March 31, 2009
You Could Look It Up
The Ballad of the Old Shortstops
Both here at BP (and in the annual) and at my other home, I've been waging a desultory war about Derek Jeter's future. His contract is up after the 2010 season, and though he'll be knocking on the door of 3,000 hits, I have argued that the Yankees should say goodbye. Jeter's defense is already a problem at short and is unlikely to have improved as he enters his age-37 season. With his bat sliding and his speed seemingly ebbing, a transfer to another position seems unlikely to bear fruit. As I said in my most recent chat, "I don't know that Jeter is a viable major leaguer in three years. My standard line—his glove will no longer play in the middle infield, his bat won't play anywhere else."
With 2010 in mind, I decided to go hunting through baseball history for those teams that put considerations of age aside and used a regular shortstop of Jeter 2010 vintage, age-37 and up. "Regular" here is defined by a season of more than 400 plate appearances. Before we get into the actual AARP all-stars, a note about the results. This group has an inherent selection bias. A shortstop only lasts into his late 30s because his defense was so good to begin with, or perceived to be so good, that the teams felt that they were still worth playing despite declining powers. Thus in the first group, the 37-year-olds, you will find that of 15 players, seven are Hall of Famers, two more (Dave Concepcion and Bad Bill Dahlen) are frequently mentioned as belonging in the Hall of Fame, and another (Omar Vizquel) may one day get there on the strength of his defense.
Group One: Still Spry 37-Year-Olds Year Team PA G AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3 W-L Postseason? Omar Vizquel 2004 Indians 651 148 .291/.353/.388 2 4.2 80-82 N Pee Wee Reese 1956 Dodgers 648 147 .257/.322/.344 -5 2.2 93-61 Lost WS Rabbit Maranville 1929 Braves 634 146 .284/.344/.366 15 4.3 56-98 N Dave Concepcion 1985 Reds 620 155 .252/.314/.330 -15 0.2 89-72 N Dave Bancroft 1928 Dodgers 591 149 .247/.326/.303 3 1.4 77-76 N Ozzie Smith 1992 Cardinals 590 132 .295/.367/.342 21 7.2 83-79 N Maury Wills 1970 Dodgers 578 132 .270/.333/.318 -2 2.5 87-74 N Honus Wagner 1911 Pirates 558 130 .334/.423/.507 4 6.8 85-69 N Larry Bowa 1983 Cubs 544 147 .267/.312/.339 12 2.9 71-91 N Luis Aparicio 1971 Red Sox 541 125 .232/.284/.303 -17 -1.3 85-77 N Bill Dahlen 1907 Giants 529 143 .207/.291/.254 14 1.2 82-71 N Bones Ely 1900 Pirates 503 130 .244/.272/.282 16 1.8 76-90 N/A Bobby Wallace 1911 Browns 464 125 .232/.312/.271 3 0.3 45-107 N Tommy Corcoran 1906 Reds 460 117 .207/.242/.249 1 -2.0 64-87 N Art Fletcher 1922 Phillies 431 110 .280/.325/.409 0 1.0 57-96 N
So far we have learned very little, except that Honus Wagner was a great player at any age. We've also learned that very few teams thought their shortstop was good enough that keeping him around at this age was a worthwhile thing to do, or that you can have a good record while doing it, and even win a pennant.
One change in this group resulted in a near pennant-winner the following season: after Dahlen's offensively inert season in 1907, the Giants switched to the more potent Al Bridwell. This and other key moves, including the return of slugger Turkey Mike Donlin from self-imposed exile, helped the Giants improve to 98-56 and a controversial second-place finish (for more, see our book It Ain't Over).
