Youth is the name of the game in baseball these days, and we’ve seen a ton of power from burgeoning superstars in recent years.
In 2019, Pete Alonso became the first rookie to lead the Majors outright in homers, crushing 53 of them. He was only the sixth rookie to lead either the American or National League, at least, in long balls. But he was 24 that year — not old, by any means, but still not among the youngest players to accomplish such a feat.
There have been eight players to lead their league (AL or NL) in homers when they were 22 or younger on the final day of the season. Remarkably, none were rookies like Alonso.
Why is 22 notable? A few young sluggers are in that age bracket now: Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Others share their youth, but those three have the sort of track record that makes a home run crown appear within reach.
All three have shown significant power at the big league level. Tatis Jr. was tops in the Majors in homers on a handful of days in 2020 and led the way in hard-hit rate for the entire season, as well as hard-hit per swing and average exit velocity. Steamer projects both Tatis Jr. and Soto for 39 homers in 2021, which is tied for the sixth most in the Majors — so both are on the doorstep of leading the league. Guerrero Jr. hasn’t had the sheer home run volume of the other two yet, but he crushes the ball, and it feels like at any moment he’s going to start hitting homers at a rate that would match his raw power.
No member of that trio is young enough to top the following list, but each can still join an exclusive club. Guerrero Jr. (22 years, 201 days on the last day of the 2021 season) could wind up fourth, Tatis Jr. (22 years, 274 days) also fourth (or fifth, if Guerrero Jr. also led) and Soto (22 years, 343 days) seventh.
Here’s a look at the eight players to lead their league in home runs before turning 23 years old, from youngest to oldest, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In parenthesis is the player’s age on the last day of that season.
Tony Conigliaro, 1965 Red Sox (20 years, 269 days)
32 HRs (led AL)
Conigliaro is atop numerous ‘youngest’ lists, including this one. He got off to one of the greatest starts to a career ever, by certain metrics, before an August 1967 hit by pitch in the face changed the course of his career. Only one player in baseball history hit more career homers before turning 22: Mel Ott, with 86. Conigliaro hit 84, including his 32 in ‘65 as a 20-year-old. Willie Mays led the NL and the Majors that year, with 52 home runs.
Sam Crawford, 1901 Reds (21 years, 171 days)
16 HRs (led MLB)
Back in 1901, in the first year of the AL, 16 homers were plenty to lead the Majors. Crawford led the NL, and his 16 were two more than AL leader Nap Lajoie, as well as a career high. But he did lead his league one other time — in 1908 with the Tigers (seven). A 1916 magazine article about Crawford noted that he was considered the ideal slugger in his day: “While we are no sculptor, we believe that if we were and were looking for a model for a statue of a slugger we would choose Sam Crawford for that role.”
Eddie Mathews, 1953 Braves (21 years, 349 days)
47 HRs (led MLB)
Mathews finished his career with 512 home runs, tied for 23rd-most all-time. How do you join the 500-homer club? Getting a fast start sure helps. Mathews hit 25 homers as a rookie in 1952, receiving Rookie of the Year votes in the NL, with Joe Black of the Dodgers winning the award. Then as a 21-year-old in ‘53, Mathews left no doubt, leading the Majors with 47 homers. He finished second in the NL MVP vote to Roy Campanella. Mathews led the Majors in homers again in 1959 when he hit 46.
Ty Cobb, 1909 Tigers (22 years, 293 days)
9 HRs (led MLB)
By the time Cobb turned 26, he had already led his league, if not the Majors, in batting average six times, and had similar accolades to his name in other categories, too. Those include the 1909 season, when a 22-year-old Cobb led everyone in homers with … nine. It was a different era, but he led the way — the only time he ever topped his league in home runs.
Johnny Bench, 1970 Reds (22 years, 298 days)
45 HRs (led MLB)
By the start of the 1970 season, Bench had already won a Rookie of the Year Award, received MVP votes in two separate seasons, won two Gold Gloves and was a two-time All-Star. And he was still just 22 years old. He continued the strong start to his Hall of Fame career by crushing 45 homers and driving in 148 runs in ‘70, leading the league in both categories, before he even turned 23 in December of that year. It was one of two times he’d lead the Majors in homers, also doing so in 1972, when he hit 40.
Joe DiMaggio, 1937 Yankees (22 years, 312 days)
46 HRs (led MLB)
As a 21-year-old rookie in 1936, DiMaggio tied for the Major League lead in triples with 15, along with Earl Averill and Red Rolfe. The following year, he led the Majors in an extra-base hit category again, but this time it was homers. DiMaggio hit .346 and led the Majors in total bases and runs scored in addition to homers, but he finished second in AL MVP voting behind Charlie Gehringer. DiMaggio paced the AL in home runs a second time in 1948, when he hit 39.
Bryce Harper, 2015 Nationals (22 years, 353 days)
42 HRs (tied for NL lead)
Harper’s 2015 season was one for the ages, earning him an NL MVP award. He was the youngest player to win one unanimously. He hit .330 with a .460 on-base percentage and a .649 slugging percentage, with the latter two leading the Majors. His 42 homers were tied with Nolan Arenado for the most in the NL, behind only Chris Davis’ 47. Harper has led the Majors in walks twice since then, but not in homers.
Juan González, 1992 Rangers (22 years, 354 days)
43 HRs (led MLB)
González played in three Major League seasons before 1992, exceeding rookie limits in ‘90. In 1991, he hit 27 homers in 142 games. A year later, he blasted 43 home runs, leading the Majors in a season that ended just before his 23rd birthday. The following season he tied for first in the Majors, hitting an AL-high 46 and tying the Pirates’ Barry Bonds. González totaled five 40-home run seasons in his career, but 1992-93 were the only times when he led the AL or the Majors.