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September 11, 2004

Rational Exuberance

The Over-30 Crowd

by Jonah Keri

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Quiz time!

Question 1: This player scores a higher VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) than Ichiro Suzuki, Scott Rolen, Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield or Manny Ramirez, but topped 500 at-bats in a season just once before age 30.

Question 2: This player leads the American League in EqA (Equivalent Average) this season despite never reaching 500 at-bats in a season before age 30.

All right, the links give it away. Mark Loretta and Melvin Mora have put up star-caliber seasons that have outstripped all but the Bonds/Pujols class of '04. They've done so with little notice from mainstream media sources or fans, whether casual or hard-core.

What makes the two players' breakout seasons all the more remarkable is their ages. Loretta's 2003 season, in which he turned 32 and hit .326/.384/.455 outstripped anything he'd ever done before; his '04 performance--.343/.404/.512 in the toughest hitters' park in baseball--has blown '03 away. Mora didn't even reach the majors until age 27, then toiled as a utility man for the first few years of his career. He's followed a brilliant, but injury-marred .317/.418/.503 '03 campaign at age 31 with a performance worthy of MVP votes this year--.343/.425/.569.

Mora's weighted-mean PECOTA projection heading into the 2003 season: .242/.325/.380. Loretta's: .251/.316/.316. With so little expected from either player, the question is, "where did these two breakouts come from?" Did Loretta and Mora show signs of greatness that would have led us to see this coming? Are sudden over-30 breakouts of this scope common? Can other over-30 breakouts teach us anything about what a player with that kind of career arc looks like?

Let's break these questions down:

  • Did Loretta and Mora show signs of greatness that would have led us to see this coming? Though he wasn't anywhere near the terror he's been this season, Loretta did show signs that he could at least be an above-average major league infielder well before his breakout of the last two seasons. In 1998 he put up a line of .316/.382/.424 in Milwaukee's County Stadium, for a solid .281 EqA. A high-contact hitter with low walk and strikeout rates, Loretta looked good when he hit above .300, average or worse when he didn't.

    He also had plenty of strikes against him. His high-contact approach likely played a role in suppressing any power potential he may have had; Loretta's highest isolated slugging figure (SLG-AVG) came in 2000, when he hit .281/.350/.406, for a modest ISO of .125. Players who garner most of their value from their batting average can see their value fluctuate wildly, given the volatility of the stat; the '98 season marked the only time Loretta topped .300 in significant playing time before 2003.

    That last point may have been Loretta's biggest obstacle. A versatile player who could handle multiple positions, Loretta's teams would often deploy him as a utility infielder rather than giving him a clean shot at an everyday job. Multiple injuries further ate into his playing time and may have derailed his progress.

    Still, plenty of players go from part-time duty to starting jobs and show little or no improvement. With three weeks still to play in the season, Loretta has set career highs in nearly every conceivable counting stat (notably homers, doubles), while also posting career highs in batting average, on-base and slugging averages and isolated power, all while playing in the average- and power-suppressing vortex known as Petco Park.

    Though we like to rely on the numbers to inform our analysis here at Baseball Prospectus, there's no denying that coaches and scouts can sometimes help a player make an adjustment that leads to a higher level of performance, one that perusing stats alone wouldn't necessarily foresee. Livan Hernandez went from a pitcher best known for gaining glory from the incompetence of Eric Gregg to becoming one of the top starters in the game after switching to a three-quarters delivery, following conversations with Carlos Tosca and Expos pitching coach Randy St. Claire last year. Maybe something similar happened with Loretta.

    To find out, we called Kevin Towers, the Padres' general manager and one of the best in the game at blending performance analysis with scouting principles. Was there any flash of insight that led the Pads to sign Loretta after the 2002 season? Uh...not so much.

    "We had a price range we planned to use to acquire a shortstop or a second baseman--$1 million to $1.5 million," Towers said. "We targeted Royce Clayton or Loretta. We had Ramon Vazquez and we preferred that he play second base. So to be honest, we preferred Clayton. It just worked out that we got Loretta instead."

    This was followed by talk of Loretta finally feeling comfortable in an everyday role, being healthy and playing in southern California. Loretta, who happened to be standing next to Towers around the batting cage during the conversation, said he's concentrated on being consistent and pulling the ball with authority. All potentially plausible explanations, none of them enough to make us see, before the fact, what Loretta was destined to become.

