The Slow Decline of Speedy Outfielders

Over the weekend, I wrote a piece for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs+ based around the question of how players like Jacoby Ellsbury have aged previously. There’s a belief among some that speed-and-defense players like Ellsbury are bad bets after they turn 30, since a large chunk of their value is tied to what they can do with their legs, and speed peaks earlier than other skills. However, there’s also data that shows that faster players actually age better than most other player types. Instead of just trying to show you what the aging curves say, though, I figured showing how similar players to Ellsbury actually did might be more appealing.

So, here’s the basic gist of how I went about finding Ellsbury-like players, though I’ll note that the process here is slightly different from the table I used in the ESPN piece, since I have a little more room to explain my thought process and findings here. I went to the leaderboards and set the date range to cover the last 30 years. I set the age filter to cover ages 27 to 29, the same ages as the last three seasons of Ellsbury’s career. To narrow it down to Ellsbury-type players, I used the positional tabs to select only outfielders, and then put a filter in place to cap Isolated Slugging at .180, which gets rid of the power hitters who are not really anything like Ellsbury to begin with. I also put in a minimum of 1,500 plate appearances, so that we only got players who were roughly full time players over those three seasons.

71 different outfielders have met those qualifications over the last 30 years. Of that 71, I wanted to isolate players who had been above average both on offense and on defense, since Ellsbury has contributed value in both aspects of the game and isn’t that comparable to guys who have specialized in one aspect of the game or the other, and had been above average players overall during their age-27 to 29 seasons. So, I filtered those 71 down to players who had accumulated at least +10 WAR over those three years, and had both posted offensive runs above average of 0 or better and defensive runs above average of -10 or better, since defensive metrics aren’t as precise. This narrowed the field down to 17 players, Ellsbury included.

Five of those 17 are still active — Ellsbury, of course, plus Alex Gordon, Michael Bourn, Carl Crawford, and Shane Victorino — and have yet to reach their mid-30s, so they don’t offer us enough information about long term performance trends, so they were also excluded, bringing us down to 12 players who fit the criteria. From there, I also excluded Kirby Puckett and Shane Mack, because both were mostly bat-first players who were rated as average or worse at both baserunning and fielding, so while they squeaked through the filters, neither one is really Ellsbury-like in terms of overall value.

That leaves 10 players, and their performance over their age-27 to age-29 years is listed below.

Name PA BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Rickey Henderson 1788 14% 11% 0.165 0.285 0.387 0.450 0.374 133 28 99 6 17
Jacoby Ellsbury 1691 7% 14% 0.166 0.303 0.356 0.469 0.359 123 19 64 34 16
Ichiro Suzuki 2191 6% 8% 0.111 0.328 0.374 0.440 0.350 118 15 64 22 16
Kenny Lofton 1788 9% 11% 0.150 0.324 0.381 0.474 0.372 118 18 60 31 15
Tim Raines 1733 14% 8% 0.163 0.297 0.395 0.461 0.371 135 15 86 -8 14
Andy Van Slyke 1761 10% 18% 0.180 0.271 0.341 0.451 0.352 126 5 56 18 14
Devon White 1914 8% 20% 0.149 0.253 0.314 0.402 0.322 98 10 7 58 13
Derek Bell 1926 7% 18% 0.165 0.285 0.340 0.450 0.343 111 6 32 23 11
Aaron Rowand 1769 6% 18% 0.170 0.283 0.344 0.453 0.346 105 11 22 29 11
Steve Finley 1688 7% 11% 0.127 0.279 0.331 0.406 0.328 106 6 16 29 10
Marquis Grissom 1850 7% 11% 0.148 0.286 0.337 0.435 0.336 100 7 7 36 10
Average 1,841 9% 13% 0.153 0.289 0.354 0.442 0.349 115 12 45 24 13

I know that table is a little overcrowded with information, but I think it’s worth showing how each player did in at various aspects of the game, and how that compares to Ellsbury’s values during the same point in his career. The average at the bottom does not include Ellsbury’s contributions even though he’s listed in the table for reference.

