Back in the early 1980s, there was a song that you probably think was written in the 1950s. (It was not.) You probably think it was called "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke." (It was not.) It was 1981’s "Talkin' Baseball," and it’s remembered mostly for its recollections of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, all roaming center field simultaneously for New York's three clubs in the 1950s. They're probably the most celebrated non-teammate trio in the game's history.
Great as they were, it's been a very long time since you last saw Willie, Mickey or the Duke on the field. Enter today's version: Fernando (Tatis Jr.), Ronald (Acuña Jr.), and Juan (Soto). It’s hard to think of one without thinking of the others. Get those songbooks fired up.
To rank them is near-folly. We're already regularly calling Soto (who turned 22 in October) the next Ted Williams. The Padres think so highly of Tatis Jr. (who turned 22 in January) that they just guaranteed him $340 million over 14 years. Acuña Jr. (who turned 23 in December), improbably, seems almost overlooked compared to the other two; he was merely the Rookie of the Year over Soto at 20 and came within three steals of becoming only the fifth member of the 40-40 club at 21, before posting a .987 OPS at 22. They are each impossibly good. It’s not too soon to have Cooperstown dreams for all three of them.
It's Acuña, Soto and Tatis. Unless it's Soto, Tatis and Acuña. Or Tatis, Acuña and Soto. The way you rank them doesn't matter; there may not be a right way to do it. (In January, MLB.com's Mark Feinsand polled Major League execs on who they liked, and while Tatis got the most votes, all three garnered support.)
The point is not to decide which one is best. The point is that they're all here, together, at the same time. If they're not in the same city like the 1950s New York trio, they're at least in the same league, and they were all born within 13 months of one another. (While Mays and Mantle were similarly aged, Snider was five years older.)
So you know where this goes next: Have we, as a sport, ever had such a trio? Has there ever been a group of hitters this good, this youthful, at the same time? We can hear the arguments already: It's too soon. They're too young. Write this in a decade. We hear that, and we reject it. It’s not too soon. Look at the company they’re about to keep.
1) Has there ever been a season with three hitters this good, this young?
No, not in more than a century.
OK, we probably ought to back that up. In 2020, each of the trio was at least 50% better than the league average, based on OPS+. In other words, an OPS+ above 150. (Soto posted a wild 212, while Acuña and Tatis each had a 155.) In the entire history of Major League Baseball, here are all the seasons when three players 22 or younger qualified for the batting average title and had an OPS+ above 150:
2020: Acuña, Soto, Tatis
1909: Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker
That’s … it.
Cobb, Collins and Speaker, though playing a version of baseball that only vaguely resembles today’s, all ended up in the Hall of Fame. There have only been 14 seasons with even two such young hitters, and that list is littered with Hall of Famers now (Cobb, Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx), future (Mike Trout) or unfairly overlooked (Dick Allen). It's a list that, even at such a young age, really does tell you a lot.
Now: 2020 was a shortened season. We get that. Small samples and flukishness abound, to be sure. Let’s see them do it for a full season. Understood. But aside from the fact that none of the three overperformed their 2020 expected stats -- Tatis actually under performed -- if we were to dispense with the “qualified for the batting average title” requirement and just say “had at least 196 plate appearances,” as all three just did, the results are identical: 2020, and 1909. That’s it. And it’s not like high performance was out of character for any of them before, right?
But maybe looking at only the 2020 season, a mere 60-game stretch, is too limiting. How about:
2) Has there ever been a time where three hitters were this good together through age 20?
Just once. Recently.
We’d like, really, to look at “WAR through age 22,” but here’s where the shortened season hurts us, because WAR is a counting stat, and we can’t just extrapolate Tatis’ 2.3 WAR from 2020 and assume he would have had an 8-WAR season. (Even if he would have. He would have.) So instead, since each of the three made their debut in time to play their age-20 season in the Majors, we’ll look at that, because it’s important.
Remember: Just getting to the Majors at 19 (as Soto did) or 20 (as Tatis and Acuña did) is a huge indicator of future success. As Jay Jaffe investigated at FanGraphs earlier this offseason, more than 31% of batters who received 250 plate appearances in the bigs at 19 -- ignoring, entirely, how good or bad they were -- landed in Cooperstown. For 20-year-olds, the number is 25%. It says a great deal about your skill to get such an opportunity that young.
But our trio all did more than just “get there.” They were all outstanding through 20. Remembering that the WAR scale is such that “2 WAR is roughly an average season,” Soto had 4.6 WAR at 20, Acuña had 4.2 WAR and Tatis was at 4.1 WAR in an injury-shortened season. (Soto had previously posted 2.9 WAR in his age-19 season, too.)
