In 1957, the National League All Stars started an outfield of Frank Robinson in left, Willie Mays in center, and Hank Aaron in right. Those three players would combine for 2,001 home runs, 6,012 runs batted in, and 407 wins above replacement over their careers. It would be hard to build a better outfield if you could pick from a list of every player in baseball history, much less a group of players active in the same year in the same league.
That will be the best All-Star outfield in baseball history for the next hundred years, I’m guessing. It might always the best outfield in history if the machines take over and stuff us all in their lanthanum mines, effectively ending baseball forever. Either way, it’s the greatest outfield in history as of right now, even if they started just one game together.
The 2018 American League All-Star outfield of Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and Mookie Betts probably won’t combine for 407 wins above replacement in their respective careers*. It’s too early to compare them to Robinson, Mays, and Hank freaking Aaron. It’s too early to compare them to the Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, and Brady Anderson outfield from the 1996 All-Star Game. There are a lot of winding paths that these careers can still take.
But there’s a reason why I chose that Robinson-Mays-Aaron outfield for that intro, other than the obvious allure of three inner-inner-circle Hall of Famers. In ‘57, all three of them were 26 or younger. Robinson and Aaron were both 22, and Mays was 26. Not only was it the best outfield ever assembled; it was also the beginning of their brilliant careers.
Judge and Trout are 26, and Betts is 25.
While it’s far too early to compare this trio to all-time greats, it’s not too early to wonder just how rare it is for a starting All-Star outfield to be this young and this excellent.
Spoiler: It’s pretty rare.
I looked at all of the starting outfields in All-Star Game history, in both the National and American League, for a trio of players under 26. There are two reasons why I settled on this arbitrary age as the cutoff:
- It allowed me to write an entire article about these three players, which is incredibly convenient.
- It’s right before the age of 27, which is the classic baseball peak, according to Bill James. Which suggests that Judge, Trout, and Betts might even get better.
They don’t have to, of course. This is just the fifth time that an outfield in either league has been comprised entirely of players 26 or younger, but we don’t have to go back very far to find the last one. That was in 2016, when Trout and Betts were both in the outfield ... along with Jackie Bradley, Jr. While Bradley could/should break out of his funk, he’s currently a cautionary tale to remind us that players aren’t guaranteed to be as valuable when they’re 28 as they are at 26.
Another all-26-or-younger All-Star outfield was Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Jeff Heath in 1941. If you’re wondering who Heath was, it turns out that he was a really good freaking hitter. He might have been closer to the Hall of Fame if not for a gruesome ankle injury, but he’s another reminder that not every All-Star in his early 20s turns out to be Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio.
The first all-26-or-younger All-Star outfield in history was Williams, DiMaggio, and Charlie Keller, which proves my point just as well, even if Keller was a tremendous hitter in his own right.
The fifth all-26-or-younger All-Star outfield was Robinson, Mays, and Aaron, which, holy crap, seriously, just type those three names out together and think about how good they were for decades.
This is all arbitrary, which means we’re leaving off some pretty important young outfields. When Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, and Dale Murphy started both the 1982 and 1983 All-Star Games, it didn’t matter that Dawson was 27 and 28 in those seasons. What mattered is that it was a historically significant and young outfield of brilliance that featured two future Hall of Famers and one could-be-maybe-should-be-ask-me-again-on-the-right-day Hall of Famer in Dale Murphy. The same goes for Tony Gwynn, Darryl Strawberry, and Murphy, except that time Murphy was the old timer.
Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle started three straight All-Star Games when they were younger than 27, but they didn’t make this list because there was some crusty ol’ dude named Ted Williams starting next to them each time. The inclusion of Williams didn’t mean that Kaline and Mantle weren’t the heralds of a new, thrilling era of super outfielders. It just meant that Williams was extremely good at baseball deep into his third decade. He was better than some 26-or-younger rando who wasn’t Ted Williams, because, really, who was?
In other words, there is nothing inherently special about the young, ludicrously outfield of Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and Mookie Betts just because they all happened to be young at the same time. There were young, brilliant outfielders before them, and there will be young, brilliant outfielders after them. Sometimes, those young, brilliant outfielders will bookend old farts who are still brilliant. Getting three in a row isn’t a scratch-off lottery ticket that allows us to enjoy baseball more.
But this could be something. This could be something that makes your grandchildren jealous. We have Aaron Judge, who used to be only a myth told by feral woodlanders. We have Mookie Betts, the fast-twitch hero we need in this fast-twitch era. And we have Mike Trout, who might be the closest thing to Willie Mays we’ll ever see.
It’s rare to have a young outfield starting the All-Star Game like this. You’re not seeing things. That doesn’t mean this will be the next Robinson-Mays-Aaron or anything close to it. It just means that, goodness, three of the top five players in baseball right now happen to be outfielders in the same league, all under the age of 27.
Appreciate this danged outfield. And appreciate it next year, and the year after that if we’re so lucky. Judge-Trout-Betts isn’t just a normal starting outfield. It’s kind of freaky. The best thing we can do is whistle and say something cute. In 50 years, maybe they’ll be looking back at this outfield with a measure of awe and wonder that only seems reasonable in retrospect.
We’ve seen this before.
I’m not saying. I’m just saying.
* There is always the chance that Trout gets there by himself, though