Aging curve: Rockies look too old

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
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Michael CuddyerNorm Hall/Getty ImagesAt 33 years old, Michael Cuddyer will be one of the younger members of the Rockies lineup.
One of the most important things Bill James learned when he wrote his "Baseball Abstract" books back in the 1980s was that the aging curve for ballplayers was much different than commonly believed. A player’s peak didn’t run from 28 to 32, but more like 25 to 29, with 27 being the most typical peak season for ballplayers.

This doesn’t mean old teams can’t win. In fact, many of the best teams feature old lineups for fairly obvious reasons if you think about it: Old players are still around (for the most part) because they were good or great young players. Like a pitcher who throws in the upper 90s before losing velocity, great young players can lose a little value and still maintain success. The 2009 Yankees had five regulars who were at least 33 years old -- Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada -- and while none were at their peak level of ability they were still good enough to help that team win 103 games and the World Series.

But there's a fine line in the aging process. It's one thing to have A-Rod or Albert Pujols in their mid-30s; but what if your old players are, say, Marco Scutaro, Casey Blake and Michael Cuddyer?

Before we get to the Colorado Rockies, let's do a quick study. I looked at all playoff teams over the past five seasons to see how many plate appearances they received from players 32 or older (not including pitchers). By the way, when we refer to a player's age, it's his age as of June 30 of that season.

For those 40 playoff teams, the average number of plate appearances was 1,711. Here are the 10 oldest playoff teams by this method (remember, we're only looking at position players):

Some of these teams are warning signs about what can go wrong with an old team: the 2008 Cubs and White Sox haven't sniffed the playoffs since; the Giants brought back many of their veterans from their World Series champs and paid the price as Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and Freddy Sanchez (plus new addition Miguel Tejada) all failed to replicate their performances; the 2009 Red Sox made the playoffs but fell off in 2010 as the lineup scored 54 fewer runs (the pitching allowed only eight more runs); the Angels scored 872 runs in 2009 but were down to 667 by 2011, in part because of the declines of Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu and the addition of ineffective 32-year-old Vernon Wells.

Even the 2011 Phillies are an interesting example. The Phillies have won the past five NL East titles. Interestingly, that first team in their run in 2007 had the fewest plate appearances from players 32 or older of the 40 playoff teams:

That 2007 team scored 892 runs. As the Phillies stuck with that core group and the players started getting into their 30s, guess what happened -- their runs scored have dropped to 820 in 2009 to 772 in 2010 and to 713 in 2011. Of course, the Phillies have been able to balance that out by bringing in pitchers like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. You can also now add Ryan Howard to the age-32 classification for 2012 and we already know he's going to miss a significant chunk of time. Will the Phillies score even 700 runs this season?

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And that gets us back to the Rockies. In addition to the 38-year-old Todd Helton, they've added 38-year-old third baseman Blake, 36-year-old catcher Ramon Hernandez, 36-year-old second baseman Scutaro and 33-year-old outfielder Cuddyer. All of those guys have been good players, even as recently as last season. And while Helton was once a superstar, his back problems have helped limit him to an average of 11 home runs over the past four seasons. So my point: This group isn't exactly starting out from the same aging curve as Rodriguez and Jeter or Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins or even Hunter or Bobby Abreu.

It's a potential recipe for disaster. The Rockies are expecting close to 3,000 plate appearances from those five guys. Maybe it will happen, but I don't see. There's no precedent over the past five seasons for a lineup with that construction making the playoffs.

And the Rockies don't have three guys named Halladay, Lee and Hamels in the rotation.

David Schoenfield | email

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