If you tuned into the MLB draft on Sunday, you might have come to the conclusion that elite baseball ability is hereditary, like brown eyes or curly hair. Lacking the exposure that top NFL or NBA picks gain from college, most baseball draftees are unknown names. But in recent years, a lot of names coming off the board early have sounded familiar. This year’s top two draft picks prospect had instantly recognizable ones: Jackson Holliday and Druw Jones.
That's Jackson Holliday, son of the seven-time All-Star Matt Holliday, who the Baltimore Orioles selected with the No. 1 overall pick Sunday. And yes, Druw like Andruw Jones, who glided around in center field for all those great Atlanta Braves teams. Druw, his son, is an 18-year-old Georgia high schooler who plays — what else? — center field, and went to the Arizona Diamondbacks with the No. 2 pick.
Two more second-generation players — Justin Crawford and Cam Collier — went before pick No. 18.
That’s one year after Jack Leiter went No. 2 overall. Three years after Bobby Witt Jr. went No. 2 overall. And basically one development life cycle behind the rise of a young Toronto Blue Jays core that would have sounded just as terrifying in the 1990s — Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio.
What, exactly, are these major-league stars passing down to kids who are rising right to the top of the sport?
Second-generation stars are everywhere in MLB draft
It’s not surprising that professional athletes spawn more elite athletes. And it’s not uncommon in other sports. The difference with baseball seems to be a preponderance of well-known stars whose sons also become well-known stars, or at least prospects with that level of talent.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, for instance, is a second-generation NFL player, but his father only played one year in the league. The sons of the major leaguers are the offspring of Hall of Famers, All-Stars and history-making stars. A study by FiveThirtyEight in 2019 found that major-league progeny make the majors at a higher rate than the general population, and that their numbers are growing.
There are plenty of side-by-side GIFs to support the idea that junior stars might pick up motor skills, almost innately, from their fathers. Lance McCullers Jr.’s pitching motion, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s swing. But the fact that two of the towering stars of the generation — Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. — exceeded the very successful careers of their fathers can make it hard to separate memorable cases from the long odds any player faces. Some current players, like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Cody Bellinger, are well on their way to doing that, but others will fall short.
It’s far from a given that the son of an MLB veteran will even be a pro, much less an All-Star. When Leiter was younger, his body simply hadn’t developed yet. And back then, the last name wasn’t helping matters.
“I was a later bloomer, and there were some people, like, this guy's Al Leiter's son. He should be the best pitcher on his team,” Leiter said this week as he represents the Rangers at the Futures Game. “And at 13 years old, I just wasn’t.”
Those who have watched second-generation players ascend to stardom view the mental edge as the most important. John Schneider, the new interim manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, oversaw their trio of rising sons — Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio — across several levels of the minors and then joined the big-league team as bench coach before his recent promotion.
Teams aren't choosing players because of this, but Rangers GM Chris Young told the Dallas Morning News the effects might be baked into the appeal of players like Jones and Holliday on the 2022 draft board.
“To some degree there is an expectation around the major league field and clubhouse,” he said. “Being around high-performance athletes and what they do to get ready, the nature of the clubhouse. You can’t replicate what they are experiencing. I can’t say what level, but I think it’s a small part. That alone doesn’t move the needle [on a draft pick]. The talent has to speak for itself.”
Schneider agreed that nothing can stand in for talent. He described the second-generation boost as a head start, something that might help the natural ability shine through more readily.
“I think any father that played at a high level like these guys have just kind of instilled in their children how to go about their work, their development, their practice, their competitiveness, the way they view a game,” Schneider said. “I think it's kind of just second nature to them, which is a real advantage.”
How MLB stars impart wisdom
To hear second-generation players tell it, their biggest and most helpful lessons aren’t articulated so much as absorbed via osmosis.
Schneider said the trait he recognized in Guerrero and company was simply an uncommon ease adapting to “the day to day ins and outs of professional baseball.”
“One of the things we really preach is trying to get these guys in a good routine — whether it's getting to the cage or getting in the weight room and getting to the training room,” Schneider said. “They were all pretty well-versed in that.”
Darren Baker — the son of Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker and a second base prospect for the Washington Nationals — said he built lasting friendships with players on his dad’s team without realizing it was happening. Now, he’s in regular touch with players like Gio Gonzalez, who sent him a new pair of shoes ahead of his Futures Game appearance. He called Joey Votto one of his best friends, and hits in the offseason with Barry Bonds.
Getting that sort of surround sound experience with major leaguers is almost as difficult to quantify as it is to replicate.
“You can definitely tell that they've been around the game,” Schneider said. “Just being in the clubhouse and I think having their fathers to talk to you about certain things kind of give them an advantage.”
It's worth noting that most sons of MLB stars have one very tangible advantage: Money, and access to training. It's an expensive sport to play, one that creates real barriers to entry for less privileged people.
Leiter, who was an acclaimed arm coming out of high school, had a bit of an advantage in being able to choose to go to college at Vanderbilt. He said his dad, who went pro straight out of high school, always accentuated the importance of academics and pursuing higher education.
As for his baseball education, he credited not only his father but his uncle (Mark Leiter) and cousin (Mark Leiter Jr.) as influences that have been helping him for as long as he can remember.
“It’s almost every conversation. Almost every person that you talk to that has played or currently plays at a high level, they'll tell you that the most important thing is just to focus on today,” Leiter said. “What can I do to get better today?”