Anyway, the total averages of those 10 comparable players over their age-27 to age-29 seasons are very similar to what Ellsbury has done over the last three years. Their 9%/13%/.153 BB/K/ISO core numbers are basically a match for Ellsbury’s 7%/14%/.166 marks, though Ellsbury’s numbers are actually a little better because the league strikeout rate is higher now than it was in the past. As a hitter, he posted a .359 wOBA/123 wRC+, compared to .349/115 for the group overall. As a group, they averaged +45 OFF/+25 DEF over those three seasons, while Ellsbury’s at +64/+34. The group averaged +13 WAR, while Ellsbury is at +16 WAR. They’re close, but slightly worse across the board. This is a group of comparables that weren’t quite as good as Ellsbury from age-27 to 29, but had similar skillsets at least.

I assume Ellsbury’s going to land a seven year deal this winter, so for comparison, here’s how these players did from ages 30 to 36, though not all of them stayed in baseball for the full seven years, so in their case its ages 30 to the end of their careers.

Name G PA BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Rickey Henderson 869 3819 18% 11% 0.167 0.287 0.418 0.453 0.393 148 39 253 -10 38
Ichiro Suzuki 1115 5148 6% 10% 0.093 0.332 0.377 0.426 0.348 114 43 136 46 35
Kenny Lofton 940 4260 11% 12% 0.136 0.287 0.368 0.422 0.349 107 17 56 69 26
Tim Raines 834 3651 13% 9% 0.125 0.284 0.376 0.408 0.352 116 21 94 -38 18
Devon White 841 3640 7% 18% 0.163 0.272 0.332 0.435 0.336 100 12 11 48 17
Steve Finley 1041 4474 8% 13% 0.201 0.275 0.338 0.476 0.349 110 4 59 -25 17
Andy Van Slyke 557 2363 10% 15% 0.154 0.280 0.354 0.434 0.350 117 6 48 -8 13
Aaron Rowand 509 1865 5% 22% 0.142 0.253 0.310 0.394 0.309 88 -3 -29 12 4
Marquis Grissom 972 3952 5% 16% 0.149 0.264 0.304 0.413 0.311 84 2 -83 -5 4
Derek Bell 314 1373 10% 21% 0.135 0.241 0.323 0.376 0.311 82 0 -33 -17 0
Average 799 3,455 9% 15% 0.147 0.278 0.350 0.424 0.341 107 14 51 7 17

If you’re looking for mid-career collapses, it’s hard to do better (worse?) than Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell, who basically turned into a pumpkin overnight and was out of baseball by age-33. His offense and defense both vanished, and he became both useless and disruptive when confronted with his own uselessness. That said, Bell is another kind of sketchy comparison who barely snuck through the filters we’d set up; he was a corner outfielder who had up-and-down defensive ratings, so isolating only the 27-29 seasons make him look better than he was for the rest of his career, since those were his only three good years. He also wasn’t all that fast, and only stole 13 bases in his age-29 season, so including him is a little bit of a stretch; I primarily kept him in the sample to avoid accusations of loading up the comp list with favorable selections.

Bell’s not the only guy who fell apart, as Marquis Grissom became a pretty terrible player after age-29, and Aaron Rowand turned into a scrub as well. But, even with those three included, I think it’s worth looking at the average line put up by the entire group.

From 27 to 29, they hit .289/.354/.442, good for a 115 wRC+; in their decline years, they hit .278/.350/.424, good for a 107 wRC+. These are straight averages, not weighted by plate appearances, so Bell counts just as much in these calculations as Henderson does, and we’re not biasing these numbers up by giving more credit to the guys who kept playing. Even with Bell, Rowand, and Grissom as good players gone bad, the overall average for the group barely declined at all at the plate, even though we’re expanding from a three year window filtered for excellence to a seven year window where aging should be kicking in.

We’d expect a lower performance level just from natural regression, since the selection process left us with players who performed at an above average level; it’s a lot easier to go down than up from where we started. We’d also expect a lower performance level from aging, since we’re moving from a player’s peak to his decline years. But, overall, offensive performance at the plate barely changes, with Henderson getting significantly better, and White and Finley getting a little bit better. In terms of wRC+, these players maintained 93% of their 27-to-29 performance, a pretty remarkable figure. If Ellsbury maintained 93% of his 27-to-29 performance, he’d post a 114 wRC+ over the next seven years, a higher mark than he posted in 2013.

That doesn’t mean that these players didn’t get worse, of course. They did, and they got worse in the areas you would expect them to get worse at; speed and defense. As a group, they averaged +4 BSR/+8 DEF per season from 27 to 29, and that went to +2 BSR/+1 DEF from 30 to 36. They got slower and less effective in the field, though again, it’s worth noting that they didn’t lose all of their baserunning and fielding value.

