Youngsters and Oldsters

The baseball season is now about 70% complete, give or take a few percentage points. That’s enough time to identify this year’s stars (such as Derrek Lee and Albert Pujols) and goats (think Cristian Guzman and Eric Milton), if not the late-season phenoms and pennant drivers.

Baseball America used to run a feature I enjoyed in which they ranked the best players by age. I didn’t catch this year’s list (did they run it?) so I decided to create my own look at the major league’s best players by age based on Win Shares Above Baseline (WSAB), through Sunday’s games. I sometimes forget just how young some players are and just how old Roger Clemens is. There may be some surprises in the following lists for you too:

The Young ‘uns

  Age   Player       POS       WS    WSAB
   21   Street       RP        10       7
        Francoeur    OF         8       6
        Kazmir       SP         8       4
        McCann       C          4       2
        Davies       SP         4       2

   22   Cabrera      OF        21      12
        Wright       3B        19      10
        Mauer        C         17      10
        Sizemore     OF        17       8
        Bonderman    SP        11       6

   23   Willis       SP        15      11
        Cordero      RP        12       8
        Harden       SP        11       8
        Crawford     OF        16       7
        Peralta      SS        15       7

   24   Zambrano     SP        14       9
        Peavy        SP        12       8
        Myers        SP        12       8
        Chacin       SP        11       7
        Lowry        SP        10       6

   25   Pujols       1B        30      20
        Dunn         OF        26      17
        Garland      SP        17      12
        Teixeira     1B        17       8
        Greene       SS        14       7

There are two tremendously good 22-year-old ballplayers in the National League East, Miguel Cabrera and David Wright, and a fine one in Minnesota named Joe Mauer. Cabrera, in particular, is worth an entire article. He’s on track for 30 Win Shares, which would make him only the 33rd 22-year-old in history (post 1900) to reach that mark. The last player to do it was this year’s 25-year-old leader, the Great Pujols.

Cabrera had a very good year last year, but he has really leapt forward in 2005. Take a look at the difference (2005 Win Shares total has been prorated for an entire year):

 Year   WS    BA    OBP    SLG    GPA   LD%    BABIP   BA/RSP
 2004   22  .294   .366   .512   .304   19%    .341     .238
 2005   30  .341   .400   .597   .345   24%    .384     .314

All of his basic averages have improved, thanks to a five-point increase in his Line Drive Percentage and a decrease in his groundball rate as shown in this graph. Plus, he has raised his batting average with runners in scoring position from .238 to .314. This year, he is the major’s best batter under 25, though David Wright may give him a run for the title next year.

Meanwhile, check out all the 24-year-old starting pitchers. It seems as though Carlos Zambrano and Jake Peavy have been around forever, but they’re still very young. Although Peavy has better strikeout and walk ratios…

Player        W   L    RA    ERA   FIP    K/G  BB/G  HR/G   LD%    DER    G/F
Peavy        10   5   3.37   3.14  2.78  10.9   2.1  0.94   19%   .723   1.15
Zambrano      9   5   3.40   3.17  3.64   8.4   4.0  0.72   19%   .737   1.79

…he pitches in a pitcher’s ballpark (Petco), while Zambrano pitches in Wrigley. These two guys, along with Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis and Rich Harden, are probably among the 10 best young pitchers under 26 today.

Three of this year’s five highest 21-year-olds play for the Atlanta Braves. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

In Their Prime

  Age   Player       POS       WS    WSAB
   26   Bay          OF        25      15
        Johnson      1B        21      13
        Buehrle      SP        18      13
        Utley        2B        19      10
        Santana      SP        13       8

   27   Roberts      2B        23      14
        Oswalt       SP        18      13
        Giles        2B        20      11
        Ramirez      3B        18       9
        Furcal       SS        18       8

   28   Halladay     SP        16      12
        Burrell      OF        20      11
        Hafner       1B        16      11
        Jones        OF        20      10
        Wilkerson    OF        18       9

   29   Lee          1B        29      20
        Ensberg      3B        25      16
        Rodriguez    3B        24      15
        Ortiz        1B        22      15
        Guerrero     OF        19      12

   30   Carpenter    SP        16      11
        Sexson       1B        18      10
        Hernandez    SP        12       7
        Jenkins      OF        15       6
        Washburn     SP        11       6

The age of 27 has been identified as the typical “peak year,” and Brian Roberts is certainly living up to that aphorism. Derrek Lee’s 29-year-old season also seems to qualify for a peak year, don’t you think?