    Mora may have been a little easier to predict. A multi-position player nearly throughout his career, Mora still played in more than 75% of his teams' games in 2000, 2001 and 2002 (he was dealt in-season from the Mets to Baltimore in '00). His minor-league numbers suggested a player with occasional doubles power--his best doubles production coming in the hitter-friendly Texas League. But while he hit just .233 in 2002, Mora still put up a respectable .338 OBP and .404 SLG that year, suggesting some intriguing power and patience--70 walks and 53 extra-base hits in 149 games. Batting average being the volatile stat that it is, projected a swing to .300 for Mora made for a promising scenario, even if his secondary skills merely stood still.

    That's what's happened the last two seasons. First, Mora flashing a .317/.403/.518 line in 2003, his season cut short at 96 games due to injury. Healthy and playing every day at one position (third base) this year, Mora's shown what a lofty batting average can do for a player with power and patience, going .343/.425/.569. He's been a late bloomer, but this wasn't exactly Mark Belanger suddenly morphing into Frank Robinson.

  • Are sudden over-30 breakouts of this scope common?: Thanks to BP's James Click, here's the list of batters whose VORP in a season over 30 exceeded their maximum VORP in any season under 30 by at least 25 runs, dating back to 1972, as far aback as our data on this goes. Note that many of these occurrences were in the 29-30 years.
    
    PLAYER      YoungVORP YoungAge YoungYear OldVORP OldAge OldYear Difference
    Jeff Kent       34.1     29      1997     102.4    32    2000      68.3
    Luis Gonzalez   38.2     25      1993     104.5    33    2001      66.3
    Melvin Mora     13.3     29      2001      67.7    32    2004      54.4
    Larry Walker    52.0     25      1992     106.3    30    1997      54.3
    Bret Boone      35.4     25      1994      85.3    32    2001      49.9
    Davey Johnson   14.0     29      1972      63.6    30    1973      49.6
    Ken Caminiti    37.4     29      1992      84      33    1996      46.6
    Sammy Sosa      78.2     29      1998     122      32    2001      43.8
    Mark McGwire    71.1     23      1987     114.3    34    1998      43.2
    Barry Bonds    113.0     28      1993     154.1    36    2001      41.1
    Brady Anderson  55.3     28      1992      95.3    32    1996      40.0
    Mike Stanley    15.8     24      1987      54.4    30    1993      38.6
    Bill Robinson    1.9     29      1972      39.9    34    1977      38.0
    Mark Loretta    31.3     26      1998      68.4    32    2004      37.1
    Champ Summers    0.3     29      1975      35.8    33    1979      35.5
    Art Howe         2.4     27      1974      37.6    31    1978      35.2
    John Vander Wal 13.0     29      1995      47.8    34    2000      34.8
    Terry Pendleton 26.6     26      1987      59.9    30    1991      33.3
    John Lowenstein 14.9     26      1973      48      35    1982      33.1
    Willie Horton    4.0     29      1972      36.8    36    1979      32.8
    Bill Mueller    32.4     27      1998      65.2    32    2003      32.8
    Javy Lopez      45.2     27      1998      78      32    2003      32.8
    Ernie Whitt      1.2     24      1976      32.7    35    1987      31.5
    Lance Johnson   35.4     29      1993      66.8    32    1996      31.4
    Paul O'Neill    33.0     28      1991      63.9    31    1994      30.9
    Tony Phillips   24.9     25      1984      55.6    34    1993      30.7
    Jim Eisenreich   7.6     23      1982      38.1    30    1989      30.5
    Bob Bailey      15.1     29      1972      44.8    30    1973      29.7
    Bob Brenly      10.0     28      1982      39.6    30   1984    29.6
    Kevin Young     26.5     28      1997      56.1    30   1999    29.6
    Terry Shumpert   6.5     27      1994      35.7    32   1999    29.2
    Tom Paciorek    10.5     29      1976      39.6    34   1981    29.1
    Ozzie Smith     30.8     29      1984      59.1    32   1987    28.3
    David Justice   45.8     27      1993      74      31   1997    28.2
    Alex Johnson    -5.5     29      1972      22.5    30   1973    28
    Darren Daulton  34.7     28      1990      62.6    30   1992    27.9
    Al Bumbry       39.2     26      1973      66.9    33   1980    27.7
    Mark McLemore   16.7     28      1993      44.4    31   1996    27.7
    Shane Halter     3.7     27      1997      31.1    31   2001    27.4
    David Newhan     0.9     27      2001      28.3    30   2004    27.4
    Keith Lockhart  -0.4     29      1994      26.3    30   1995    26.7
    Aaron Guiel    -11.9     29      2002      14.6    30   2003    26.5
    Dave Kingman    27.3     27      1976      53.4    30   1979    26.1
    Davey Lopes     42.6     29      1974      68.6    34   1979    26
    Edgar Martinez  76.4     29      1992     102.4    32   1995    26
    Ellis Burks     52.4     23      1988      78.1    31   1996    25.7
    Moises Alou     52.9     27      1994      78.1    31   1998    25.2
    Dave Roberts     0.7     29      2001      25.9    30   2002    25.2
    

    (As you may know, VORP is playing time-dependent. With that in mind, we've compiled a second list, using MLVr as the measure of choice, with MLVr jumps of .250 or more. It's a long list, so I'm withholding it here, but feel free to e-mail me at the link below if you're interested in the MLVrStars.)

