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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

9 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BayCityM

Will the track record of big money free agents backfiring time and time again drive the price down? It seems like MLB teams keep missing the nail and crushing their thumbs, but refuse to move their thumbs. You shouldn't have to pay a player for what he has done regardless of tradition.

Mar 26, 2013 07:34 AM
rating: 0
 
swarmee

Then who do you pay? Minor league free agents? International free agents? There are only so many of them, and they have their own flameouts. MLB has negotiated it so that you have to pay for free agents, because you can no longer spend whatever you want in the draft or through international free agency.
The only place a team can spend real money is through paying the guys who have been stellar in previous seasons.

Mar 26, 2013 07:54 AM
rating: 0
 
jdeich

As long as other people think mid-30s "pretty good" free agents are worth $15+M/yr for long contracts, you gain a competitive advantage from doing nothing on that front.

You beat the Yankees by letting them absorb the A-Rod, Teixeira, and Jeter contracts this year, along with the money they'll spend on the random DL stints that will happen on the wrong side of 35. (Hi, Travis Hafner!)

There's a baseball cost to not being able to sign the Josh Hamiltons of the world. However, you may get more value from going the Tampa route and plowing that $125M/5yr into an amazing scouting/coaching/training system, flyers on reclamation projects and "what ifs", etc.

Any MLB team would look better (in 2013) if an anonymous donor covered Boras's alleged $60M/4yr price tag and got them Lohse last week. He'd be very likely to add wins over the #5 starter that would be demoted. But in the absence of this mystery donor, everyone found other things to do with $15M/yr.

There's always another place to spend money. If teams start saying no to outlandish contracts for various Lohses (Loshii?) the salary demands will come down towards their actual baseball value.

Mar 26, 2013 09:10 AM
rating: 0
 
nyyfaninlaaland

But you're assuming that baseball contracts are based - or should be - solely on player performance.

But owners and the management of baseball teams recognize that baseball is also a business. There is also some business value in the signing of recognizable players as Free Agents.

I'd argue that this may be a significant reason, perhaps as significant as on-field success, for the Yankees financial success. Especially in the case of retaining identifiable players - especially those referred to as the "True Yankees" by a rather spoiled fan base.

If I was a club owner that's something I'd spend some time thinking about. The inverse might be part of Tampa's business side problems.

Plus I'm not sure your logic in paragraph 2 on the Yanks really holds water.

Sure they'll suffer due to injury issues this year, but what team wouldn't suffer the loss of 4 starting players to injury? And yes, age does make them more vulnerable. But it seems counting on money issues dragging the Yanks down has proven to be a fools errand for about 15+ years now.

Mar 28, 2013 01:37 AM
rating: 0
 
BayCityM

Does a middle ground exist between saying no to contracts that players simply can't live up too (Pujols, Hamilton, ect.) and arguing for collusion? Honest question.

Mar 26, 2013 09:18 AM
rating: 0
 
Adam Hobson

It depends on what you mean by backfiring. Flags fly forever and flags equate to millions of dollars of revenue. I think the Yankees would sign CC Sabathia again regardless of if he has a 6.75 ERA in two years, and the same for Mark Teixeira even if he continues his downward trend. Because those two high priced free agents won a flag and the Yankees winning flags regularly mean hundreds of million in revenue.

High priced veterans also often have household names and can move merchandise. Obviously this won't help a team win a championship, but it's not nothing. Ichiro may be a bad baseball decision, but I guarantee he'll be work more than his $13 million in salary in merchandize, plus extra exposure to the Japanese market.

Spurning high priced contracts for free agents in their thirties hasn't guaranteed Tampa Bay, Oakland, Cleveland (up to this year) or whatever other "smart" team anything.

Obviously the small market teams can't take the same approach as the large market teams to buying free agents, since their financial rewards are far less. But let's not pretend that there aren't rewards for the large market teams for acting like large market teams.

Mar 26, 2013 12:03 PM
rating: 1
 
nyyfaninlaaland

Sorry Adam - for some reason I didn't see your post -which said what I did above but much more clearly.

Mar 28, 2013 01:40 AM
rating: 0
 
mdangelfan

I'm 42 and in the middle of my career. I'm still envious of those good enough to play MLB. If I were one of them I'd get to retire and spend more time with my kids.

Mar 26, 2013 07:56 AM
rating: 1
 
OonBoon

I noticed at 30 my body starting to break down. Sore joints. Pulled muscles. Slow recovery from physical exertion. They say the brain is still maturing to age 25, perhaps there's a full body peak in the late 20's, followed by a slow-rapid tail off of functioning, different for everyone. Because baseball is taxing on so many levels, the mind-body connection can be easily thrown just enough out of whack to trash a career.

Mar 26, 2013 09:41 AM
rating: 0
 
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