Last year I wrote a column for Ballhype titled, The 2007 Von Hayes All-Stars. It was a look at which players had suffered the most dramatic age-related declines that season. In my youth, Von Hayes seemingly went from All-Star to pumpkin overnight, hence the “honor” of having this named after him.
On the whole aging patterns are fairly even. Players improve in their early and mid-20s, plateau from around ages 27-30 and then gradually decline. That’s how it looks for the aggregate mass of ball playing humanity. Almost everyone has some bumps, juts, dips and peaks along the way.
For individuals, however, aging isn’t always a gradual process. Some men defy the curve by flopping all at once, never recovering. This column looks at the men who appear to be doing that this year.
Not all drops are due to aging. Some men are injured, and others are just having fluke-arific bad years. Perhaps all of the above come into play. Actually, most of these guys are decent bets to rebound a bit next year simply because anyone who falls so far so quickly is likely having a few balls not bounce his way. More importantly, though, they are bad bets to return to their previous standards.
Since I’m concerned primarily with age-related drops, whenever possible I’ll focus on guys in their early 30s, the years when they are supposed to be getting a little too old to do what they have done. Some of these guys have been fighting injuries. It’s hard to find a pure and obvious age-caused drop at every position, and frankly some injury-induced downward spirals are too impressive to pass up.
One key theme exists on this team. Most of these players were late bloomers. Many weren’t so great at age 25. They belong on this team because their achievements came from a very narrow, weak base of talent.
Final note—all numbers in this column are as of July 3. The exact numbers will quickly be out of date, but unless Jose Vidro hit 14 homers of the holiday weekend, the general points stand. Without further ado, here are the most spectacular 2008 flops:
Catcher: Kenji Johjima, age 32
He broke into the majors two years as the everyday catcher for the Mariners. He combined tweener power with an impressive batting eye, scoring averages of .291 and .287 in his first seasons.
That was then. This year he’s lost more than 60 points on his batting average and much of his power as well. He also hasn’t started back-to-back games since mid-June. After OPS+ seasons of 103 and 101, he’s under 60 as of this writing.
He’s also a Mariner. Expect to see more from that team.
First base: Paul Konerko, age 32
The White Sox first baseman declined a bit last year, but was still a dangerous slugger, hitting 31 homers. Now, here we are in early July and he has only 18 extra base hits. That ain’t cutting it, especially since his batting average has dropped by almost 100 points since 2006.
As a young player he was streakier than hell, so perhaps there’s a shot he can come back. It doesn’t look good for him, though, especially given that he hit extremely poorly in the last third of 2007.
Second base: Freddy Sanchez, age 30
Sanchez was a late bloomer who made the Red Sox look like idiots for including him in a package to the Pirates for Brandon Lyon and Jeff Suppan. He earned some MVP support for himself in 2006 by hitting .344 with 53 doubles. He followed that up with another doubles-happy season in which he topped .300.
He turned 30 in the offseason and clearly hit some sort of wall. No one hit more doubles than he did in 2006-7, but despite his playing virtually every game this year, 139 men have bettered his mark of 13 doubles. He’s only seventh on the Pirates in that category. Hell, Oakland’s Carlos Gonzalez, who has played only 30 games, has more.
Third base: Mike Lamb, age 32
Never a great player, left-handed Lamb has been a dependable platoon player for the past several years. Aside from an off 2005 campaign, you could safely pencil him in for an average around .290 with 10-15 homers.
Newly arrived in Minnesota from Houston, he currently has as many homers as fellow transplant Adam Everett, with one. Actually, that understates the problem: Lamb has had more than twice as many at-bats as defensive whiz Everett.
Of the 235 players with at least 200 PA, only 14 have a worse batting average than Lamb’s .223, and all but one of them have at least six homers.
Shortstop: Edgar Renteria, age 32
Renteria’s had an erratic career, mixing up great seasons with mediocre ones. When he was younger he even had some wretched seasons at the plate.
Going by Pete Palmer’s Batting Runs, this is shaping up to be the worst year of his career. With -9.4 BR in Detroit’s first 84 games, he’s on pace for his first -18 BR season. Last year was actually one of the best seasons of his career, making the drop that much more striking.
