(Note: due to personal real-life scheduling issues, all info in this article is through July 3, and thus a little out of date. OK. It doesn’t change the fact that this year all the players listed below are playing far below what they’ve done in the most recently previous seasons).
Aging is funny thing. Though it follows general trends and patterns, it doesn’t affect all people equally. The peak years are supposed to be from ages 27 to 30, followed by a gradual decline. Some avoid that decline for quite some time. Others have ebbs and flows, drop-off and comebacks.
And some fall off a cliff.
• Ideally, try to avoid people with injuries. The goal is to find people who got old fast, not look for those whose declines can be otherwise explained.
• Aim for people in their early 30s. Again, that’s when aging is supposed to really kick in.
• Try to find people who went from being good to bad, not from great to good.
• These guidelines ain’t rules. It’s impossible to field an entire lineup this way, so just do the best you can. If there’s a 37-year-old or someone with some lingering injuries, that’s how it goes
Most of the people who make this list will rebound next year, or even in the second half of this year. If you think about it, that makes sense.
Anyhow, here they are:
Catcher: John Buck, Florida, age 30
In his age 30 season (if he was born a week earlier, this would be his age 31 season), the Marlins catcher is having a terrible time of it. In 2010, he hit .281 with 20 homers. Heading into Independence Day, his average is in the toilet at .212. Granted, last year’s total was well over his career norm, but this year is well under that norm.
Mostly, though, Buck is here as a placeholder. Some positions have numerous good candidates, but there just aren’t many quality catchers in their early 30s really falling apart this year.
First baseman: Justin Morneau, Minnesota, age 30
OK, I know I said try to avoid injuries—but I also said that was just a guideline. Morneau makes the team because his decline is just so massive. In the previous five years he batted .298 with power. This year he’s hitting an anemic .225 with only four home runs. Carlos Zambrano has a better OPS—by wide margin. Sure Zambrano is one of the better hitting pitchers—but Morneau had four consecutive 100-RBI seasons.
Also, Morneau makes the team because it isn’t clear how well he’ll ever recover. Concussions can be nasty things, and he’s had several.
If you’re looking for an alternate candidate to Minnesota’s first baseman, you can consider the Nationals’ Adam LaRoche or Lyle Overbay of the Pirates. The 31-year-old LaRoche has had an even worse fall off than Morneau, but has played in even fewer games. Right now, he’s hitting .172 with seven extra base hits in 43 games played.
The 34-year-old Overbay is the best pure decline at first base this year. His batting average, power, and walks are all down this year. WAR valued him at 2.3 wins last year, but –0.5 so far this year. Yeah, that’s bad.
All too rare a sight this year: Morneau triumphant.
Second baseman: Dan Uggla, Atlanta, age 31.
Were the Marlins smart of just lucky to trade him to a division opponent this off-season? In the past few years, Uggla was a good bet for 30 homers, 30 doubles, a respectable batting average and around 80 walks. A little more than halfway through the year, his power numbers are down a bit (heading for the low 20s in doubles and homers). More importantly, his average is in the toilet: .175. It’s the worst batting average of anyone qualifying for the batting title in the NL. As a result, no one is pitching around him, and his walks are also way down.
Is he injured? Apparently not—he’s played in every game so far this year. He leads the league in games played at 85.
If it makes the Braves feel any better, Omar Infante, who they sent to Florida in the Uggla trade, is also having a rotten season. So are fellow second baseman Jack Wilson, Mark Ellis, Brian Roberts, and Ramon Santiago. But many of them were injured before the year began, or already declining, or not that good in the first place.
Uggla is in a league by himself with this year’s collapse.
At least he looks good swinging through this pitch.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter, Yankees, age 37.
All those second baseman in their early-to-mid 30s falling off this year: you’d think there could be one similarly aged candidate at shortstop, too.
Jeter’s the best candidate, though his real fall-off season was probably last year. From 2009-10 he fell from being a good player to just a player. This year he fell into the dreaded replacement-level player zone. Two years ago it looked feasible for Jeter to end his career over 3,500 hits. Now he’s sputtering just getting to 3,000. He’s currently hitting .260 without much power. He’s also grounding into a double play every 10 games—but, for him, that’s an improvement.
Favorite random fact: though he’s only hit two home runs in his last 456 plate appearances, they came in the same game, in consecutive trips to the plate.
Third baseman: Casey McGehee, Brewers, age 28.
