January 14, 2014
Will the 2014 Yankees Have the Oldest Offense Ever?
You have to hand it to the Yankees. Fresh off a 2013 season in which they fielded baseball’s oldest collection of position players—and, in perhaps not entirely unrelated news, either led the league or ranked second in games and salary lost to injury and percentage of payroll lost—they’ve spent the offseason growing even grayer.
2013 Yankees Age and Injuries (MLB rank in parentheses)
Part of this is passive aging, the kind that happens at any position where a team stands pat. Returning Yankees who, as of today, look like locks for the Opening Day active roster—in descending order of age, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano, Mark Teixeira, Brendan Ryan, Brett Gardner, Francisco Cervelli, and Eduardo Nunez—are, in accordance with the way time works, now even older than they were in 2013. But the Yankees have also aged actively, signing five over-30 free agent position players to big-league deals: Carlos Beltran (who’ll be 37 this season), Brian Roberts (36), Kelly Johnson (32), Jacoby Ellsbury (30), and Brian McCann (30). The suspension of 38-year-old Alex Rodriguez is the closest they’ve come to a youth movement.
On the pitching side, the Yankees figure to be a lot less ancient. Having lost Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte to retirement, New York could enter the season with only one post-prime reliever (Matt Thornton) and three under-30 starters, barring a buzzer-beating Bronson Arroyo signing. But with every lineup slot assigned to someone who’s fit for Carrousel—unlike last year, when Brett Gardner played most of the season at age 29—the Yankees have seemingly assembled a historically old offense.
The oldest hitting team in the AL era (1901-2013) was the 2006 Giants, with a weighted batter age of 34.46. That team featured only one starter under 30—27-year-old catcher Eliezer Alfonso, backed up by 35-year-olds Mike Matheny and Todd Greene—and got over 2000 combined plate appearances out of 41-year-olds Barry Bonds and Steve Finley and 39-year-olds Omar Vizquel and Moises Alou. The next season, Brian Sabean cemented a now-outdated reputation for being irrationally attached to veterans by trying to construct a roster around an even older Bonds. The 2007 Giants gave enough plate appearances to 20-something bench bats to lower their weighted average batter age to 33.54—the second-oldest of the AL era—but their youngest starter was Bengie Molina, who turned 33 that July. In Bonds’ final season, San Francisco won only 71. For teams of a certain age, success is tough to sustain.
Here are the 10 oldest hitting teams of this 113-season span, along with team TAv and winning percentage:
Five of the top 10 were built around Bonds, whose aging curve was…atypical, to put it politely. And five of the 10 (including two of the Bonds teams) were winning clubs that made the playoffs, which offers some hope to Yankees fans who are still reeling from a catastrophic season in which their team still won more than most.
So where will the 2014 Yankees rank? Our preliminary depth charts put their position players at 33.59 years old—almost three years older than the Phillies, who have the second-oldest group, and eight years older than the Astros.
We’ll be tinkering with our depth charts up until Opening Day, just as teams will be tinkering with their rosters. The Yankees, for one, are reportedly pursuing 27-year-old Logan Forsythe, who would lower their average age slightly. But as of today, Brian Cashman’s club projects to have the second-oldest hitters of the AL era, sandwiched between the ’06 and ’07 Giants. (Had A-Rod not been suspended, their projected average age would have come within a couple tenths of a year of the top spot.) If the Yankees approach this projection and manage to make the postseason, they’ll have done so with an older collection of position players than any previous playoff team.
It’s easy to point out the problems with this approach to roster construction. As Nate Silver observed in 2009, “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,” a range within which the collective age of the Yankees’ lineup falls. And as anyone who watched last year’s team could tell you, age is closely correlated with injury risk. Not only are the Yankees’ hitters likely to decline, but they’re much more likely to miss time than those of a younger team with the same true talent. I wrote something similar about the aging Phillies prior to the 2012 season, and they’ve won at a .475 clip since then.
As an illustration, let’s estimate the relative injury risks of two teams, one whose position players are the age of the Astros’, and another whose position players are as old as the Yankees’. A recent study suggested that injury risk rises approximately linearly as players age, with an increase of two percentage points per year in the probability of making a trip to the DL. The Astros’ projected average age rounds to 27, so let’s set the baseline DL probability for a 27-year-old position player at 10 percent. (I’m making that up.) At that rate, the odds of a lineup of nine 27-year-olds making it through the season without disabling anyone are 38.7 percent.
The Yankees’ offense’s projected average age rounds to 34; by the time a 27-year-old position player reaches age 34, his odds of visiting the DL—using my made-up baseline—are up to 24 percent. The probability that a lineup of nine 34-year-olds makes it through the season without a DL trip is only 8.2 percent, which means that the odds of the lineup of 27-year-olds surviving unscathed are almost five times higher. And that understates the true difference, since A) real teams have more than nine position players, and B) that injury study both suffers from survivor bias and treats every DL appearance the same, ignoring that the older player’s DL stint is likely to last longer. If you’re in the mood for some math, you can calculate the probability that each roster will suffer, say, at least two, three, or four DL trips, but the takeaway is that the Astros—who lost the third-fewest days to injury in 2013—are much more likely to stay healthy (even though they’ll still stink).
Given where they were at the end of last season, it’s hard to see how the Yankees could have gotten significantly younger over the winter without punting 2014, something their unique competitive ecology doesn’t allow them to do. They had no impact players to promote from within, leaving them with little choice but to fill holes with free agents, who tend to be past their primes. By failing to develop their own productive players, the Yankees have locked themselves into a pattern of replacing their own old, expensive ex-players with old, expensive ex-players from other teams.
Which isn’t to say that this approach can’t work for a team with as much money to spend as the Steinbrenners’. It worked for the 2012 Yankees, who won 95 games with a +136 run differential and made it to the ALCS despite being the fourth-oldest batting team of the AL era (with an average weighted age of 32.96). That year, too, Yankees players missed the second-most days due to injury, but a much lower percentage of their payroll went to waste, as more of the important positional personnel made it through the season intact and good pitching picked up the slack. This year’s team looks less talented: even if disaster doesn’t strike, the old offense projects to be the sixth-worst in the AL, the bullpen doesn’t seem dominant, and the back of the rotation remains up in the air. And as long as the Yankees continue to construct rosters this way, they’ll be subject to considerable downside risk from the sort of injury stacks that plagued them last season.
If the Yankees undershoot their age projection this year, it will probably be because they can’t keep their most senior citizens on the field. Last year’s Yankees lost so many of their stars for extended stretches that they were forced to import a steady stream of replacement players from Triple-A and outside the organization. Most of those players were younger than the injured veterans whose roster spots they took, which lowered the team’s average age, but they were also less talented, which lowered the team’s win total. That leaves the Yankees in the paradoxical position of hoping for a historically old offense: the older the batters, the better they’ll be.
All of which is to say: expect a big bid for Masahiro Tanaka.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.