Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Youth Explosion

After considering the amount of young talent that has been introduced into baseball lately, I began to wonder just how large the influx has been and what some of the causes behind it might be. Sabermetrics guru Bill James recently stated that he had already looked into the phenomenon and had concluded based off of statistical analysis of players under the age of 25, that there is more young talent now in baseball than there has been in 40 years, and even perhaps the history of the game. He didn’t give specific numbers as far as I could tell, so I’ll have to take his word for it, but I think I can give some reasons as to why this youth movement might be occurring.

Perhaps the greatest single contributor to the increase in young talent is the globalization of the game. When teams began establishing youth player programs in Latin American countries, literally hundreds of thousands to millions of young players had access to proper equipment, a chance to learn the fundamentals of baseball, and most importantly the opportunity to turn their talent into large sums of cash. Such programs have been so successful that similar initiatives have been undertaken on every continent, with the obvious exception of Antartica. There is a brewing controversy over the ethical nature of such youth programs, mostly because it pulls so many young players – often as young as 10 or 12 years old – away from family and a formal education, only to have 98-99% of them fail to ever advance beyond the basic levels of competition. Consequently, many of these young players are forced out of baseball by the age of 18 or 19, left with no marketable skill set and very little compensation for the years they devoted to baseball. For those players fortunate enough to make it to the majors, demands on their time and talents can essentially run their lives. During a particularly rough period in his personal life in 2004, Raul Mondesi began to receive heavy criticism when he left the Pittsburgh Pirates to return home to the Dominican Republic in order to address a law suit filed against him. “I've played 20 straight years of baseball all year round,” Mondesi said. “I deserve a rest even if it's only a few months. Today I took my children to school for the first time in my life. It was an amazing feeling."

The expansion of baseball into Latin America and other parts of the world has exponentially expanded the pool of available young talent. As more international stars make their impact on the game, more and more young players from the home countries set out to follow in their footsteps. If we put the odds of making it to the majors at about 1 in 100,000, and the odds of becoming a big league star at 1 in 1,000,000, then a worldwide increase of a few million young ball players should result in the production a considerable amount of major league caliber players, as well as a handful of future All-Stars. Such has been the case and the driving force behind baseball’s surge in international investments and scouting ventures, ultimately helping to add more and more players to the youth movement in baseball.

Another significant contributor to the youth movement has been the success of Moneyball. Whether you’re a fan of it or not, the low-budget, high-tech approach to running a ball club based on stats and formulas has had a major impact on not only how the game is played but also on how teams scout and evaluate young talent. Skills that were previously overlooked or players that were dismissed due to body type or other subjective traits are now valued and appreciated by many teams. The success of the Atlanta Braves and Oakland Athletics in producing young and productive winning teams on limited budgets has convinced many GM’s and team owners to restructure their scouting and development departments, focusing more on low cost investments with high yields than expensive free agents. Recently, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein has founded several World Series Championship teams around hitters and ideals that would have been severely overlooked in previous eras. This new approach to recognizing and developing young talent has significantly increased the volume of productive young players and ultimately has led to a decrease in the reliance of teams on older, veteran players. The skyrocketing cost of free agent salaries continues to push teams to find cheap, productive players that are often found in the form of young prospects and draftees. Once a future star is found, teams have begun to take a very calculated approach when planning training regimens, and pitch counts and inning workloads are carefully recorded in order to decrease the risk of injury or burnout.

One final development that I feel has had an influence on the amount of young talent in baseball is the end of the Steroid Era. I might be going out on a limb with this one, but it only seems logical that as the level of performance enhancing drug use decreases, the ages of player productivity will decrease. Hitters and pitchers alike could more easily withstand the pressures of long seasons and lengthy careers when under the influence of steroids and growth hormones, resulting in more and more players playing well into their late-30’s and early 40’s. Without the physiological benefits afforded by performance enhancing drugs, injuries take longer to heal, bodies give out quicker and minor injuries develop into larger problems. All of these factors effectively increase the odds that a player will fall below necessary productivity levels at an earlier age, and will eventually be replaced by a younger player.

There are a lot of factors behind the youth movement in baseball, and I’ve only listed and described a few. Today’s game is very dynamic and the infusion of youth will have a deep impact on the future of baseball. Hopefully the changes will be good for the game, and the young stars of tomorrow will erase some of the painful memories of a tainted time in baseball’s history.

No comments: