MLB is closing in on its 20,000th player, and we're counting them down
By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
What does a group of 20,000 people look like?
It's the approximate population of Lebanon, Ohio, or Papillion, Nebraska, or Elko, Nevada — places you probably haven’t heard of because there aren’t very many people who live there.
In stadium contexts, 20,000 is less than one-fifth the capacity of The Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it wouldn’t fill half of Dodger Stadium. It would fill Madison Square Garden, but you could probably squeeze a few more people in the aisles if you wanted. Twenty thousand people just isn’t a lot of people.
Now consider this: In 150 years of Major League Baseball, fewer than 20,000 players have appeared in a major-league game.
Since the start of the 2020 season, I’ve been tracking every MLB debut in a Twitter thread as they occur.
Initially, the purpose of the project was to celebrate those making their major-league debuts in the most unusual and unfortunate of circumstances: empty stadiums, rather than in front of the family and friends we are accustomed to seeing whenever a player is welcomed to the big leagues for the first time. That special moment was restricted to being experienced on television, which was a shame and one of the many unfortunate consequences of the pandemic.
Reaching the big leagues is so incredibly difficult and rare that I wanted to do my small part to recognize those individuals' achieving their dream.
Fortunately, those debuting in 2021 are not doing so in empty stadiums, but as the total number climbed rapidly last year, it became clear that I was indirectly tracking something else: the countdown – or, count up, perhaps – to major leaguer No. 20,000.
What is the significance of the number 20,000?
Honestly, we all just like big, round numbers, right? Twenty thousand just sounds cooler to our silly brains than 19,000, for whatever reason. That said, if you’re wondering which players have debuted at previous benchmarks, take a look at this chart.
That's not a lot of stars, with the most successful big-league career on the list belonging to No. 11,000, Steve Rogers, a five-time All-Star pitcher with the Expos. But don’t sleep on Slim Love or Peek-A-Boo Veach. You won’t forget those names!
Another thing to put in perspective is the pace at which debuts occur in the modern game. It used to take seven to 10 years for every 1,000 debuts, but now, with more teams and, perhaps most importantly, an uptick in the average number of pitchers a team uses in a season, we see about 1,000 debuts over the course of four or five years.
Another fun fact: Albert Pujols, the longest-tenured active player in baseball, was debut No. 15,424. That means he has been active to "see" nearly 25% of the players in MLB history. That’s a lot!
Who is included in this count?
The official count includes any player who appeared in at least one game in what is considered Major League Baseball and can be found on the Baseball-Reference home page. This begins during the Ulysses S. Grant presidency with the National Association, a nine-team league that featured the Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Stockings and, of course, the Fort Wayne Kekiongas.
The count begins with the players who appeared in the first game of the 1871 season on May 4 between Cleveland and Fort Wayne. That game featured players such as Hall of Famer Deacon White – take a look, he’s No. 1.
(Note: Debuts that occur on the same day are given the same number by Baseball-Reference, which you’ll notice on certain player pages. As such, Deacon White is not the only player page that says No. 1, and recent debuts Ronnie Dawson and Eduard Bazardo were both given No. 19,941. As I’ve tracked them in real time, I have assigned debut numbers chronologically, based on when during the day each player first appeared in a game.)
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When is 20,000 going to happen?
Knowing that we began this season 98 debuts away from No. 20,000, I looked at when on the calendar the 98th debut of the season usually occurs. On average, from 1998 (the first year with 30 teams) to 2019, the 98th debut occurred on the 76th day of the season.
But debuts have been happening at a much quicker pace in recent years: From 2015 to '19, debut No. 98 came on the 63rd day of the season on average. Another useful data point is the fact that we had our 49th debut – halfway there, per se – of 2021 on April 21, the 20th day of the season. That's the second-earliest date the 49th debut has occurred since 1998.
This suggests that we are already on a quicker debut pace than normal. Add some of the same factors that contributed to a significantly higher pace of debuts in 2020 – expanded rosters, unexpected COVID-related injury list stints necessitating call-ups, pitcher workload management, etc. – and we can reasonably guess that this year’s 98th debut, Mr. 20,000, will appear sometime in mid-to-late May. We’ll have a more exact projection as we get closer.
Who is it going to be?
This is what everyone wants to know.
The obvious place to start is to pull up your preferred top 100 prospects list and pick your favorite up-and-coming superstar, whether that be Rays shortstop Wander Franco, Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic or San Diego pitcher MacKenzie Gore. Based on when those three are projected to arrive at the big-league level, they are honestly as good a guess as any.
But it’s every bit as likely that Mr. 20,000 will be a middle reliever called up as the 27th man for a doubleheader. Plenty of debuts take place in a substitution context, whether it be a pinch-hitting or running scenario, a defensive replacement late in a game or a reliever coming on in a blowout.
If we’re lucky, Mr. 20,000 will in the starting lineup of a 7 p.m. ET game, and we’ll know exactly when and where the milestone will be reached so we can prepare and celebrate accordingly.
Conversely, perhaps it'll end up being some pinch-runner in the eighth inning of a West Coast game, and most of America will be sleeping when Mr. 20,000 takes the field. We’ll see!
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in Maryland but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn't get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter at @j_shusterman_.