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Hitters’ Decline Arc is Changing

Until recently, most studies had shown that a hitter’s peak seasons occurred between ages 25-29. However, in the past few years, some studies have indicated that peak may now occur between ages 26-30, which can have some free agent and player performance implications.

Teams have “control” over most players for only a certain period of the players’ careers. If a player hasn’t reached the majors within six years, the player can file for free agency. Once a player is added to a team’s 40-man roster, the team has three “option” years where a player can bounce to the minors and back to the major leagues. After three seasons, the player can’t be optioned to the minors without “clearing waivers” which means every other team in the majors has passed on the player (for various reasons–does not necessarily mean the player doesn’t have ability). Essentially, after four years on the 40-man roster, the player can file for arbitration (there are certain exceptions to this rule) and after six years on a major league roster, the player can file for free agency.

Well, there’s a method to this contractual madness. It’s possible for a team to control a player (to some extent) for twelve years, especially if they sign straight out of college. The six years in the minors allows a player to mature and reach the majors. If a player plays four years of college ball, the expectation is that the player will reach the majors more quickly than a player straight out of high school (college ball replacing the “lower minor leagues” in this case).

If you look back into history, the vast majority of star players reach the majors at a very early age. See below…

Johnny Bench reached majors at age 19; three seasons in minors, 265 games
Pete Rose reached majors at age 22; three years in minors, 354 games
Joe Morgan reached majors at age 19; two years in minors, 280 games
Ken Griffey, Jr., reached majors at age 19; two seasons in minors, 129 games
Frank Robinson reached majors at age 19; three seasons in minors, 292 games
Barry Larkin reached majors at age 22; two seasons in minors, 175 games

The ones that fade “early” usually start later…

Chris Sabo reached majors at age 26; last fulltime season at age 31; five years in minors, 523 games
Hal Morris reached majors at 23; became fulltime at age 26; last fulltime season at 33; four years in minors, 444 games
Pokey Reese reached majors at 24; last fulltime season at 29; six years in minors, 546 games
Tommy Helms reached majors at 23 ,became fulltime at 25; last fulltime season at 33; seven minor league seasons, 829 games.

So, if the best players seem to reach the majors by age 22, or maybe 24, if they completed college and played two years in the minors. Six years later, or between the ages of 28-30, a player can file for free agency, which coincidentally, comes at the end of their most productive (prime) seasons. Essentially, their free agent contract is paying them for what they had done previously and not for expected current or future production.

Now, I want to be careful about that last statement…I’m not saying players are not productive past the age of 30, even if some old major league trade axioms foster the idea of trading a player before he turns 30 (the Frank Robinson deal), or if the adage that it’s better to trade a player one year too soon than trading a player one year too late.

However, I am saying risk does increase greatly past the age of 30. Hall of Famers typically play at a near Hall of Fame level for many years past the age of 30. Still, their past years probably were before the player turned 30 years of age. Defense usually declines first, then speed, and players with “old player” skills (slow, power, lots of walks) find it most difficult to continue, as do players whose only real attribute is their speed.

Having said all that…something changed the last few years. The steroid era seemed to push the peak age to the 26-30 year level. Now that steroids are “gone,” the cycle seems to be reversing. Here’s a question and response from a recent Bill James Online posting:

In an ESPN chat yesterday Gordon Edes wrote: “Like Bill James said last month, we’re going to start seeing older players follow more traditional career arcs (i.e., decline) than we saw during the steroid era.” I was not aware you had made this comment — does this quote accurately reflect your expectations?
Asked by: Anonymous
Answered: February 10, 2010

I talked to Gordon last month, and if that’s in his notes I’m sure I must have said it. In any case, it is certainly true. “The age profile” of successful major league hitters declined quite markedly in the years 2004-2007. From 2007 to 2009 it moved back up a little bit, but. . ..in 2004 there were 19 major league hitters aged 36 or above having seasons of some quality. In 2009 there were 8.

It’s something to beware. The better teams will know to deal their aging players a little more quickly than teams not following this change in performance expectations. It may also disrupt some current computer algorithms used for projecting player performance. It’s someting to beware for any team signing or trading for players in their 30’s, especially if they’re counting on defensive and offensive performance…which pretty much means any player that’s not a pitcher.

