August 17, 2016
Pujols, Verlander, and Modern Baseball
I recently moved back to where I grew up, in the Philadelphia area, or if you want to be specific, just north of that Delaware Valley we know and love. Moving back home has meant moving back to a lot of familiar people and places, and that’s been a real joy; perhaps not chief among these joys, but among them, has been a return to Philadelphia sports radio. When I lived in Chicago, I’d dabble in the ocean of sports radio there, but the pessimism and anger there just wasn’t the same as my pessimism and anger, so it never quite clicked. Now that I’m back, I can listen to the angry men yell on the AM radio for as long as I can stand, which is usually 15-20 minutes.
And while there is increasingly more decent sports radio—the immortal Chris Mueller and John Barchard have helped with this—the angry, reactionary takes far outweigh the reasoned ones. And so I started listening more carefully for germs of sense in the reactive talk. Obviously we know what isn’t true—the Phillies can’t trade for Mike Trout; no one will be selling the team; ownership will not “reward” the fans for their loyalty. But in the premises of some of the call-in segments and rants, there are legitimate questions, and on the rare occasion those questions devolve on baseball in August in a city where there’s no hope of the postseason, there are some compelling threads to pull out. For instance: Where are all the really good, kind of old veterans?
When I heard the question, I initially scoffed because, of course there are good older veterans. This was just a case of confirmation bias and a young, fun, and bad Phillies team featuring Ryan Howard’s terribly aging corpse distorting perspectives.
Well, as it happens, give a point to sports talk radio. As has likely been discussed in the pages of this site many times, the top 10 in rWAR this year, according to Baseball Reference, are all 33 or under. Take out the outliers of Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson and Clayton Kershaw (RIP) from the list, and that number plummets to 26. (Jose Altuve, you are now an elder statesman.) Now, 33 isn’t exactly young in baseball years, but Cano isn’t in the same geriatric ballpark as A-Rod or Beltran, let alone 39-year-old Barry Bonds, who had led the league in rWAR back in 2004. So what the heck? Where art thou, 32-40-year-old stars? Is Robinson Cano all that’s left?
Scanning a list of WAR leaders, the answer is kind of “yes and no.” Miguel Cabrera remains in the top 30 thanks to his bat if not his glove, but despite seeming like he’s been around forever, he’s only 33. Same with Evan Longoria, who, while transcendent in his way, is only 30. Daniel Murphy’s 31-year-old season continues to be a revelation, and Justin Turner is still hitting. Ian Kinsler is the oldest within spitting distance, at 34 years old, and we’d be wrong to not mention the prejudices of WAR when it comes to analyzing designated hitters, as David Ortiz is having a historically good 40-year-old season. But I think we at least have to wonder—where are the late-career stars?
One answer, looking back at previous Top-10 rWAR lists, seems to be that many of our best stars from 2004-2010 burned out pretty much around the same time. The bright and quick peaks of players like Chase Utley; the steady decline of players like Ben Zobrist or Albert Pujols; the retirements of Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodriguez. All of these contribute to what seems like a barren landscape of truly elite older position players. Add on to this that some of the best older position players still at it are not as flamboyant as your Manny Ramirezes gone by, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the older star had vanished. There are 66 position players over 30 playing in the majors this year, and very few of them are what you’d, subjectively, call bona fide stars. Raise the age to 33, and you’re left with 28. Above 35? Only 14. Which is sobering not in terms of numbers—only 11 players were over 35 in 2006—but in terms of names. No Jim Thomes or Frank Thomases on the list in 2016 to be sure.
Which leads us to maybe the more interesting list of over-30 players: pitchers. You may have noticed that I’d studiously ignored them all article, and that was no accident (or if it was, I certainly wouldn’t admit it now). What I anticipated when I started this article was that there would have to be some reason that 33-40-year-old players were vanishing from peoples’ view, and I assumed it would have little to do with pitchers, who remain mostly brittle collections of ligaments after 30. I assumed it’d be to do with steroids or different prohibitions on growth hormones. Imagine my surprise when I opened up the list of over-30 pitchers and saw a number of marquee names. Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, Max Scherzer, Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester—the list goes on. To be sure, this list isn’t all of the stars of pitching, and the under-30 list is still certainly more compelling in many ways, but this seems fairly remarkable to me.
And yes, this list also suffers from the age limit increase. At 33 years, we have 13 pitchers, with Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright, and J.A. Happ likely the cream of the crop. And at 35, we’re down to five pitchers, with John Lackey and Bartolo Colon holding down the fort. But while that is not much happier than the position players’ situation, I’m not so sure the same will hold true in three or five years. Yes, some of the older pitchers will fall off and become unusable—indeed, Dontrelle Willis, Brandon Webb and Tim Lincecum are ghosts of pitching past to fear in B-Ref’s historical top 10 WAR lists—but it seems to me that older pitchers now make up a plurality of the elite pitching in baseball today.
That is interesting for two reasons. One, it somewhat explains sports radio’s inability to see the good older players in the sport today. Even in a “pitching heavy” game, as contemporary baseball has become, we still fetishize good hitters more than good pitchers. And so the renaissance of the older pitcher is something unspoken. Which brings us to the second interesting thought, which is that it’s perhaps these older pitchers—able to sustain success longer? Differently? On a different timetable?—that have helped spur the pitching renaissance as much as the young prodigies. Which gives us an answer to our previous question: Where did the old guard veterans go? To the mound.