Suppose we banned all the old guys from the All-Star Game.
Yes, suppose we just fielded an All-Star team of players 25 and younger. Think we'd have a tough time? Boy, would you be wrong.
We could line up an outfield of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton. We could start an infield of Anthony Rizzo, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Nolan Arenado. With Salvador Perez catching. And Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson and Manny Machado coming off the bench (among others).
We could run out a starting rotation of Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, with Jose Fernandez as our secret weapon. Then Trevor Rosenthal could come stomping in there to strike out the side in the ninth.
What do you think? Could we win a few games with a team such as that? Even more importantly, could we build a whole sport around a galaxy of young stars such as that?
We think we could. You might not have fully grasped it, but this is a special time in baseball. This is a time when the sport has more players 25 and under making a significant impact than we've seen in years.
• As you might have heard, there will be 20 players age 25 or younger on the rosters of the two All-Star teams Tuesday night. How many times has that happened before in 85 previous All-Star Games? Zero.
• There's good reason for that. Incredibly, 11 of the 30 franchises reached the All-Star break with a player 25 or under leading the team in Wins Above Replacement. ESPN's Stats and Info wizards tell us that, though that has happened a few times through the years, there hasn't been a full season with more than that in 35 years -- not since a dozen in 1980 that included Rickey Henderson, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount and Andre Dawson, whoever they were.
• If you want to go even younger, an amazing total of seven position players 23 and younger are on pace to rack up at least five Wins Above Replacement this season. Do you know how many full seasons in history have produced seven hitters that young and worth at least five wins apiece? One. In 1964, when Dick Allen, Bill Freehan, Jim Fregosi, Boog Powell and Joe Torre were leading that list -- and the crop was so deep future Cooperstown luminaries Carl Yastrzemski, Lou Brock and Willie Stargell didn't make that cut.
• But wait, we've got even more evidence that this is the deepest group of young hitters in a generation: You'll find 14 hitters age 25 or younger with at least 200 plate appearances and an Adjusted OPS+ of 125 or better. We've seen only two seasons since 1900, according to baseball-reference.com, when that many position players 25 and under finished the year with an OPS+ that far above league average (minimum 400 plate appearances). One was 1969, when men such as Johnny Bench, Rod Carew and Reginald M. Jackson were just pulling onto the highway to Cooperstown. The other was 1963, when an amazing group of future megastars was led by Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Billy Williams and that Yastrzemski guy.
• You might have noticed the collection of young pitchers these days isn't too humdrum, either. We have seven starters 25 and under -- Cole, Gray, Shelby Miller, Lance McCullers, Jake Odorizzi, Robbie Ray and Mike Montgomery -- who have worked at least 50 innings and have an Adjusted ERA+ of 150 or better. If they keep that up, they will blow away the record for most in a full season in the live-ball era. That record (counting only starters with 100 innings or more) was just five, and it was set nearly half a century ago, in 1969 -- when Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton headed that class.
As we were saying, the word of the day is "special." It's always a unique moment when a collection of phenoms such as this starts blowing up the league-leader lists together. Inside the sport itself, that realization has begun to sink in.
Take John Hart, for instance. The Braves' president of baseball operations has been in the game for 45 years. He remembers, as a kid, the first great wave of young African-American stars -- Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Banks -- entering baseball in the 1950s. He recalls the dazzling players who came along in the '90s, after he first became a general manager -- Griffey, Bagwell, Thomas, Alomar, Pedro, etc.
"But with this group, we have, for me, that third era of really, really special players," Hart said. "And you know what? I think they might have talent better than any of them.
"Like Harper, Trout and Stanton," Hart said. "Start the list with them. In any era, I think they'd be very special players. But then you have Bryant, Rizzo, [George] Springer, Altuve, Machado, Pederson, Arenado. And we haven't even talked yet about Correa or [Byron] Buxton or [Maikel] Franco. That's special, special talent. And it's coming from everywhere."
At a time when guys don't age as well as they used to (yes, you know why) and baseball is looking harder than ever for players who can emerge as the next faces of the sport, the timing of this group is excellent. It's no coincidence that MLB and the players' union have picked this season, finally, to join forces in a way they never have before to promote this array of stars at a level that has long been overdue.
If you've seen any of the fabulous "THIS" commercials, featuring the likes of Harper, Trout, Stanton, Bryant and Yasiel Puig -- and extending to the incredible debuts of players such as Steven Matz and Joey Gallo -- you know baseball understands exactly what it needs to do to ride this wave.
"We need our heroes," said John Thorn, the official historian of MLB. "And baseball provides us with a myth-making machine. It's one of the great things about this sport."
