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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Now What For Barry?
Or, it’s hard to have a late peak when you shave your head.
Actually, it’s impossible to have any kind of peak (early, late, or widow’s) when you apply razor to scalp, but that’s not what I want to discuss here.
My goodness, Barry Bonds. I’ve already looked at his 2002 performance in an earlier article here; as most of you already know many times over, Barry has put together two consecutive years that rank amongst the top five single-season performances ever.
The question that I’d like to explore (yes, that’s explore, not answer) is what lies ahead for the most amazing hitter most of us have ever seen.
And to do that, I’m going to use some data originally provided to me by Justin Kubatko (of Baseball Survivor fame). Awhile back, Justin (who is another one of those DB whizzes out there) created a file for me that organized batter OPS+ by age, which makes for a spiffy little tool. (Yes, there are better measures, but we’re not here to make any serious predictions.) From that dataset it’s possible to extract information about “late peak” performances by hitters.
Which is exactly what I’m gonna do, starting now.
Barry’s “baseball age” for 2003 is 38 (the date of demarcation has been established as July 1), so for our purposes he was 35 in 2000, a year in which his OPS+ was 191. Let’s look at the list of players who show up at the top of the OPS+ list at age 35:
(A couple of quick notes about the data. Justin’s PRO+ calcs differ slightly from the ones in Total Baseball or at baseball-reference.com, mostly because he applies park factors a bit differently. Second, any gaps for players-such as Reggie Smith or Jack Fournier-are because I asked him not to include PRO+ figures when a hitter had less than 300 PAs in a season.)
As you can see, I’ve added on these players’ future performance. The things that leap out at you from this list are: 1) this list is composed almost completely of Hall of Famers; 2) the attrition rate is pretty severe even for these guys; and 3) Bonds’ rate of league-relative improvement in subsequent years is simply unprecedented.
Let’s move on to age 36. Basically, what I’m presenting in these lists is a sort by age of all players with a PRO+ of 150 or higher. There were 26 such players with more than 300 PA’s at age 35. Let’s see what the subsequent lists look like:
Barry (represented here by his 2001 season) is, of course, rather easily at the top of this list. We do pick up some interesting names here, players who were either bubbling under our cutoff point (Stan Musial, Cap Anson, Mike Schimdt) or ones whose performance levels were especially erratic (Gabby Hartnett, Eric Davis, Darrell Evans).
I extended the future age out to 42 in order to pick up a little more information about longevity. Of the fourteen players performing at this level at age 36, three of them did so again at age 37, two at age 38, two at age 39, none at age 40, and one (Williams) at age 41.
If we lower the bar to a PRO+ of 130 (still a reasonably useful player, yes?), those totals rise to eight at age 37, four at age 38, three at age 39, two at age 40, two at age 41, and one (Anson) at age 42.
Let’s move on to age 37:
The list has dropped down to twelve hitters, with Bonds (here in his 2002 incarnation) just simply dominating it.
There are some interesting names that pop up on this list-Indian Bob Johnson, Tony Gwynn, George Brett, Andres Galarraga (in his stathead-defying Atlanta incarnation). My old pal Brock Hanke, who noted that a sizable plurality of hitters evidenced an “iambic” or “serpentine” pattern of development, might be interested to see how many players on this list appear to have a similar pattern in their “decline phase.”
Of the eleven hitters on this for whom we have future data (we await Bonds’ 2003 season…), two remained above the 150 PRO+ limit in the following season (age-38); six remained above 130. The biggest “crash and burn” was Brett.
Let’s move on to the age 38 season, to see who Bonds will be competing with for the title of “best age 38 season ever.” (Actually, you could figure it out from the above data, but we’ll resort it here for your convenience.)
Player 35 36 37 38 39 40 TED WILLIAMS 192 203 164 226 173 113 BABE RUTH 212 223 205 180 165 TY COBB 171 134 126 170 131 WILLIE STARGELL 148 125 155 138 CY WILLIAMS 131 136 132 155 130 119 HONUS WAGNER 168 131 154 146 115 94 FRED CLARKE 128 125 105 146 FRANK ROBINSON 156 130 153 144 HANK AARON 179 147 190 143 173 126 CAL RIPKEN 103 94 89 140
There are only five players in baseball history who have achieved a PRO+ of 150 or higher at age 38. (I extended the list down to 140 in order to create a top ten.) The three guys at the top of the list are the ones who are most often named when people are identifying the greatest hitter in baseball history.
Bonds has some amount of “breathing room” in order to stay ahead of Ted Williams’ 1957 season, given his performance levels in 2001 and 2002. Will he be the best at age 38, too? Stay tuned.
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