At one point during his now-famous introductory press conference, Cubs manager Joe Maddon emphatically declared that “60 is the new 40,” leading to a few chuckles. Though his timing, blurting it out just after Theo Epstein had finished answering a question, did paint Maddon in a faint light of senility.
But he’s far from senile, even if he is indeed a little crazy. But when it comes to the issue of age, it’s not so much Joe Maddon the fans are worried about as the players he’ll be managing for the Cubs, notably the free agent and trade targets being bandied about like so many toys on a child’s Christmas list.
Russell Martin, Cole Hamels, Alex Gordon, Jake Peavy, Justin Masterson, James Shields…it reminds me of going through the Toys ‘R Us catalog as a little boy, circling those items that would best fill the material void in my life. My parents, of course, were unconcerned with my ultimate happiness and fulfillment and routinely failed to provide me with all that I desired.
Likewise, and this may be hard for some to fathom, the Cubs won’t be signing every free agent on the market and they won’t be trading for every bat and arm being made available for the right price. Well, unless MLB allows rosters to expand to 150 or so; if that happens, all bets are off.
In all seriousness though, most are aware that the Cubs, and any buyers for that matter, will need to pick and choose the moves they make. The maelstrom of rumors has provided quite an active forum for the value of the various players being named in connection the burgeoning team at Wrigley Field, as armchair GMs dissect the possibilities.
Out of all of this, the common theme of age has emerged, with 30 set as the de facto line of demarcation between increasing and decreasing value. Who new that tricenarians were the new senior citizens. True, I’ve seen a marked decline in my own athletic prowess over the past five years, but I was also drawing from an incredibly shallow pool of resources to begin with.
But what about these highly-paid, finely-tuned baseball machines? Is there any merit to the idea that paying for a player on the wrong side of 30 is just a waste of money? After all, it does seem to fly in the face of the strategy the Cubs have employed under Epstein and Jed Hoyer heretofore.
I want to first present some some hypothetical arguments before looking at logical and statistical data to answer the questions above. When projecting a player’s value, it’s irresponsible to simply look at his date of birth and conclude that his worth can be directly tied to it. At the same time, those of us who have already advanced beyond our 20’s know full well that we’ve lost a bit of verve along the way.
It’s also important when reviewing potential targets to examine position and history, how much mileage a player has on his proverbial tires. Understandably, a first baseman has got less wear and tear than a catcher who’s been sitting in a squat for the last 15-20 years. Likewise, a pitcher with thousands of innings and innumerable pitches thrown may see his value decrease quicker than a left fielder.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but what do the numbers say? Conventional baseball wisdom has long held that players typically peak between the ages of 28 and 32, though sabermetric savant Bill James argued that “that one truism is blatantly false.”
James found that the player-age of 27 actually had the highest total performance, concluding that the window between 25 and 29 is the true five-year peak period. The supporting evidence for this conclusion, however, has been exposed as quite weak due to the lack of overall logic behind it.
All of this is laid out in a fascinating article written by J.C. Bradbury for Baseball Prospectus in 2010. In it, he details findings from a study on peak age in baseball that he conducted after after finding existing work unsatisfactory. While his findings were essentially in line with traditional beliefs, Bradbury was able to break down the peak ages for specific skills, as evidenced by the table below:
Peak Age by Skill Hitters Pitchers Metric Peak Age Metric Peak Age Linear Weights 29.4 ERA 29.2 OBP 30.0 Strikeout Rate 23.6 SLG 28.6 Walk Rate 32.5 AVG 28.4 Home Run Rate 27.4 Walk Rate 32.3 2B+3B Rate 28.3 Home Run Rate 29.9
The table reveals that player skills peak at different times, often quite far apart from each other. Hitters peak in batting and slugging average at 28 while continuing to improve in their home-run hitting and walking abilities until 30 and 32, respectively. Home runs rising beyond the peak for doubles and triples indicates that foot-speed on the basepaths fades before hitting power. In addition, batters may be using veteran knowledge to better manage the strike-zone-or possibly becoming more friendly with umpires-to walk more and hit with power as they age. Pitcher strikeout ability peaks around 24, while walk prevention peaks nine years later. Again, veteran know-how appears to be playing a role in improving performance to compensate for diminishing physical skills.