Well, the other great thing about this sport is the heroes of this generation connect so seamlessly with the heroes of the golden ages that came before them. Here's a look at some of the young myth-makers who will be shining brightly Tuesday night in Cincinnati and the stars of yesteryear they remind us of -- along with a bonus look at a few of the hotshot millennials lining up right behind them:
Mike Trout (age 23)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: Boy, where do we start? Where do we stop? Trout has already hit 25 home runs this season -- for the fourth straight season. He is headed for his fourth season in a row with an OPS over .900, and he hasn't turned 24 yet. The only two players in history to do that before their age-24 season were Mel Ott (five in a row) and Ted Williams (four). Oh, them again!
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: You always hesitate to play the "Mickey Mantle reincarnate" card. But Mantle was the name that came up over and over when I asked the question. "He's been hearing that since he got drafted, and you never want to hang that on anybody," one scout said. "But in retrospect [laugh], that might have been a little light."
Bryce Harper (age 22)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: On pace to hit .339, with a .704 slugging percentage and 1.168 OPS. OK, even if we assume he can't keep that up, he's still headed for something amazing. Just two players have hit .330 or better, slugged at least .650 and had an OPS over 1.000 in their age-22 season. You might have heard of them: Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: Harper is a tough guy to categorize. The best description I heard was this one: He's a blend of Pete Rose and Reggie Jackson, as if that were even possible. "Reggie because he had the flair for the dramatic that this guy has," an AL scout said. "And Pete because he plays very much like Pete played."
Giancarlo Stanton (age 25)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: Let's see now. If Stanton returns from his broken hamate bone to hit 19 more home runs this year, that would give him 200 before his 26th birthday. Only seven men have done that: Foxx, Eddie Mathews, Alex Rodriguez, Ott, Mantle, Albert Pujols and Frank Robinson. They all went on to hang out in the 500 Homer Club. One more thing: This man is a human NASA launch pad. Since 2010, Stanton has hit eight rockets that traveled at least 470 feet. No team (besides his) has hit more than five in that span.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: Stanton isn't just a man who hits home runs. He's a man who hurts the baseball. The best name I heard him compared with was another big dude who once did that -- Dick Allen. "Very, very similar in pure raw strength and a similar style," a veteran AL scout said. "But to be honest, I don't know if I've ever seen the kind of power this guy has. And I go back to [Harmon] Killebrew when I was a kid."
Manny Machado (age 23)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: He just turned 23 last week -- and he got there with 91 career doubles and 50 career homers. How many players since 1900 put up those numbers before their 23rd birthday? Just 14. Seven of them went on to be Hall of Famers (Ott, Williams, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Al Kaline, Johnny Bench and Orlando Cepeda). At least two more (Ken Griffey Jr., Miguel Cabrera) will be joining them by the time Manny shows up on the ballot.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: He's a big guy and a shortstop by trade who is now playing third base in Baltimore. Sound familiar? "He might be more like Cal Ripken [Jr.] than anybody in the game today," a longtime NL scout said.
Madison Bumgarner (age 25)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: The heck with what Bumgarner has done between April and September. How about what he's done in October? He has made four World Series starts since age 21 -- and won them all. His career World Series ERA is 0.25, the lowest by any pitcher in history. Who else crammed two wins, a save and a shutout into the same World Series? Nobody. Just him. Apparently, he's pretty good.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: For one thing, this is a very large man. For another thing, MadBum has a look about him that conjures images of Steve Carlton back in the day. "Carlton had that stoic look on his face, like, 'Here it is. Hit it. But you're not gonna hit it,'" one scout noted with a chuckle. "Sort of like Madison Bumgarner."
Sonny Gray (age 25)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: How good a start to his career has baseball's most underrated starter had? This ought to sum it up: He had more quality starts in his first 50 starts (38) than any pitcher since Dwight Gooden -- three decades ago.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: I heard all kinds of comparisons when I brought up Gray's name, from Greg Maddux to Bert Blyleven. But the most fun was a blast from Oakland's past -- Catfish Hunter. "Catfish wasn't a huge, physical guy," an NL scout said. "He was also an Oakland guy, and he pounded the strike zone all day, just like this guy."
Anthony Rizzo (age 25)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: He is well on his way to back-to-back seasons of 30-plus homers and a .900 OPS. You know how many first basemen in the past 50 years have done that two years in a row by age 25? Four: Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Pujols and Mark Teixeira. How'd they turn out?