The 2010 Reds are counting on lots of offensive and defensive production from the left side of our infield and from their catcher, and all three are past 34 years of age. It bears watching in 2010, as does how Reds manager Dusty Baker manages the situation in the case of performance decline. It’s mindful to consider Baker’s answer to a similar question (as seen on Redleg Nation TV) about Willy Taveras’s playing time in 2009 as to his probable managerial direction.

16 thoughts on “Hitters’ Decline Arc is Changing

  1. Late bloomers don’t get significant Major League playing time until they essentially reach their peaks, so any slippage in their physical tools (speed, in particular) turns them back into replacement-level players. Hotshots who make the majors at a younger age tend to have more tools, over all, so they can survive the loss of one or sometimes more of them and still hold value.

  2. Interesting read. What does this mean for a guy like Joey Votto? He’s 26 and entering his prime. He is under control for four more years and is arb eligible next season. In other words, the guy isn’t going to reach FA until he’s 30. Do you buy out a year of FA in order to keep him through age 31? What about Bruce? The guy will only be 23 to start the season. Seems by this analysis Bruce, not Votto gets the big money extension to buy out FA years during his prime.

    • david: Interesting read. What does this mean for a guy like Joey Votto?

      I’m less worried about premature aging for a position that requires less athleticism or poses less of an injury risk. I think Votto should be a very productive player into his 30s.

      Second basemen traditionally age quickly, so it will be interesting to see how Phillips does these next few years as he approaches 30. He’s more athletic than almost any other 2B, and he does a good job of avoiding takeout slides and other injury risks. I would bet that the next couple of years will be fine, but I wouldn’t re-sign him when his deal is over.

  3. While I get what your saying, Steve, this seems like some pretty selective sampling here (See: Young, Delmon and Martinez, Edgar). I do get the point, and I think you’re generally right, but you’re painting with too broad a brush. The best players, for instance, have always aged more slowly. Votto, I think, would still be a good bet to lock up as I can’t find anyone who doesn’t think he’ll be good for a long, long time.

    Your also not giving much credence to injury. While Sabo was never a world-beater, I think it’s obvious that at least some of his decline was due to injury.

    • JasonL: While I get what your saying, Steve, this seems like some pretty selective sampling here (See: Young, Delmon and Martinez, Edgar). I do get the point, and I think you’re generally right, but you’re painting with too broad a brush. The best players, for instance, have always aged more slowly. Votto, I think, would still be a good bet to lock up as I can’t find anyone who doesn’t think he’ll be good for a long, long time.
      Your also not giving much credence to injury. While Sabo was never a world-beater, I think it’s obvious that at least some of his decline was due to injury.
      Reply

      How is this too broad of a stroke? If you read the links I provided you can find pages upon pages of data to back this up. I know…I printed many of them today…Anyway, I thought I had already written too much for anybody to read…

      It’s really not even new data…Branch Rickey, the great GM and patron saint of many GMs to this day, realized that age 30 is pretty much a demarcation line. And, yes, it’s true that GREAT players age more slowly…frankly, Rolen has been in decline for some time now and Cabrera never qualified as great, and my point is that if a GM’s not careful, very careful, they will fall into the trap of thinking that players can maintain longer careers than their true ability allows.

      As for Votto…he reached the majors at age 23, so he’s not exactly a late bloomer. He did play a lot of minor league games, and that may be a sign that he’s not a “hall of fame” player. He is still a very good one, and way too early for anyone to have fear for him.

      As for Sabo and injury…well, injuries nearly stop everyone’s career, and Sabo didn’t make the majors till late because of his abilities. He’s a fan favorite, and he played hard. However, he didn’t have enough ability to overcome the injuries that he suffered. He’s pretty much a poster boy for late developing players. Even playing in Denver at age 24 (think Votto’s rookie season), Sabo batted .273 with a .412 slugging percentage and 10 home runs…at the same age, Votto was in the majors batting .297 with a .506 SLP and 24 homers playing in Cincinnati.

