I’ve never done a chart on here before … and from the chart above you can see why.
That chart, though, is supposed to represent something … this is a mathematically challenged attempt to get roughly the aging pattern of every day baseball players. The ages are there on the bottom. The bar graphs represent the number of players who had great seasons at those ages. I’ll get into the details in a minute.
I looked at this because it seems to me that lately (lately, meaning, the last 50 years) baseball people have been saying dubious things about about players and their age. For instance, Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski — in his defense of the ultimately doomed Prince Fielder contract — talked about how a players prime goes on until a player is 32 or 33. In Seattle, where Eric Wedge is apparently thinking of moving Chone Figgins into the leadoff spot*, he is quoted by Ken Rosenthal saying: “(Figgins) is not old by any stretch.” Figgins is 34.
*It seems to me that if we can have laws in America demanding that people wear seat belts for their own safety, we should also have laws that prevent Eric Wedge from moving Figgins into the leadoff spot. The last two years Figgins is hitting .239/.309/.285 … and those numbers are getting progressively worse because that’s how age works. Last year he OB’d .241 in more than 300 plate appearances. Fans should be allowed to invoke some law that prevents their managers from doing something this insane.
There are people still trying to sign MannyBManny because (supposedly) he can still hit. MannyBManny turns 40 in May. Do you know how many 40 year olds in baseball HISTORY could still hit big league pitching?*
*Though you have to give MannyBManny extra credit because of the way he has taken such good care of himself over the years … oh, wait.
This is not a detailed study of aging … there are plenty of those out there. One of Bill James’ most famous principles is that players age much faster than people in baseball generally understand. Many other people have studied the question, and come up with different results. For the most part, though, they have found that players probably peak BEFORE the age 28-to-32 peak that typical baseball people have been talking about a long time, and they decline earlier and faster than baseball people (including the players themselves) would like to admit.
Here’s what I did: According to Baseball Reference, there have been 1,084 seasons among hitters of 6.0 Wins Above Replacement or better (since 1901). These are most of baseball’s best seasons, and they range from Babe Ruth’s absurd 1923 season (.393/.545/.764, 41 homers, 131 RBIs, 151 runs, 170 walks) to Adrian Gonzalez’s 2010 season (.298/.393/.511 with 31 homers, 101 RBIs, 87 runs, playing in that hitter’s graveyard in San Diego).
These are not ALL the fabulous seasons in baseball history by any means … but it gets most of them. It doesn’t really matter for this particular post if you like WAR or hate it — all that matters here is that a 6.0 WAR season usually makes the player an MVP candidate. Last year’s hitting candidates in the American League were Jacoby Ellsbury (7.5), Jose Bautista (8.5), Curtis Granderson (5.2) and Miggy Cabrera (7.1). In the National League, they were Ryan Braun (7.7), Matt Kemp (10.0), Prince Fielder (5.2), Justin Upton (4.1) and Albert Pujols (5.4).
So, 6.0 seemed a pretty good cutoff point.
Then, what I did is look and see at WHAT AGE those players had their good seasons. That’s what gives us the chart above. I was not nimble enough to make the chart as readable as I would like, but I think you get the picture. As you can see, there are only a few players who had those great seasons at age 20 or 21. And there were very few players who those great seasons at age 39 or 40. The bulk of them are in the mid-to-late 20s.
I’ll go through the ages year-by-year because I think it’s kind of interesting … though I admit that probably says more about me than it does about the information.
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Age 20: There were 9 seasons with 6.0 or better — led by A-Rod’s amazing 1996, Al Kaline’s amazing 1955, and Ty Cobb’s 1907 seasons. You know, people tend to think that if a player shows a lot of promise at age 19 or 20 that they are all but assured of going on to amazing careers. You hear this about Starlin Castro, for instances. Sure, it often works out that way. But not always. Kaline, one of the all-time greats, probably had his BEST year at age 20. Dwight Gooden definitely had his best year at age 20. Vada Pinson, Claudell Washington, Dave Rozema, these guys were probably never better than they were at 20. Closer to my home, Rick Manning was better at 20 and 21 than he ever was again. Clint Hurdle’s best year was probably at age 20.
Sure, it’s true that players who emerge at young ages often go on to stardom. But not always.
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Age 21. There were 17 great seasons, led by Rogers Hornsby’s 1917 season. Eddie Mathews, Rickey Henderson, Cesar Cedeno and Jimmie Foxx round out the Top 5.
Obviously, four of those five are in the Hall of Fame — Cedeno sure looked like a Hall of Famer at age 25. At that point, he already had more than 1,000 hits, more than 100 homers, more than 300 stolen bases, five Gold Gloves and four All-Star appearances. After 25, though, he never won a Gold Glove, made an All-Star team or was viewed as anything but a disappointment. Leo Durocher had saddled him with the “next Willie Mays” tag that he never could shake. He wasn’t Willie Mays, but he was about as good a young player as you could want.
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Age 22: We’re up to 30 seasons now — this includes Ted Williams’ .400 season in 1941 and Dick Allen’s breakthrough season in 1964. You can see the numbers building now.