    Since the dataset starts at 1972, you'll notice a few players who were 29 in 1972, whose seasons before that age don't show up. It's thus probably best to discount the first four or five years after 1972 in this sample.

    Those asides aside, let's take a look at a few of these names, to see if we can detect any kind of a pattern, thus answering Question #3...

  • Can other over-30 breakouts teach us anything about what a player with that kind of career arc looks like?: Let's look at a few and see what we can find out.

    • Luis Gonzalez: 38.2 VORP, Age 25, 1993; 104.5 VORP, Age 33, 2001; difference of 66.3. Gonzalez was a full-time player, and a pretty good one, in 1993 when he posted a line of .300/.361/.457 playing for Houston in the cavernous Astrodome; he was a surefire MVP in a world without Barry Bonds in 2001, throwing up an outrageous .325/.429 /.688, including 57 homers. Gonzalez's success has been widely attributed to a strict flexibility program which allowed him to get better rotation through the ball, pulling it for far more power than he ever had before. Far from the prototypical musclebound slugger, Gonzalez's frame remained lanky and lithe, and his improved technique translated into an offensive explosion. It wasn't a one-year fluke either, as he posted big years in 2002 and 2003 (and before that, 1999 and 2000).

    • Brady Anderson: 55.3 VORP, Age 28, 1992; 95.3 VORP, Age 32, 1996; difference of 40. Still considered one of the biggest flukes in major league history, Anderson exploded for 50 homers in 1996, 29 more than he'd ever hit before. Though he remained a good hitter with moderate power and solid on-base ability, Anderson never again hit more than 24 homers in a season or slugged above .500.

    • Bill Mueller: 32.4 VORP, Age 27, 1998; 65.2 VORP, Age 32, 2003; difference of 32.8. Health, plain and simple. A promising hitter who got on base and roped copious doubles at his best, Mueller had struggled to stay healthy most of his career. The Red Sox signed him cheap after the 2002 season, hoping Mueller's bad knees would heal in time for him to contribute to the '03 club. A .326/.398/.540 line was GM Theo Epstein's reward, for the tidy sum of $2.1 million a year over two years, with a $2.1 million option.

    • Davey Lopes: 42.6 VORP, Age 29, 1974; 68.6 VORP, Age 34, 1979; difference of 26. Errr...would you believe osmosis? Lopes slammed 28 homers in '79, 11 more than in any other year of his career, before or after. This was also the year that Lopes' Dodger teammate and infield mate Ron Cey set a career high for SLG, and Steve Garvey missed a career slugging high by an eyelash. Overall, an out-of-character year for a still-underrated and effective player.

      And one more...

    • Ken Caminiti: 37.4 VORP, Age 29, 1992; 84 VORP, Age 33, 1996; difference of 46.6. The MVP in '96, Caminiti told us in no uncertain terms how he managed that breakthrough season--steroids.

So what do these five random examples tell us? Not much, or maybe too much. From vigorous workout regimens to newfound regular playing time, to good health, cheating, or unexplainable flukes, over-30 breakouts come in all shapes and sizes. Even sophisticated projection systems like PECOTA and others of its ilk often miss these huge years. Even after they occur, predicting whether the gains will continue or evaporate can be just as difficult.

Teams, analysts, broadcasters and fans tend to overestimate the frequency of the "normal" career path--the Bill James bell curve with an upswing in the early 20s, a peak around 25 to 29, a plateau in the early 30s and a decline from there. Year after year, a significant number of players deviate from that path.

The best teams, analysts or anyone else can do is process as much available information as possible. If presented with a career .238 hitter who's always shown an ability to work the count and drive the ball, it may be worth taking a leap of faith. The same goes for the hitter who makes a mechanical adjustment that starts to show dividends. We're getting closer; player evaluation is better now than it's ever been, and Major League Baseball scarcely looks like the same sport given the blind spots that existed 60, 40, even 20 years ago.

Until then, there are no points deducted for hitting the Royce Clayton Plan B Lottery.

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

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