Sports have always been about success. Winning is everything. It doesn’t always matter how you build your team to get there, but the trophy at the end of the playoffs is the ultimate goal. And in today’s sports world full of modern technology, there’s a sense that younger players need to take a certain developmental path that is linear, or at the very least, more rapid than it used to be a decade or two ago, what with teams and fans so singularly obsessed with winning the final game of the season.
During this 2023 MLB season, we’ve seen plenty of different players make their debuts at the highest level, and continue to succeed after impressive developmental records in the minors. It could be the speedy Corbin Carroll of the Arizona Diamondbacks, or Gunnar Henderson helping lead the surging Baltimore Orioles, along with teammate Adley Rutchsman, who hit the ground running at full speed during his debut last year, among many others.
Anthony Volpe is of course another one of the new faces around the league, and the 22-year-old from New Jersey was expected to come into the Yankees lineup and make a big impact in the field, at the plate, and on the basepaths. Unfortunately, he hasn’t fullfilled every part of that promise, slashing .194/.274/.361 with a wRC+ sitting well below average at 77. Volpe’s bat has been particularly shaky all year, and with Aaron Judge out for the foreseeable future and the offense struggling, the Yankees need the bats to get hot. Volpe hasn’t helped the cause, which has spurred backlash from fans over time.
Over in the Senior Circuit, one Elly De La Cruz is 21-years old and the rookie shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds. Since he made his debut in MLB, he has taken the league by storm, flashing every tool in the book at the big league level. He’s combined good fielding with great running, great pure hitting with great pure power. Oh, and he’s doing it standing in at a monstrous 6-foot-5.
De La Cruz has been a sensation since entering the Reds lineup, and Cincinnati fans know how important he is to the success of their team. He has only played 15 games, so the sample size is still small, but he’s making a massive difference, slashing .361/.418/.656 with a 181 wRC+. Along with a few other key young performers, De La Cruz has the Reds streaking, with the club only just last night seeing their 12-game winning streak finally snapped by the Braves.
Volpe and De La Cruz are almost the same age, play the same position, and entered their respective lineups facing a lot of pressure to produce out of the gate. One has helped rocket his team into first place, while the other has contributed to his team’s offensive malaise. However, with all that said, I’m here to urge caution on being too down on Volpe, and to resist the urge to directly compare his and De La Cruz’s trajectories.
Development isn’t linear. Coming into the biggest market in all of baseball with massive expectations on his shoulders, at 21 or 22 years old, with limited time in Triple-A, is simply bound to weigh on a player, even if it’s just a small amount. Volpe has struggled, but he has also taken these struggles in stride and has made tangible efforts to fix them.
Baseball is a hard game, and when there’s another rookie shortstop bursting onto the scene and making a huge difference in a lineup, sometimes it’s hard not to look that way and make comparisons. However, for the sake of Volpe, I think it’s worth slowing down and riding it out. He’s shown the plus makeup he was always touted for coming through the minors, handling his difficulties in the majors like a true pro.
He’s also flashed plenty of skill in his time in the bigs, even if those skills haven’t exactly popped like De La Cruz. Volpe might be an 80-grade baserunner right now, thanks to great speed and a veteran’s savvy on the basepaths. He’s shown a penchant for errors at short, yes, but he’s also shown real range at the position and made several difficult plays. He has holes in his swing and hasn’t always made good decisions at the plate, but he’s shown he can crush the ball when he really gets into one. There’s clearly still so much reason to believe that he can develop into something special, even if the path he’s taking there is a bit more winding than we’d hoped.
Both De La Cruz and Volpe are uber-talented ball players. They’ll be helpful to their respective clubs for years to come. Even though one is struggling right now, that doesn’t mean he won’t be impactful in the foreseeable future. One season is just that…one season (or just a half-season really!). Volpe wants to be in the Bronx, and he wants to succeed. Even though they’re easy to make, the comparisons to other youngsters won’t help.