Well, it’s midseason (technically a little bit past as teams have eclipsed the 81-game marker). The Home Run Derby is today and the All Star Game the day after, giving the baseball world time to take stock of where people are.
For me, that means something of an annual feature: as done in previous years, a column looking at which players around the age of 30 have most dramatically collapsed. The point of this is fairly basic: generally people think of aging as a fairly smooth process in which a player rises up in his early-to-mid 20s, peaks in his late 20s, and then gradually declines in his early 30s.
To be sure, that’s how it works overall. However, when focusing on individuals, things rarely work that smoothly. Every player has some unexpected bumps, leaps, dives, and rises in his career. In particular, some don’t age gracefully and instead fall off a cliff. They lose that bit of bat speed or reflex or what-not and can’t seem to adjust. In general (but not always), the guys most susceptible to this column are those who had been really good but not quite great in their prime.
In previous editions, I titled this column the Von Hayes All Stars, after the Phillies All Star who flamed out rather suddenly. Last year, an e-mailer informed me that Hayes actually suffered an injury, which ruins the point of naming the team after him. The goal is to look for guys who inexplicably turned into a pumpkin—injuries are explicable, though.
Thus I’m re-Christening the team the Alvin Davis All Stars, after another player from my childhood who immediately transformed from a valuable player into a big pile of ewww. An All Star first baseman who won the Rookie of the Year Award and twice received minimal support in the MPV vote, Seattle’s Davis lost 60 points on his batting average at age 30 and was out of baseball the next year. That was a rather sudden case of pumpkin-fication.
The ground rules for making this unwanted squad are fairly simple:
– The player should be around age 30, preferably in his early 30s.
– There shouldn’t be an injury that explains away his performance problem.
– Ideally, he should have been a darn good but not great one.
– Most obviously, his performance should’ve fallen off dramatically this year.
Now, it’s impossible to field a team full of players who fully meet all these guidelines. The most important one is the final one, and then I look for guys who fit the rest of the criteria as best as possible. If someone has flopped drastically enough, he’ll be included even if there’s an injury lurking in the background.
2009 Alvin Davis All Stars
One quick comment: I’m writing this a few days before your reading it (long story, short version: very busy weekend) so the numbers below for players might be a bit off what they are by publication time. Without further ado, here are the Insta-Bums:
Catcher: Kelly Shoppach, age 29
He’s a bit young for the team, but catcher is one of those positions where no one perfectly fits the criteria. Shoppach certainly fits the most important guideline, as he’s suffered an epic fall in production so far. After two straight seasons batting .261, he’s struggling around the Mendoza Line this year. As an added bonus, Shoppach symbolizes the Cleveland franchise, which is doing as poorly as possible.
First baseman: Aubrey Huff, age 32.
If he played an up-the-middle defensive position, Huff would be a damn good hitter. Unfortunately for him (and unsurprisingly for anyone who follows baseball) an awful lot of first basemen are terrific hitters. Even the Nationals have a quality bat at first with Nick Johnson.
Most of the worst hitting first basemen are young’uns like Chris Davis of Texas or Daniel Murphy of the Mets. The best candidates for this team are Huff and Arizona’s Chad Tracy. Huff earns the nod because he was at least a good player in previous seasons. Huff has an OPS+ of 95, 40 points behind where he was last year and his lowest mark since 2001. Admittedly, it isn’t noticeably worse than he’s been for several of those years. Rather vexingly, there are few really good candidates for the Alvin Davis All Stars at the first positions looked at.
Second baseman: Placido Polanco, age 33.
There are a bunch of possible candidates at second, none of whom have overwhelming cases.
Aaron Miles owns the biggest flop, but he was never much of a hitter and has only played 46 games. Kelly Johnson and Howie Kendrick have both floundered, but are each a bit young for this squad. Kazuo Matsui has been dreadful and fallen off considerably from his pace last year, but 2008 was a fluke-irifically good season for him. Brian Roberts has mildly declined, but it’s only mild and he’s still all right.
Polanco has generally been a good hitter the last half-dozen years. He’s had his down spells, but even in his lower moments his teams could count on a good batting average from him. This year he’s lost 40 points on his average from last year (which itself was 34 points off the mark from the year before). With a .265 clip, the one-time All Star is having his least impressive season at making contact since he was a 22-year-old rookie. I don’t know if that’s a fluke at his age.
Shortstop: Jimmy Rollins, age 30.
Finally! Now guys like Rollins explain why I create this team in the first place. For five straight seasons Philadelphia could count on Rollins to belt out a batting average of at least .277 with around 40 doubles. In his better years, 25-30 homers would augment that performance. This year he’s hitting a tepid .224, over 20 points lower than his previous career nadir (and that old low-water mark came as a fresh 23-year-old). Two years after winning the MVP, he’s floundering in Philly.
Third baseman: Garrett Atkins, age 29.
In recent years, Colorado could count on Atkins hitting around .300 with 20-some homers. Now he’s in the .220 with six long balls.
Right field: Milton Bradley, age 31.
Actually, Bradley’s hit fairly well since April ended. Unfortunately for him, April games count too, and his .118 batting average that month was monumentally disappointing. The NL is supposed to be the weaker league, but Milton must have missed that memo. After leading the AL and OPS+ last year, he’s below average so far this year.
His offensive troubles have been augmented by other problems. Altogether, he’s been such a vortex for disaster, I half expect to read that Bradley dared Ryan Dempster to jump over the dugout railing. Bradley being Bradley also has his occasional temper problems. He’s also experienced some truly asinine moments in the field, most memorably his decision to flip the ball in the stands with runners on and only two outs. Well, I guess we all forget how to count to three sometimes.
Center field: Vernon Wells, age 30.