And, like pretty much any other set of players who got older, they played less. From 27 to 29, they averaged 613 PAs per year, and from 30 to 36, it’s 494 PAs per year, essentially a 20% reduction in playing time. But that includes all the zeros put up by guys who didn’t make it to age-36; if you just look at the seasons for which these players actually were still in the game, the average was 592 plate appearances per year. It’s not so much that they all lost 20% of their playing time over the next seven seasons as it is that Bell, Rowand, and Van Slyke performed poorly enough to include nine zero playing time seasons that drags the average way down. You have to account for the risk that Ellsbury could follow a similar path to those three, but we shouldn’t take the PA number as a per-season projection for the next seven years, given that Ellsbury is much less likely to wash out than a few of the inferior comps.

Overall, these 11 Ellsbury-like players averaged +17 WAR over their 30 to 36 seasons; if you exclude Bell from the calculation (which I think one could make a decent case for doing), it goes up to +19 WAR. Just as there are notable players who collapsed, there’s also Henderson (+38 WAR!), Ichiro +(35 WAR), and Lofton (+26 WAR), who were fantastic players over their first seven seasons of their 30s. And remember, in terms of 27-to-29 performance, Ellsbury was in the group with Henderson, Ichiro, and Lofton. These are three best comparisons to Ellsbury’s last three seasons over the last 30 years, and these three aged exceptionally well.

Defense absolutely does peak early and should be expected to decline fairly substantially for any player heading into his 30s. However, history shows that players who are athletic enough to be valuable baserunners and defenders in their twenties are usually good enough athletes to maintain almost all of their offensive value as they get older. For a player like Ellsbury who isn’t just a defensive specialist, that value shouldn’t be expected to decay at the same rate as his defense. He probably won’t continue to be a +10 center fielder, but even if he declines to an average defender in center field, if he maintains a 110 to 115 wRC+, that’s still going to make him a pretty valuable player; there aren’t that many guys in baseball who can play center field and be above average big league hitters.

Depending on how many plate appearances per season you’d project for him, an average decline according to what these 11 comparable players did would leave him as roughly a +3 WAR player for the next seven years. Ellsbury shouldn’t be expected to be a star for the duration of his next contract, but a sustained +3 WAR performance is nothing to sneeze at. Even at just the group’s average of +17 WAR, at $6M per win, that’s $102 million in value. If you bump him up to +20 WAR (basically, omitting Derek Bell as a viable comparsion), you’re at $120 million. If you put more credence on the fact that his recent performance is right line with what Henderson, Lofton, and Ichiro did in those same years, it’s not that hard to talk yourself into +25 WAR, which would equal about $150 million.

There are risks with any player type. Ellsbury is certainly no guarantee, and one serious knee injury could wreck his value in a hurry. At these prices, teams are betting big on areas where some rough assumptions have to be made. But, I think the performance of Ellsbury-like players should at least lend some comfort to teams considering a big contract for him this winter. This player type has historically aged pretty well, and it’s simply not true that they become useless as soon as their speed goes. Ellsbury won’t be an elite defender and baserunner forever, but there’s value in his bat too, and the total package looks to project as a pretty nice piece for the foreseeable future.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Caveman Jones
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Caveman Jones
2 years 6 months ago

Good article Dave. Do you think the Red Sox should resign him at $120M+? I know they have JBJ in the wings and it depends on what they think of him internally, but I think they can make room for both long term. Everyone seems to think he’s gone, but he won’t cost a FA pick, it’s just money, and there aren’t many places you can get that kind of value.

Catoblepas
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Catoblepas
2 years 6 months ago

The thought of an outfield of JBJ-Ellsbury-Victorino makes me drool. If he’d stay for 120mil/7 years, I’d say go for it.

DB GiantsFan
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DB GiantsFan
2 years 6 months ago

Why no derogatory comments here about the Red Sox, but if the Giants signed one of these guys to the same contract all we’d here about is all about the stupid Giants.

The Giants Brain Trust
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The Giants Brain Trust
2 years 6 months ago

You’ll here all about our brilliance when we sign Jake Westbrook for 5 yrs/$100M!

