Senior Class: Rookies of 2017

Frankly, these guys don’t even feel like young players anymore. Many are into their arbitration years already and looking for their first significant payday. Cody Bellinger won his first NL MVP last season at just 23-years-old. The Dodgers protected him against lefties for a spell, but come on: he hit 39 home runs (4.0 rWAR) as a 21-year-old rookie in 2017. Dude’s been a star since day 1. His teammate Walker Buehler also debuted that season. It was a good year for the Dodgers. Today, Buehler is 26-years-old and the ace of a staff that includes a guy who – at age 32 – already ranks 8th all-time in rWAR for southpaw starters. Rafael Devers was so good so young that the best moment of his career could already be behind him. Devers raked in the 2018 ALCS, slashing .385/.467/.615 in the four-game delayed sweep of the Astros after Devers sat – and the Red Sox lost – game one.

Other 2017 debuts: Ozzie Albies, Harrison Bader, Matt Chapman, Jack Flaherty, Mitch Garver, Rhys Hoskins, Victor Robles, and Alex Verdugo.

The Juniors: Rookies of 2018

Debut players from 2018 are among the best and most exciting players in the game. Juan Soto played a supped-up Robin to Anthony Rendon’s Batman to lead the Washington Nationals to a World Series. Ronald Acuna Jr. nearly posted a 40-40 year, led the league in stolen bases and runs, all of which culminated in his first top-5 finish in MVP voting (spoiler: it won’t be his last). Shane Bieber may be the best starting pitcher in the American League by year’s end, and at worst, he’s a frontline workhorse with a top-5 Cy Young nomination already under his belt.

Other 2018 debuts: Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe, Shohei Ohtani, Mike Soroka, and Gleyber Torres.

The Sophomores: Rookies of 2019

Last year’s rookies are hot on their heels. Fernando Tatis Jr. already captains his own squad in San Diego. He’s also the current NL leader in home runs and stolen bases (as well as total bases). Nick Anderson and James Karinchak are under-the-radar swing-and-miss ninja warriors en route to becoming two of the filthiest shutdown artists in the game. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has such an established place in the baseball zeitgeist that he needs no further explanation.

Other 2019 debuts: Bo Bichette, Randy Dobnak, Keston Hiura, Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, and Dustin May.

The Freshman: Rookies of 2020

We join the 2020 freshman class very much in progress. Many debuts are still to come, but already these rookies are making an impact. The Royals have both Brady Singer and Kris Bubic in their starting rotation. Neither pitched higher than Double-A last season – and Bubic didn’t even make it that far. Jo Adell committed a 4-base error in his first week in the Majors, but he robbed a home run just two games later. A born centerfielder, Adell is learning to play right next to the best player of all-time after just 32 starts there in 2019. Luis Robert was anointed Rookie of the Year before he even made his professional debut. After the White Sox extended him, all but assuring he’d start in center on Opening Day, excitement grew and it hasn’t tempered after a 111 wRC+ through the first 20 games. On an up-and-coming Chicago team, Robert has the opportunity to make the kind of impact that Soto and Acuna Jr. did just two years before him.

Other 2020 debuts: Dylan Carlson, Andres Gimenez, Spencer Howard, Nick Madrigal, Luis Patino, Nate Pearson, Daulton Varsho, and Evan White.

A Robust Freshman Class

The debut classes from 2018 and 2019 are click-your-heels-together, deal-with-the-devil awesome, but before you run out to buy the complete Topps set to store in a cool, dry place while it appreciates, consider this:

The 2020 debut class is even better. Or, at the very least, it’s bigger.

Through August 11th, teams had completed 27.1% of the full schedule. We can find a similar place in years past to see how the total number of debuts compare (68 in 2017, 75 in 2018, 85 in 2019, 90 this season). That sounds like a linear relationship with a small amount of year-over-year growth. Simply put: in a percentage-of-the-season played basis, we’re not so far off our usual pace.

But the 90 debuts that have happened across baseball this season have come in far fewer games.

With fewer games to play, one might assume that fewer rookies would have their chance to debut this season. In fact, the opposite is true. Rookies are debuting at a far faster rate this season on a per game basis. The orange line above shows us the raw total of debuts at this stage of the season, but the blue bars shows us how many games are coming between debuts.

In 2017, a new player made his Major League debut about once every 9.19 games. This season, we’re seeing a debut once every 2.71 games. Turn on any Major League game this season and you have a better than 1 in 3 chance to see a player you’ve never seen before.

With Nowhere Else To Go, They’re Here

So why are we seeing young players debut so much more frequently in 2020? It starts with this simple and obvious reason: they have nowhere else to go.

Without a minor league system in which to develop talent, teams are pushing their young players to the majors earlier than they might otherwise.

But that only explains part of this phenomenon. The conditions of the 2020 season have neutralized two significant barriers that typically keep players from the show.

The first is service time. Service time manipulation is still happening – we still require oxygen to breathe – but it took just 6 days to achieve the extra year of control this season as opposed to 3 weeks in a normal year. The “Kris Bryants” of this draft class barely had to wait a week before getting their call-up.

The second barrier is fear. Traditionally, teams are wary of rushing kids to the Majors and stunting their development. If they’re overmatched early on, the damage to a young player’s psyche could be irreversible. Think the depiction of Billy Beane in Moneyball. With diminished confidence comes changes to mechanics, chronic self-doubt, and before you know it, your star centerfielder is running the Oakland A’s. Or whatever.

This fear of stunting development is matched, however, by the fear of the perception of stunted development. Regardless of why a prospect flops, if there’s the perception that he was called up too early, the GM bears the brunt of that criticism, truth of the matter be damned. GMs have lost their jobs for less.

But now, the option to let these youngsters develop further in the Minors has been taken off the table. The decision the GMs have to make is different: bring their kids to the show…or leave them at home. That’s a much easier call to make! And harder to criticize.

(Before you ask, there is the option of the alternate training site for those included in the 60-man player pool, but that’s not a 1-for-1 stand-in for full-speed game action.)

The other reason we’re seeing more debuts is because there’s a genuine need. Injuries are up, and with two COVID-19 outbreaks thus far, any day could necessitate a complete overhaul of the active roster. This season has created a bizarre training schedule, and a bizarre travel schedule and teams simply need to flex their roster management skills more than usual. When half your team tests positive for coronavirus like in Florida and St. Louis, an extra rookie or two is going to get the call.

A related-but-smaller consideration is that we’ve seen a number of players opt-out. The player pool is shrinking. Not a huge amount, perhaps, but enough to give another handful of rookies their time to shine. The relationship between opt-outs and debuts probably isn’t 1-for-1, but it might not be as far off from that as you think.

Fewer barriers to entry, increased level of need due to injury, and veteran players opting out is the perfect storm for a season chock full of rookie debuts. The implications of this rookie increase are fodder for another day. For now, just let those kids play and enjoy the show. They may have only just debuted, but make no mistake and pay attention, because it only takes a second more:

Now they’ve arrived.

Featured image by Zach Ennis (@zachennis on Twitter)

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

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