      For Edgar Martinez…Martinez first made the majors at age 24, but didn’t stick until age 26. He didn’t really learn to hit until he was 24 and…he couldn’t field. He developed power late, and I don’t know how he developed it, but the timing of his late developing power is somewhat suspect…it was 1990, which is kind of what this article is about.

      As for Delmon Young, I suppose you’re implying that he made it the majors young (age 20) and he hasn’t done much. Well…the same could be said for Jay Bruce, and we still have hope for him. But, anyway, making it young doesn’t mean they’re going to make it big. It just means the player has the talent. In fact, making the majors at a young age has TRADITIONALLY been how players got their cups of coffee…some players bounced up and down several times before making it permananetly. The point of focus concerning new (not necessarily young) major leaguers is that players who make it LATE don’t usually become stars. It doesn’t mean they’re not effective and helpful, but Chris Sabo, for example, was never going to be a Hall of Famer. The young players are the ones with the highest ceiling. For that reason, I don’t have near the same level of confidence in the Reds minor league system as I often read here.

      • Steve Price: As for Votto…he reached the majors at age 23, so he’s not exactly a late bloomer. He did play a lot of minor league games, and that may be a sign that he’s not a “hall of fame” player. He is still a very good one, and way too early for anyone to have fear for him.

        Well that position is somewhat contradicted by your numbers. If Votto hit the majors at 23 then he is a late bloomer.

        • david: Well that position is somewhat contradicted by your numbers. If Votto hit the majors at 23 then he is a late bloomer.

          I’m trying to understand where you guys are getting that I said this…

          Here’s my quote, taken from the article I wrote above:

          “if the best players seem to reach the majors by age 22, or maybe 24, if they completed college and played two years in the minors.”

          From what I’ve seen through history, the absolute best players, the Hall of Famers, do seem to reach (generally speaking) by age 22. Very good players, generally, seem to reach by age 24. Baseball, mirroring society (please watch Ken Burns’s wonderful video documentary on baseball) is now waiting longer to bring players up, partly because we as parents hold onto to our children longer (college instead of high school).

          If you’re looking at the graphs above, the guys I chose at age 23, I specifically mentioned, too, when they became regular players…generally around age 26 (peak years). They weren’t ready at 23…Votto was, as the record shows.

          Keep in mind, too…coming up with one player as an exception to the general rule, doesn’t make the general rule wrong. In 150 years of baseball, there’s probably been a few exceptions. There’s also been plenty of time to find some solid baselines.

  4. @Steve Price: How does this translate with pitchers? Speaking of that, the Reds signed Kip Wells to a minor league contract today. He turns 33 this year. What does his signing say about the confidence they have in the younger arms in the farm system?

  5. First, here are a few more articles that discuss players’ peak ages, and I’m trying to stick with studies by guys who are pretty well known in studying this capacity (one of the articles I originally linked to is pay site for baseball prospectus—it is an exceptional article by the way).

    Here’s one by Keith Woolner, whose study show that players with long careers peak at age 27…(http://www.stathead.com/bbeng/woolner/peakage.htm). Now this one is dated from 1997, and it may show better data than we have now since the most recent performance may be tainted by performance enhancers. I “grew up” on the 27 year old peak year mantra…

    Here’s another one from Tangotiger (http://www.tangotiger.net/aging.html) which says anywhere from 26-29…

    As for pitchers; according to the Baseball Prospectus article I referenced (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9933) it states that there’s no real pattern to pitchers’ peak seasons. Most recent data is age 29; it has been as high as age 31 and has bounced all around for 100 years…what I did notice from a graph included in the article, is that pitcher’s peak seems to follow baseball’s goal at the time…in times of low offense, pitcher’s age peaks are lower, as low as age 28. In times of high offense, pitcher’s peak seems to occur later in life, as high as age 31.