2 RINGZ, BABEEEEE!!!!

Cubbie Blues
Member
2 years 6 months ago

You can’t really take out 2011 because it actually did happen, but it is an extreme outlier. Without that season Ellsbury does not belong in the discussion of the other players in that graph.

ms
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ms
2 years 6 months ago

C’mon Dave. You kept Derek Bell in so that we could all relive “Operation Shutdown” one more time. Thank you.

rustydude
Member
rustydude
2 years 6 months ago

Operation Shutdown doesn’t get near enough play in terms of being an all time great moment in MLB history. In terms of off the field comments or events, it’s gotta rank top 10, ever.

And that 0 WAR after age 30 seems to indicate that Operation Shutdown was eminently successful.

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 6 months ago

It was not a column in the chart, but Derek Bell did have a WIDE lead in PBAR (pajama bottoms above replacement).

nada
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nada
2 years 6 months ago

my question is when, in those years 30-36, did the WAR occur? Oddly worded, but what I’m asking is: how much of the 17 average WAR for Ellsbury-like players was in age 30, 31, 32, and so on to 36.

Darren
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Darren
2 years 6 months ago

Right. And for those players who stopped playing prior to 36, dont you need to include the ‘zeros’ produced in those years, as part of the “Average”.

Steven
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Steven
2 years 6 months ago

Removing Bell and Henderson gives a total WAR (including 0’s) of 17 on average. Broken down on a per year it is:
Age 30-3.5
31-3.6
32-2.4
33-1.9
34-2.1
36-1.8

nada
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nada
2 years 6 months ago

thanks! Too lazy to do the work myself but I appreciate that you did. Is the listed age 36 WAR for 36 or 35, though? Cause one age is missing, either 35 or 36.

Mr Punch
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Mr Punch
2 years 6 months ago

A guy who doesn’t make your list but may actually be a useful comparison is Johnny Damon. (I assume he misses because his defense wasn’t good enough, though I think the stats understate it by a bit.) The point is that he was a fast outfielder with moderate-at-best power and a weak arm, and people kept predicting that he’d lose all value from about age 26 on – but in fact he played and contributed for a long time, and pretty much justified the several contracts that had been derided as over-paying.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio
2 years 6 months ago

Yeah, now that you mention Damon, it’s surprising he wasn’t included.

AC of DC
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AC of DC
2 years 6 months ago

Damon appears on the original list of 71. He did not make the final cut due the WAR requirement (10+), as he posted 8.2 over the particular age-seasons in question, during which time his bat (.327 wOBA, 97 wRC+, 0.5 Off) lagged behind the league average. His year in Oakland (’01) was on the crappy side, and his second year in Boston (’03) was also a tad weak.

Jon L.
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Jon L.
2 years 6 months ago

It looks like Damon was +8.2 WAR from age 27-29, and then amassed another +22.1 WAR from age 30-36.

Which is to say, he was excluded from the group because he wasn’t good enough during those three prime seasons, but then performed well enough over those next seven years to shore up confidence in Ellsbury’s value for anyone who considers Damon a good comp.

Mr Punch
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Mr Punch
2 years 6 months ago

Damon was injured during his second year in Boston, as Ellsbury was in 2012; both ran into things, and neither injury was necessarily a recurring one suggesting decline. If you don’t take Ellsbury’s 2011 power surge seriously (I do, actually), they’re pretty comparable, probably with an edge to Damon.

tz
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tz
2 years 6 months ago

A large portion of the value of young hard-throwing pitchers comes from their plus-plus fastballs. Yet, these power pitchers tend to persist longer in the majors, since they have the margin of error to lose a few MPH and still be effective.

That’s the parallel I see here. The Devon Whites of the world will get more chances to resurrect their career if their hitting suffers, since their speed still carries some value, even when it drops to around league average.

anonynous
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anonynous
2 years 6 months ago

Doesn’t account for survivor bias. These stats are making me thirsty.

Surrealistic Pillow
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Surrealistic Pillow
2 years 6 months ago

Fail.

“These are straight averages, not weighted by plate appearances, so Bell counts just as much in these calculations as Henderson does, and we’re not biasing these numbers up by giving more credit to the guys who kept playing.”

Anon21
Member
Anon21
2 years 6 months ago

Well, it half accounts for the issue, but it doesn’t and can’t account for what Bell, Rowand, and any other player who busted out before age 36 would have done with their hypothetical additional playing time.

nada
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nada
2 years 6 months ago

yeah. Despite the theory that there’s an infinite supply of replacement players, 5 or 10 players every year produce negative WAR, sometimes substantial negative WAR (e.g. Michael Young, negative WAR superstar). It’s possible that had say Rowand played, he would have been worse than 0WAR in value.