He’s technically a little too young for this team, and there are other credible candidates (Scott Rolen, Brandon Inge, Chone Figgins, Kevin Kozmanoff, Juan Uribe), but the level of McGehee’s drop off makes him an easy pick for the All-Collapse third sacker.
In his first two years with the Brewers, McGehee was a terrific offensive force, lacing 99 extra base hits while hitting .291. Given that he turned a mere 28 in October, Brewer fans expected several more quality seasons from him.
Wow, is that ever not happening. The man who hit 23 homers and 38 doubles in 2010, has only 4 and 14 so far this year. That ain’t living up to expectations. Even worse, his average has fallen to a pathetic .221. Added bonus: WAR also thinks his glove sucks, too.
It’s not as bad a collapse as Uggla, but that’s the nicest think you can say for McGehee so far.
Outfield: Jayson Werth, Nationals, age 32
This probably isn’t what the Nationals hoped for when they signed him to that big contract this off-season. The last four years in Philly, Werth was a nice well-rounded player. He hit a good but not great average. He had power, though he wasn’t going to lead the league in homers. He drew more than his share of walks. He could steal bases.
He can still steal bases this year, he’s just having trouble with getting on first, as his batting average has flopped from a career high .296 last year to an unsatisfactory .223 this year.
The good news is that most of the rest of his game is still there. Well, there’s a slight drop in power, but he can still hit the ball far. Given how batting average can vary from year to year, Werth has a good bet to bounce back. Maybe not all the way, but he’s no .223 hitter.
Outfield: Ryan Rayburn, Tigers, age 30
Other, more prominent outfielders, have gained more press for their problems in the first half of the year—Ichiro Suzuki, Carl Crawford, Jason Bay, just to name a few—but Rayburn has had a nightmarish one all his own. At least Bay was declining last year. At least Ichiro held out until his late 30s before slipping.
Rayburn is only 30 and ended last year on a hot streak. Batting .357 with some power over the last six weeks on 2010. For two straight years he provided a nice bat in the Tiger lineup. His problem is that his game has always heavily depended on batting average and this year he’s completely forgotten how to do it. Only four guys in MLB have an average under .210 and over 250 PA. Rayburn is one of them. Granted, he barely makes both criteria (256 PA and a .206 average), but regardless that’s a horrible combination.
Outfield: J. D. Drew, Red Sox, age 35
Oh—were you expecting a different Red Sox outfielder? Carl Crawford, perhaps? Yeah, he’s in the running, and if you asked me to redo the list I might put him in. There are a bunch of guys under consideration for outfield. Beyond the three chosen, there’s Crawford, Ichiro, Bay, Juan Pierre, Alex Rios, David DeJesus, Austin Kearns, Russ Davis, David Murphy, Vernon Wells, etc.
Why not Crawford? While his numbers are bad, if you look more closely, he just had a bad month. A horrible month. A death-defyingly dreadful month. But it was still just one month. From May 1 onward, he’s hit .295 with 16 extra base hits in 43 games. He’s just 29 years old, a 29-year-old with a bad month.
As for Drew, he began declining last year, and has kept at it this year. He’s currently hitting .231 with four homers for an OPS+ of 80. That ain’t bringing much to the table.
Designated “hitter”: Adam Dunn, White Sox, age 31.
This might just be living in Chicago, but Dunn is the most obvious choice for the team. Uggla is Dunn’s only competition for team MVP (or should it be LVP? Least Valuable Player).
Everything has gone wrong. Before coming to Chicago, he fanned once every 3.7 PA. With the Sox, he’s fanned once every 2.3 PA. Yeah, it’s bad when he increase your K-rate considerably. It’s even worse when your K-rate sucked in the first place.
Dunn has been far less productive when making contact. Normally a .250 hitter, Dunn is down to .165. Most damningly, he’s got no power. He used to fan all the time because he was swinging for the fences—and nailing 40 homers a year. Right now, he’s got seven homers. That’s as many as Alex Gonzalez, the 34-year-old shortstop. White Sox backup outfielder Brent Lillibridge has that many.
And he’s been getting worse. From May 20 through July 3, Dunn has 13 hits and 53 Ks in 133 times up for a .119/.278/.220 line. His 498 OPS in that time is only slightly better than the Arizona pitchers on the year.
Dunn has not looked good with the Sox this year.
