Part one of our look into Major League Baseball’s youth movement dives into five young players in the American League East that every fan needs to pay attention to.
A youth movement is taking a hold over Major League Baseball, and it’s unbelievably captivating to watch. Take the Atlanta Braves, for instance. On May 1, the Braves sent Mike Soroka to the mound for his first major league start. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies manned the middle infield behind him. All three players were born in 1997, making them the three youngest players in MLB.
This is part one in a six-part Armchair All-Americans series focusing on the youth movement that is taking over the majors. Each post will focus on a particular division and highlight one player from each team that fans across the nation need to take note of. Every player highlighted will have no more than two full seasons of professional service time.
Without further ado, the American League East….
Baltimore Orioles: Trey Mancini
“Boom-Boom’s” rookie season was greatly overshadowed by Aaron Judge and his MLB record 52 home runs (for a rookie), however the third-place finisher in Rookie of the Year voting put up a phenomenal season in his own right. Mancini slashed .293/.338/.488 in his first season with the Orioles, all while learning a new position in left field. The first baseman-turned-outfielder mashed 24 home runs and recorded 26 doubles.
Now in his second season, Mancini has continued to put up impressive numbers, despite taking on a new role as the leadoff hitter for Baltimore. He’s already recorded seven doubles in 30 games. The shift to leadoff hitter seems to be a hit as Mancini is posting a .294 batting average and .354 OBP since making the move. It’s been a long time since the Orioles have had a leadoff hitter perform to this caliber. Mancini is another example of home-grown talent raised well in Baltimore.
Boston Red Sox: Rafael Devers
Rafael Devers is in a perfect position. He gets to play the majority of his career at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards. No AL East pitcher is safe now that the 21-year-old is a mainstay in the Boston lineup.
Appearing in 58 games last year, Devers hit .284 with 14 doubles and 10 home runs. Now in his first full season with the team, he’s already recorded eight doubles and six home runs while hitting .276 in 31 games.
If you look at his spray chart, you see that Devers commonly takes a pitch to the opposite field.
According to former Fangraphs’ editor, now San Diego Padres’ front office staffer Dave Cameron, left-handed hitters who sent a ball to left-center field at 87-90 mph recorded a hit more than 40% of the time. Back in 2014, there were 12 MLB ballparks where that hit percentage was 0%, with the same factors. Unbelievable research by Cameron and a sign of what’s to come for the young Devers.
Not only does he get the advantages of Fenway, but he will have short porches at Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards to work with by pulling the ball. Does he posses 30 home run potential? Yes.
His strikeout rate has not increased since joining the majors and his walk rate has remained consistently around 7%. Despite openly admitting to hating the curveball, Devers currently has produced his lowest whiff rate and highest wOBA off breaking pitches.
I’ll leave you with this video of Devers hitting two home runs off Bartolo Colon on May 4. Devers was born in October 1996. Colon made his MLB debut in April 1997.
New York Yankees: Gleyber Torres
Torres may be 21 years old with just 13 MLB games under his belt, however, he’s the best second baseman in the AL East (league? OK, that’s a stretch… right?). The Yankees already have Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius in a nightmarish lineup. Now they get to add Torres?
Originally signed by the Chicago Cubs out of Venezuela, Torres was the key return for the Yankees when they traded away Aroldis Chapman. According to MLB Pipeline’s tool grades on Torres, he possesses a 70 hit tool with 55 power and 55 fielding.
In 13 games he’s hitting .333 with three doubles and a home run to go along with an .834 OPS. Take a look at his first career home run, along with some fantastic defensive plays he’s already made. I didn’t think it was possible to put together an entire highlight reel of breathtaking plays from a 13-game sample size.
#Yankees Gleyber Torres is a 70-grade hitter, but he's pretty adept with the glove too. Watch him take a hit away from #Astros Alex Bregman. pic.twitter.com/9n4noFNayi
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) May 3, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays: Mallex Smith
Let’s be honest for a second — the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t good. They also receive no national coverage, making it all the more necessary to highlight the play of center fielder Mallex Smith. Originally a fifth-round pick of the San Diego Padres, Smith was sent to the Braves as part of a package for Justin Upton. The Rays then acquired Smith and Ryan Yarborough for starting pitcher Drew Smyly, which may prove to be one of the best trades in Tampa Bay’s brief history.
Smith, in his third pro-season, first full-season, seems to have found his stride. He’s currently hitting .333 for the Rays with three doubles, two triples and six stolen bases. In 179 career pro games, he has 10 triples and 38 stolen bases. His strikeout rate has dropped significantly, from 22% to 17%, while his hard-hit contact rate is up to 24%, a career-high mark.
In his first two seasons, Smith recorded a ground ball rate of 61% and 50%. That number is now down to 47% as he begins to drive the ball more into the gaps.
It’s his speed that makes Smith such a fun player to watch, though. His 29.4 ft/sec average sprint speed is the 13th fastest in the league and seventh best among center fielders, according to Statcast
Mallex Smith catches a fly out from John Hicks and then throws JaCoby Jones out at second for the double play in the 7th inning (00:46)
Toronto Blue Jays: Teoscar Hernandez
Hernandez wasn’t supposed to be playing for the Toronto Blue Jays this season. The Blue Jays went out and acquired Curtis Granderson and Randll Girchuck to shore up their outfield, leaving Hernandez in AAA. However, an injury to Josh Donaldson forced Toronto to bring up Hernandez, which is proving to be a beneficial move.
Acquired from the Houston Astros in exchange for Francisco Liriano, Hernandez brings unforseen power to the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup.
In 20 games thus far, he’s hitting .259 with a .319 OBP — not overly impressive — however, he’s chipped in eight doubles, two triples and four home runs already. In 85 at-bats. Suffice to say, Hernandez is hitting the ball extremely hard. His 93.6 mph average exit velocity ranks No. 23 in MLB. In fact, 56% of his batted balls have been hit 95 mph or harder, the 13th highest number in the bigs.
If Hernandez can turn his in-game speed into stolen bases, keep up with gap-to-gap power production and keep his strikeout rate low, the Blue Jays will have themselves quite the exciting outfielder in a largely hitter friendly park.
Stay tuned — tomorrow I will bring you five exciting young players to get to know from the American League Central, including one of the games’ best in Yoan Moncada.