Nevertheless, I’m OK with a 0 cutoff, because really those negative WAR players shouldn’t be playing–there’s obviously somebody in the minors or available on waivers or by trade who could muster near replacement level performance. It’s just through stubborn stupidity that GMs or managers stick with them.

Deelron
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Deelron
2 years 6 months ago

It specifically does. Enjoy your drink.

PW
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PW
2 years 6 months ago

Surprised Carl Crawford didn’t make the 27-29 group. Obviously his age 29 season in Boston was underwhelming but the strong age 27 and 28 seasons should have made up for it.

PW
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PW
2 years 6 months ago

Oops, I read good.

Miguel Trucha
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Miguel Trucha
2 years 6 months ago

¿Aún rápida cuando enciendo veintisiete?

Plucky
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Plucky
2 years 6 months ago

Included in these comps are several guys (Henderson, Ichiro, Raines, Bell) who were primarily corner OFs rather than CFs. The positional adjustment from CF to COF means that the bar for hitting ability to generate WAR for these guys is much higher (Tim Raines was around a .295/.385/.440 hitter age 31-37, better than Steamer forecasts 2014 for Ellsbury), and the consequences of losing some speed less severe. If the natural speed/defense decline took Ellsbury to a corner OF position he would get substantially less valuable. None of the comps above moved position, but that is always a concern for CFs into their 30s, even plus defensive ones.

Also, what caused Johnny Damon to get filtered out? Subpar D? Offensively he seems like a very good comp and remained a plus baserunner even when he slid to LF from CF.

waltjocketty
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waltjocketty
2 years 6 months ago

This sample of nine players is way too small to be predictive for Ellsbury. If you want to predict Ellsbury’s performance based off of 9 players past performance, you need massive error bars. I’m not saying Ellsbury won’t be good, but using that small of a sample to try to predict anything about Ellsbury is almost worthless.

siddf
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siddf
2 years 6 months ago

I disagree with this. If it’s the entire universe of predictors, then you use it, with caveats.

And it’s not like Cameron’s trying to use it to develop a quantitative, predictive model. Then, you would be correct.

Analysts often have to gain insight using limited data. This is one way to do that. Key is not to make it out to be something it’s not.

Greg Luzinski
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Greg Luzinski
2 years 6 months ago

Dave, will there be a follow up on “The Speedy Decline of Slow Outfielders”?

A different Mike
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A different Mike
2 years 6 months ago

I don’t think you are putting enough emphasis on BB% and K% here, Dave. If you do, Ellsbury is bunched up with Bell, Finley, Grissom, and Rowand – which is a much less stellar group than one that includes Raines, Henderson, Lofton,and even Ichiro.

nada
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nada
2 years 6 months ago

BB% and K% are not era-adjusted, however, and Ellsbury lives in a time of low walks, many strikeouts. When you look at his population-adjusted stats like wRC+, he clearly seems to belong on the upper end of the group, I think.

pft
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pft
2 years 6 months ago

Its pretty much a crap shoot what you will get out of any player for the next 6 years. I think Ellsbury has a lot of upside. I don’t think his 2011 season was a fluke, but the shoulder injury in 2012 hurt his power in 2013. The question is can he get his shoulder to 100% in the coming years. If so, he could be a steal since most of his value is being calculated with a heavier weighting to defense and speed and not so much power.

I also think his injuries have been pretty flukish as opposed to Drewish. If he can stay away from collisions for a few years and put together consecutive healthy seasons he could be more productive.

Too bad the Yankees have gone into cheapmode, Ellsbury would be a great fit for that stadium.

Spencer D
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Spencer D
2 years 6 months ago

They haven’t gone into Cheap mode. They simply can’t make long term commitments with Arod, Teixiera, Sabathia, and Cano probably accounting for ~100 million dollars of payroll. I hate the Yankees. But come 2016, 2017, a la Cistulli: “Dave Cameron Analyzes All Yankee Excess in Free Agency”

Dr.Rockzo
Member
Dr.Rockzo
2 years 6 months ago

The 2011 can’t be excluded, but it is such a massive outlier exclusively in one category. His career high Iso outside of 2011 was 155 in about 130PAS his first year. That single outlier season, as well as the amount of time he has missed due to injury, promote him into a tier of player that significantly outstrip his overall career numbers.

