Have Mantle, Mays and Aaron Returned?

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Last year, many fans and writers, including myself, depicted baseball as a struggling sport (e.g. “How to Fix What Ails Baseball”). We complained that games took too long (a record three hours and two minutes for the average nine-inning game in 2014) and that scoring had declined too much (the fewest runs per game since 1976) - a bad combination: long and boring. In addition, some bemoaned (particularly with Derek Jeter retiring) the absence of marquee players equivalent to those in other sports like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and LeBron James, or in baseball’s earlier days.

As the 2015 All-Star break approaches it’s apparent that things changed quickly. We’re enjoying a great season and no longer fussing over baseball’s problems.

A few modest changes in the off-season (for example, introducing a countdown clock for breaks between innings; making batters keep one foot in the batters box) decreased average game time by 10 minutes. Complaints about excessive length ceased.

Without any formal changes, simply allowing the regression to the mean that characterizes most of baseball history, home runs increased 10 percent this season, and mean batting average (.251 to .253) and runs per team per game (4.07 to 4.10) are up a tick. Not much difference in the latter, but simply reversing the trends seems to have satisfied fans (attendance also increased a tad).

Moreover, with the Dodgers' Joc Pederson entering the league and the Nationals' Bryce Harper blossoming, baseball now sports arguably the finest trio (including the Angels' Mike Trout) of youngsters since Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron entered the majors over 60 years ago. They might not ever capture the same national attention as the Hall-of-Fame triumvirate of yore: None of today’s threesome enjoy the New York limelight like Mantle and Mays did; nor do they have the charisma of the cap-flying-off, basket-catching, say-hey Mays; nor the Oklahoma mines upbringing, fear of early death, and valor in the face of injury pathos of Mantle; nor Aaron’s quiet dignity. Nobody knows how the careers of today’s three youngsters will play out and the Mantle/Mays/Aaron troika presents an incredibly high standard to meet. However, the play on the field of the three youngsters at 22 and 23 years old recalls the glorious early Mays/Mantle/Aaron period.

Trout has enjoyed one of the greatest starts ever to a career. He’s already won MVP once, been runner-up twice, and has 124 home runs and 111 stolen bases at the tender age of 23. Harper started slower, but this year he’s hitting over .340 with 25 home runs in half a season. It’s too early to put Pederson in that group, particularly as a recent slump took his batting average down to .230 (though in their rookie years, Mantle, Mays, and Aaron only hit from .267 to .280), but he’s on pace for almost 40 home runs. That would near the combined home run output of Mays, Mantle, and Aaron as rookies (46). In addition, Pederson has played a sensational centerfield; he’s an impressive combination of power and defense and only in his first full season.

Add Miami’s 25-year old Giancarlo Stanton, threatening a 60-home run season prior to injury, perhaps en route to the all-time career record. And Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, only 27, hitting .345 with a .460 on-base percentage, on pace for 40 home runs and 30 stolen bases. Lastly, Miguel Cabrera remains in his prime at 32 and already mans the shortlists of the greatest hitting first and third basemen ever.

Hitters have no patent on youthful brilliance in today’s game. Baseball has evolved so that pitchers no longer amass huge numbers of innings or wins, but that actually reflects improvement in baseball’s overall performance rather than a decline in pitching skills (pitchers can no longer relax at the bottom of lineups due to the larger number of good hitters; an increased pool of qualified pitchers allow managers to remove starters earlier without losing anything).

Even without pitching as many innings as their predecessors, several current pitchers have dominated. Washington’s Max Scherzer just completed the greatest three-game pitching sequence in history. Yet that was not good enough to win the American League pitcher of the month for June, which went to 26-year old Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox. Coming off a 2014 season with a 2.17 ERA, Sale held batters to a ridiculous .219 on-base percentage in June and struck out 75 in 44 innings.

In addition, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw’s first eight seasons draw appropriate comparison to Sandy Koufax, and Kershow is only 27 years old. The Giants' Madison Bumgarner, only 25, has not equalled Kershaw’s regular season success but his postseason performance (0.25 ERA in 36 World Series innings) rivals any in history.

There’s still more to baseball’s resurgence. Recent emphasis on defense, defensive shifts and baserunning added strategic nuances and put athleticism on greater display. The steroid influence waned, lifting suspicion from every good accomplishment. And Pederson is not the only promising rookie: Both Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros' Carlos Correa have demonstrated superstar potential. The Cuban détente promises even more great players to come.

Finally, competitive balance has never been better. Small-market teams like Houston, Kansas City, and St. Louis lead their respective divisions. Minnesota returned to winning ways this season and Pittsburgh recently surged after 20 years of losing baseball.

Last year, commissioner Rob Manfred fretted over a list of issues when he addressed the “State of Baseball.” This year, the conversation centers on Pete Rose, a peripheral off-field issue. That’s a big advance for baseball in just one season and portends more good times ahead.

Imagine the excitement if the improving Cubs make the World Series in the next few seasons.

Sheldon Hirsch is author of the forthcoming book "Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths" from the University Press of New England.

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