Ghosts of Young Old Players Past

Last week, I posted about three hitters who displayed “old player skills” during the 2010 season. Old players are (as defined by Nate Silver) hitters who at a relatively young age have higher walk rates and isolated power and lower batting average and speed scores. Silver found such players to usually have an earlier peak and decline than others. Of course, this doesn’t mean every such player is doomed to peak and flame out early– just look at Adam Dunn. To gain some perspective, let’s step back a few seasons too see players who have had early “old player” seasons and see how they turned out.

First, let me make a few things clear. First, saying a player displays old player skill is not a criticism of their current performance. Indeed, most such performances in those seasons are usually good — remember, this isn’t about the players current value (if it was, why we would be be talking about, e.g., batting average of all things), but about what their current observed skills might say about how they will age. Moreover, since we’re talking about players in their mid-20s, they are typically under team control and relatively cheap. So teams can get the early peak without being committed to big money for the early decline (assuming it happens). The concern usually for teams looking at signing such players as free agents.

More importantly, while I think there is something to the concept of old player skills, I am still a bit skeptical of its application. I’m exploring the notion because of my current interest in how aging curves (and how we can get a better idea of how that works). With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to look back at some “young old fogey” seasons from the past decade and see how the hitters’ careers went after said seasons. I simplified Silver’s method and restricted my search to player seasons between 2001 and 2009 with a batting average under .280, a Speed Score was under 3.0, a walk rate over 11 percent, and isolated power over .175. I counted only seasons with at least 400 plate appearances. I also restricted myself to the players’ age 25 and 26 seasons: any later, and they would probably be in decline anyway; any earlier, and skills like batting average would still be developing (one reason why Ike Davis‘ age 23 performance in 2010 should be taken with a grain of salt in this regard).

Here are the player-seasons and some brief commentaries on them. It’s still too small a sample to draw any summary conclusion, and I won’t do so. This list simply here for your perusal, reflection, and discussion.

Travis Lee, 2001, age 26: .258/.341/.434, 100 wRC+, .177 ISO, 11.1% walk rate, 2.8 speed score, 1.6 WAR. Lee was an odd player, and he seems a bit anomalous here. He was a slick-fielding first baseman without much power and had actually went 17 for 20 in stolen base attempts for the Diamondbacks two seasons earlier. Had a good season for the Rays in 2008, but was out of baseball not long after. His oddities make it tough to say whether the issue was old player skills or not.

Carlos Lee, 2002, age 26: .264/.359/.484, 117 wRC+, .220 ISO, 13.0% walk rate, 2.7 speed score, 2.0 WAR. While El Caballo seems like a good fit for this group now that he’s an overpaid husk in Houston, his season was actually an anomalous in his development. He hasn’t come close to that walk rate before or after, and his speed scores where actually good before this, and really didn’t come back down to this develop for another six years. Yes, Lee looks like an “old player” now, but that’s because he’s, well, old.

Pat Burrell, 2003, age 26: .209/.309/.404, 88 wRC+, .222 ISO, 12.0% walk rate, 2.4 speed score, 0.8 WAR. While this was a much-noted-at-the-time disaster season for Burrell, he always seemed to be a prototypical old skills hitters: high power, low average, lots of walks, slow (not a whiz in the field, either). And while his best season offensively did come in his prior age 25 season, after the 2003 season and mediocre 2004 he managed to keep his seasonal wRC+ over 120 until his horrible age 32 season with the 2009 Rays. Burrell definitely had the old player skills, but his decline curve hasn’t been all that different from most players (make what you will of his respective performances for the Rays and Giants in 2010).

Eric Chavez, 2004, age 26: .276/.397/.501, 133 wRC+, .225 ISO, 16.5% walk rate, 2.8 speed score. Here was a name I didn’t expect to pop up. His defense alone would seem to exclude him from this group. Nonetheless, he never came close this season offensively again. The injuries obviously were the biggest factor here, whether that “turned him into” an old player skills guy is another question I’ll leave open.

Dan Johnson, 2005, age 25: .275/.355/351, 116 wRC+, .176 ISO, 11.5% walk rate, 1.5 speed score, 1.5 WAR. Johnson is one of “my guys,” but he does fit the mold pretty well — looked good as an unheralded minor leaguer, produced decently when he got his shot, fell off pretty sharply. He seemingly was washed-out of the majors until his 2010 return with the Rays. Maybe he’ll have a good 2011 season as the starting first baseman in Tampa, perhaps leading to an “Old Player Resurrection” theory.

Jonny Gomes, 2006, age 25: .216/.325/.431, 92 wRC+, .216 ISO, 13.2% walk rate, 2.7 speed score, -0.1 WAR. Gomes was a bright spot for the long-forgotten 2005 Rays, but whereas most early “old player” seasons are typically pretty impressive, Gomes’ 2006 was not. He’s been a bit since then, but between his horrible defense and usage as a platoon player, it’s hard to tell whether he’s declined or not.

Nick Swisher, 2006 and 2007, ages 25 and 26 (age 25 stats listed): .256/.372/.493, 123 wRC+, .239 ISO, 14.4% walk rate, 2.8 speed score, 3.7 WAR. Suffice it to say that despite his hallmark old hitter skills in the early years, Swisher has been just fine through his twenties (with a hiccup in Chicago in 2008), and posted the offensive and overall season of his career in his age 29 2010.

Chris Duncan, 2007, age 26: .259/.354/.480, 117 wRC+, .221 ISO, 12.7% walk rate, 2.0 speed score, 1.7 WAR. Duncan (who is about six months younger than Swisher) was a typical old skills guy — got a major league shot in his mid twenties, was surprisingly “mature,” had two decent seasons, and now looks like he’s probably never going another serious look in the majors again.

Chris Iannetta, 2008, age 25: .264/.390/.505, 129 wRC+, .240 ISO, 13.8% walk rate, 2.4 speed score, 3.6 WAR. Iannetta is a bit of a favorite cause of some of us here at FanGraphs, particularly since we keep noticing that the Rockies seem to like jerking him around. His skills do scream “old player,” and maybe that, combined with being a catcher, mean that he isn’t cut out for long-term success. But it isn’t clear he’s been given much of a chance, either: 223 plate appearances in 2010 was ridiculous. It will be interesting to see how it works out in 2011.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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