The three year period being measured has that 2011 as around 43% of the total sample. Not only is that season a massive outlier form his career, it is also being significantly overweighted with regard to the rest of the period being measured.

These are three best comparisons to Ellsbury’s last three seasons over the last 30 years, and these three aged exceptionally well.

I think this is an incredibly inaccurate statement given the effect the 2011 season had. Ellsbury had the second least PAs during the sample years. Rowand and Rickey are theonly two had had anything close to such a peak abberation year. rowand had one on each side, while Rickey’s was on the “decline” side. Neither of Rowands were as “high” as Ellsbury’s either.

I can’t tell you a better way to handle it and I readily admit you are better at this than I am, but this just feels like an entirely false comparison with the top cohort.

Balthazar
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Balthazar
2 years 6 months ago

Agreed. However, while that outlier changes the tier in which Ellsbury is seen it doesn’t really change the predictive profile going forward (such as that is on a limited sample) from this study. I would see Ellsbury as more an Aaron Rowand than an Ichiro, easily.

‘An Aaron Rowand type’ putting up 115 wRC+ with +D in CF has real utility. At $20M-for-6+? No, and expect the back end to be ugly. ‘An Aaron Rowand type’ slowing down and moved to a corner OF position? Unpretty, and in fact easily replaceable out of the minors most years; definitely NOT franchise-contract material.

My takeaway from the comparisons is that the next three years of Jacoby Ellsbury have reasonable prospect to be a valuable commodity. About a Michael Bourn contract type commodity. It is a function of the absurdity that is the free agent market in our times that we are talking about Ellsbury at $120M over LONG. Whoever bites that apple is going to be looking for surgery to cut the chunk out of their throat by the back end as I see it. I just hope it’s not MY org (and doesn’t look to be).

Nick
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Nick
2 years 6 months ago

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/michael-bourns-market-value/

Hmm…You list Bourn as a comp for Ellsbury yet you also wrote this article last year saying how you wouldn’t give Bourn (both hit FA at the same age) more than 3 years and $50-60 million. Now you wanna break the bank for Ellsbury?

Joel
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Joel
2 years 6 months ago

I wonder if an offense/defense breakdown matters here; players like Michael Bourn and Devon White carried much or most of their value with their glove. Most of the other guys that fit your criteria were generally good defensively, but contributed mostly with their bats and baserunning.

Northhampstonstead
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Northhampstonstead
2 years 6 months ago

Holy crap, Rickey is good at baseball. I’m impressed at how close Ichiro was over this span.

Balthazar
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Balthazar
2 years 6 months ago

Ichiro was a very, very good and exciting player over those years, and it was a pleasure to watch him play. It isn’t until one compares him to the best players of his generation and all time that one really appreciates just _how_ good he was.

And Henderson continued to rack up value because he added power to offset his decline in contact. Rickey remained a very good basestealer and runner to the end of his career too. And of course he _always_ walked. As the chart shows, Rickey got bad ugle in the field by the end, though.

Dead Opera Star
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Dead Opera Star
2 years 6 months ago

I was sort of expecting Mike Cameron’s name to be found somewhere in the tables. Which part of the criteria for your Ellsbury comps eliminated him?

Mike Cameron (Dave's Twin)
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Mike Cameron (Dave's Twin)
2 years 6 months ago

Mike hit for more power so the ISO cap removed him.

Kirk Cameron
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Kirk Cameron
2 years 6 months ago

Hi guys! We’re gonna talk about Jesus at the family reunion, mmmk?

Roger
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Roger
2 years 6 months ago

You specifically exclude one-dimensional speedy OFers, which are precisely the ones that are most likely to decline early. It’s the speedy slap hitters that lose their speed early and have nothing else to offer when they’re no longer among the fastest guys on the field. Having a combination of power, speed, and hit tool is a recipe for longevity, as fading from great speed to average speed puts the player on par with sluggers who are years younger. They do lose a good chunk of their value, but they are so valuable to begin with that they can remain valuable. Ellsbury, when healthy, is that multidimensional player, but the opening paragraph strikes me as a misunderstanding of the belief and how Ellsbury fits within it.

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
2 years 6 months ago

Aaron Rowand was a speedy outfielder? Really?