So our question is really this: Has there ever been a time when three position players compiled 4 WAR (or better) in their careers through age 20, all doing so within a two-season span? “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” wouldn’t qualify here, because again, Snider was five years older than the other two.
First of all, there just haven’t been that many such players, only 29 of them in baseball history, so it’s difficult to think there would be much overlap. (Of the 29, a dozen are in the Hall of Fame, and 10 more -- our trio included -- aren’t yet eligible. We can’t overemphasize how much it tells you about a player to succeed this young.)
How often have we seen three such players overlap? Not often. But not never.
2018-19: Acuña, Soto, Tatis
2012-13: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado
As far as “famously hyped trios” go, Trout, Harper and Machado is a good one. Trout was born in 1991 and debuted at 19 in 2011; Harper and Machado were born in 1992 and debuted in 2012. If we were writing this article in 2014, people would probably offer up the same push-back -- It's too soon. They're too young. Write this in a decade. Meanwhile, all that’s happened since is that Trout might be the greatest player who ever lived and Machado and Harper are, at worst, “regular All-Stars with massive contracts who are consistently among the best players in the game.”
That seems like a pretty strong comparison, really. So there you go: When have we had three players together that good, that young? Just once, and not that long ago.
3) Wait, what about those 1990s shortstops?
It’s hard to rank “fame,” but we can’t talk about “famous baseball non-teammate trios” without talking about the late-90s trio of young American League shortstops -- Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez -- who had a friendly “who’s the best?” competition that went beyond baseball. (For real. Dig this April 2000 GQ cover. So much tan.)
They were all great, obviously. Jeter was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Rodriguez will be eligible for the first time next winter, and he’s clearly deserving on merit, though his associated controversy may make induction difficult. Garciaparra was slowed by injuries, but he still made six All-Star teams and put up a 133 career OPS+ across 14 seasons, as well as an infamously memorable Sports Illustrated cover. If Acuña, Soto, Tatis as a group were to have similar careers, well, that would be really good.
Yet as famous and great as they were, they don’t really fit our bill here, because Garciaparra went to college, meaning he didn’t make the Majors until 22 and didn’t have his first great season until 23. Jeter was a league-average hitter from age-21 through 23 (101 OPS+) before having his first truly superstar year at 24 in 1998. Rodriguez broke out at 20, finishing second in the 1996 AL MVP voting -- he, without question, should have won it, but that’s a different topic for another day -- which makes him a strong comparison. But we’re not just talking about one player, are we?
Are there other trios you might like to think about? Possibly. None, likely, with such a combination of youth, hype, and skill.
If your takeaway from this section is “are they really saying that Acuña, Soto and Tatis are going to be better than Jeter, Rodriguez, and Garciaparra,” then you know what? Yes. Yes we are.
4) What about [my other favorite young hitting superstar]?
That’s the thing, really. We’re focusing on The Big Three here because, well, they’re The Big Three. But as has been increasingly clear for years, we’re seeing the youthful takeover of baseball, where young players arrive more ready to produce immediately, at ever younger ages. Consider Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (22 in 2021), Bo Bichette and Luis Robert (23), Ozzie Albies, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Eloy Jiménez, Rafael Devers, Alec Bohm and Gleyber Torres (all 24). Consider that prospects Wander Franco (20 in 2021), Jarred Kelenic (21) and Adley Rutschman (23) aren't terribly far away from joining them.
You probably know that inherently, but just to prove the point, let’s go back to the start of integrated baseball in 1947, and look at each season’s offensive production from hitters 23 and under. (This uses wRC+, which is very similar to OPS+.) The best year was 2015, when Harper had his MVP season, and others like Trout, Machado, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich were posting strong numbers. The next two best seasons? 2019 and 2020.
It's not just our trio, obviously. But even with this kind of competition, they're still head and shoulders above an otherwise-great crop.
When we wrote about Soto earlier this winter, we noted that he was one of 67 players to get at least 1,000 plate appearances through age 21, but since several of them were still active or not yet eligible for induction, 25 of the remaining 53 -- or nearly 48% -- found their way into Cooperstown. That's just "received 1,000 plate appearances," without worrying about being good or bad. When we ranked those 67 by OPS+, Soto was sixth, between Cobb and Ott. Acuña was 14th, tied with Rodriguez. Tatis doesn't yet have enough plate appearances to qualify, but if he did, he'd be fifth, ahead of Cobb and Soto.
None of these players was even born when Jeter won his first ring, at 22 in 1996, just in case we haven't yet stressed how young they are enough. It doesn't matter. It's not too soon. We have three of the all-time greatest young position players, all together, in the same league, at the same time, comprising a trio we've almost never seen before. Someone write a song about it.