March 4, 2013
It's No Good to Get Old (Except for These Guys)
What if you’d been asked back in 2003—following the greatest season since 1950 for aging hitters—which position players in their prime would be the likeliest candidates to enter 2013 as the best old guys? Sure you’d have predicted Derek Jeter, but Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada would have been in the same sentence. Ichiro would have come to mind too, since he’d have seemed like someone who’d probably age okay, but Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, and Manny Ramirez would have been popular outfield picks as well. Even if you knew Chipper Jones would be retiring with something left in the tank, there was still a third baseman on the board. Edgardo Alfonzo, a seven-win player in 2000 and a five-win player in 2002, is even younger than Jones.
No matter whom you picked, you mostly would have been wrong, and through no fault of your own. It’s just the worst time in decades for older players. Jeter had a pretty good 2012 until he had to be carried off the field at the end, and Ichiro found a little life after the trade from the Mariners to the Yankees, but that’s really about it.
In 2002, hitters in their age-37 seasons and up combined to produce 39.7 wins above replacement player, and that figure stayed above 30 wins as recently as 2007. But since then, it’s cratered, and the 2012 figure of 3.5 total WARP for all age-37-and-up position players was the lowest since 1984. The natural inclination would be to say that the change can be attributed to drug testing, but it’s come with a whole change in the offensive environment, with speed increasingly emphasized and bat-only players in less demand.
Things aren’t much better for the old pitchers, who had a very similar peak with composite WARPs in the 30s from 2003-2005 but careened to a 12-year low of 5.3 in 2011 before a recovery to 13.3 in 2012. In the aggregate, 2011 and 2012 were the worst years for old players in almost three decades.
Most of the names mentioned at the top retired or faded quickly. Some others hung on with poor results—Todd Helton and Hideki Matsui were a win or more below replacement level last year. Others march on strongly, returning for their age 38-plus season with some hope of contributing to their teams