Do Early Decline Players Share Any Traits?

Last year, two of the most notable free agent signings of the winter were inexplicably terrible. Carl Crawford went from being an All-Star to a replacement level scrub, while Adam Dunn went from productive slugger to the worst hitter in baseball – well, almost – Orlando Cabrera just barely edged him out. Obviously, Crawford and Dunn are about as different as any two players in baseball, as Crawford is a speed-based gap hitter who produces a lot of value with his glove, while Dunn is a walks-and-homers guy who rightfully spent the year as a DH.

Neither player had shown any real sign that their skills were regressing, and while Dunn’s struggles could have just been a guy with old-player-skills getting old early, Crawford was 29 and in his athletic prime. It’s possible that either or both could bounce back and resume their previous levels of production, but their struggles got me wondering about whether there are certain player types that are more prone to this kind of out-of-nowhere collapse of production.

In order to look at this a little closer, I polled our FanGraphs staff looking for guys who were quality players for multiple years and then just turned into a pumpkin overnight. Because I was looking for guys whose decline wasn’t easily explainable, we’re omitting players who had significant injuries or were too far on the wrong side of 30 – this isn’t so much a question about aging curves or the effects of a body breaking down as it is a question of whether players who derive value from a certain type of performance are more likely to just see that value dry up overnight. We’re also only looking at position players, because pitchers are their own complicated story with a totally different mix of problems.

Here’s the list of guys that we came up with last night – it’s not a comprehensive list, and I’m hopeful you guys will add more names to the pile, but it’s a decent start.

Andruw Jones 8395 420 152 0.354 112 276.7 71.7
Edgardo Alfonzo 6108 146 53 0.345 108 32.5 33
George Bell 6592 265 67 0.342 111 -13 24.4
Alvin Davis 5010 160 7 0.365 124 -20 24.2
Richard Hidalgo 3929 171 48 0.355 110 66.8 23.7
Chone Figgins 5090 33 333 0.326 99 -1.9 22.8
Alex Rios 4695 118 162 0.330 98 56.9 20.7
Marcus Giles 3340 76 70 0.344 107 14.5 19.9
Carlos Baerga 5895 134 59 0.331 100 -35.2 19.1
Austin Kearns 3973 117 31 0.338 103 47.2 18.7
Chris Sabo 3714 116 120 0.343 111 -7 18.4
Ruben Sierra 8782 306 142 0.331 102 -59.5 18
Derek Bell 5068 134 170 0.335 103 -16 14.6
Ben Grieve 3743 118 24 0.356 114 -72.1 7.5

Here’s that same set of players, only with their strengths broken down by category rather than results.

Andruw Jones 10.3% 20.0% 0.232 0.275
Edgardo Alfonzo 9.8% 10.1% 0.140 0.296
George Bell 5.0% 11.7% 0.191 0.278
Alvin Davis 13.7% 11.1% 0.170 0.288
Richard Hidalgo 9.1% 18.8% 0.221 0.292
Chone Figgins 10.0% 15.1% 0.087 0.329
Alex Rios 6.3% 16.1% 0.159 0.306
Marcus Giles 9.5% 15.7% 0.152 0.313
Carlos Baerga 4.9% 9.8% 0.131 0.302
Austin Kearns 11.3% 21.3% 0.163 0.304
Chris Sabo 7.4% 12.4% 0.178 0.279
Ruben Sierra 6.9% 14.1% 0.182 0.279
Derek Bell 7.4% 18.8% 0.145 0.319
Ben Grieve 12.4% 20.9% 0.173 0.320

This is only 14 guys, but let’s see if there are any obvious similarities among the group of guys who stood out to the FG crew.

In terms of plate discipline, it’s a pretty big mixed bag. This group runs the gamut from aggressive hackers (Sierra, Rios, both Bells) to work-the-count artists (Davis, Grieve, Kearns), while also including guys who made a ton of contact (Baerga, Alfonzo) and guys who swung and missed a lot (Jones, Hidalgo). There doesn’t seem to be any discernable similarities among these guys in terms of their approach at the plate.

How about power? Besides Jones and Hidalgo, there aren’t a lot of sluggers on this list. If we expanded the age range we were willing to look at and pushed it into the early 30s, we’d pick up the likes of Mo Vaughn, but then we’d be dealing with the issue of the aging curve for heavy players. Since we’re trying to highlight guys whose collapses are a bit more mysterious, I’m not sure oversized sluggers fit into the type of player we’re looking for, so they’re probably a little underrepresented on the list. Still, even without a lot of extreme power hitters, the list is mostly comprised of guys who could drive the ball. The only guy on the list who really had no power whatsoever is Chone Figgins.

With BABIP, we’re not looking at a core skill as much as we are trying to see if this group of players had disproportionately depended on getting hits to fall in to pump up their early career value. Again, Figgins looks to be the outlier here, as the group is mostly comprised of guys whose career BABIPs were pretty close to league average. This doesn’t seem to be a case of guys just getting lucky early in their careers and seeing a regression-based decline later.

Position? The sample is tiny, but perhaps its somewhat interesting that there are several stocky second baseman on the list. Alfonzo, Baerga, and Giles were all offensive middle infielders who weren’t fantastic athletes and produced their value by being good hitters relative to a bunch of peers who were selected for their glovework. Historically, we’ve seen that second baseman don’t age particularly well, so perhaps there’s something to this kind of body type that lends itself to an early peak? There’s not enough here to draw any kind of conclusion, but at least we finally found a similarity between a few of the players on the list.

Beyond that, there’s a bunch of outfielders, but they aren’t all that similar. Jones, Rios, and Hidalgo were athletic center fielders, while Sierra, Kearns, Grieve, and the Bells were corner outfielders who weren’t exactly known for their defense. A few of them had old-player skills, but most of them did not, and there’s a lot of different body types among the outfielders on the list.

The guys who don’t really have any reasonable comparables among the 14 are Figgins, Alvin Davis, and Chris Sabo. Figgins was a patient slap hitter whose ability to find holes and draw walks dried up. Davis was a first baseman with great control of the strike zone whose power dried up after age 29. Sabo was a pretty-good-at-everything guy who saw his BABIP tumble and his K% jump almost simultaneously, though he never became totally useless.

Overall, besides the offensive second baseman thing (which was somewhat already known through aging curve studies), I don’t see many similar players on this list. This isn’t any kind of definitive research, and perhaps with a larger variety of examples we’ll be able to identify similar traits in other subsets of players, but overall, I don’t see a lot of evidence that guys with one particular skillset offer production that is at risk to just dry up overnight more so than any other. There’s an inherent variability in all types of players, and whether it’s speedster or slugger, there’s a chance that a previously productive player could just lose his usefulness without any real warning.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.