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May 19, 2011
The Over/Under-30 All-Stars
If you’ve been paying any attention to current athletic events, you know that Jose Bautista has been busy making the rest of baseball look bad. The 30-year-old slugger is hitting .370/.516/.849, leading the majors in home runs, walks, and runs scored, and serenading himself in the shower with the refrain to Jay-Z’s “30 Something”: “30’s the new 20, I’m so hot still.” (Yes, Bautista prefers the “clean” version.) As Hova notes elsewhere on that track, 30 is “young enough to know the right car to buy, yet grown enough not to put rims on it.” That’s not the kind of old-player skill we generally associate with athletes—it’s more of an old-playa skill, probably—but baseball players do compensate for their declining physical talents by adopting more refined approaches as they leave their third decades behind.
Of course, there comes a point at which no amount of experience and savvy can help a player catch up with a fastball, which is why places on the 25-man roster aren’t lifetime appointments. Bautista’s offensive outburst has been compared to the early-century output of Barry Bonds. Bautista’s recent production is more out of character with his previously established performance level than Bonds’ was, but one of the factors that made Bonds’ record-busting performance so improbable was that it came as he entered his late 30s, typically a time when players retain only a fraction of their former glory. At 30, Bautista is hardly over the hill, but he is a few years past the age at which most players peak.
If Bautista can maintain anything close to his current level of production, his post-30 production might surpass his cumulative pre-30 production before the end of this season—and he didn’t reach the big 3-0 until after the 2010 schedule wrapped up. Prior to 2011, Bautista had amassed only 9.6 WARP, the bulk of which (6.2) hailed from last season alone. This season, he’s already accumulated an incredible 4.2 WARP, and while he probably won’t blow by Bonds and into the stratospheric mid-teens, he could “slump” and still handily outdo the combined efforts of his age-23 through age-29 selves.
That got me wondering—what’s the historical distribution of value before and after turning 30 among all players since 1950? And which players over the same span have exhibited the most extreme slants in either direction?
Note that we’re using “through age-29 season” and “after age-29 season” as proxies for before and after 30 here—that’s an approximation, but it shouldn’t matter much. Relative to pitchers, batters earn a slightly higher percentage of their value after age 30, but in general, by the time players bid farewell to their 20s, their salad days are behind them (despite the best efforts of Bonds, who accrued 62.2 percent of his record 172.2 WARP after his age-29 season).
Limiting the sample to players who earned at least 30 WARP in total, and excluding active players—no, the fact that aging Yankees reserves Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones have accumulated 99.8 percent and 92.5 percent, respectively, of their value to date before their age-29 seasons isn’t likely to change by much, but it could—let’s run down the top 10 players whose value percentage was skewed toward their earlier years, and then do the same for the late bloomers.
In what will be a recurring theme in the quick-starters portion of the article (for obvious reasons), Holtzman reached the majors young, becoming the first player from the inaugural 1965 amateur draft class to make the majors. In what will also be a recurring theme (for equally obvious reasons), he cratered after age 30, failing to post a league-average ERA or pitch as many as 150 innings in a season, in part because George Steinbrenner marooned him in the bullpen after failing to bully him into waiving his no-trade clause.
Tresh was an All-Star and a Rookie of the Year in his first full season. He strung together six consecutive seasons of four WARP or more from 1962-1966, which was almost as impressive as his feat of surviving six years as Joe Pepitone’s roommate. His bat disappeared after age 28, and his age-30 season was his last.
Agee reached the majors in his age-19 season, but he didn’t make his 80th appearance at the plate until his fifth big-league audition. Not only did he get the part following the first four call-backs, he was named Rookie of the Year. The decline came much more quickly than the breakthrough.
Ron Blomberg got all the headlines for becoming the first designated hitter in history, but Jim Ray Hart came to the plate nearly twice as often as a DH for the 1973 Yankees. Had the DH been invented earlier, he might have lasted longer. As it was, wear and tear took its toll, and he was out of the game after the following season.
Templeton hit .305 in six seasons in St. Louis to start his career, and while he didn’t walk much, he thrice led the league in triples and easily cleared the offensive bar at shortstop in the lean lumber years of the late '70s and early '80s. He had only one above-average season after that, and it came in San Diego, but some part of Templeton kept on contributing to the Cardinals in the form of Ozzie Smith, for whom he was traded.
Petrocelli’s 1969 season was almost as surprising as Bautista’s 2010; like Bautista, he did the majority of his damage at home, where he slugged .641. Petrocelli launched 40 home runs, setting a shortstop record that wouldn’t be broken until A-Rod topped it by two in an offensive boom year. The monster season was worth just a shade under nine WARP, ranking third in the AL, but Petrocelli finished only seventh in the MVP voting, perhaps because he fell short of the century mark in runs and RBI. (Sal Bando, who finished second in WARP, received only 16th-place recognition from the BBWAA.) Only one other time did Petrocelli have a season even half as valuable.
It took until the seventh player on the list for us to find a conclusive instance of injuries cutting short a player’s career. After two straight seasons—one of them a strike year—of leading the NL in starts, Rijo was limited to 69 innings in 1995 and didn’t pitch once in the next five seasons. He resurfaced in 2001, but by then his place on this list was all but assured.