He’s actually hitting a bit better than he did two years ago, but then again he’s been a good hitter in every other season beginning with 2003. His OPS+ has dropped by 30 points this year. On the bright side, he’s 13-for-14 in stolen base attempts.
Left Field: Alfonso Soriano, age 33.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Alvin Davis MVP for the first half of 2009.
In prior editions of this column, most of those who make this team rebound a bit in ensuing years. The Cubs better hope that’s the case for Soriano. When they signed him to an eight-year $136 million contract prior to 2006, there was a definite consensus that they would be overpaying for his latter years once he began declining, but the hope was that he would be good enough for long enough to make the final portion of the contract tolerable.
Oh my, that big deal isn’t looking too good at the moment. As I write this, he’s hitting .230/.292/..414 for an OPS+ of 81. That’s a replacement-level performance from a position one expects to provide a heavy amount of offense. Since April ended, he’s been hitting barely .200. As an added bonus, when he hasn’t been flailing at balls at the plate, he’s been flailing at balls in the field, causing seven errors, and counting. Once speedy, he has stolen only seven bases.
He was good just last year, too, hitting .280 with 29 homers and 19 stolen bases in 109 games. I have a theory about him. He’s always been one of the most psychologically fragile stars in MLB. He had a reputation for playing his worst in October with the Yanks and he looked like he was pressing in the last two NLDS with the Cubs. In 44 lifetime postseason contests, he’s batted .219/.263/.299.
When Buck Showalter tried to move him out of the leadoff slot, he complained and his performance suffered. He initially balked at being moved from second base in Washington. (He got over the last one, but I’d credit manager Frank Robinson for that. I don’t have time to explain, but the more I look at his managerial career, the more impressed I am at his ability to get the most out of his teams. Damn shame only truly woeful franchises ever hired him as manager.)
Soriano has trouble handling change and extra pressure. I wonder if he’s wilting under the pressure of having to adapt to aging. This could be an overreaction. Carlos Delgado recovered from a terrible start last year and Andruw Jones has rebounded respectably this year. Still, if Soriano doesn’t right the ship, his contract with the Cubs has the potential to be one of the worst in baseball history. The club has him for 5.5 more years come what may.
Designated hitter: Pat Burrell, age 32.
This is the most competitive slot on the team, as three different designated hitters in their early 30s are suffering through dreadful seasons. To be fair, all main contenders have had some nagging injuries.
Boston’s 33-year-old David Ortiz has endured the most publicized slump, as he batted around .200 for the first two months of the season. However, since receiving some drops for dry eyes, he’s recovered his stroke. After blasting only two long balls in Boston’s first 57 games, he notched number 10 in game number 84.
Vladimir Guerrero, Anaheim’s 34-year-old star, has seen better days as well. His batting average remains respectable, but the rest of his game is off. Most notably, he’s hit only four homers as of this writing. Then again, the fragile player has missed almost half the Angels’ games with injuries.
Due to a neck problem, Pat Burrell has missed almost as much time as Guerrero, but he earns the slot on the Alvin Davis All Stars by experiencing the biggest collapse of anyone here. He’s lost 200 points on his OPS and 50 on his OPS+. When Tampa signed him, I assume they hoped for more than 10 extra-base hits by early July.
Starting pitcher: John Lackey, age 30.
Pitchers are tough ones to add in because massive flops are routinely caused by injuries or stretches of dead arm. Others who flop out most dramatically are starters without much of a track record. This list is primarily geared toward hitters, but some pitchers have also hit the ground flopping in 2009.
Lackey began this year on the sidelines with a forearm injury. Based on how he’s played since returning, I can hope for his sake that he hasn’t fully recovered from it. An ace-quality pitcher for four years (and the man who led the AL in ERA+ in 2007), Lackey has been back-of-the-rotation cannon fodder this year, with an ERA of 5.18.
Starting pitcher: Jeremy Guthrie, age 30.
I wouldn’t expect many Baltimore Orioles to make this list, primarily because one has to have been good in previous seasons to merit inclusion. Guthrie posted an ERA+ of 125 in each of his first two seasons as a Baltimore starter. This year it’s dropped to 85. Currently he leads the AL in most losses, homers allowed, and earned runs allowed.
Starting pitcher: Brian Tallet, age 31.
Since joining Toronto in 2006, Tallet has been one hell of a reliever. As a starter in 2009, Tallet has been hell. His homer rate has skyrocketed, his walks per inning are up, and strikeouts down. Not surprisingly, his ERA jumped by two full points.
Starting pitcher: Chien-Ming Wang, age 29.
Now that’s what I call a collapse! In nine starts, he has yet to last six full innings. The nicest thing you can say about his ERA is that he finally got it below double digits.
Fine—he missed half of last season a foot injury. Still, he was good before the injury, and spectacularly bad since then.
Starting pitcher: Todd Wellemeyer, age 30
This is just a damn shame. I’ve always liked Wellemeyer ever since he fanned seven batters in one relief stint in his rookie season as a Cub. (OK, so he also allowed four runs that game. It was a Shawn Estes start so the Cubs were doomed anyway.)
Last year was his first full season as a starting pitcher, but he performed admirably in it, posting a 3.71 ERA over 32 starts. This year, he has only five quality starts in his first 18 appearances. That ain’t cutting it.
Closer: Brad Lidge, age 32
It isn’t very often a pitcher in a prominent role for a team has his ERA increase by over 3.5 its previous year’s mark, but that’s what is happening to Lidge. After 2008’s stellar 1.95 ERA, he’s currently sporting a 7.12 mark. After allowing only two homers all of last year, he’s surrendering one every four innings this year.
References & Resources
Info courtesy of Baseball-reference.com