So now we know when baseball players are at their best, but what about the rate of decline? Even a player who’s past his (optimus) prime can be of great value to a team, provided of course that the diminution of his skills doesn’t proceed at too rapid a pace. Mr. Bradbury?
I’ll not provide background on the two sample sizes used since the results are virtually identical, but we can see from the pretty little parabolas that there is a pretty marked decrease that accelerates with age. Big surprise, huh?
In another article from Bradbury titled “Peak athletic performance and ageing: Evidence from baseball” and published in the April, 2009 edition of The Journal of Sports Sciences, he further addressed the topic at hand and touched on the deleterious effects of age on athletic performance in general.
Evidence from literature on physiology of exercise indicates that peak physiological function for men occurs just before age 30 years and then regresses between 0.75% and 1.0% per year; however, studies of ageing in athletics have found that the impact of age differs according to the athletic skill in the sport. Activities involving strength, speed, and endurance favour younger athletes, while activities that require high skill and less vigorous physical stress have later peaks.
We have now been presented with some pretty solid empirical evidence to support the idea that a player’s best years truly are behind him once he’s turned the final page on his second decade. But does that mean the Cubs should avoid going after guys who will only be able to provide sub-prime seasons to a team hoping to compete from here on out? Hardly.
Let’s first consider that some skills — notably OBP and walk rate — actually have higher prime ages, indicating that their drop-offs will come later and perhaps be less steep than other categories. Also consider that, while the deleterious effects of age impact all players, some have a much higher peak from which to come down. That said, even lesser seasons from a great player exceed the best of a mediocre one.
It’s also important to take into account the construction of this Cubs roster to this point. While the accumulation of youth is great in terms of hope and potential, most of those players are still years shy of their own peaks. However, that same youth and potential plays an important role in the decision to pursue post-prime veterans.
The skills young players need the most work in developing, again, OBP and on-base, are those that vets are typically strongest in. As for less tangible impact, grizzled veterans provide the leadership and experience lacking on a roster in which the most-tenured players are in their early-to-mid 20’s.
But perhaps more than any of that, we can see clearly from the chart above that the fall-off of older players can be offset by the (fingers-crossed) improvement of younger ones. The Cubs haven’t been putting all their eggs in one basket this whole time; rather, they’ve been stockpiling assets that can now be used to balance the experienced players (full-grown chickens?) who will be brought in to round out the lineup and rotation.
That said, it’s important to be judicious in handing out contracts; a 4 or 5-year deal to Russell Martin could turn into an albatross rather quickly, particularly if the Cubs don’t turn into contenders immediately. But…but…framing. I do believe the importance of framing is somewhat overstated, there’s no doubt that it’s a very valuable skill and that it’s one that doesn’t deteriorate as do others.
In closing, I’d like to share the words of both Bradbury and James:
I find it interesting that despite his unwavering pronouncement of when players peaked when the article opened, James’s tone was tempered in his general conclusion:
Good hitters stay around, weak hitters don’t. Most players are declining by age 30; all players are declining by age 33. There are differences in rates of decline, but those differences are far less significant for the assessment of future value than are the differing levels of ability (James, 1982, p. 205).
So while age 30 appears to be the point of no return for baseball players, it certainly doesn’t mark the end of their value, particularly to a team flush with youth that is now looking to compete in a big way. Now it’s up to Epstein and Hoyer to find the right mix of skill and experience to balance all that green talent they’ve acquired.
And if Joe Maddon can share a few sips from his personal fountain of youth, this team might just find El Dorado after all.