How can we tell which hitters will have long careers?
In last week’s article, I extended my approach of survival modelling to examine what the early career success of a pitcher can tell us about his long-term survival in MLB. Despite the inherent randomness of the pitching profession in the age of Tommy John surgery, I discovered that by far the best predictor of a long career was the age at which a player debuted in MLB. Besides debut age, the abilities to rack up strikeouts and avoid walks meant the most for a pitcher’s long-term career outlook.
I turn the same method now to position players. Position players have different risks from pitchers, and a different set of career arcs. Position players are less likely to be hur, and more able to continue their career in the face of injury by moving down the defensive spectrum. What’s more, whereas a pitcher contributes the vast majority of his value from his pitching, a position player might be great in several different ways: by hitting, by fielding, or even (to a lesser extent) by baserunning.
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How do we know which hurlers will have long careers?
In the recent past, we’ve seen the rise of a generation of young and highly talented pitchers. From Corey Kluber to Chris Sale, from international acquisitions like Masahiro Tanaka to the sadly injured Jose Fernandez, young hurlers occupy an increasing share of the game’s best pitching matchups. Indeed, of the leaders in this year’s Cy Young race, only four of the top 10 are over 30. It’s easy to forget that even veteran aces Felix Hernandez and Johnny Cueto are still only 28. With the exception of some old stalwarts like Adam Wainwright and Mark Buerhle, the game’s best and brightest seem to be tilting toward youth.
If it seems to be the case, that’s only because it is. Younger pitchers are piling up the WAR(P) at an accelerated rate relative to the past couple of decades.
Of the four major sports that permeate American culture (football, basketball, hockey, and the best, baseball), none has existed in its current form for as long. Yet despite its relative stasis, baseball has evolved. Although the basic rules of the game have remained the same, it is not isolated from the broader currents of time and technology. One of those currents has been medicine’s ceaseless march toward the curing of disease and the extension of healthy life.
We’ve seen this current manifest in baseball via the introduction of new treatments and surgeries. Only 30 years ago, the notion of Bartolo Colongoing abroad to get stem cell injections to heal his arm would have been science fiction. One year ago, this treatment was likely behind the success of a 40-year-old pitcher with a 92 mph fastball and a 2.65 ERA.
Like many baseball fans, I was taken aback by Derek Jeter’s declaration of his impending retirement. Together with Roy Halladay’s somewhat quieter conference and Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour, a trio of players I admired tremendously will soon be out of baseball. It’s a bittersweet fact of the big leagues that just as one generation of transcendent superstars is born (e.g. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper), another trails off gently into retirement.
The question of career length has more than emotional import within the business of baseball. Owing to the advanced age at which many players are hitting the market, for many free agent contracts there is substantial risk that a player’s useful career will end before his deal does. Even when a player does remain employed late into his 30s, between injuries and the tireless decline of aging, the terminal years of his career can be unproductive.