FB404: Philosophy of Projecting Players

05/20/2007 11:07 PM - 

FantasyBaseball.com University Series
Contributed By: Kimbal Binder

Students who have studied the 100 through 400 series of fantasy baseball courses now find themselves in the Seniors section. Oddly enough, much of what is discussed here is actually foundational to successfully utilizing the things taught beforehand.

“As we grow old…the beauty steals inward.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Understanding the historical patterns of age and experience in the careers of ballplayers is fundamental to making good choices on draft day. In 2006 there will be managers who choose Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. much higher than their subsequent performance will justify. You will not want to be one of them even if three-year averaging and park performance indicators say otherwise.

The average age of major league ballplayers today and historically is 29.3 years old. One might therefore conclude that the best year, on average, of a ballplayer’s career is at age 29. Visualize an iceberg, most of which is below the waterline and not visible to the casual observer. Consider a major league ballplayer’s life as an iceberg. His childhood and early teens are certainly below the waterline of the major leagues, as are his later years when he has retired from the game. He likely makes it to the majors with physical skills in place and still learning about the game and leaves with more experience but diminishing skills that are not enough to keep him amongst the elite. My premise is that the more talented he is the bigger the iceberg and the more of his life that is exposed above the waterline, hence, more years in the major leagues with the middle years being the most productive. Sabermetricians, this is the same idea as the Career Parabola.

Noted philosopher and poet Georges Santayana has said; "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it."

If you study the great players of baseball history, you find that they consistently made it to the big leagues at an early age and lasted longer the younger they first appeared. Babe Ruth first played at age 19. If 29 was his midpoint year, then he should have lasted until age 39. In point of fact, he played until age 40. But at 37 he hit 41 homers and batted .341. At 38 he hit 34 homers and batted .301. At 39 his numbers were 22 homers and a .288 average. The Yankees wanted him to retire. But Ruth found another team willing to hire him (he put butts in the seats, after all). His .181 average at age 40 convinced all parties he was, indeed, done for.

Hank Aaron went from 40 HR and a .301 average to 20 HR at a .265 average between 39 and 40 years of age. Willie Mays’ OPS dropped from over .900 at age 40 to .802 at 41 and .647 at age 42. Both of these guys played a year or two past their actual usefulness as players based on age and reputation. Frank Robinson had his last 30 homerun season at age 37 and his last 20 homerun season at age 38. Once a 21 year-old rookie, Barry Bonds will begin this year as a 41 year-old. Interesting to consider that Hank Aaron had his best slugging percentage and homerun season in the year he turned 37, and so did Bonds. That Aaron kept hitting at near that high mark of excellence for the following two seasons and so did Bonds. Then Aaron did a nosedive and one has to consider that Bonds may do so as well.

“Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” George F. Will.

We find that the “prime” of most players will occur between the ages of 26 and 32. Ruth hit 59 homers to set the all-time mark at age 26 and smacked 60 to break it at 32. A player almost always has his best year during this stretch. It is the age, not the major league experience, that most matters here. A 26 year-old rookie may be having the best year he will ever have.

Bob Hamelin was a 26 year-old American League Rookie of the Year in 1994 with 24 homers and a .282 average. He hit only 43 more homers for the rest of his career before he was out of baseball. Scott Podsednik was a 27 year-old rookie in 2003 and hit .314 with 43 steals. Last year he stole 70 but his average also fell 70 points. It may not have been a “sophomore slump”; he may have already had his greatest year ever. Chris Sabo was the 1988 NL Rookie of the year at age 26, played regularly for the most part from then on until age 32, when he lost his job. He hung on as a part-timer for two years and was through after the 1996 season. Walt Weiss, two years younger, was the AL ROY that year and by the way he played through the 2000 season, going to age 36.

“Knowledge is Power.” Sir Francis Bacon.

There are exceptions due to things like injuries and ballparks, etc, but otherwise age is a remarkably reliable indicator of performance. Three disclaimers: (1) Knuckleball pitchers almost always develop much later and last until much older. Hoyt Wilhelm was a 29-year-old rookie in 1952 and pitched for 20 years in the big leagues! (2) Catchers begin to get plain worn out by the tenth year of regular catching. Frank Robinson, outfielder, hit 291 HR up to age 29 and 295 thereafter. Johnny Bench, catcher, was a regular at age 19, won the Rookie of the Year in 1968 and the NL MVP award in 1970 and again in 1972. He hit 287 HR up to age 29 and 102 thereafter. Bench wound up catching over 1700 games but was never the same batter after exceeding the 1500 game barrier.(3) Pitchers are almost certainly not going to be effective past the 4500 inning barrier no matter what their age.

 “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.” Miss Piggy.

No matter how certain you are that Andy Marte will play 3B this year for the Indians be very sure when you make your projections that your player will actually get a chance to do what you expect him to do (Aaron Boone and Casey Blake are already on the Indians roster and each of them has extensive ML experience at the hot-corner). It is not just changes in teams and management styles that can alter lineups, so keep an eye on the front office and the direction they seem to be taking as well.

“Waste not fresh tears over old griefs.” Euripides

Be hesitant to trust a player who is supposed to be rehabilitated from an injury just in time for the start of the season. Nomar Garciaparra and Mark Prior are two examples of players who, when picked early in a draft last season, gave back very little to justify their selections. Left-over injuries drastically lessened their respective outputs. Now that steroid use is being heavily scrutinized, any suspected user is also a risky pick.

“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Sometimes you have to go with your gut. In 2004 I trusted Vinny Castilla to have a great season as a Colorado Rockie despite his age and recent history. Castilla had averaged well over 35 homers and 110 RBI with Colorado from 1995-99. But in the subsequent years away from the Mile High City he had averaged 20 homers and 75 RBI. I had a gut feeling and I was right, he hit 35 HR with 131 RBI. In 2005 he played with the Nationals and while I had no idea how difficult RFK was to hit in, I still placed Castilla well down my draft board because he would no longer be calling Coors Field home (Castilla went on to hit .253-12-66). Now in San Diego, I don’t expect a rebound in 2006.

Early in his career (1964) young Willie Stargell required knee surgery. He predicted to a writer working for Baseball Digest that once his knee was healthy, he would steal fifty bases! Hilariously, the writer took him at face value and included it in an article about how well Pittsburgh would fare in 1965. Well, in 1965 Willie stole one base again. In fact, he only stole 17 for his entire career! Maybe nobody rates Tim Wakefield all that highly but perhaps you just feel he is going to have his greatest year ever. You’ll hate yourself if you were right and didn’t have the guts to act upon it! Hey, it is only a game, right?

“Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” Yogi Berra.

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