    This chart from Baseball Prospectus may shed some light:

    Peak Age by Skill
    Hitters
    Metric Peak Age
    Linear Weights 29.4
    OBP 30.0
    SLG 28.6
    AVG 28.4
    Walk Rate 32.3
    2B+3B Rate 28.3
    Home Run Rate 29.9

    Pitchers
    Metric Peak Age
    ERA 29.2
    Strikeout Rate 23.6
    Walk Rate 32.5
    Home Run Rate 27.4

    This would indicate a higher mound and wider strike zone favors young pitchers (strike out rates and more movement on the pitches leading to fewer homers). In a time of offense, with narrower strike zones, control may have more impact in limiting walks. For batters, speed stats (doubles and triples) peak earlier, while power, walks, and OBP peak later in a player’s career.

  6. @Steve Price: You know what Steve, you’re right. I should have read the links. Sorry about that one. I think what really bothered me was the cut off. Why is a 22 year old “young” and 23 year old “old”. In your article, at least, it seemed kind of arbitrary, but I think the more important thing was to take it as a whole (age and minor league service time). Anyhow, sorry. I don’t normally slip up like that.

    Also, I like long posts. Usually, it means some pretty good content.

    • JasonL: @Steve Price: You know what Steve, you’re right. I should have read the links. Sorry about that one. I think what really bothered me was the cut off. Why is a 22 year old “young” and 23 year old “old”. In your article, at least, it seemed kind of arbitrary, but I think the more important thing was to take it as a whole (age and minor league service time). Anyhow, sorry. I don’t normally slip up like that.

      Hey JasonL…sorry if I came across heavy handed. I was trying to summarize a book’s worth of content (literally). Here’s a link to the author of the Baseball Prospectus article that was posted on a free site…not exactly the same indepth content, but his point remains the same:

      http://www.sabernomics.com/sabernomics/index.php/2006/04/peak-age-another-estimate/

      As for one year…it’s huge in player career path expectations. That’s why the Dominican Republic birth certificate scandal was so huge. The incorrect birthdates devalued a ton of players and changed a lot of career paths and plans for several players and teams.

      Frankly, it’s another wing of what I was writing…but, it is a huge difference. For each additional year it takes a player to “make it” “get it” or whatever, there’s an increased algorithm of less expected offensive career performance. There’s volumes written about this, too…

  7. We’ve always been told that a player’s breakout year is 27, and that holds true a lot of the time, and yes, the greats do not tail as badly, probably because of confidence and experience and preparation, which you don’t have down when you’re just getting significant playing time at that age. Guys like Votto, Bruce, Stubbs, these are guys to build franchises around and hope you hit on a guy who sets the world on fire at 27 (I use Ben Zobrist last season as an example) as a complimentary part in a playoff run.

    • Jason in Toronto: We’ve always been told that a player’s breakout year is 27, and that holds true a lot of the time, and yes, the greats do not tail as badly, probably because of confidence and experience and preparation, which you don’t have down when you’re just getting significant playing time at that age. Guys like Votto, Bruce, Stubbs, these are guys to build franchises around and hope you hit on a guy who sets the world on fire at 27 (I use Ben Zobrist last season as an example) as a complimentary part in a playoff run.
      /blockquote>

      Jason, you’re right about Zobrist. He’s getting his chance during peak season period for him and hitting well. Frankly, he was a better hitter in the minors than Sabo ever thought about being.

      I hope you’re right about Bruce and Stubbs. Bruce nor Stubbs are very good at all at managing the strike zone (Dusty should be pleased). Bruce has more upside than Stubbs. Too me, Bruce is less of an offensive player than Adam Dunn (big power, low average, but no walks and a better defensive player). Stubbs’s 2009 was Dickerson’s 2008 without the walks. Stubbs has arrived a year later than Votto and didn’t hit as well as Votto in the cup of coffee or in the minor league time. He doesn’t have to hit as much–he’s a centerfielder. However, I don’t think he will ever be a good option at the top of a batting order.

    • Jason in Toronto: the greats do not tail as badly, probably because of confidence and experience and preparation, which you don’t have down when you’re just getting significant playing time at that age

      Toronto Jason…here’s the one point I “generally” disagree with you. Career length doesn’t usually as much to with confidence, experience, and preparation…it has to do with talent.

      Now, a player may get stuck behind someone and the talent doesn’t develop or withers….however, those guys are usually used as trade bait to improve another area of the team. There are exceptions, and no doubt, someone will tell us….and that’s good information to have.

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