BBTN 100: Top players part of a special time in baseball

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Here's a fun piece of trivia: 2015 might have been the most superstar-studded season in MLB history.

Not buying that argument? Reluctant to appreciate the brilliance of this generation of players? Here's my evidence: According to the Baseball-Reference.com Wins Above Replacement metric, six players achieved at least 8.8 WAR in 2015 -- Bryce Harper (9.9), Zack Greinke (9.9), Mike Trout (9.4), Jake Arrieta (9.0), Josh Donaldson (8.8) and Paul Goldschmidt (8.8).

For the record, FanGraphs' WAR formula wasn't so generous, with Harper at 9.5, Trout at 9.0, Donaldson and Clayton Kershaw at 8.7; the others below 8.0; and Greinke all the way down at 5.9. (Baseball-Reference focuses more on runs allowed for pitchers, while FanGraphs ignores runs and relies on peripherals, so Greinke rates better on the former due to his 1.66 ERA.)

Anyway, I'm focusing on Baseball-Reference because it has this nifty page of the top 10 players in WAR for each season, making it easy to scroll through history and compare the leaders. For example:

  • There were seven 8-WAR players in 2011, but only Cliff Lee reached 8.8.

  • 2004 was a big season with Barry Bonds, Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen and Ichiro Suzuki valued as 9-WAR players and five others topping 8 WAR -- but none of those hit 8.8.

  • 1997 came close with Roger Clemens, Larry Walker, Craig Biggio, Ken Griffey Jr. and Pedro Martinez, but Mike Piazza just missed at 8.7. Yes, WAR calculations aren’t precise enough to separate 8.7 from 8.8, so we can’t get too caught up in these small differences. We’re just creating a line of comparison.

  • 1977 was a monster season. Rod Carew chased .400. George Foster hit .320 with 52 home runs and 149 RBIs. Mike Schmidt was Mike Schmidt. And Tom Seaver put up a big season. Eight players reached 8.0 WAR but only three topped out at 8.8 or higher.

I keep going back into history and ... going back ... and I have to go back to 1912. Eight players reached the 8.8 mark that year -- six of them Hall of Famers, another left out due to extenuating circumstances and the eighth a pitcher who won 34 games: Walter Johnson (14.6), Ed Walsh (12.2), Joe Wood (11.7), Tris Speaker (10.1), Joe Jackson (9.6), Home Run Baker (9.3), Ty Cobb (9.2) and Eddie Collins (8.8). That group doesn't even include Honus Wagner, checking in at 8.1 WAR, or Christy Mathewson at 7.3 WAR.

As for 2016, it's not surprising that all six of our leaders cracked the top 10 in the #BBTN100. You'll have to watch tonight to see the final order, but it seems likely that Trout, Harper and Kershaw will be in the top three. I might consider putting Kershaw second due to his sustained excellence: three Cy Young Awards and four ERA titles in the past five seasons; and 2015 might have been his most dominant year yet, as he struck out 301 batters in 232.2 innings. I could see ranking Goldschmidt higher than Harper, since Harper battled injuries in 2013 and 2014 and has to prove he has the durability to play 150 games every season.

That's a minor quibble, however. What's impressive about those three is their youth: Trout is still just 24, Harper is 23 and old man Kershaw just turned 28. These guys still have many peak seasons remaining; good luck dislodging them from the top any time soon (although I suspect Carlos Correa will make a good run at them). Compare their ages to 2001, when the top six players were all in their 30s: Bonds (36), Sammy Sosa (32), Randy Johnson (37), Jason Giambi (30), Bret Boone (32) and Curt Schilling (34).

That's a little bit of cherry-picking, of course, as that era was ripe with, umm, older-than-typical stars. The last time the Royals won the World Series was 1985. The top player that year was 20-year-old Dwight Gooden, followed by Rickey Henderson (26), Wade Boggs (27), George Brett (32) and John Tudor (31). That's probably a little more conventional age distribution. AL Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen was just 21 and ranked in the top-10 overall, as well.

Thirty years before that, the top players in 1955 were Mickey Mantle (23), Willie Mays (24), Snider (28), Al Kaline (20), Ernie Banks (24) and Eddie Mathews (23). Hank Aaron, 21 years old and in his first full season, ranked 10th overall. Obviously, that group would dominate the leaderboards over the next decade and longer.

So maybe this 2016 group isn't quite unique, but maybe we are on the brink of another legendary generation. Correa is 21; Manny Machado, coming off a 35-homer season, is 23; Kris Bryant is 24; Marlins ace Jose Fernandez is 23; Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado turns 25 in April. Those guys all ranked in the top 30 of the #BBTN100.

Put it this way: There's a good reason we keep talking about all these young stars. Maybe it's not quite unprecedented, but it is a special time in baseball history.