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: The same two names kept coming up. One was McGriff. The other was the name we'll go with -- Stargell. "Day in and day out, this guy grinds out quality at-bats," one scout said. "He can really field, and he shows great leadership qualities too."
Gerrit Cole (age 24)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: All Gerrit Cole does is win. Since his big-league debut, he is 34-15 (a .694 win percentage) to go with a 3.09 ERA. The only other pitchers in the big leagues who can match or beat that win total, win percentage and ERA since then? Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Bumgarner. Heard of them?
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: Roger Clemens comparisons anyone? "He's a horse," one AL scout said. "He's just got it. The guts and the stuff. The ability to excel under pressure. Doesn't back down. The whole package of what a No. 1 pitcher should be. I love how ticked off he gets when he doesn't execute a pitch, but he gets rid of that real quick and goes back to work. The Rocket used to approach a game like that."
Jose Altuve (age 25)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: It feels like Altuve is always on base, and once he gets there, thanks to his wheels, he sure doesn't need Google Maps to find his way from first base to second. On Sunday, he got his 500th hit to go with 116 stolen bases over the past three seasons. The only player within 50 hits and 50 steals of him in that span would be . . . some guy named Trout.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: Would you believe Frankie Frisch? Not that we tracked down anyone who saw Frisch play in person, but "watch the old footage," one AL scout said with a laugh. "Reminded me of [Altuve] when I watched him. Scrappy. With heart. And tons of contact." Not to mention, Altuve in 2014: 225 hits, .341 batting average. Frisch in 1923: 223 hits, .348 batting average.
Salvador Perez (age 25)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: We could extol many of Perez's virtues, but here's the biggest: He loves to catch. He lives to catch. Over the past three seasons, he has caught 40 more games than anyone else in baseball and 84 more than anyone else in the American League. If he matches or exceeds the 146 games he caught last year, he'd be only the fourth catcher in the past 35 seasons to catch 146-plus two seasons in a row. The others: Jason Kendall (2003-04-05), Tony Pena (1983-84-85) and Jody Davis (1983-84).
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: So many great names came up: Pena, Manny Sanguillen, Benito Santiago, even Yadi. But we'll settle on Sandy Alomar Jr. -- "because he can do more than just throw or just catch or just hit," a longtime AL scout said. "He does all of that. He's a big dude, and he's a big part of that team. He takes charge. I love it."
Nolan Arenado (age 24)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: We'll get into his Human Web Gem qualities momentarily, but how about this: He's on pace to hit 28 home runs away from Coors Field this season -- and only 16 at home. Just two Rockies in history have had a season in which they bopped at least 20 road homers and had more on the road than in Colorado -- Larry Walker in 1997 (29 road, 20 home) and Vinny Castilla in 2004 (21 road, 14 home).
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: Let's see now. Which power-hitting third baseman -- who was destined to win a Gold Glove every year for about a decade -- is Arenado most reminiscent of? You have your pick of Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, Scott Rolen and Ron Santo. We heard all those names. "He's really a cross of Rolen, Schmidt and Brooks," one scout said. "Forget the offense. The stuff he does defensively boggles the mind."
Trevor Rosenthal (age 25)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: One thing you can always count on with the Cardinals' trusty closer: He can blow up the radar gun. Over the past three seasons, he's thrown 658 pitches clocked at 98 mph or higher. That's the third-most of all full-time relievers, behind only Aroldis Chapman and Kelvin Herrera. In a related development, he has struck out at least one hitter in 151 appearances in that span, the most by any reliever in the sport.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: Pick a fireball closer -- any fireball closer. You won't be wrong. But one scout said: "He's got that animal Goose Gossage look. Now Goose did it with the slider, and this guy does it with the fastball, but it's The Look. He ain't exactly smiling and winking at you out there, like 'Field of Dreams.'"
Michael Wacha (age 24)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: He hasn't been around long, and he's never had a full, healthy season. But since his debut in 2013, he is 19-10 with a 3.00 ERA and a .232 opponent batting average. The only starters in baseball who can match that ERA, opponent average and win percentage in that time (with at least 200 innings) are Kershaw, Scherzer, Greinke, Johnny Cueto and Jose Fernandez. Fun guys to hang with!
PITCHER HE REMINDS US OF: He has that Adam Wainwright look. But since the rules of this piece require us to go back at least a generation, how about Jim Palmer? "Palmer had that high arm angle like this guy and worked downhill, with that big breaking ball," one scout said. "That comp works for me."
