The Phillies are reportedly working hard to acquire Michael Young from the Texas Rangers to fill their hole at third base, and because of the Rangers surplus of talent around the infield, they’re willing to pick up a large part of his salary in order to make the trade happen. Beyond just the logjam, however, they’re willing to move Young because he was the least productive player in baseball in 2012 , posting -1.4 WAR in 651 plate appearances.
Of course, his one down year came after a nine year stretch as one of the game’s most consistent players, as he put up a WAR of between +2.5 and +4.5 each season from 2003 to 2011. The Phillies seem to be betting on Young’s track record of success, understanding that one bad season doesn’t mean a player is necessarily finished. In fact, the recent track record of players who had similarly lousy seasons to Young in their mid-30s show that there’s some real chance for a rebound in 2013.
From 2002 to 2011, 24 Major League players got at least 400 plate appearances and posted a negative WAR in a season in which they were between 34 and 36 years old. Seven of those 24 — 29% — actually rebounded to be above average players in the following season.
Carlos Lee (2011): +3.2 WAR
Lee’s WAR is inflated by an outlier defensive season that included 10 outfield assists, but even his offense rebounded to where it was prior to his collapse the year before, posting a 115 wRC+ in 2011 than was essentially equal to his 2009 mark. Even without the positive defensive rating, Lee was still a useful hitter, and shows that offensive downtowns are reversible.
Ken Griffey Jr (2007): +3.1 WAR
Unlike most of the others, Griffey actually hit pretty well during his miserable season, but brutal defense in center field nuked his value. His defense was still atrocious in his rebound season, but his offense jumped back to elite levels, as he increased his wRC+ from 118 to 142, his best mark since his final season in Seattle.
Ray Durham (2008): +2.9 WAR
Durham’s season might be the most encouraging to Young, in that he was also a high contact, gap power infielder who saw his offensive skills seemingly disappear over night. At age 34, Durham was excellent, posting a 125 wRC+ by hitting a career high 26 home runs. At age 35, Durham was horrible, as his wRC+ fell to 62. Then, at age 36, he was terrific again, posting a 118 wRC+. Durham just had a one year hiatus from being a good hitter, then went right back to previously established norms.
Vinny Castilla (2003): +2.9 WAR
Like Durham and Lee, Castilla’s offense disappeared for one year, then reverted right back to where it was prior to his miserable season. Offensively, Castilla was the worst player on this list, as he posted a wRC+ of 58, a total that looks like a slump even for Rey Ordonez. However, his 2003 wRC+ of 96 was better than the one he posted in 2001, and then he got even better (105 wRC+, +3.3 WAR) than the next year.
J.T. Snow (2003): +2.7 WAR
Snow was actually pretty lousy for a two year stretch at age 33/34 (95 wRC+ combined), then bounced back in a huge way (119 wRC+) at age 35 and had the best season of his career (152 wRC+) at age 36. Despite the negative connotation of a late career offensive surge from a player in San Francisco, Snow’s improvement was mostly about eliminating strikeouts in favor of more singles. He only hit eight home runs in his rebound season, but the improved contact skills allowed him to be a well above average hitter.
Todd Helton (2011): +2.4 WAR
Young’s decline in 2012 was driven by a significant drop in power, and Helton’s 2011 season should give him some hope that it has a chance to return. After racking up just 27 extra base hits while playing half of his games in Colorado, Helton had 41 in his rebound season, and his wRC+ went from 88 to 121. So, take heart, Phillies fans – power does occasionally come back.
Scott Hatteberg (2005): +2.4 WAR
With Hatteberg, it wasn’t just one thing. Every part of his game regressed in 2004, with his walk rate falling, his strikeout rate going up, and his power disappearing all at the same time. Then, in 2005, it all reversed right back to prior levels, with Hatteberg resuming his career as an above average hitter. In fact, his age 36 and 37 seasons were the two best of his career by wRC+.
Of course, these seven represent slightly less than one third of the total pool of players who were below replacement level in their mid-30s as full-time players. Five of the 24 didn’t even play the following season, and nine others were useless again in the following campaign. The average WAR of the 19 who stuck around for a followup season was +1.1 WAR, so Young shouldn’t be seen as any kind of sure thing for the Phillies. But, at the same time, history shows that there is some potential for Young to rebound and be a productive player in 2013. That he had one bad year does not mean that he is definitively done as a productive player.