Group Two: The 38-Year-Olds Hang on for Dear Life Year Team PA G AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3 W-L Postseason? Maury Wills 1971 Dodgers 654 149 .281/.323/.329 12 4.8 89-73 N Omar Vizquel 2005 Giants 651 152 .271/.341/.350 8 3.2 75-87 N Honus Wagner 1912 Pirates 634 145 .324/.395/.496 31 10.4 93-58 N Rabbit Maranville 1930 Braves 628 142 .281/.344/.367 0 2.0 70-84 N Ozzie Smith 1993 Cardinals 603 141 .288/.337/.356 14 4.3 87-75 N Bill Dahlen 1908 Braves 588 144 .239/.296/.307 22 3.8 63-91 N Barry Larkin 2002 Reds 567 145 .245/.305/.367 -6 0.4 78-84 N Luis Aparicio 1972 Red Sox 474 110 .257/.299/.351 -15 0.7 85-70 N Jimmy Austin 1918 Browns 442 110 .264/.359/.324 -1 0.0 58-64 N Bones Ely 1901 Bucs/A's 435 110 .212/.232/.265 -2 -1.8 N/A N/A Larry Bowa 1984 Cubs 423 133 .223/.274/.269 -2 -0.7 96-65 Y Dave Bancroft 1929 Dodgers 403 104 .277/.331/.332 -6 0.3 70-83 N
Moving our age cut-off up by a year, we find that in the entire modern history of baseball, just 12 teams tried to compete with a 38-year-old shortstop. Again, the implication seems to be that unless you have one of the top shortstops of all time—or Bones Ely, who our translations suggest was a defensive standout in his day—the younger guys had more range.
There are two strong teams here. Honus Wagner's 1912 Pirates won at a .616 percentage, good enough for a pennant in many seasons, but were simply outclassed by a Giants team that won 103 games. The Flying Dutchman was clearly part of that team's assets. Less clear-cut is the case of Larry Bowa and the 1984 Cubs. In January, 1982, the Cubs and Phillies had consummated the infamous Bowa/Ryne Sandberg-for-Ivan DeJesus trade, a swap of shortstops in which the future MVP second baseman was a throw-in.
Bowa was never much of a hitter, but his already weak bat flat-out flatlined in 1984. Nonetheless, the Cubs won the NL East in a season in which just about everything went right. The Cubs have fooled themselves about many things over the past century, but Bowa wasn't one of them—they tried to replace Bowa with Shawon Dunston, the first overall draft pick of 1982, as soon as the next Opening Day, but Dunston struggled during the first month and was sent down until August, at which point Bowa was released. He was signed by the Mets, who were perhaps hoping that the five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover would inspire Rafael Santana to greater range afield. It wwas not to be, and Bowa's 16-season playing career was over.
Group Three: The Seven 39-Year-Olds (a Film by Akira Kurosawa) Year Team PA G AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3 W-L Postseason? Luke Appling 1946 White Sox 659 149 .309/.384/.378 12 7.4 74-80 N Omar Vizquel 2006 Giants 659 153 .295/.361/.389 0 3.6 76-85 N Rabbit Maranville 1931 Braves 636 145 .260/.329/.317 -16 0.4 64-90 N Luis Aparicio 1973 Red Sox 561 132 .271/.324/.309 -5 1.9 89-73 N Honus Wagner 1913 Pirates 454 114 .300/.349/.385 5 4.0 78-71 N Ozzie Smith 1994 Cardinals 433 98 .262/.326/.349 -6 1.4 53-61 N/A Bones Ely 1902 Senators 417 105 .262/.301/.310 -3 0.4 61-75 N/A
Note that the last three seasons of Louis Aparicio's career, spent with the Red Sox, are represented here. As a hitter, Aparicio wasn't far off from the center of his career, which is to say that he still couldn't hit, but at least he wasn't much worse than that. His prolific basestealing was largely a thing of the past. The Red Sox, in their typical pre-2004 way, had found the way to make the most of Aparicio's weaknesses by batting him second and occasionally first. The 1971-73 Red Sox were a good team, winning 85, 89, and 84 games, with the 1972 unit finishing just a half-game behind the division-winning Tigers in a season infamously shortened by labor strife (another race we covered in It Ain't Over). Having Aparacio playing at a replacement level clearly didn't help; not only were his offensive and defensive contributions pushing the Sox in the wrong direction, but the club finished last in the league in defensive efficiency (eighth in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, or PADE, but still in negative territory). Aparacio was also a hindrance in 1973, when the team finished second, eight games behind the Orioles, despite solid pitching; receiving no offensive contribution from second base, third base, and shortstop didn't help. Seen in this light, Boston's promotion of Rick Burleson to starting shortstop, which came midway through the 1974 season, should be placed alongside the elevation of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn as key moments on the road to the 1975 pennant.
