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Wednesday, July 7, 2010
FanGraphs: The meaning of age

By Carson Cistulli, FanGraphs

The Cleveland Indians got beat real hard Wednesday night in Texas, losing 12-1 to a Ranger club that has its eyes on a division championship.

Normally, a blowout loss like this wouldn't be interesting enough to make these pages. But this game is unique in its own right.

Towards the end of said game, three notable writers shared an exchange on Twitter: KenTremendous (a.k.a. Michael Schur, of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame), Jonah Keri (late of Baseball Prospectus, among other places), and Steve Buffum (keeper of The B-List Indians Blog, part of ESPN's own SweetSpot Network).

The conversation in question went as follows:

KenTremendous The Red Sox' CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

jonahkeri Yet active payroll's still huge RT @KenTremendous The Red Sox' CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

stevebuffum @jonahkeri Well, no other team has had injuries. Cleveland's 3B and SP were in their roles opening day (no one else was).


Schur's point is well taken: with Kevin Youkilis' ankle injury during Boston's 3-2 loss at Tampa, the Red Sox have definitely suffered their share of roster turnover -- and have remained competitive in the AL East while doing so. That's pretty incredible.

Keri's is, too: one could make the claim -- fairly so -- that, with their resources, the Red Sox should be able to deal with injuries as they come.

But Buffum really holds the trump card in this discussion, as the Cleveland Indians he's watching now are almost an entirely different team than the one that greeted him back in the beginning of April.

By way of illustration, here's that Opening Day lineup:

Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B
Grady Sizemore, CF
Shin-Soo Choo, RF
Travis Hafner, DH
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Matt LaPorta, 1B
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B
Lou Marson, C
Michael Brantley, LF

Now here's Cleveland's lineup for July 6 at Texas:

Michael Brantley, CF
Jayson Nix, 2B
Carlos Santana, C
Austin Kearns, RF
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Shelley Duncan, DH
Andy Marte, 1B
Trevor Crowe, LF
Jason Donald, SS

It should be noted that there's a little bit of cheating here: Hafner was sitting against Ranger lefty C.J. Wilson in the latter game, and LaPorta got whacked in the head the other night, otherwise he'd be playing, too.

The other changes, though: they're legit. Cabrera, Sizemore, and Choo are all out with injuries. Grudzielanek was released by the club a month ago. Lou Marson was optioned to Triple-A around the same time. The only holdovers from the original lineup are Peralta and Brantley -- which isn't even to mention that Brantley has spent most of the season in Triple-A!

Question: Why is any of this important?
Anwswer: Because we can learn about a team, and its intents, by looking at how it solves its injuries problems.

Of particular interest is to look at the relative ages of the pre-injury and post-injury lineups. If we assume that, generally speaking, younger players have the chance to improve while older players have reached their developmental ceilings, then we can guess at a team's motivations for employing one or the other.

The Red Sox have been one of the oldest teams in the league this year, with an average batter age (weighted by at-bats, per Baseball Reference) of 31.4. Last night's lineup at Tampa -- even with several players who weren't present at the beginning of year -- wasn't actually much lower than that: just 31.1 years old. Players like Kevin Cash (32) and Bill Hall (30), though not terribly exciting, are known quantities, and they're helpful to a team trying to hold its ground during a bad run of injuries.

The Indians have taken a different approach. Their average batter age this season is 28.3 years old. Against Texas on July 6, however, that number dipped to 26.6 among the starting lineup -- almost a full two years younger. While the Indians gave plenty of playing time to older players like the 40-year-old Grudzielanek and 34-year-old Russell Branyan earlier this season, the front office has definitely sought to get younger this past month, in an attempt to give extended trials to younger players. The 26-year-old Trevor Crowe, 25-year-old Jason Donald, and 24-year-old Carlos Santana have all benefited from this tack.

Though it's by no means infallible, looking at the starting age of a starting lineup relative to the team's average batting age for a season, can give clues as to the direction a team has opted to take its season. For Boston, post-season baseball is a priority; for Cleveland, it's developing players for the future.

Carson Cistulli is a writer for FanGraphs.