Here is the best player at every age, from 21-42

August 19th, 2022

Until May 28, the youngest player in baseball in 2022 was the same guy who was the youngest player in baseball in 2021: Wander Franco. That day, Michael Harris II got the call up from the Braves and took over Franco’s spot … because he’s six days younger. The day Michael Harris II was born, a young St. Louis prospect named Albert Pujols, wearing No. 68, was dazzling Tony La Russa at Cardinals Spring Training. Harris’ Braves played against Pujols’ Cardinals just last month. That’s how long the arc of a baseball career can be: Someone born just before you started can play against you before you are done.

Thus, today, in honor of the inexorable nature of time itself, we take a look at the best baseball player at each age in the sport. Now, for the sake of simplicity, we are going with their “baseball age,” which is the age they were on June 30 of this year, as opposed to their actual age at this exact second. This allows us to not sweat individual birthdays so much, giving us a universal figure to work from, and it also, if I’m being honest, makes it a lot easier to search on Baseball Reference.

We’re accounting for this year’s success in this tally, of course, but we’re really trying to pick the best overall player. What you’ve done up to this point in your career, particularly recently, factors in as well. You can watch that whole arc of a baseball career in this list.

And if you’re curious, we’ve done this before, in 2019, in 2020 and last year.

21: Julio Rodríguez, Mariners. There are no players at baseball-age 20 right now, and it’s fair to say that with Franco’s injuries and Rodríguez’s emergence as the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, he has taken over the lead of this age group. Alex Rodriguez led the Mariners to the playoffs when he was 21; Julio Rodríguez might just do the same thing. Runner-Up: Wander Franco, Rays.

22: Bobby Witt Jr., Royals. The phenom finally made his big league debut this year, and while he hasn’t completely dominated the league like many hoped he would, he has more than held his own and is a piece the Royals will be building around for the next decade. He also benefits from slow starts by some of his fellow phenoms, like Spencer Torkelson and Jarred Kelenic. Runner-Up: Alek Thomas, Diamondbacks.

23: Juan Soto, Padres. You may have heard Soto’s name bandied about a bit over the last month or so. He and the runner-up in this category will be battling for the top spot here for the next 15 years. Will they meet in the Hall of Fame someday? Runner-Up: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays.

24: Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves. Acuña hasn’t actually had the MVP-level season many were expecting, though he may still be recovering from the knee injury that cost him the end of last season. He still feels like a Hall of Famer in waiting. Runner-Up: Adley Rutschman, Orioles.

25: Yordan Alvarez, Astros. This is where this list starts getting really, really hard. Alvarez is just a DH, so that’s a mark against him, but he also might be one of the best five hitters in the world. It barely edges him ahead of the Runner-Up, as well as newly extended Austin Riley, his teammate Kyle Tucker and possible Cy Young winner Shane McClanahan. Runner-Up: Rafael Devers, Red Sox.

26: Sandy Alcantara, Marlins. Alcantara has emerged as the most valuable pitcher in baseball, the sort of innings-gobbling superstar that’s almost impossible to find anymore. He stands out in a disappointing age group; frankly, this is one most people thought Cody Bellinger would be leading for years. Runner-Up: Dylan Cease, White Sox.

27: Shohei Ohtani, Angels. He’s the second-best pitcher at the age of 27, and the third-best hitter. You’re going to have to trade everything, including the mascot, to get him. Runner-Up: Corbin Burnes, Brewers.

28: Edwin Díaz, Mets. He might not have the best WAR or the highest cumulative effect -- he is a reliever, after all -- but I’m not sure there’s anyone on this list better at what he specifically does than Díaz is right now. Runner-Up: Byron Buxton, Twins.

29: Mookie Betts, Dodgers. Now this is the stacked age. You’ve got three MVP candidates (Betts, Manny Machado and José Ramírez), a two-time MVP who happens to be hurt right now (Bryce Harper), two All-World shortstops (Xander Bogaerts and Trea Turner) and all sorts of terrific starting pitchers (Aaron Nola, Carlos Rodón, Luis Castillo, Joe Musgrove). Turns out 29 is a pretty great baseball age! Runner-Up: Harper.

30: Aaron Judge, Yankees. Judge is having the season of his life at the exact right moment, taking over the Best Player At His Age spot for the first time of his career. And you know he’s incredible right now by who he just passed. Runner-Up: Mike Trout, Angels.

31: Nolan Arenado, Cardinals. Arenado could theoretically opt-out after this season, but his Hall of Fame resume has been burnished considerably since arriving in St. Louis. He still has a chance to win his first MVP this year, too. Runner-Up: Gerrit Cole, Yankees.

32: Freddie Freeman, Dodgers. Speaking of guys burnishing Hall of Fame credentials, can you imagine if Freeman ends up winning two World Series in a row? We all spent a long time having a hard time imagining him wearing any jersey but a Braves one, but he looks perfect in Dodger Blue, doesn’t he? Runner-Up: Jose Altuve, Astros.

33: Merrill Kelly, Diamondbacks. Definitely the weakest age so far, this also happens to be an age when players start really getting hurt. (Sorry, Chris Sale and Stephen Strasburg.) Kelly has had the quietest shutdown season of any starting pitcher in a long, long time. Runner-Up: DJ LeMahieu, Yankees.

34: Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals. Goldschmidt has finished second in MVP voting twice, in 2013 and 2015 (he has finished in the top six three other times), but this might be the year he finally breaks through and wins the big prize: He’s having the best year of his already-exemplary career, by a rather wide margin. Runner-Up: Jacob deGrom, Mets.

35: José Abreu, White Sox. Abreu won the MVP in the shortened 2020 season but still feels a little underappreciated: His OPS+ this year is the third highest of his career. Runner-Up: Yu Darvish, Padres.

36: Josh Donaldson, Yankees. One fact has always been true about Donaldson: When he’s healthy, he hits. That said, he’d probably be second on this list had his out-of-nowhere teammate not just broken his foot. Runner-Up: Matt Carpenter, Yankees.

37: Max Scherzer, Mets. He’s going to be on this list when he’s 47, have no doubt. Runner-Up: David Robertson, Phillies.

38: Joey Votto, Reds. His horrific start to the season has been mostly forgotten: He looked just like the old Votto again. Except with a lot more TikToks. Sadly, it was announced on Wednesday that Votto would be getting rotator cuff surgery and will be out for the rest of the season. Runner-Up: Charlie Morton, Braves.

39: Justin Verlander, Astros. Verlander has himself in the thick of Cy Young contention, again, because of course he does. There are six 39-year-olds in baseball, and three of them (Verlander, Yadier Molina and Miguel Cabrera) will be in Cooperstown. Runner-Up: Cabrera.

40: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Unlike teammates Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, he has said nothing about retiring at the end of the year. The way he’s pitching, he should definitely keep going. Runner-Up: None.

41: Nelson Cruz, Nationals. He might not be able to keep going forever, as it turns out: He wasn’t a hot commodity at the deadline after all. Still, he’s got nine more homers than any other 41-year-old. Runner-Up: None.

42: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. If Albert stays at his current 103 OPS+, it will be his first above-average offensive season since 2016. He’s going out with a bang. Runner-Up: Rich Hill, Red Sox.