The 2023 season is looking like it might be a record-breaker when it comes to top prospects reaching the Major Leagues.
Thirty-eight players from the preseason Top 100 Prospects list have made their big league debuts this season, the most recent coming when Heston Kjerstad was summoned by the Orioles on Thursday. That ties the all-time high that was set last year and is 11 more than the average over the previous 10 seasons. And there’s still time for more.
Additionally, 55 Top 100 prospects have played in the Majors this year (some debuted prior to 2023), and that’s an all-time high. The previous high mark was 52 in 2017.
This year’s totals have swelled considerably of late. In a three-week period starting on Aug. 19, 10 of MLB's Top 100 prospects were promoted to the big leagues. That's nearly two times the average number of Top 100 callups over the same three-week period dating back to 2012 (excluding the 2000 season, which had expanded rosters and different roster rules).
And prospects aren’t just being called up by teams looking to next year and beyond either. The most recent callups -- Jordan Lawlar (D-backs), Evan Carter (Rangers), Pete Crow-Armstrong (Cubs) and Kjerstad -- all have playoff implications.
So why has there been such an increase in top-level young talent rising to the highest level? Here are a few theories, with some hypothesis help from a pair of general managers, one running a team poised for the postseason and one looking toward 2024.
Baseball has gotten better at player development
Simply put, teams are getting players prepared much more successfully. Add in the shortened gap between amateur baseball and the pro game and players can -- pandemic aside (more on that later) -- move quickly and be big league ready in a short time.
“I think teams are getting better at assessing skills and what skills are ready for big league competition, which ones aren’t, who is ready to compete,” said Pirates general manager Ben Cherington, who has called up three Top 100 prospects this year as part of the team’s continued rebuilding effort. “Maybe you don’t always have to wait for the traditional 2,000 plate appearances as teams got better at assessing skills more precisely. Maybe that gives teams more confidence in knowing these skills can play.”
“My first thoughts would go to a general theme where professional player development is better,” said Orioles GM Mike Elias, who has called on an MLB-leading six Top 100 players to help Baltimore lead the AL East. “Amateur baseball is much more sophisticated in terms of instructions and experiences. The whole thing has shortened the learning curve between coming out of high school and being Major League ready. There’s better information at teams' disposals for teams to choose these players.”
Both Elias and Cherington mentioned information being key. Advanced statistics, enhanced video and things like Statcast and Trackman all give valuable looks much deeper into a player’s readiness so that a GM can make a call.
“We can be more precise with where guys’ skills are, getting underneath the raw performance,” Cherington said. “Where is the swing and miss happening, how many holes are there, can he compete? It works on the pitching side, too. In Triple-A, you can measure everything the pitcher does that you do in the big leagues, pitch shape, movement, location. Now we can look underneath the hood a little bit more.”
“I think we’re a little more precise with who is ready,” Elias agreed. “Still, you call guys up and you never know. You want to give them experience so they can make those adjustments. On the whole, though, I think our entire player procurement and development wherewithal has gotten more efficient.”
Non-competing teams now want to see what they have
Have these things led teams like the Pirates and Orioles to call up more prospects than perhaps they would have years ago? It appears like the answer is yes. For Cherington and teams like the Pirates, perhaps there’s a desire to help get through the learning adjustment sooner in the Major Leagues.
“I’m sure different teams have done different studies, but we’ve seen anecdotally here, there’s a gap between the Major League game and Triple-A game that’s maybe bigger than it used to be,” Cherington said. “If that’s true, then a team like ours, that isn’t going to be in the playoffs, might have incentive to get young players up sooner because you assume that even though we can be more precise at measuring skills, there’s going to be a transition phase at the Major League level.
“You kind of want to get through some of that transition now so that next year, if we do our jobs well enough, those players are through that and closer to contributing.”
Playoff contention makes the leap a little easier
That might seem counter-intuitive, with the prevailing thought being that the pressures of a pennant race could be too much for a young player arriving for the first time. Elias, not that far removed from his team’s rebuild, posits it might be easier and give a GM more comfort in giving a young player a chance.
“The players come up and are brought into a winning environment,” Elias said. “That’s positive. The weight of the world is not on their shoulders. When we brought Adley Rutschman up, we weren’t winning yet. His debut was a pretty big factor in whether the team would get better. Obviously, he handled that well.
“Now we’re in a mode when we bring a player up, they’re asked perhaps to be a role player for a few weeks, come off the bench, there’s less pressure on them. If they struggle and go down, it’s not a big deal and they’re probably better off for it. I much prefer this than the fate of the organization weighing on a debut.”
No one would refute the claim that the 2020 season was an odd one, to say the least. And we might not know for some time exactly how it impacted player development. But the numbers do seem to indicate that the shutdown of the Minor League schedule that year has played a role in the numbers of callups.
In 2021, that first year back, only 16 Top 100 prospects made their debuts, the lowest total since 2005, when we only had a Top 50 list. Organizations, rightfully, recognized players who needed a full year of reps after the lost season, rather than pushing them faster than necessary.
In the subsequent two seasons, we’ve seen more Top 100 prospects make their big league debuts than ever, with 38 each in 2022 and '23. There has also been an increasing number of top prospects in the upper levels of the Minors over the past two seasons. At the start of the 2023 season, 29 of the top 50 prospects in baseball were in Double-A or higher. A total of 28 in that top 50 have at least spent time in the Major Leagues this year.