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Age 23: Up to fifty-three seasons including 14 players who led their league in WAR. Ted Williams in 1942, Ty Cobb in 1910 and Albert Pujols in 2003 are the top three.
It might be worth noting that many of the greatest players — Williams, Mantle, DiMaggio, Gehrig, Musial, Aaron, Bench, Mays, Pujols, Jackson, Brett, — had already put up surpassing seasons by the time they turned 22 or 23. It’s always kind of funny when someone will compare a young player to, say, Hank Aaron.
— At 21, Aaron hit .314 and led the league in doubles.
— At 22, Aaron led the league in hitting.
— At 23, he led the league with 44 homers, 132 RBIs, 118 runs and 369 total bases.
In other words: He didn’t turn into Hank Aaron over time. He basically WAS Hank Aaron from his earliest time in the big leagues. There are many late bloomers, of course. Wade Boggs didn’t have his first full-season until he was 25. Roberto Clemente had a sub-100 OPS+ until he led the league in hitting as a 26-year-old in 1961. And so on. But in general, the best players tend to show not only SIGNS of greatness but ACTUAL greatness very early.
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Age 24: The climb continues up to 78 seasons. Mickey Mantle’s Triple Crown season tops charts, but there’s also Gehrig in ’27, A-Rod in 2000 (his best season?) and Mike Schmidt in 1974.
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Age 25: And now, we top 100 — up to 101 seasons including 20 league leaders. Babe Ruth takes over now — this was his jaw-dropping 1920 season. Mantle in ’57, Rogers Hornsby in ’21, Stan Musial in ’46 are some of the highlight seasons.
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Age 26: And now we hit our height — 115 seasons including 24 league leaders. Ruth again dominates. Robin Yount’s 1982 and Matt Kemp last year are among the great seasons.
This is our peak year — there have been more great seasons (as WAR defines great) at age 26 than any other age. Now, I will say this again: This is is just a quirky little look at age. It doesn’t have anything to do with how Eric Hosmer or Starlin Castro or Jason Heyward or anyone else will age. We are only looking at the best seasons and when the players had them.
That said: My suspicion is that this chart does offer pretty good guidelines. I suspect that many good every day players do peak at age 24 or 25 or 26. And then, as the chart shows, they MAINTAIN that level of baseball of a while.
In the 100-meter sprint, sprinters tend to reach their peak speed right around 50 meters — just about at the halfway point, perhaps a touch beyond. And then the sprinter attempt to maintain that speed. That’s not how it looks when you’re watching the race. It looks like the best sprinters SPEED UP the last 10 or 20 meters — that’s how it always looked when Carl Lewis ran. But in depth breakdowns suggest that’s an optical illusion. The other sprinters are slowing down.
Mickey Mantle had his best year, probably, at age 24 when he won the Triple Crown. But the next year, at 25, he hit .465/.512/.665 with 145 walks — that’s an extraordinary year, almost exactly as good as he was at 24. The year after that, he was not quite as good (.304/.443/.592 with league-leading 44 homers) but he was still amazing. In At 29, he hit 54 home runs and slugged .687 — maybe it wasn’t quite as good as age 24 or 25, but it was really close. Point is that he maintained his amazing peak for several years, which is why he’s one of the greatest players of all time. But he wasn’t getting better. I’m sure in some ways he was getting better while in other ways he was not. Overall, it led to reaching a peak and then playing at that level for a remarkably long time.
Joe Morgan, on the other hand, probably had his best year at age 31 or 32 — later than most. And there’s a general feeling that Morgan did get better and better into his early 30s. Im not saying that’s untrue … but I think it’s overstated. Morgan really had a brilliant season at age 21. Nobody noticed it because so much of his value was tied up in walks (97 … the first 21-year-old to lead the league in walks since 1909) and people didn’t understand yet how the Astrodome crushed a player’s power numbers.
Morgan was very good again at 22 and 23. He got hurt at 24. Then he was viewed as a failure at age 25 because he hit .236. But he wasn’t a failure at all. That year he walked 110 times, stole 49 bases, hit 15 home runs. In a year dominated by pitching, that was an exceptional for a second baseman. But nobody really saw it that way. So by the time he got to Cincinnati, few really appreciated that Joe Morgan was already a great player.
In Cincinnati his batting average spiked up. That’s when people noticed. His last three year in Houston — playing in a bad hitters ballpark for a bad team with a manager he could barely tolerate — he hit .253 with lots of walks and stolen bases, some homers, and so on. His first three years in Cincinnati — unquestionably helped by the ballpark and probably helped by the energy of playing for a great team — his average spiked to .291. And along with all those other things (including an improved defensive reputation) he emerged into perhaps the best player in baseball.
Again, he probably DID improve some after he got to Cincinnati. And then, at age 31, it all came together and he had one of the greatest seasons ever. But, again, I would say that Morgan was ESSENTIALLY the same player from 26 or 27 on. His circumstances changed. He unquestionably tightened up some of his talents. But his spectacular ability to draw walks, his base-stealing prowess, his surprising power, his run scoring ability, I would argue all those things were there in Houston when he was 26 years old. Much of it was just hidden by the time and place.
