Father Time in Baseball: Age Curve Equals Parabolas for All types of Players

ImageThe talk I hear most often in regards to players, most recently from fans, is: “He’s 30. He no longer worth the long-term investment going forward.” It perplexes me how jaded some have become about 30-year old players. The march of time is relevant, don’t get me wrong, but it seems we just like to shoot the horse after he just won the race (making it to his prime.)

Its well known that most production in a player will take place before he hits the round age of 30. And that his most expensive rate happens as he matures as a ballplayer and hits free agency. So, most MLB offices are looking to save cash by signing them in the early days of their WAR best years, with contracts ending right around 30-31. (Assuming a 6-8 year contract, and the front office guys buy out a couple of years of arbitration and 1-2 free agent years below market prices.) So, that’s the model.

Parabola ALL STARS

This graph below reflects the top-tier players since 1901 WAR production. Data collected courtesy of Fangraphs (for WAR) and Lahman’s database for ages (to calculate age: Birth date – 4/15/xx, Robinson’s debut date.)

WAR1

Roger Hornsby, Melt Ott , Al Kaline, and Ty Cobb were the youngest 5WAR hitters on this graphic. Bob Feller, Doc Gooden, Gary Nolan, Milt Pappas and Bert Blyleven were the babes on the pitchers list. On the other end, over 40, when father time is ticking fast on a career, guys like Cy Young, Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn, Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, and Greg Maddux all defied the convention that 40 is it. Only three batters – Honus Wagner, Luke Appling and Carlton Fisk – did the trick of 40 being just a number.

Pitchers, in general, were able to put up 4.0 WAR (ace-like production) after 35 a bit easier than the slugging hitter. I suspect, that hurlers adapt better to those days without their best stuff, decreasing velocity (location masters like Maddux), and using their encyclopedic knowledge of both hitters and the art of throwing balls by the eager folks with sticks. If they have survived this long, the prospect of a so-so day, or guys on base, matters less. The salty vet has a few tricks left, and can rely on it, in a pinch. Batters: its about reflexes, timing, vision, and rhythm, as much as it always is. Their knowledge helps – but a young gun with 95MPH+ or those balls hit are just a little less powerful, or their legs and back are slowing them up too much on the field.

These guys over 30 still generate approximately 32-35% of the high quality WAR. It’s still possible to get good performance until 35. The HOF career player gives you a little more, thereafter.

Average Everyday Players

WAR2

Chief Bender, Bob Feller and Bert Blyleven were prodigies. All put up 3+WAR well below 20 years of age. Bryce Harper, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, and Mel Ott were the less than 20 guys with a great feel for the game, providing starting stuff before they could drink (based on 21 today.) Clown questions are often asked of these young men: how did you get so good? Do you think you can play until 35, and be Babe Ruth or Cy Young? At this age, no one knows their future.

Ted Williams ended his career past 40 with a home run. Rickey Henderson was being Rickey and stealing bases past the mid-life crisis point. Davey Lopes, another speed merchant, put up a nice 2.45 WAR over 40. Stan the Man, Dave Winfield, Barry Bonds and Hammering Hank Aaron got some more dingers to finish out their Homeric runs. Even with all the ‘roids, it didn’t lengthen careers of the modestly successful much. No unusually 2+WAR players exist.

Pitchers, again, last well past north Dallas and 40. The Ryan  Express flew until 45. Charlie Hough and Jamie Moyer both threw under 80MPH, and somehow got their sons out. Tommy John, the arm didn’t fall off past 40. Clemens, Paige, Perry, Niekro, and the list goes on to Mariano Rivera, the sandman, finally slept in 2013.

Players (1901-2013) Pitchers Batters
WAR (4P – 5B)                       10,384                       12,663
WAR (1.5P-4.9B)                       16,766                       24,325
Total WAR                       27,150                       36,988
WAR Breakdown 42.3% 57.7%

What this means?

The game is not over at 30. Sure, you don’t want 5 or 10 players pushing the 35-40 age group regularly on your team. Father time will run out on your playoff hopes. But, a few fellas can and will surprise, and so, the assessment of health, and contract flexibility must be taken together. It’s a risk;  but a guy can put up some respectable numbers, especially if he once was the youngest star on the field.

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