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Rocco Baldelli: What Might Have Been

Rocco Baldelli, who would have only been 29 at the beginning of the 2011 season, has reportedly retired.

Baldelli looked like a potential superstar during his age-21 debut in 2003 and his sophomore 2004. Sure, he was something of an overrated player who was better in fantasy (good average and stolen bases) than in reality (low walk rate), but his youth and athleticism left plenty of room for growth. However, he missed the whole 2005 season due to injury, and while his 2006 season looked like a “breakout,” he got hurt again. After that, injury followed upon injury. Baldelli was eventually diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder (the current diagnosis is channelopathy). He managed to continue playing a bit here and there, although his on-field contributions were relatively insignificant. He was part of the Rays’ 2008 American League Championship team and did get some (regrettable) playing time in the playoffs for the 2010 Rays’ playoff team. Baldelli, who is going to join the Rays’ front office, doesn’t sound bitter, and this post won’t trade in nostalgia, either. While many players might have had different careers if not for injury, I think something like channelopathy is unusual enough (from what I understand of it, which is virtually nothing) that it is worth spending a little time today speculating on what Baldelli’s career might have been like if he hadn’t had it.

To get an idea of how Baldelli might have aged, I’ve looked at his Baseball-Reference player page and his Similarity Score-based comparables through age 24, the last season (2006) in which he got a substantial number of plate appearances and contributions. The top three comparables through age 24 were all right-handed outfielders: Ellis Burks, Garry Maddox, and Gary Matthews, Sr. (the fourth was Carlos Beltran, but I’m not going to torture Tampa Bay fans with that thought). How did their value change as they moved past their age-24 seasons (click on the image for a more legible version)?

Burks had actually already peaked at 23 (other than his monster age 31 season in pre-humidor Colorado), although he had some nice seasons in his late thirties, as well. Maddox follow a pretty “typical” aging curve, improving after 24, having his best season at 26, a nice prime in his late twenties, followed by a relatively gradual decline through his 30s. Matthews followed a roughly similar curve to Maddox, with lower peaks, but more production in his thirties. In fact, what stands out about all three players is that they were all productive major leaguers into their thirties, with Baldelli’s number-one comparable through 24, Burks, playing until he was 39. None of them were Hall of Famers, but all of them ended up over 30 WAR for their careers, and Burks ended up over 40.

Let’s get a bit more specific. Baldelli didn’t take too many walks, even at his best. On average, hitters typically improve their walk rate throughout their careers. How about our comparable players?

Keep in mind that when we talk about an “average” or “typical” curve, we mean an average of all players as they age, not each individual player’s observed performance. Burks’ walk rate as he aged is the closest of the three to typical, mostly increasing through his late twenties. While Matthews’ walk rate actually decreased as he went through his twenties, in his thirties it increased dramatically. Maddox resembles Baldelli the most in their mutual aversion to the free pass, and even he saw a small increase for a couple of seasons after 24. Baldelli probably would never have become Rickey Henderson, but these three comparable players taken together indicate that, like most players, he would have been likely to walk more as he got older

Before getting hurt, Baldelli did show a significant increase in isolated power in 2006. Most players improve in their power through their twenties. However, the comparable players tell a curious story:

Maddox and Mathews follow pretty much what we’d expect: a small, gradual overall increase through their late twenties, then (mostly) a decline in their thirties, other than the spike Matthews saw right at the end of his career. Burks wasn’t all the much different, if perhaps losing a bit of power as he aged, until the sudden massive spike at age 29. But don’t make too much of it — that massive .356 ISO came over a small sample (165 plate appearances) and, more significantly, came while playing in the early, pre-humidor days of 1994 Colorado. It must be noted, however, that while Burks never posted an ISO that high again, that it did stay over .200 for most of the rest of his career, even after he left Colorado. Then again, Burks had an unusually long and productive career, and it’s hard to say that even a healthy Baldelli would have lasted that long. The comparables suggest that Baldelli probably would have added some power through his twenties, at least. After that, all bets are off.

Finally, here is the overall offensive production (as measured by wOBA) of the players as they aged:

This neatly suggest three different “career paths” Baldelli might have taken as a hitter. Maddox peaked in the years right after his age-24 season, then went into a slow overall decline for the rest of his career (Maddox’s strength as an overall player was his excellent defense, a reptuation that is backed up by his TotalZone ratings). Burks was a classic late bloomer, holding steady (overall) through his twenties, then exploding in his thirties, a situation which, as we’ve seen, can’t be merely be attributed to playing in Colorado. Matthews is the “middle path” between the two, showing a steady improvement, then mostly declining (with a couple exceptional seasons) in his thirties.

As I’ve written before, not too much should be made of these comparable players. Indeed, this whole post is an exercise in counterfactual speculation. We aren’t suggesting that Baldelli would never have been hurt, just trying to get an idea of what might have happened if it weren’t for his exceptional situation. Moreover, the three most comparable players (through 24) listed here are also notable for the length of their baseball careers. While it certainly would have been better for Tampa Bay if Baldelli had stayed healthy, the overall organizational depth that the Friedman-led front office built up shows the wisdom of not merely counting on every good young player working out. It is never safe to bet on any player being a Hall of Famer or even a superstar, but the numbers do suggest that, although he was already a good ballplayer when injuries derailed his career, for Rocco Baldelli the baseball player the best was yet to come. For Rocco Baldelli the person, that may still be true. I hope it is.