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Age 27: We’re slightly down to 113 seasons including 21 league leaders — essentially the same as 26. I think this is right — I think players tend to sustain their peak through ages 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 … This is Yaz’s triple crown year of 1967 and Ted Williams his first year back from the war. This is also George Brett’s 1980 season.
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Age 28: Again down, but very slightly — to 110 seasons including 22 league leaders. Ruth in 1923 leads the way here — this could be Ruth’s best year. After him, you have all the usual suspects — Hornsby, Cobb, Bonds, Williams, Yaz. This is also the year Morgan went to Cincinnati and “suddenly” became a superstar.
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Age 29: Down again, but we’re still over 100 — we have 103 seasons including 16 league leaders. Mantle’s 1961 season is here. Aaron in 1963. This was Al Rosen’s great year of 1953 when he finished one hit shy of winning the Triple Crown. Rosen was a classic late bloomer — he didn’t play his first full year until he was 26. But this probably had nothing to do with his own talents — he didn’t really get started in pro baseball until after he served in the Navy for World War II. Then from 22-25 he utterly dominated in the minor leagues. He was probably ready to be a star already but the Indians already had Ken Keltner at third base.
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Age 30: Here’s our first big decline — all the way down to 79 seasons including 22 league leaders. It’s kind of interesting to think of a baseball career as a marathon, with players dropping off at different points. This is the first big drop off.
Nomar Garciaparra had his last good full year at 29 — he couldn’t stay healthy afterward. Andy Pafko was a great player at 29 and probably not ever quite great after that. Tommy Herr was an MVP candidate at 29 and never on that level again. And so on. Most really good players don’t fall off a cliff when they turn 30, but some do. This is the first real fall.
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Age 31: I was a bit surprised to see no drop-off at all between ages 30 and 31 — in fact there was a slight uptick. At age 31, there were 82 great seasons including 20 league leaders. This year include’s Joe Morgan’s seminal season in ’75. Ruth in ’26, Rod Carew’s great 1977 season and Willie Mays in ’62.
But, of course, there can be a drop off for individual players, even legendary ones. Cal Ripken had his last great year at age 30. Duke Snider wasn’t the same player after he turned 31.
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Age 32: The drop-offs happen annually from here on it. We are down to 68 seasons including 12 league leaders. This is Ruth in ’27, Sammy Sosa’s 2001 season, Willie Mays in ’63, and Joe Morgan in ’76.
And the gap between 31 and 32 can be pretty devastating. Dale Murphy was a great player at age 31 — he hit .295 with 44 homers, 105 RBIs and 115 runs. He hit .234 and slugged .396 the rest of his career. Kirk Gibson won the MVP at 31, he hit .213 the next year and bounced from team to team for the rest of his career. Terry Pendleton won the MVP at age 30 and finished second at 31 … he had an 82 OPS+ for the rest of his career. There are a lot of stories like this.
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Age 33: We are losing a big chunk of great players every year. We are all the way down to 44 seasons including 11 league leaders. The top five seasons belong to five of the greatest players of all time: Ruth, Hornsby, Mays, Wagner, Gehrig.
It seems to me that, in general, you need to be a pretty great player to still be a force at age 33. There are a few good players who had great years at 33. Al Bumbry was terrific in 1980. Lonnie Smith led the league in on-base percentage in Atlanta she he was 33.
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Age 34: All the way down to 31 seasons including 7 league leaders. Hornsby and Mays were great older players. Then there’s Jim Edmonds in 2004 — Edmonds was a great old player — Gary Sheffield in 2003, Bret Boone in 2003, Larry Walker in 2001 …
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Age 35: Down to 25 seasons including 3 league leaders. The most recent example of a great season at 35 was Barry Bonds in 2000. Chipper in 2007, Edmonds in 2005 are others.
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Age 36: And now we are to the outliers … there were only 12 great seasons at age 36, including 3 league leaders. Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth are way ahead of everyone. Roberto Clemente in ’71 had great year.
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Age 37: The only players to have great seasons at age 37 are Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Tris Speaker. That’s six, all Hall of Famers and all-time greats.
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Age 38: Again, there are six: Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Bob Johnson (this was in the war year of 1944), Ted Williams and Ty Cobb.
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Age 39: 1 season. Bonds. Talk amongst yourselves.
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Age 40: 1 season. Willie Mays in 1971.
And that’s it. LIke I have said repeatedly, this isn’t meant to prove anything. But I think it can be useful. What are the chances that Albert Pujols will still be a great player at ages 37, 38, 39, 40? Will Prince Fielder be a great player at 33? How smart is it to sign a player for big money into his mid-to-upper 30s?
Well, here is just something to look at. Obviously players are all different. Obviously a player doesn’t have to have a 6.0 WAR to be very useful. Obviously Chone Figgins could have a fine year as a leadoff hitter at age 34 after having two terrible years in a row. Well, maybe that last one isn’t so obvious.