In his 13th consecutive season as a starter, Renteria is anything but a late-bloomer, but as someone at That Age who has had trouble stringing together consecutive quality offensive seasons, you have to be concerned about his future.
Outfield: Geoff Jenkins, age 33
Jenkins had a very nice run for nearly a decade with the Brewers in which he perfected the Harold Baines approach of solid-if-never-spectacular hitting. Alas, he didn’t age like the former White Sox great.
Here’s a decline I actually predicted. (Then again, it was about the only accurate pick I made in this column so perhaps I shouldn’t gloat too loudly). He declined in both power in average in 2006, but still remained an adequate hitter. In 2007 his average fell further, but an upsurge in power shielded it. According to the Hit Tracker website, however, his homer spurt came because he hit an unusually large number of balls ever-so-slightly over the fence.
Philly signed him anyway. His power his vanished while his average continues dropping.
Outfield: Eric Byrnes, age 32
Like many here, Byrnes was a late bloomer, not able to crack a major league starting lineup until he was 26. While his highs weren’t as impressive as most the men on this list, he made up for it by being exceptionally consistent. In the prior half-dozen campaigns, he had an OPS+ between 90-111 every time except once.
This year he’s been a complete disaster at the plate for Arizona. He’s barely over the Mendoza line, and lost what power he has. More impressively, coming off a year where he successfully swiped 50 bases in 57 tries, he’s only four for eight this year.
Recently returned to the playing field after a month, he’s gone 3-for-23 in his first half-dozen games.
Outfield: Andruw Jones, age 31
Finding the third outfielder is surprisingly difficult this year. There are many candidates, but all have their problems. Matt Diaz has collapsed for the Braves after two straight solid seasons, but he has never cracked 400 PA in a season. Shannon Stewart and Garret Anderson are scuffling, but both have only one OPS+ over 100 in the last four seasons.
Jones is easily the most obvious collapse out there, but he also hasn’t played much. With only 154 PA on the year, b-ref doesn’t even list him in the starting lineup.
Still, a meltdown this substantial should not be ignored. He’s hitting only .165. Ray Oyler topped that—and he played back in the New Deadball Era. Bill Bergen, the worst offense player of all-time, hit .170.
Jones also has whiffed in every third at bat while bopping only two homers. Right now, he makes LA’s signing of Juan Pierre look good.
Designated hitter: Jose Vidro, age 33
DH is the toughest position to pick. Between Seattle’s Vidro and Cleveland’s Travis Hafner there are two highly qualified men. Vidro gets the nod because: 1) he has more playing time, and 2) Hafner’s slide really began last year while Vidro has been fairly consistent until now. From 2004-7 his OPS+ were 107, 104, 96 and 109. Currently, it’s 62.
He hasn’t topped seven homers since he was an Expo (remember when there team called the Expos?) but survived as a hitter through a superior batting average. This year that has dropped by nearly 100 points.
He’s exactly the sort of person who falls off a cliff—a good but never great player whose value largely comes from one skill. He lost that, and with it his entire game. More than anyone else, he symbolizes the collapse of the Mariners this year.
Starting pitcher: Jarrod Washburn, age 33
Then again, maybe Washburn best exemplifies Seattle’s ’08 horror. The Mariners had an entire team full of guys like this—good but not great players in their early 30s who all had good seasons in 2007. It was dumb of the front office to expect them all to maintain their performance, but it’s rather amazing how many completely tanked at the same time.
Over the past several seasons Washburn has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball. In the past five seasons he had four ERA+ years between 95 and 100. Aside from one year with a bizarrely high mark of 132, he was perhaps the game’s most extraordinarily ordinary pitcher.
Now he’s a replacement-level starter. Sure he’s exactly the type of player most likely to fall off a cliff, but why age 33 or age 32? That’s what makes this Seattle season so impressive. The guys who fell apart at 32 are 32 this year. Those that can hold up at age 32, were that age last year. There’s no rhyme or reason to it sometimes. That’s just how it goes.
As for Washburn, he began the year with an ERA of 4.07. Right now his ’08 mark is 5.08. Yeesh.
