Is Team Chemistry Dead?

Earlier this month, former Reds player Adam Dunn sat down with Jerry Crasnick of ESPN and reflected on his career and his role as a pioneer of the “three true outcomes” (home runs, walks, strikeouts) movement. When asked about other ways the game has changed since debuting in 2001, Dunn quickly replied that team chemistry is “dead” and that young players “didn’t respect the older guys anymore.” His comments may at first seem absurd, given the memory of the 2016 Chicago Cubs clubhouse culture and reverence of veterans such as David Ross that helped them to break their 108-year title drought. When you consider the current state of the game, however, Dunn’s comments do have a certain ring of truth to them.

Baseball, like most things, evolves. Players, fans, and MLB officials are constantly engaged in discourse over ways to make the game more appealing, ranging from topics as simple as bat flips to as controversial as pitch clocks. It is this ability to effect change that has allowed and will continue to allow baseball to endure as America’s national sport (sorry, football). Right now, the two sides of debaters can be classified as traditionalists and progressives. The former aim to preserve that which made the game great in the “good old days,” while the latter look for ways to draw a younger fanbase and make the game exciting, a la Bryce Harper’s “make baseball fun again.” Led by 100115-MLB-Bryce-Harper-34-of-the-Washington-Nationals-PI.vresize.1200.675.high_.78Commissioner Rob Manfred, the progressive movement has gained steam as initiatives such as replay review and automatic intentional walks were successfully implemented. What Manfred does not control, however, is the influx of young talent that is sweeping through the league.

In recent years, teams have begun hoarding talented prospects. Look no further than those same 2016 Cubs for an example of a successful team built around a core of young stars. Players like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Wilson Contreras took starring roles on the game’s biggest stage. At the time, the oldest of those four was a mere 24 years old. The 2017 Houston Astros are well on their way to fulfilling Sports Illustrated’s 2014 prediction that they would win it all. Their team is led by All-Stars Carlos Correa (22), George Springer (27), and Jose Altuve (27), while receiving key contributions in the rotation from Lance McCullers (23). The Astros sport the second-best record in baseball at 64-32 and represent the class of the American League, largely due to their enviable young core and stocked farm system. The Washington Nationals are led by a pair of 24-year-olds in Bryce Harper—who at 24 is actually younger than Kris Bryant—and Trea Turner, while also relying heavily on Anthony Rendon (27) and Michael A. Taylor (26). The Los Angeles Dodgers have watched Corey Seager (23), Cody Bellinger (22), and Joc Pederson (25) receive All-Star nominations and MVP votes while leading the franchise to what will likely be its fifth consecutive division title as they boast the best record in baseball at 66-31. The list goes on, with teams like the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians featuring some of baseball’s brightest young stars.

The success of teams like the Cubs, Astros, and Nats and the hype surrounding prospect-rich teams like the Yankees, Braves, and Brewers, mark the distinct shift in star-power in baseball from older veterans to young studs who emerge from the minors to make an immediate impact. Thrust into key roles almost immediately, these young players prove themselves to be both reliable and affordable. That last point is important; teams have realized that as the price of veteran free agents continues to rise, homegrown prospects can be controlled for six or seven years and at considerably less than a comparable veteran while also carrying little to no risk of decline due to age.

Manny Machado smiles orangeThe evidence of the impact these young players are having is glaringly obvious. In 2016 alone, nine of the twelve highest WARs in baseball belonged to players 25 or under, a list that includes Mike Trout, Bryant, Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Manny Machado, and Francisco Lindor. This list does not include players like Gary Sanchez and Trea Turner, who put up monster second-half numbers, or the aforementioned Carlos Correa, who had a great season last year but found a way to take another step forward in 2017 before his latest injury. That list also leaves out Nolan Arenado, who for the past three years has quietly put himself on a Hall of Fame track. Or Bellinger and Aaron Judge, both young guys putting up impressive numbers and making themselves near locks for Rookie of the Year.

In short, ever since the youth movement began sweeping through the sport, all these talented young players have created a shift in star power. With that shift comes a change in clubhouse culture, the one Adam Dunn alluded to. The logic is quite simple: when veterans are no longer the focal point of a team’s success, but rather are kept around simply to mentor and provide “intangibles,” they will not receive the same type of respect that Dunn was accustomed to giving and hoped to receive one day. These young stars carry a certain confidence that comes from two places: playing baseball practically year-round (thereby requiring less developmental time in college and the minors) and being valued as highly as their teams do. The question becomes whether this shift is good or bad for the game.

While I, like most people, think it important to respect our elders both in baseball and life, I have no choice but to enjoy this historic youth movement. The excitement that these top prospects bring when they turn potential into production at the highest level draws fans in. It helps the game reach a younger audience and thus ensures its longevity.

Dunn may be right that team chemistry as he knew it is gone. We are witnessing a World Series Cubs Indians Baseballtransition that will one day be recorded in the annals of baseball history for the fans that come after us. The shift in clubhouse dynamic, marked by the shift in star power to baseball’s youth movement, will lead the game to greater heights and guarantee its prominence in American culture.

Stats current as of July 22nd

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