August 24, 2012
Finding Life After 30
Most players tend to peak in their mid-to-late 20s before declining after age 30. But not every player adheres to the typical trajectory. Several contending teams have benefited from unlikely resurgences or career years by players who’ve struggled in recent seasons and have already reached the point on the aging curve at which we would have expected their declines to continue. Who are they? How have they turned back the clock? And most importantly, can their surprising success continue?
Ryan Ludwick, Reds, 34
What he’s done: The Reds are 65-38 since their .500 April and 25-10 since losing Joey Votto to knee surgery in mid-July. No player has been more responsible for that run than Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick was a below-average batter with the Padres over the past two seasons even after adjusting for Petco Park’s pitcher friendliness, and when he hit .207/.289/.405 through June 6th of this season, Reds fans called for his playing time to be curtailed. Then he got hot. Ludwick’s .340 TAv since the start of June ranks 13th among all hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, and his .356 TAv since the start of July ranks eighth (min. 150 PA), behind only Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.
How he’s done it: Ludwick hit much better before and after his stint with San Diego, so it’s possible that Petco hurt him even more than it hurts the average hitter. Great American Ball Park, however, is a haven for right-handed hitters and the perfect place to restore his power. This is also the first season in which Ludwick has avoided the disabled list since his career year of 2008, so good health is also a factor.
Can he keep doing it: Ludwick can’t keep producing like a perennial MVP candidate, so some regression is in store, but little about his line looks fluky. Any decline in his production should be more than offset for Cincinnati by Votto’s impending return.
A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox, 35
What he’s done: Pierzynski’s success might be the most surprising of all. It’s rare for any 35-year-old to have a career year at the plate, but it’s even more unusual for a player at his position to do it, since catchers tend to decline early. Only three backstops since 1950 have managed TAvs of at least .300 (Pierzynski’s is .307) in at least as many plate appearances –Elston Howard, Carlton Fisk, and Jorge Posada—and all three had had comparable or superior seasons before. Pierzynski leads all catchers with 23 home runs, surpassing his previous career high by five homers with well over a month to go.
How he’s done it: Pierzynski is pulling the ball more often—32.2 percent of his batted balls this season have been pulled, compared to 24.6 in 2011—and a lower percentage of his pulled balls have been hit on the ground. Those spikes in pull percentage and fly ball percentage have led to improved power.
Can he keep doing it: Pierzynski might simply be swinging harder, which would explain both the increased power and a strikeout rate that has nearly doubled since last season. Still, his HR/FB rate is over twice its career rate, which seems unsustainable.
Jeff Keppinger, Rays, 32
What he’s done: The Rays snagged Keppinger on a one-year, $1.5 million deal after he faded down the stretch for San Francisco last season. He’s rewarded them with the fourth-highest TAv on the team, a career-best .299, and his 1.7 WARP is tied for second behind Ben Zobrist.
How he’s done it: Keppinger has been doing the same thing he always does—he’s just gotten better results. No player, with the possible exception of Juan Pierre, makes more contact than Keppinger, who’s struck out in only 5.7 percent of his plate appearances. However, he’s not particularly patient or powerful, so like Pierre, his value is highly dependent on batting average, an unstable stat. Unlike Pierre, he doesn’t have the speed to beat out infield grounders, so he needs a steady supply of bloopers, bleeders, and seeing-eye singles to be above average. This season, the balls have bounced his way.
Can he keep doing it: Only as long as his luck holds out. Keppinger has had a season like this before. In 2007, his BABIP was roughly 10 points higher than it is now, and he batted .332. The following season, his BABIP fell by 60 points, and his batting average went with it. Something similar may be in store for September.
Eric Chavez, Yankees, 34
What he’s done: From 2007-2011, Chavez struggled to stay healthy, spending time on the 60-day DL in each of those seasons. Worse, his power all but evaporated when he was on the field. This season, Chavez has hit more than twice as many homers as he did in the previous four combined, and his TAv is the highest it’s been since 2004. He’s also easily outhit Alex Rodriguez, whom he was supposed to be backing up.
How he’s done it: Chavez has avoided the DL for the first season since 2006, and according to one Yankees official, better health is the obvious answer. “I think more than anything, his back feels the best it has in years,” the official said. “Swinging a bat requires a ton of torque, and if you have disc issues, swinging is not only severely painful but also restricts your range of motion.” In addition, the team has gone to great lengths to protect him from unfavorable matchups. Chavez has faced left-handed pitchers in just 11.1 percent of his plate appearances, well below his 27.8 percent career rate. Only three non-switch-hitters with at least 200 PA in 2012 have had the platoon advantage more often.
Can he keep doing it: Chavez has shown this kind of offensive ability before. As long as his back holds up and the Yankees keep hiding him from same-handed hurlers, there’s no reason why his renaissance can’t continue. However, if his injury history is any indication, the back could blow at any time.
Jason Kubel, Diamondbacks, 30
What he’s done: Kubel was worth less than half a win to the Twins in each of the past two seasons, and the Diamondbacks drew criticism for signing him to a two-year, $16 million deal over the winter when they already had Gerardo Parra, a younger, cheaper player who easily outproduced Kubel last season. However, Kubel’s TAv has returned to levels last seen in 2009, his only prior standout offensive season, and his 26 home runs lead the D-Backs by a wide margin.
How he’s done it: Playing his home games at Chase Field has helped prop up Kubel’s power. He’s hitting .309/.391/.667 with 18 homers at home and .240/.299/.412 with eight homers on the road. Not every player has an equivalent capacity to exploit his home park, and if Kubel has a special affinity for his, the Diamondbacks deserve credit for recognizing that. However, his underlying talent likely hasn’t improved as dramatically as his counting stats would indicate.
Can he keep doing it: It’s not out of the question that Kubel can approximate his production to date, but even if he does, his overall production won’t be quite as impressive as his offensive stats would suggest. Kubel has cost Arizona over half a win on the basepaths, posting the third-worst BRR in baseball, and his -8.0 FRAA is tied for the second-lowest total among left fielders. As a result, he’s at best an average all-around player, despite the better bat. Pre-season favorite Parra has been roughly as valuable in over 100 fewer plate appearances, although outfield injuries have ensured that Kubel’s presence hasn’t cost him as much playing time as anticipated.
Dan Turkenkopf provided research assistance for this article.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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