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Comparison of two players at the same position:

Player A hit .239/.340/.442 with 25 home runs for a .346 wOBA while playing +10 defense.

Player B hit .250/.342/.452 with 24 home runs for a .346 wOBA while playing +9.5 defense.

Quite similar. They walk almost equally as often (12.3% for A, 11.9% for B), neither has a good average, although that hardly matters, of course. They have similar power. If you didn’t know that they played good defense, you’d be tempted to say that they had “old player skills,” just from the three slash.

I won’t pretend this is a big surprise: both players are Mike Cameron. Player A is the 29-year-old Cameron of 2002, and Player B is the 36-year-old Mike Cameron of 2009. Mike Cameron has been good, there’s no doubt about that, so I won’t go on about it. It’s his aging — or, more precisely, his seeming lack thereof — that is so striking. A graph of Cameron’s seasonal wOBAs is representative:

That is remarkably stable since 1999. Many of his other graphs have a similar shape.

Cameron’s UZR varies more year-to-year than his offensive stats, but that’s the nature of defensive metrics in general. And his truly down years according to UZR are in his injury-shortened 2005 with the Mets and his two seasons in San Diego. It’s also worth nothing that while Cameron has often been called “injury prone,” starting in 1998 he’s played 140+ games every season except 2005 and 2008.

One might be tempted to say that “you know what you’re going to get with Mike Cameron” after all these years: low batting average, good power, good walks, many strikeouts, 20+ homers, good defense in center field, and until 2009, a decent number of steals. But we aren’t talking about a player’s 25-32 seasons; in Cameron’s case, we’re talking about a period that’s almost completely made up of his thirties, when most players are declining. Looking at Cameron’s numbers, the only real change to be seen in recent years is that he attempts fewer stolen bases, and that is a very recent development (2009).

I don’t think it really means anything, to be honest. I’m just amazed that Mike Cameron has been able to go out every year and put up four-plus win seasons, one after the other (with a few exceptions) in the part of his career when many would be slowly dropping out of baseball. Of course, players being productive in their thirties and even forties isn’t unheard of, but many of them were great players to begin with, so their decline phases could still be very great. Of course, not everyone ages the same. Some players were more productive in their thirties — Honus Wagner comes to mind. But again, while Cameron is a good player, no one would put him on Wanger’s level. Like Wagner and other productive “old” players, Cameron’s athleticism is well-renowned, and that certainly makes a difference.

But Cameron is an exception, not the rule. We shouldn’t take his singular case as a “refutation” of what we know about player aging. CHONE expects a pretty big offensive drop-off to a .317 wOBA, while ZiPS sees more of the same, projecting another .346 for Cameron in 2010. But projection systems (rightly) work off of general rules. Who knows? So far, though, Mike Cameron’s play through his thirties brings to mind the following (incredibly nerdy) lines from the first chapter of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring:

Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved, but unchanged would have been nearer the mark.