Three Young Old Fogies

People use the description “old player skills” in various ways, from a particular plate approach to a lack of defense to a player’s just being (or looking) “un-athletic.” The term was originally coined by Bill James as a description of hitters who display skills that in their early-to-mid twenties that typically manifest later in hitters: increased power and walk rates along with lower speed and a decreased ability to hit for average. While hitters with good power and high walk rates are obviously valuable, the notion is that younger hitters who rely on those skills while having less of the others will have an earlier overall offensive peak and decline than usual. Which hitters who displayed “old player skills” in 2010?

In his essay, “Why Was Kevin Maas a Bust,” in Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver (what ever happened to that guy?) found that players who displayed some “old player skills” early on tended as a group to peak and decline earlier than the average player. Silver’s group consisted of players who, in their age 25 seasons, displayed a walk rate in the top 25 percent among qualifiers, a speed score in the lowest 25 percent, isolated power in the top half, and a batting average in the lowest half. I used the same basic method to find players who did so in 2010, but since I was working with just one year (Silver looked over more than 50 years), I looked for any players under 27. There were just three, which is actually a high number compared to other recent seasons.

Prince Fielder (born May 5, 1984), hit .261/.401/471 (137 wRC+), .209 ISO, 16.0% walk rate, 1.7 Speed Score.

This name isn’t too much of a surprise, but while there may very well be evidence that “big-boned” hitters age less gracefully than others, and many players who have “old player skills” may be bigger than average, being big by itself isn’t enough to make a young player an “old player skills” candidate. This mistake is often made — for example, Travis Hafner‘s sudden decline is sometimes attributed to old player skills (rather than a shoulder injury). But while Hafner in his prime was a big, plodding player with a high walk rate and a lot of power, when he first became a full-timer and became a regular, he also regularly posted a batting average over .300 (remember, this isn’t about the value of batting average, but about what it and other components tell us about a player’s possible aging profile).

But back to Fielder: while 2010 was a bit of a down year for him (even in a deflated league-wide run environment), he still had a very good season at the plate. It may very well be the case that his physical attributes play a large role in his reliance on old player skills, as his batting average was the lowest of his career while his walk rate was the highest. More disturbing for Fielder’s future, however, is that his isolated power was the lowest of his career since he became a full-timer (although not enough to take him out of the “old player skill” range). So while Fielder is only going to be 28 when he reaches free agency after the 2011 season, and is still one of the better hitters in baseball, there are definite signs that teams should be cautious regarding how much performance they pay for going forward.

Brian McCann (born February 2, 1984), hit .269/.375/.453 (124 wRC+), .164 ISO, 13.1% walk rate, 2.4 Speed Score.

People seem to be appreciating Brian McCann again despite him never coming close to repeating his .333/.388/572 (.402 wOBA) line of 2006. McCann’s future production as he ages not only murky due to possible old player skills, but also the wear-and-tear of being a catcher (which also conflicts with the “catcher offense develops later” theory held by some). While McCann’s batting average has been in the .270 range before, in 2010 it was accompanied by the highest walk rate of his career by far. Again, this doesn’t mean that his 2010 hitting wasn’t valuable, but it makes one wonder if he hasn’t started a premature decline.

Ike Davis (born March 22, 1987), hit .264/.351/.440 (115 wRC+), .176 ISO, 12.0% walk rate, 2.8 Speed Score.

Admittedly I didn’t follow Davis’s rookie season all that closely, but I was surprised to see him on this list. He is a bit “young” for old player identification. He’s young enough that his batting average is still likely to be on the upswing, so he could play himself out of his category. Even if he doesn’t, the decline still isn’t likely to start quite so early, and he’s still going to be inexpensive for the next few years for the Mets, so if he does decline early, the Mets won’t be stuck with an onerous contract. In the meantime, they have a cheap, decent first baseman.

Keep in mind that this is not a lock for the “destiny” of these three players. For years, Adam Dunn‘s imminent collapse was been predicted on the basis of his extreme “old player skills,” but he’s now 31 and it hasn’t happened yet (and if he does, it won’t make him different than most players in their thirties, no matter how their skills profile). However, we shouldn’t be guided by exceptional cases, either. Which of these players will fit or break the mold over the next few seasons? I have no idea, but it will be interesting to watch.

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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.

21 Responses to “Three Young Old Fogies”

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  1. B N says:

    I use “old player skills” to refer to how Flava Flave can still make women fight over him. But that’s just me. ;)

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  2. BTC says:

    Hugh Hefner. Now THAT dude has some major old person skills. Prince Fielder has nothing on him.

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  3. Danmay says:

    @ B N & BTC

    I think you are both heading in the wrong direction. You’ve got to be looking for the young bachelors that are using grandpa dating skills. When you rely on grandpa dating skills at a young age your relationship skills tend to decline at a younger age as you aren’t able to compensate with supplementary skills.

