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March 26, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

Why Turning 30 is So Much Better if You Don't Play Baseball

by Brian MacPherson

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Brian MacPherson is in his fifth season covering the Red Sox, the last four of which have been for the Providence Journal. His career highlight as a player was accidentally stealing home on what he thought was a bases-loaded walk but actually was not. His career highlight as a sportswriter was the time in college when Roy Williams burst through the door to interrupt his interview with Dean Smith. You can follow him on Twitter at @brianmacp.

Like the McNugget, Microsoft Word, Mario and the minivan—thanks, Mental Floss!—I will turn 30 this year.

Not much feels like it has changed in recent years. About all I notice is that I don’t have as much hair as I once did. But given that my maternal grandfather looked like a two-seam-fastball grip by the time he was 30, I feel fortunate to have any follicular leftovers at all.

Like the McNugget, Microsoft Word, Mario and the minivan, some of the best players in baseball will turn 30 this year as well. Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera will turn 30. Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, and Justin Verlander will turn 30—or, in the case of Verlander, have already. Jacoby Ellsbury, Joe Mauer, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and Joey Votto will turn 30. Gavin Floyd, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Brandon McCarthy will turn 30, too.

To most of society, I’m still not that old. I get periodic requests for advice from college students that begin with “Mr.” I don’t get asked to show my ID as much as I once did. That’s about it. I have colleagues who have been covering baseball for about as long as I have been alive. I feel old when I go to bed before 9 p.m. during spring training, but everyone goes to bed before 9 p.m. during spring training—or, at least, takes naps.

To the baseball world, however, 30 is the start of the end of the road. Most of the star players who are my contemporaries no longer will be star players within four or five years. At least a couple will fall steeply off the cliff with no warning. The recent release of Chone Figgins is only the latest example of the phenomenon.

And it still surprises us every time it happens.

Thirty just seems too young to be too old to play baseball. Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs when he was 30. Ty Cobb hit .383 with 24 triples when he was 30. Ted Williams got on base at a .490 clip when he was 30. Nolan Ryan struck out 341 when he was 30. Walter Johnson had a 1.27 ERA when he was 30. Sammy Sosa hit 63 home runs when he was 30, though we all assume he had a little help fighting the aging curve on that one.

But Sandy Koufax never threw a pitch beyond the age of 30. Neither did Mark Mulder. Neither did Addie Joss. (If you’re unfamiliar with the exploits of Joss, you clearly don’t play in the SimLeague at WhatIfSports.com. Your loss.)

Ralph Kiner was never the same player after the age of 30. Neither was Dale Murphy. More recently, Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, and Alfonso Soriano—not to mention Figgins—have seen their production take a turn for the worse upon turning 30 or shortly thereafter.

Why is that? There’s such a small margin for error in baseball. Pitches have to move just so. A swing has to start just when. It doesn’t take much to turn an All-Star major leaguer into a borderline major leaguer.

Just one example: Pedroia blossomed into a star thanks to stunning, almost freakish, hand-eye coordination—thanks in large part to 20-10 vision, making him, in ocular terms, closer to a hawk than to a normal person. He’s not going to be the same player when his vision deteriorates to, say, 20-15—and God forbid it ever gets to 20-20.

The problem with the rapid aging curve of star players is that it throws off the way teams spend money.

Free agency has become the most inefficient avenue for player acquisition. Nothing else is close. The fastest way for a team to propel itself into last place is by spending unwisely in the free-agent market—which means spending much at all in the free-agent market, really. The odds of a big-ticket free agent justifying the money spent on him are no better than a coin flip.

Free agency, not coincidentally, involves teams throwing buckets of money at players who are 30 or older.

And yet free agency remains an integral part of the fabric of the baseball culture. We follow developments in free agency more closely than we follow most games. Stories filed from the Winter Meetings get at least as many clicks as stories filed from the World Series. Buckets of ink have been spilled on the Kyle Lohse saga, and there’s no end in sight—either to the saga or to the analysis.

Fans and media expect their teams to spend their money, and free agency is the only way the collective-bargaining agreement allows them to spend it.

We just can’t come to grips with the idea that 30 is the start of the end of the road.

Those of us in the media—and probably in most lines of work—feel like we’re just getting going at the age of 30. Colleagues I respect greatly were freelancing or covering minor-league teams in small markets at the age of 30. It’s mind-blowing to think about how different our business would be if its arc followed that of most baseball players, if the likes of Peter Gammons had been over the hill in in the late 1970s instead of still going strong today.

Like just about everyone else in my profession, I grew up playing Little League and imagining myself as a major leaguer. There are days when I can be a little envious of those who actually are living out that dream.

But the day I turn 30 won’t be one of them.

Related Content:  Aging,  Aging Curve

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