But 26-year-olds also have their share of peak years, and it will be very interesting to watch the careers of Jason Bay and Nick Johnson (if he stays healthy), the two best 26-year-old position players so far this year.

Bay is having a sensational August, batting .380/.467/.680, and he is now third in the league with 99 Runs Created. The guy may not be as young as Cabrera and Wright, and he may have been traded twice, but after last year (.282/.358/.550) and this year, he is clearly one of the best talents in the game.

Can you believe ARod is only 29? Hasn’t he been around forever?

Keepin’ on Truckin’

  Age   Player       POS       WS    WSAB
   31   Abreu        OF        22      12
        Damon        OF        21      12
        Matsui       OF        17       9
        LaRue        C         14       9
        Jeter        SS        18       8

   32   Floyd        OF        19      10
        Colon        SP        14       9
        Clark        OF        17       7
        Cameron      OF        13       6
        Hermanson    RP        10       6

   33   Ramirez      OF        24      16
        Delgado      1B        19      11
        Pettitte     SP        15      10
        Clark        1B        13       9
        Martinez     SP        14       9

   34   Giles        OF        23      14
        Giambi       1B        16      10
        Counsell     2B        18       9
        Saenz        1B        11       7
        Matheny      C         13       7

   35   Edmonds      OF        23      15
        Griffey Jr   OF        19      11
        Rivera       RP        12       7
        Grudzielan   2B        15       6
        Sweeney      1B         9       6

These are the iffy years, in which established players sometimes see their careers start to fizzle away. Sometimes not. Most tellingly, there are only three starting pitchers in this age group, compared to 11 between the ages of 21 and 26.

That 31-year-old age group is outstanding, though I’m not sure how Jason LaRue sneaked in there with Abreu, Damon, Matsui and Jeter.

Sabean Territory

  Age   Player       POS       WS    WSAB
   36   Sheffield    OF        26      17
        Mussina      SP        10       5
        Taguchi      OF        10       5
        Walker       RP         8       5
        Piazza       C         12       4

   37   Kent         2B        24      15
        Jones        RP        11       8
        Gonzalez     OF        16       7
        Stairs       1B        11       6
        Sanders      OF        11       6

   38   Smoltz       SP        15      10
        Wakefield    SP        12       7
        Vizquel      SS        15       6
        Walker       OF        11       6
        Lofton       OF         9       4

   39   Biggio       2B        16       7
        Alou         OF        13       7
        Timlin       RP        10       6
        Hammond      RP         5       4
        Maddux       SP         7       2

   40   Rogers       SP        15      11
        Palmeiro     1B        11       4
        Hernandez    RP         6       4
        Harris       1B         1       1
        Groom        RP         1       0

Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Kenny Rogers and John Smoltz deserve special mention for the seasons they are having at their “advanced age.” But I would not have guessed that So Taguchi is the third-best 36-year-old in the game. Shows what I know.

Not Yet Ready for the Top Bunk

  Age   Player       POS       WS    WSAB
   41   Johnson      SP         8       3

   42   Clemens      SP        23      18
        Wells        SP         9       5
        Moyer        SP         8       3
        Fassero      RP         2       0
        Mulholland   RP         1      -1

   44   Franco       RP         0      -2

   46   Franco       1B         6       3

Can anything compare with what Roger Clemens has done this year? With 23 Win Shares, he already has the highest total any 42-year-old baseball player has ever had. The previous record holders were Carlton Fisk and Warren Spahn with 22 each. According to Lee Sinins, Clemens has 53 Runs Saved Above Average, which is already better than any pitcher 40 years old or older. Here’s a list of the previous best seasons by pitchers over the age of 39:

                              YEAR     RSAA    
T1   Randy Johnson            2004       50   
T1   Grover C Alexander       1927       50   
3    Cy Young                 1908       35   
4    Roger Clemens            2004       32   
T5   Jack Quinn               1924       30   
T5   Phil Niekro              1979       30   
T5   Ted Lyons                1942       30   
8    Dennis Martinez          1995       28   
T9   Jamie Moyer              2003       27   
T9   Jack Quinn               1928       27   

Meanwhile, the two old Francos manage to hang on. John Franco is not distinguishing himself in his old age and this is probably his last season. But Julio “The Ageless Wonder” Franco is having a fine season, the best ever for a 46-year-old position player. The only players who have racked up more Win Shares at 46 are some past ageless wonders of the mound: Hoyt Wilhelm (13), Satchel Paige (11), Phil Niekro (10) and Jack Quinn (8).

So here’s to 2005, the year of the Atlanta Braves and Miguel Cabrera on one hand, and Roger Clemens and Julio Franco on the other.

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