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March 30, 2012

Overthinking It

Are the Phillies Too Old to Win?

by Ben Lindbergh

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It’s been six seasons since the Phillies finished anywhere other than first in the National League East. Last year, they led the major leagues with 102 wins, their highest total during their recent run of success. Over the winter, they signed Jonathan Papelbon, the top closer available on the free agent market, and saw their jilted former closer, Ryan Madson, blow out his elbow before he could throw a meaningful pitch for a competitor. Their starting rotation will be headlined by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, who project to be three of the 15 most valuable pitchers in baseball. Their lineup will be bolstered by a full season from Hunter Pence. On the surface, most signs point to continued success. But the Phillies’ competitive window may be closing quickly.

There are four Phillies ranked between 51 and 100 on ESPN’s list of the top 500 players for 2012: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino. It’s conceivable that none of those four will be both ranked in that range and in uniform for the Phillies in 2013. Howard was worth less than two wins in each of the past two seasons and finished 12th on his team in WARP last season, so he’s already out of place that high on the leaderboard. This could be the season his reputation starts to reflect his recent performance: Even after he recovers from the ruptured and subsequently infected Achilles tendon that could cost him the first two months, his on-field decline will likely accelerate at age 32.

As a group, second basemen tend to decline quickly once they reach their thirties, and Utley seems to be following the same pattern. Last season was the worst of his career, as knee inflammation delayed his debut until mid-May, and age, infirmity, or a combination of the two took a toll at the plate. This spring, he’s been sidelined once more by knee problems that may prove to be chronic, placing both his season and his career, let alone stardom, in jeopardy.

Rollins had a strong 2011 season but was either injured or unproductive in two previous campaigns, and he’ll turn 34 in November. Victorino is the youngest of the four and coming off a career year, but he (and Hamels) will hit free agency at the end of the season, barring an extension signed before then.

The advancing age, declining performance, and increasing fragility of Howard, Utley, and Rollins are reflective of the roster as a whole. The average age of the Phillies’ pitching staff has hovered around 30 throughout the team’s playoff streak, dropping into the 20s when injury removed Jamie Moyer from the roster last season. However, while Phillies position players were roughly average in age (weighted by playing time) when the team returned to the postseason in 2007 for the first time since 1993, they’ve been the oldest of any club’s for the past two seasons. Based on the projected playing time in our Depth Charts, they’re about to be older than ever.

Year

Batter Age

Pitcher Age

2007

28.7 (18)

30.5 (6)

2008

30.0 (9)

30.3 (3)

2009

31.2 (2)

31.0 (2)

2010

31.9 (1)

30.9 (1)

2011

31.6 (1)

29.4 (6)

2012 (Proj.)

32.1 (1)

30.1 (2)

According to Nate Silver, “the steepest part of the aging curve—when a hitter experiences the most manifest decline in his abilities—tends to come between ages 32 and 34.” It can be devastating enough to an offense when two or three hitters enter this period of accelerated decline at the same time. The Phillies are entering it as a team.  

Will the graying of the Phillies prove fatal? Since 2001, only a handful of teams have made it to October with a collection of position players at least as old as the Phillies’ are projected to be this season:

Year

Team

Batter Age

2002

Giants

32.3

2003

Giants

32.3

2001

Diamondbacks

32.3

2005

Yankees

32.2

2004

Yankees

32.2

The 2002-2003 Giants were led by Barry Bonds, who perplexingly peaked in his late 30s, as well as Jeff Kent, one of the few second basemen who improved after leaving his 20s behind. Betting on players to age like Bonds isn’t a sustainable blueprint for success. The 2004-2005 Yankees didn’t have Bonds, but they were an outlier in another sense: They spent just under $400 million in combined player payroll, which can erase a lot of age-related imperfections.  Of these five clubs, the one most akin to the current Phillies was the 2001 Diamondbacks, the only team since ’01 to win a World Series with a batter age above 32.

Like the Phillies, the D-backs made up for an old, lackluster offense with solid defense and overpowering pitchers. But Arizona’s example is encouraging only up to a point: Even as it celebrated the title, dark clouds were gathering. Only three years after Luis Gonzalez’ Series-winning hit, the Diamondbacks were the worst team in the majors, finishing with only 51 wins as they languished between the demise of a successful group of a veterans and the beginning of a youth movement that would bring them back to contention.

There’s no youth movement on the horizon for the Phillies: If and when their current core finally falls apart, they’ll face a fallow period of their own. Years of buying at the deadline and drafting at the end of the first round have left them with a system that ranked 29th in Kevin Goldstein’s recent organizational rankings, and they have even fewer position players than pitchers on the way.

Gone are the 2007 and 2009 editions of the team that led the NL in TAv. This year’s unit is projected to tie for sixth, even assuming two-thirds of a season from Utley, putting Charlie Manuel and his charges in the unfamiliar position of embracing small ball. That weakness will make the Phillies vulnerable.

Of course, it’s much too early to count them out: PECOTA projects them to tie the Braves and Cardinals for the NL’s best record. The comfortable cushion they enjoyed last season is likely out of reach, but that projection suggests they could easily win the division. It also suggests that they could easily lose it. BP’s Playoff Odds give the Phillies a 33.7 percent chance of a division victory and a 54.1 percent shot at the playoffs. If the end doesn’t come this year, it will only delay the inevitable: The Braves, Marlins, and Nationals are all on the rise, but the Phillies are running on fumes. 

​Thanks to Bradley Ankrom for research assistance.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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