August 20, 2010
BASEBALL: Late Hits
It seems like the past year or two we suddenly have fewer guys having big years with the bat after age 35. How true is that?
Here's one back of the envelope look: players age 35 and up having an OPS+ of 140 or higher (minimum 300 plate appearances, which isn't that much). 140 is a pretty high bar to cover only really outstanding seasons, and of course it's not the same as looking at who improved after age 35, which I did in this post on Barry Bonds' unprecedented improvement after 35. But it's another cut on the data to add to the picture.
Let's look first by decade at the number of players having such seasons:
1885 is the only season in the first four decades with more than one player qualifying. Not surprising that it starts out low - seasons were shorter before the mid-1880s, life expectancies were much shorter, and since professional baseball only began in 1869, you'd expect there to be few guys in their late 30s in the 1870s but a few of the founding generation hanging on a decade later.
Bill James has noted the spike in veterans in the 1920s and early 1930s as a symptom of the game's upswing in prosperity motivating more guys to work harder at staying in the game longer. And so we see 3 in 1911, 2 in 1912, only two more in the 1913-21 period, but then 3 in 1923, 3 in 1924, and 5 in 1925 before guys like Cobb and Speaker got too old.
2 each in 1930, 1931 & 1932. Babe Ruth turned 35 in 1930.
The war: 3 in 1944, 2 in 1945, then 2 in 1948.
A steady 2 a year in 1950, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1957, 1958. Ted Williams turned 35 in 1954, Stan Musial in 1956.
You'd expect a bunch more than that with expansion, but the expanded strike zone among other things may have worked against older hitters. Only season with 2 was 1968 (Mays & Mantle).
Boom. 2 in 1970, 6 in 1971, 2 in 1972, 3 in 1973, 2 each in 1974, 1975 & 1976, then just one between 1977-79. The 6 in 1971 remains the all-time high: Aaron, Mays, Frank Robinson, Clemente, Kaline and Norm Cash. Cash is the only one who looks out of place, but his career OPS+ was 139.
None in the strike season, but 5 in 1982, 2 each in 1983, 1984, 1987 & 1988.
Just one between 1989-92, 5 between 1993 and 1996 (including 2 in 1995), but then we start to see the uptick: 3 in 1998, 4 in 1999, 5 in 2000, 4 in 2001, 3 in 2002, 4 in 2003, 5 in 2004, 1 in 2005, 3 in 2006, 4 in 2007, before petering out to 2 in 2008, 1 in 2009, and just one (Scott Rolen) at last check this year, although the season's not over yet (Jim Thome, who's already counted here for 2006 & 2007, is at a 160 OPS+ in 257 plate appearances and is playing pretty regularly).
Do we attribute all that to steroids? Certainly weight training and sports medicine are helping players age better, plus we had waves of expansion in 1993 and 1998, plus historically we seem to get more veteran hitters taking flight during good offensive times than bad. But the sharp uptick in the 1998-2007 period (35 guys in a decade) followed by the recent dropoff doesn't seem like it can be explained entirely by one or two outlying hitters or those other factors.
I'm not offering this as a systematic study of the issue, just another way of quantifying what we've all observed.
It sure looks like the steroid curve. Who were the hitters from '98-'08? That might be telling.
Better nutrition, better training, better medicine, technolgies to find and fix mechanical problems, improvements in how injuries are treated by teams, more night games, easier and less stressful traveling, less players smoking and drinking,-it adds up. If you can hold off a players decline for a year or three-35 just becomes a number
So, then why the big drop-off right after baseball tightened the reins on the juice? Statistical anomaly? Possible since the time frame/sample size is small, but given that pretty much all offensive categories are down it would be pretty weird for it not to have something to do with what was going on with PEDs.
1968 Mantle is one of my favorite random seasons. Most people have this idea of Mantle being an embarrassment at the end--you know, playing first base, barely being able to move.
His line looks unimpressive at first: 18 homers, .237 batting average. But that was the year of the pitcher, he walked 100+ times, and he was probably one of the best 10 hitters in the league.
Yeah, Mickey was physically a shell of his former self by then but he was still very productive in a run-starved environment. He finished 3d in the AL in OBP. He was Willie Mays 1971-72, not Willie 1973. Although if he'd stuck around one more year he might have ended badly.
Mantle had such an awful year in 1968. He tnered the season with a .301 lifetime average and finished the year at .298. I once sat down with Retrosheet and a calculator and figured out the precise date his lifetime average fell below .300 for the last time. It was in late July 1968 against Luis Tiant, I believe. That had to be Mickey's worst month ever. He hit something like .165 with two doubles and nothing else. Poor Mickey.
my point being that if you look at age 35 guys30 years ago and later they physically looked older than guys that are 35 now.
They say that youth is wasted on the young. I wonder if the same could perhaps hold true for baseball players. That by the time the mind catches up, the body may be giving out. In other eras, by the time" the light bulb went on" it was getting close to being over. Is that why the conventional wisdom used to be a players best years were in his late 20's to early 30's. Except with, modern methods you could push the clock back a lot. I think what steroids did, was not so much improve the athlete but simply allow the body to stick around until the mind caught up. As for Bonds and the juice, shouldn't all users show improvement at least close, if not equal, to his? His off the charts performance argues against it simply being steroids. Or the steroids era would have been full of "baby bonds".
THe steroids era was full of baby Bonds It's the grown up one that is hard to match. Bill James once wrote (and this was in 1998, before any "growth" within Bonds) that Barry Bonds will be considered among the 5 greatest players in the history of baseball (I'm paraphrasing, because I don't want to get out my 2nd edition copy of his Historical Abstract).
Before 2000, he was the second coming of Stan Musial. After, he was Babe Ruth. Moving him from ay Prometheus to Zeus. From an immortal to the king of the gods. The only way to see how much it did (and it's still only an allegation, let's remember that), is if Ken Griffey Jr. the only other such player as great as Bonds did stuff. And it's pretty clear he didn't.
Steroids absolutely makes a player younger. Because what they do is A. Make your muscles contract and relax faster and B. Let's you work out more and get stronger. The two things that leave you as you age: speed and strength. So if you take an enhanced superplayer, which Barry Bonds always was, and make him a super duper player, you get Kahn Noonian Singh. And the baseball eugenics wars.
One correction: when I say he didn't, I meant Griffey. Everyone who knew him has made that pretty clear: Junior Griffey earned every home run and bruise he ever got the hard way.
One other potential factor is the "new" old-style parks being introduced during these years that are generally considered to be more hitter friendly. For aging sluggers, shorter power alleys turn fly outs into doubles or homers.
Interesting that the cluster of guys in the 70s was before the DH came in, which you would think would have created more big seasons by aging sluggers.