Kris Bryant (age 23)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: This just in: The Cubs have been around a while. But according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant is the first Cubs rookie ever to reach 10 homers, 40 runs scored and 40 RBIs before the end of June. Yeah -- ever.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: I heard lots of fun names with this guy: Frank Howard. Mark McGwire. Dave Kingman. Troy Glaus. "But if you want to go farther back, how about Eddie Mathews?" one NL scout said. "The same tremendous raw power. Struggled at times defensively. But to be honest, I haven't seen anybody with this kind of right-handed power, aside from Stanton, in a long time."
Joc Pederson (age 23)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: He has already mashed 20 home runs, which puts him on pace for close to 40. How many rookies in the history of the National League have had a 40-homer season? Zero. How many have done it in the history of baseball? One: Mark McGwire. Just sayin'.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: To be honest, there has never been a guy who combined Pederson's package of power, patience, defense and whiffs. But if you don't take the strikeout total too seriously, "he reminds me of Fred Lynn," one scout said. "Power, defense and the way he carries himself."
PERENNIAL ALL-STARS OF THE FUTURE
Jose Fernandez (age 22)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: He just made his triumphant return from Tommy John surgery. But before his journey to greatness was so rudely interrupted, here's how dominant this guy was: He was the 132nd pitcher since earned runs became an official stat (in 1913) to pitch at least 200 innings through his age-21 season. Just two of them had lower ERAs than Fernandez had (2.25) -- Al Mamaux (1.98) and Babe Ruth (2.11) -- and those two started their careers well before the invention of Twitter (more than a century ago).
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: Have we seen anyone quite like this guy? "He reminds me of Pedro [Martinez], only he's so much bigger and stronger," one NL scout said. "He's got Pedro stuff, though. And he's high-energy. And he's in attack mode on every pitch. So really, Pedro is probably the only guy you can compare him to."
Carlos Correa (age 20)
WHAT HE HAS DONE: Try to digest this. How many 20-year-olds in the live-ball era erupted for 14 extra-base hits in the first 20 games of their careers? That would be none. How many shortstops in the live-ball era gapped nine doubles in their first 20 games? That would also be none. How many players this young stole three bases or more in any game since 1900? Two: Ty Cobb and Rickey Henderson. This kid might have a future.
PLAYER HE REMINDS US OF: We worry about dropping the term "young A-Rod" because you might take it the wrong way. But we can't help it because you hear that comparison a lot -- "except he's a better defender," one scout said. He has a little Troy Tulowitzki in him -- "only he's slicker, smoother," another scout said. He has some ingredients of the young Ripken too -- "but more athletic," a third scout said. It comes down to this: "He has a chance to be the best player in the game. Every once in a while, you see a special kid like this come along. He's in with the greats. It's that simple."
COULD EASILY HAVE MADE THIS LIST
Freddie Freeman (age 25)
Andrelton Simmons (age 25)
Eric Hosmer (age 25)
Anthony Rendon (age 25)
Jason Heyward (age 25)
Shelby Miller (age 24)
Yasiel Puig (age 23)
Carlos Martinez (age 23)
GET BACK TO US IN A YEAR
Roberto Osuna (age 20)
Byron Buxton (age 21)
Addison Russell (age 21)
Francisco Lindor (age 21)
Joey Gallo (age 21)
Lance McCullers (age 21)
Miguel Sano (age 22)
Maikel Franco (age 22)
Xander Bogaerts (age 22)
Mookie Betts (age 22)
Noah Syndergaard (age 22)
Taijuan Walker (age 22)
Kyle Schwarber (age 22)
Carlos Rodon (age 22)
Eduardo Rodriguez (age 22)
Gregory Polanco (age 23)
Jorge Soler (age 23)
Randal Grichuk (age 23)
Joe Panik (age 24)
Kolten Wong (age 24)
Kevin Gausman (age 24)
Steven Matz (age 24)
Yasmany Tomas (age 24)
Devon Travis (age 24)
Ken Giles (age 24)
Julio Teheran (age 24)
Yordano Ventura (age 24)
Cody Anderson (age 24)
Jose Iglesias (age 25)
Kelvin Herrera (age 25)
George Springer (age 25)
Kevin Kiermaier (age 25)
Jeurys Familia (age 25)
Danny Salazar (age 25)
ONCE IN A GENERATION
OTHER SEASONS LOADED WITH GREAT YOUNG PLAYERS (25 AND UNDER)
1956 -- Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Rocky Colavito
1963 -- Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski, Orlando Cepeda, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Joe Torre, Boog Powell, Vada Pinson
1975 -- George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Greg Luzinski, Cesar Cedeno
1984 -- Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr., Rickey Henderson, Ryne Sandberg, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Don Mattingly