Elite rookie hitters have been the catalyst all October

They are receiving 2nd-highest rate of playoff PA since 1969

October 25th, 2023

Ninety-nine times this postseason, the American League champion Texas Rangers have sent a rookie batter to the plate. Those hitters, third baseman Josh Jung and outfielder Evan Carter, have combined to hit a sparkling .298/.384/.571 with 14 extra-base hits, good for a .955 OPS. That makes them 56% better than the average hitter, or basically what Juan Soto or Jose Altuve was over the course of the regular season. (Which doesn’t even account for defense, where Jung has been solid and Carter spectacular.)

No one, to be clear, is suggesting that at this point in time Jung or Carter should be considered akin to Soto at the plate. But they’ve been two of Texas' five most productive hitters this month, and it’s easy to wonder if the Rangers would be here without them, especially given Marcus Semien’s limited contributions.

You might say the same about the National League champion D-backs, given Corbin Carroll's stunning performance in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series, as he chipped in three hits, scored twice, drove in two and stole a pair of bases.

Everywhere you look, there are rookie hitters making all sorts of noise in the playoffs, and it's not limited just to the D-backs and Rangers. As the 2023 postseason went on, it was hard to find any series that wasn’t highlighted by a first-year position player, whether it be the elite defense of Philadelphia’s Johan Rojas, the tremendous hitting of Minnesota’s Royce Lewis and Edouard Julien or Baltimore’s Gunnar Henderson, the all-around stardom of Arizona’s Carroll, and so on.

In fact, we’ve seen enough rookie batters this October that in the half-decade-plus since the divisional era began in 1969, we’re near a record-high level of rookie playoff plate appearances. The 320 PAs given to rookies in 2023 is second most in that span, and while that’s more than a little about the presence of additional games with expanded playoffs over the last two seasons, the 12% of overall plate appearances given to rookies is the second highest of any season in the divisional era, behind only 2007, when rookie stars Dustin Pedroia and Troy Tulowitzki faced off in the World Series.

Maybe it’s not surprising that the youths are making their mark in the postseason. It is, after all, the continuation of a trend. The 2023 season saw:

  • A record-breaking number of Top 100 prospects make it to the Majors (39, including late addition Junior Caminero)
  • The second-youngest (tied) average batter age (27.9) of the last four decades
  • At 114.5 WAR, the third most by a rookie class (including pitchers), behind only the 2015 class of Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor and Lance McCullers Jr., and the 2006 group that featured Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, Ryan Zimmerman and Hanley Ramirez.
  • Tied for the highest Weighted Runs Created Plus, or wRC+, a hitting stat just like OPS+ that takes into account league hitting environment and park effects, in the years since 1969. The year it was tied with? 2022.

It’s a good time to be a rookie, is the point, and even if we’re focusing on hitters here, look no further than the fact that the D-backs had a rookie, Brandon Pfaadt, starting Game 7 of the NLCS -- one of a select few rookies to have done so.

His Arizona teammate, Carroll, the all-but-certain NL Rookie of the Year, is just the fourth rookie to lead a pennant-winning team in WAR, along with his current teammate Evan Longoria (2008 Rays), Hall of Famer Fred Lynn (1975 Red Sox), and we-definitely-didn’t-make-up-this-name Charlie Hollocher (1918 Cubs), per MLB.com’s Sarah Langs.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. In 1992, only 17 plate appearances were given to rookies in the entire postseason, and even that came with an enormous caveat -- eight went to Pirates pitcher Tim Wakefield, hitting in the pre-DH days. As recently as 2018, only 4% of postseason hitting chances went to rookies -- and overwhelmingly just to one team, the Yankees, who had three in Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit and Miguel Andujar.

In September, MLB.com prospect expert Jonathan Mayo spoke to a pair of general managers about exactly this trend -- about young players coming up sooner, and being more ready to contribute.

“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,” Pirates GM Ben Cherington said, additionally noting that tools like Statcast allow teams to “be more precise with where guys’ skills are, getting underneath the raw performance.”

Orioles GM Mike Elias pointed out improvements in amateur baseball. “[It’s] 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.”

Elias’ Baltimore team didn’t last long in the playoffs this year, swept out in three games at the hands of Jung and Carter’s Rangers. But it wasn’t due to lack of production from likely AL Rookie of the Year Henderson, who had seven hits with a 1.289 OPS in the series. (And even his high-profile mistake, getting caught stealing late in Game 1, was due to a missed hit-and-run sign by the veteran hitter at the plate.)

Which brings us to the World Series, which will have the two Rangers and Carroll playing big roles on a nightly basis. If the Series goes seven, there’s an outside shot that we could come near the record for most World Series plate appearances taken by rookies, currently sitting at 73 in the 1991 World Series, primarily due to Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Leius and Brian Hunter.

While Rojas didn't really hit much at all -- just four hits in 13 postseason games -- his outstanding defense was a key part of Philadelphia's fielding turnaround.

“This kid is so poised,” manager Rob Thomson said during the NL Division Series. “He’s so good of an athlete, electric in the outfield. He’s been a huge addition to our ballclub. He really has, even if he doesn’t do anything at the plate. And he’s had decent at-bats. But if he does nothing at the plate, just his defense helps the club.”

While Jung (the eighth pick in the 2019 Draft) and Carroll (the 16th pick that same year) were highly regarded prospects, Carter was more than a little off the radar when the Rangers took him in the second round in 2020 – to the point that not a single pre-Draft ranking list included him, and several prospect experts openly admitted they’d never even heard of him. He’s currently the biggest breakout star of the playoffs, despite not even being called up to the Majors until Sept. 8.

“I think more than anything,” Texas manager Bruce Bochy said during the ALCS, “[Carter] just has so much confidence. He's got the youthful enthusiasm and he's just excited to be here. He's not in awe of anything, just no fear in this kid since he's come up. I saw that in Spring Training, he plays with joy, that's what you love about him. And like I said, he's got that ‘no fear’ attitude. He just has that freedom that makes him such a good player that he plays with.”

“I'm just having fun,” said Carter, “that's what it's all about. We're playing a game. And it's a fun one, too. I'm just out here having a great time. I have a lot of great teammates around me. We enjoy coming to work every day competing.”

“The big thing I keep trying to tell myself,” said Jung, “is leave the emotions for the fans. The ups and downs, let them scream, get quiet, whatever. Let them do all that. And for me just breathe and have fun. It's still a game. It's still the same game we've been playing all year. The only implication I guess is you lose, you go home.”

That's been true for each round of the playoffs so far. It's still true now. The Rangers and D-backs aren't here without their rookie bats. One way or another, a rookie hitter is going home with a ring.