Starting pitcher: John Lackey, Red Sox, age 32.
It’s always tricky trying to figure out what pitchers to put on the list because massive drop-offs in performance are often due to injury or dead arm (which is often an injury the pitcher can work through).
Last year Lackey declined from being a very good starting pitcher to an average one. This year he’s an atrocious one. His 5-7 record hides a 6.81 ERA. And he can’t put all the blame on his fielders for that ERA. His walk-rate is at an all-time high, his strikeout rate at an all-time low, and his homer rate well over league average. He just plain can’t get anyone out.
It’s been an off-balance season for Lackey so far.
Starting pitcher: Ryan Dempster, Cubs, age 34.
I’ve always had fond feelings for Dempster since he provided unexpectedly fine pitching for my fantasy team back in 2000.
More recently, his career had a rather strong and unexpected second wind serving as a quality starting pitcher for the Cubs from 2008-10. In 2011, he still serves as a starting pitcher, but he has lost the quality. In some ways, he’s the anti-Lackey. Dempster’s rate stats are fine—if anything they’re a little better than normal. There’s just one problem: when people get on base against him, they have this nasty tendency to score. His 4.99 ERA is the highest he’s had in almost a decade. Hopefully it’s just a fluke thing, but for now, he’s had problems.
Starting pitcher: Carlos Zambrano, Cubs, age 30.
It pains me to put Z on this list. I’ve always liked him and while he brings plenty of criticisms upon himself for his antics, a lot of it is overblown. (Example: earlier this year after complaining about how horrible the team has paid lately, one local columnist said he should be suspended indefinitely and traded before he pitches for them again. Mind you, other players make similar statements everyday, but let’s forget that).
Zambrano has never been as good as he was in his early-to-mid-20s. I think his body is breaking down gradually from his workload (he’s currently on the DL with a back problem), but regardless, he’s had a bad season so far.
His ERA+ has been 117 or higher for eight straight years, bur right now it’s in the 90s. It could be a bad defense doing in Zambrano (and Dempster), but the case here is more worrying. Zambrano’s K-rate has fallen from 8.1/9IP to just 6.0 this year. Between that and his back, there is reason to be concerned.
At least he’s still hitting: .313/.353/.469—plus he’s the first pitcher in a generation to homer in nine straight seasons. Maybe the White Sox will want him as their new DH.
Starting pitcher: Bronson Arroyo, Reds, age 34
He’s had a low strikeout rate for a few years now, but has managed to get by as a quality workhorse despite that. This year, he combines his still-low strikeout rate with a nasty tendency to toss gopher balls. His 24 homers allowed top all major league baseball. Heck, only two batters have even hit as many as Arroyo’s allowed. That’s impressive. No wonder his ERA is 5.49.
Starting pitcher: Ted Lilly, Dodgers, age 35
As long as Dempster and Zambrano make the list, may as well round out the rotation with their old teammate, Lilly.
He’s been a tank for several years now. From 2003-10, he went 103-82, averaging 30 starts a year with an ERA+ of 112. He’s still durable, but he isn’t quite getting it done, with a 5-8 record backed up by a 4.97 ERA and the worst K-rate of his life.
Others could make the rotation. If I had to do it over again I might put Chris Carpenter on, but he’s had arm injuries in the past and at age 36 is older than anyone on a rotation that’s already a little older than I’d like. Colby Lewis, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jake Westbrook, Jon Garland, and Francisco Liriano also have cases to make on their behalf. But lucky them, I left them off.
Lilly, after allowing a solo home run.
Closer: Joakim Soria, Royals, age 27.
There are some viable candidates for this spot, but no obvious choice. Brian Fuentes has been terrible in Oakland, but he was injured all last year. Matt Thornton was terrible when the Sox gave him the job, but he didn’t have it for very long. Francisco Rodriguez’s numbers are down, but still alright.
Soria is young for the team, but after three straight fantastic season as KC’s closer, he’s been a thudding disaster. His ERA this year is higher than his last two added together. He’s walking more batters, striking out fewer, and surrendering more gopher balls. That gets him the nod for this team.
References & Resources
This used to be called the Von Hayes All-Stars and the Alvin Davis All-Stars, after two players who collapsed seemingly overnight for no reason. I’ve since been told both had some injuries, so I decided to get rid of the player name in the title altogether.
Baseball-Reference.com was the source for all numbers in it. All numbers in the article are through July 3rd.