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July 19, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
To Serve the Young
Like Florida, Arizona has a reputation for being home to a great many old folks. In some respects it is deserved; according to the 2010 census, Scottsdale, a Phoenix suburb, had the highest median age (45.4 years) among all 282 locations in the United States with a population of 100,000. Tempe, which lies a few miles south of Scottsdale, ranks among the lowest median ages (28.1). The fact that Arizona State University (alma mater of several fine baseball players, including Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Rick Monday, and about 100 other current or former big-leaguers) is in Tempe helps account for the younger population.
The median age of the entire state is 35.9 years, which puts Arizona in the same vicinity as Kansas or Mississippi (and below the U.S. median of 37.2). The percentage of people 65 years or older is 13.8—far lower than Florida (17.3), and more in line with Massachusetts and Michigan.
Meanwhile, on the diamond, youth is being served in Phoenix. The Diamondbacks have gotten the best offensive production out of players aged 25 or younger in baseball (well, the Red Sox have done better, but 107 plate appearances hardly counts). As a group, they are hitting .282/.353/.459 in 769 plate appearances (amusingly, Florida ranks second in OPS by this split).
Almost all of the damage has been done by two men: Justin Upton (23) and Gerardo Parra (24). We have discussed Upton at length in this space, noting that he has gone from good to scary good faster than you can say “we walked uphill both ways in the snow and liked it.” I have lain unflattering comparisons on Parra in the past, most notably to former Tigers speedy hackster Milt Cuyler. Perhaps that was an overly harsh assessment, but nothing in Parra's minor-league record gave great cause for hope. With a .314/.375/.440 line in nearly 1,600 plate appearances, so much of his game depended on batting average (to say nothing of a red wheelbarrow). Despite being fast, he didn't put his speed to good use, getting caught stealing at nearly a 30 percent rate.
This year, Parra is 6-for-6 in stolen-base attempts. And though his on-base percentage remains less than brilliant (.344), he is making strides in that department. Like Upton, Parra has increased his walks while cutting down on his strikeouts:
Parra still doesn't figure to be a star, but he has taken a step forward, and it makes him a useful piece of whatever puzzle Kevin Towers and company might be trying to assemble.
The latest addition to the Arizona Kiddie Corps is 25-year-old Brandon Allen, who was recalled from Triple-A Reno on Friday and who became an instant hero the following night when his second-inning homer accounted for all of his team's runs in a 3-2 victory over the Dodgers. Allen represents an improvement over the man he replaces at first base, Juan Miranda, although one hopes a big-league club would set the bar higher than that. Then again, Mike Jacobs held onto a starting job for a curiously long time before even the bad teams realized he wasn't helping them.
To the west, meanwhile, lies California. The so-called Golden State enjoys a reputation as a place where youth culture prevails—think Berkeley, Hollywood, the Lawrence Welk Resort (the kids are wonderful, wonderful)—has a median age of 35.9 years, not so different from Arizona. The Dodgers, who need to start rebuilding yesterday, are getting nothing from their young hitters. They have the worst OPS among the 25-and-under set:
Admittedly, the Dodgers haven't been playing a lot of youngsters (a problem in itself), but even when they do, the results aren't pretty. The two main culprits have been the since-demoted Jerry Sands and Dee Gordon, with Ivan DeJesus Jr. and a couple of pitchers also chipping in. (The pitchers aren't the problem; they are hitting .288/.327/.288. Besides, Clayton Kershaw and Rubby De La Rosa do certain “other things” that help their team.)
At the opposite end of the proverbial spectrum, the Rockies have gotten more out of their old (age 36 or higher) hitters than any other team in baseball. Colorado's golden oldies are hitting .313/.397/.535 in 436 plate appearances.
Two individuals are entirely responsible: 37-year-old first baseman Todd Helton and his 40-year-old backup, Jason Giambi. Although the Rockies cling to the slim hope of a post-season berth (2.1 percent chance with 67 games remaining), realistically, it ain't happening. (Even if the first-place Giants play .500 ball from here on out, Colorado would need to go 43-24 just to tie them—and that doesn't account for what the Diamondbacks might yet do.)
Helton hasn't hit 20 homers or slugged .500 in a season since 2005 but continues to be productive due to superior on-base skills. He is the type of player who could help a contender down the stretch if Colorado can get him to waive his no-trade clause, which raises an interesting question: Given that Helton has spent his entire career with the Rockies and served as the de facto face of the franchise for most of the past 15 years, would they even want to trade him?
The notion of “veteran presence” gets a bum rap in some circles because it is not easily quantifiable (and is sometimes used as a crutch in lieu of actual knowledge), but there must be some value in retaining an employee who is familiar to paying customers rather than flipping him for potentially more useful long-term assets in a transaction that could alienate said customers in the interim. I don't know where that cutoff point lies, but it's something the Rockies must consider (and doubtlessly have).
Fortunately, Giambi comes with no such baggage. He is an old man who is exceeding expectations in limited playing time. Surely some team could use a potent left-handed bat off the bench for a few months, before Giambi shuffles off to Maine (median age 42.7), Vermont (41.5), West Virginia (41.3), or some such place to watch the leaves turn... or whatever it is leaves do in those parts of the world.