Starting pitcher: Livian Hernandez, age 33
For two reasons, this is the most foreseeable inclusion on this list. First, Hernandez survived last year more on guile and guts than stuff. Even when he got the job done he looked eminently beatable out there. When someone like that loses just a touch of his game, the smoke and mirrors cease fooling anyone.
Second, the Twins signed him. The last few years, Minnesota has tried to monopolize the field of signing veterans who are completely washed up. Normally the Twins pick guys who have already proven their craptitude, like Ramon Ortiz or Sidney Ponson. With Hernandez (and Lamb), the Twins have entered the cutting edge of identifying horrible 30-somethings, catching them before they fall apart instead of afterwards. Progress—Minnesota style.
Not only does he have a 5.22 ERA with only 39 strikeouts in 110.3 innings, while surrendering 157 hits. Baseball hasn’t had a pitcher who allowed more than 300 hits in a season since Phil Niekro did it in 1979 (while going 21-20 in 342 innings). No Twin has ever done it. Let’s see if history can be made in the Metrodome.
Starting pitcher: Nate Robertson, age 30
Nate Robertson is a slightly younger version of Jarrod Washburn. Both have been exceptionally unexceptional in recent years, aside from one year when they were shockingly effective. Both are replacement-level pitchers this year.
Again, not everyone ages the same. The greatest ones usually can fall back a step or two at a time and still be superior to most. When someone who struggles to rise to the heights of mediocrity loses that little edge, the results are truly ugly.
Starting pitcher: Bronson Arroyo, age 31
First, I should note that several starting pitchers have earned a place on this list based purely on, er, “merit” but have been left out. There are more than five good candidates.
Roy Oswalt, Brad Penny and A. J. Burnett all have flopped this year, but I think they are better bets to return to some sort of glory than the men listed here. With pitchers, it’s hard to tell the difference between someone who got old quickly and someone who has a sore arm.
Hell, maybe Arroyo has a sore arm also. Who really knows? What is clear is that Arroyo has been absolutely heinous so far this year. Of the 108 men with at least 80 IP this year, only five have worse ERA+ numbers than his. None of that quintet has been even as remotely effective as Arroyo was over the last several years.
Always prone to giving up the gopher ball, so far this season Arroyo has allowed a homer every five innings. In late June he got shelled by the Blue Jays, ending with the worst game score by any Reds pitcher in the Retrosheet era.
Starting pitcher: Miguel Batista, age 37
Actually, he doesn’t deserve to be here. He’s too old. Then again, he’s a Mariner. That’s practically honorary membership in and of itself. He’s one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball this year, with 52 walks and only 46 strikeouts in 71.2 innings. His 6.53 ERA is no fluke.
Batista’s bizarre aging pattern is exactly what I was referring to in the Washburn comment. He was never a great pitcher, and at age 33 posted an ERA+ of 100. Should be expected to decline, right? Well, at age 34 he upped it to 109. That’s nice, but he’s a good-but-not-great arm that’s really getting up there in years. He should definitely flop at age 35. Instead, he posted an ERA+ of 103. And then 101 the next year. It ain’t like he had a great defense aiding him all the while in Seattle, either.
This year he turned 37 and what happened to Washburn and Vidro at age 33 and Johjima at 32 happened to him.
Closer: J. J. Putz, age 31
And it happened to Putz at age 31. Did someone place some sort of pre-emptive curse of the Sonics on this squad or something? One of the best closers in recent years, Putz has walked 17 men in his first 19 innings for the Mariners this year. Combine that with 21 hits allowed, and his 5.21 ERA is shockingly low.
Seattle’s horrible season makes me feel really stupid. Maybe I shouldn’t bring this up because it’ll make me look like the doofus that I am, but in a THT mailbag about the signing of Erik Bedard, I argued this team could be very good this year because it had moved to plug up its biggest weakness from last year, the back-end of the rotation (which even by the lowly standards of fourth and fifth starters was abysmal).
I made the same mistake the front office made—namely noting only existing problems instead of anticipating the upcoming holes. Though the extent of the problems is impressive, that a team full of men in their early 30s declined shouldn’t have been that surprising.
References & Resources
For research, I checked b-ref.com.
Random note: I stand by a lot of the research I did in the Erik Bedard signing. That is to say, the parts about how/why teams deviate from their pythag, not the part where I call the Mariners a very good team.