James
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James
2 years 6 months ago

Derek “Help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” Bell

chillsports
Member
chillsports
2 years 6 months ago

If you sort from 1985 to the present and select outfielders, then eliminate all outfielders that did not average a sb every 15 ab’s, then match age 29 and minus seasons to age 30 and over, you are left with the following players and number of productive (war within 20%) years after age 29:
Vince Coleman: 0 years
Kenny Lofton: 0 years
Juan Pierre: 3 years (with a two dead year gap)
Carl Crawford: 0 years (so far)
Ichiro: 7 years
Scott Podsednik: 2 years (with a dead year gap)
Tom Goodwin: hard to say, as he pretty much was never good at all, say 1.5
Chone Figgins: 2 years in 5 attempts
Gary Pettis: 2 years
Rajai Davis: 3 years (and counting)
Brian Hunter: 0 years
Dave Roberts: 7 years (he had zero pre age 29 years)

This would lead to the conclusion that giving a 7 year contract to an age 29 guy whose primary weapon is speed is only smart if he is Asian and has preternatural contact skills. As you lower the sb/ab ratio, more and more reasonably productive players filter in, masking that fact that guys who run dissolve to tissue after their age 29 season harder to discern.
It would be more fun to lump Ellsbury with Johnny Damon, Erik Davis, Tim Raines and Bobby Abreu skill sets and pay for him, and you can certainly make the argument that his high ab/sb ratio should not throw him out of the long lived outfielder club, but really only Ichiro has ever run as frequently as Ellsbury and had a long career in the last 38 years.
As Mark Twain said, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. The answer to the Ellsbury’s future conundrum depends on which indicators you think give a clue as to his future performance. It is fair to conclude, I think, that whatever he does after age 29, it is very likely that he will not average a sb every 15 attempts and also play to age 37. Absent stand out speed and the extra hits on balls in play it generates, will his performance otherwise worth the contract he will get? I think you would have to be delusional to think so. I also think some GM will be deluded.

Eric Feczko
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Eric Feczko
2 years 6 months ago

Nice piece David.

My only critique is that simply looking at the averages is not nearly as interesting to your question as is looking at the paired-variance.

If I understand correctly, the question you are asking is, “What can we expect in terms of performance from Ellsbury relative to his 27-29 years?”. You are testing this question by asking, “Historically, how have players similar to Ellsbury performed relative to their previous years?”

I think this is a great approach. However, if you are interested in predicting relative performance, you should really calculate the differences in performance from the 27-29 years relative to the 30-36 years per subject, and examine the average of that relative difference in the context of Ellsbury’s stats.

The reason I think this is interesting, is because you have hit upon two distinct groups of players; those whose contributions have stayed relatively consistent, and those who have fallen off a cliff. Using WAR per season as a crude example, one can see that Rickey Henderson (17/3 WAR; 38/7 WAR), Ichiro Suzuki (16/3 WAR; 35/7 WAR), Kenny Lofton (16/3 WAR; 26/7 WAR) and Steve Finley (10/3 WAR; 17/7 WAR) have all maintained performance into the following seven seasons. The largest dropoff was about 1.3 WAR/season for Kenny Lofton, while Ichiro and Rickey basically maintained productivity throughout the contract ( less than a 0.5 WAR/season loss). On the other hand, the remainder showed significant dropoff in value over the remaining seasons; the smallest dropoff in the other seven individuals was approximately 1.9 WAR/season (for Tim Raines), whereas the largest dropoff was 3.6 WAR/season (for Derek Bell).

I think there’s a good argument to make that Ellsbury is more comparable to Ichiro, Rickey, and Kenny than to the others. However, the lack of a central tendency to the dropoff is stark. It appears that the players either played relatively consistently, or they fell off a cliff over the next seven seasons.

Although this does include some survivability bias, I do not think this survivability bias is a problem here, because we expect Ellsbury to sign a seven year deal, and therefore are evaluating the entirety of those years through such a lens.

That being said, this distribution is not a bell curve, it is inverted. Ellsbury may be more likely to be a +4 WAR player over the next seven seasons, or a +2 WAR player over the next seven seasons, rather than a +3 WAR player over the next seven seasons. In other words, 7/120 may turn out to be a steal (120/28 WAR is about 4 mil per WAR), or it may turn out to be a bad contract (120/14 WAR is about 8 mil per WAR) in hindsight, but is less likely to be the actual value Ellsbury may contribute.

Jarrod
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Jarrod
2 years 5 months ago

And then the Yanks sign him for 7/$153 guaranteed. Clearly Cashman is reading your posts Dave!! Please be careful with your advice!

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