    What are grandpa dating skills anyway?

    Great topic Devil Fingers. From a fantasy perspective I’m very afraid of Fielder being able to rebound. I’m also going to be keeping a very close tab on Cust up in Seattle. I’m betting that the A’s don’t see him adjusting to older age very well.

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    • BTC says:

      You may be right.

      I’m going to take my wife to K&W for the early bird special tomorrow. That’ll get her in the mood.

      …workin’ on my old player skills!

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  4. Paul says:

    Something that separates Davis from most players with “old-player” skills… his fielding around the bag is quite fancy – it’s what made him a 3.4 WAR player last year.

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  5. ofMontreal says:

    I kind of think Ike Davis gets a mulligan here. He has ‘seriously green rookie’ skills that only look like the old man set. Going forward I doubt it continues as he’s pretty darn spry.

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    • Jon says:

      Agreed. Although I don’t remember him being the fastest runner, I think his average has room to go up. But he also put up a .321 BABIP last year, so maybe he was speedier than it looked?

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      • Franco says:

        Just going on what I’ve seen as a Mets fan, he’s got below average speed. I expect him to K less and hit more homers this year. Ike got rushed through AA and AAA and it wasn’t until September that he learned not to swing at breaking balls a foot out of the strike zone. He’s still got to figure out to hit the ones in the zone.

        I don’t see him hitting 300 unless he turns into a big home run guy, but I don’t expect him to have a low average either. 270-280ish I’d bet.

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      • psiogen says:

        Is BABIP really that connected to speed?

        Sure, a lot of high-career-BABIP guys are fast, but a lot of them are not-so-fast guys who just hit the ball really hard (Wade Boggs, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, David Wright, John Kruk, Manny Ramirez, Mo Vaughn, Edgar Martinez, Babe Ruth) presumably with a line-drive-oriented swing.

        In any case, Ike has had high BABIPs at every stop so far as a pro. It’ll be interesting to see how he does going forward.

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  6. shthar says:

    I think the ‘old players skills’ rap was just something thought up so they could give guys like Felix Pie another chance.

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  7. Bronnt says:

    If McCann is on any kind of premature decline, it’s more about eye problems than any physical problem. He posted a career high BB% and a career high K% last year, so it’s hard to make any kind of real judgment based on that, especially since his eyes have been a problem the past two years.

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  8. Scott says:

    McCann had vision issues this year. From June on his average was over .270 from July on it was .277. Next year will be telling, but I think being a catcher comes more into play than speed skills, considering most catchers have about as much speed as a tortoise on heroin. For catchers with 300 PA he falls in the middle of the pack tied with Mauer, a few ticks behind Molina, Torrealba, Posey and Montero. The more scary thing for him is the rise in K% and decrease in BABIP, though he was underperforming his expected BABIP by a touch.

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  9. Kahluin says:

    Ike definitely gets a mulligan.

    His speed is unlikely to improve unless for some reason the lack of speed is related to his conditioning, which didn’t seem to be the case.

    As Franco said, he was rushed through AA and AAA ball and he just needs more seasoning that may help him to cut down on the strikeouts and increase his walks and batting average.

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  10. Tomas says:

    One season’s data is not very useful.

    Over the past three years Fielder has a very solid average (.279) along with an impressive .248 ISO and not-terrible 2.5 Spd score. He has always been considered a strong hitter for average, so I don’t think one down year really foretells an imminent decline…

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  11. joey M says:

    What ever happened to Nate Silver? He took his baseball statistic skills and applied them to politics. He is now the New York Times go-to guy for political polling analysis.

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  12. Andrew says:

    This is a foolish article, I think — essentially downgrading the value of young players by saying they’re likely to decline earlier BECAUSE they have plate discipline makes NO sense to me. None of those three guys posted terrible batting averages, and the fact that their walk rates rose or were high can only be positive signs. It’s good to learn plate discipline young. What a bizarre article.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I’m sorry that you think that’s what this post is intended to do. I’d recommend reading Nate Silver’s essay (available in the Google Books free preview) for more informaiton.

      Thanks for reading.

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  13. deadpool says:

    While I’m not as ready to chalk up McCann’s low average to eye problems last year as some, his inclusion on this list still seems off to me.

    It could be the use of iso, I can think of a lot more guys that I’d define as old player skilled by SLG, and they fit the prototype much better. I think if Mac or Ike were to lose HR power 2b are a big enough part of they’re game to were they’d mantain a good bit of value. Basically Mac might only hit 12HR, but would likely see a rise in 2b since he hits his HR via the line drive.

    But maybe it’s just an unwillingness to say a guy who’s never has and never will hit 30 bug flies relies on his power.

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