Similarly, the 1994 Cardinals, Ozzie Smith's last stand as a regular, finished last in PADE, albeit for reasons beyond Smith's declining powers. After a transitional year in 1995, the Cardinals won the NL Central with a re-aligned defense that included Royce Clayton as the regular shortstop.
Group Four: Which Lacks a Fourth 40-Year-Old Year Team PA G AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3 W-L Postseason? Honus Wagner 1914 Pirates 616 150 .252/.317/.317 18 4.6 69-85 N Omar Vizquel 2007 Giants 575 145 .246/.305/.316 8 1.3 71-91 N Luke Appling 1947 White Sox 572 139 .306/.386/.412 -12 4.2 70-84 N
Just three teams have employed a 40-year-old shortstop, and only one in more than 60 years: those veteran-lovin' Giants of 2007. Appling was still a force at the plate if not in the field, while Wagner had the reverse problem.
Group Five: Honus, 41, Alone Year Team PA G AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3 W-L Postseason? Honus Wagner 1915 Pirates 625 156 .274/.325/.422 15 6.8 73-81 N
Even with his bat no longer the devastating weapon that it had been during his prime, Wagner was still good enough to play. It should be obvious at this point that there has been just one Wagner in baseball history, and for good reason: it's not necessarily that a man born 135 years ago was a greater physical specimen than the generations that have come after him, though this is possible. Rather more likely is that Wagner was an exceptional player, and an exceptionally slow-aging one, who towered over the league to an extent impossible now because the league of his time simply wasn't that good. In the present day, Wagner might still be worth playing in his 40s, but the distance between him and the league on both offense and defense would surely have eroded.
Luke Appling takes a year off from the list because the White Sox had him spend most of 1948 hanging out at third base. He'll rejoin us momentarily.
Group Six: The 42-Year-Olds (And There Are No 43-Year-Olds) Year Team PA G AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3 W-L Postseason? Luke Appling 1949 White Sox 619 142 .301/.439/.394 1 4.4 63-91 N Honus Wagner 1916 Pirates 484 123 .287/.350/.370 4 4.2 65-89 N
Both Appling and Wagner played another season, the latter spending most of his time at first base, the former going to the bench in favor of Chico Carrasquel, who was 20 years younger.
Although this list contains just two post-season teams, there is nothing conclusive about that aspect of the study; many of these teams had more problems than would have been solved by replacing the shortstop with a younger, more agile man, and in the case of some teams, such as the 1946 White Sox, such a move would have robbed the team of its best player. Still, the attrition on the list suggests the problem with re-signing Jeter. In the modern history of baseball, just a handful of players have been able to handle shortstop defensively at an advanced age. These were primarily players who were among the best defenders of their day in their prime. When they lost a step or two, they still had something to give. Not even Jeter's most ardent supporters place him in this category. Perhaps worse, even when the players were deemed capable of playing shortstop the attrition rate is high, dropping by a fifth in one year and by more than half in two years. As such, any multi-year contract is going to be a risk to the signing team.
The Jeter dilemma really is a juicy one, involving a popular player, a winning player in both senses of the word, who will be chasing the 3,000-hit mark in 2011. It's difficult to let go of a star, of course, but a team's first duty is to win, something which inevitably caters to a larger subset of its fans than belong to the cult of any one player. After 2010, the Yankees may be better served settling for a less spectacular player than their idealized memory of Jeter in his prime, a player who likely neither exists now nor will have returned three seasons hence. As this list shows, the rewards of staying too long at the ball with one's shortstop are both fleeting and few.