Blue peaked early, winning the MVP and Cy Young Awards in 1971, his age-21 season. If not for a one-year suspension for cocaine use in 1984, he might have escaped mention here.
Blair was always a glove-first player, but he never sniffed league average at the plate after his age-30 season. His denouement coincided with Holtzman’s in New York, but the Yankees won back-to-back championships nonetheless. Holtzman was barred from October baseball in the Bronx despite a strong postseason record with the A’s, but Blair had his moments in the ’77 playoffs and excelled in the 1978 World Series.
Fregosi was a hit in the ’60s, but his ’70s career was about as successful as that of the Monkees (who went on to have the better ’80s), much to the chagrin of the Angels, who had sent him to the Mets in 1971 for Nolan Ryan and three other players—you know, to even things out. Perhaps Fregosi’s 1993 pennant as skipper of the Phillies should count as something good that happened after age 30.
No Hall of Famers were included in that company—that would seem intuitive, since making it to Cooperstown normally requires either sustained excellence or an in with Frankie Frisch, but a pair of enshrined Dodgers, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, did come close to qualifying on the strength of their peaks. Misbehaving Mets Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden also fell just short, as did the injury-prone Nomar Garciaparra.
Among the slow starters who made up for it later—begrudgingly setting aside still-active zombie Melvin Mora, who has racked up 89.1 percent of his value after his age-29 season—we find two Hall of Famers and another shoo-in, which goes to show either that the voters remember you more fondly if you finish strong, or that the knuckleball is a wonderful thing.
With the aid of the knuckler, Wilhelm pitched until a couple of weeks before his 50th birthday, when he was released by the Dodgers (who you’d think could have found a way to wait just a little longer to lower the axe, even if it took hiding him on the DL for a while). If the most common peak age is 26 or 27, then Wilhelm was as far removed from that point chronologically as your typical toddler. We’ve yet to encounter a 2-year-old who could pitch as effectively as a 49-year-old Wilhelm or some of the other graybeards on this list (though if he’s out there, Andrew Friedman will find him), which also helps explain why this list is relatively replete with plaques.
Niekro missed the 1963 season in military service, but he hadn’t yet broken into the majors at that point, and it’s unlikely that another early season would have moved the post-30 percentage much, even if it would have helped him refine his floater earlier. He holds the record with 121 wins after age 40, edging out…
…Moyer, who’s still technically active and sitting on 103. Moyer isn’t a knuckleballer, but his career might make more sense if he were.
Ellie played three seasons in the Negro Leagues, didn’t make it to the majors until age 26, and played fairly sparingly for a few seasons as he floated around the diamond until Yogi Berra’s catching career wound down. He amassed over 22 WARP from 1961-1964, but things went downhill thereafter, as they did for the Yankees as a group.
Wells didn’t pitch 100 innings in a season until he turned 27, but he remained marginally effective into his early 40s, saving his most pronounced decline phase for his stint as a TBS analyst.
Lopes didn’t debut until he was 27, and he had to wait till the following year to receive a starting job. In his last minor-league season, he hit .317/.411/.476 with 48 steals (albeit at Albuquerque), so it’s not as if he wasn’t ready earlier. While Lopes toiled in Triple-A, Dodgers second basemen were busy hitting .242/.301/.324, led by Lee Lacy’s .259/.312/.313 and a similar line from Bobby Valentine. Those numbers weren’t awful in context, and both Lacy and Valentine were young, but the Dodgers weren’t putting their best rookie forward.
Our third and least-accomplished knuckleballer, unless you count his bowling career.*
*There are 23 inductees in the writers’ wing of the Bowling Hall of Fame. I’ll confess that I didn’t know that many people had written about bowling at all, let alone done it so well.
Adolf Hitler might take some blame for Bruton’s presence here, since the center fielder’s World War II service delayed the start of his baseball career. (Hitler’s baseball career, of course, was permanently derailed.) Bruton lied about his age to earn a spot in the minors and didn’t reach the Show until he was 27, at which point he reeled off three consecutive league-leading stolen-base years while just barely clearing a 70 percent success rate. He would later go on to lead the league in times caught stealing in 1960, but he also finished with over 100 triples.
A freak in so many ways, Johnson famously found the strike zone just before he turned 30, and he remained a power pitcher until retiring at age 45. Not only did he win four Cy Youngs in a row, he did it from ages 35-38.
The Gambler was a 38th-round pick in the 1982 draft, and it took him seven years to reach the Rangers. Toward the end of his career, he earned greater notoriety for assaulting a cameraman and appearing to doctor the ball than he did for his pitching, but he did much of his best mound work in his twilight years. One more potential Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting, Curt Schilling, would be the next pitcher on this list.
Bautista wasn’t bad enough before age 30 to allow him to join this company unless he finishes with roughly 100 WARP, which would make him one of the 15 or so best players of all time. As eyecatching an outlier as he’s been so far, the century mark is almost certainly a bridge too far for Joey Bats. Nonetheless, for the moment at least, he’s playing at a level that few have ever glimpsed.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.