Ian Kinsler as Shane Victorino

Today, there’s a lot of talk about Ian Kinsler‘s decline. He just finished his age-31 season, and his power seems to be disappearing before our eyes. His ISOs over the last three years: .223/.166./.136, and that’s with playing half his games in Texas. There are signs that he might be slowing down too, as he was just 15 for 26 in stolen base attempts, not anywhere near his career 84% success rate heading into 2013.

Kinsler was still a reasonably productive player last year, but as a right-handed hitter who does most of his damage against lefties, a continuation of these trends might lead to Kinsler ending up as a very expensive platoon player in a couple of years. If the power starting to erode, or was a product of Texas’ ballpark, then Kinsler’s future value is going to depend on his baserunning and defense, both things we expect to evaporate as a player gets into his thirties.

Still, I can’t help but feel like I heard all these same arguments last year when the Red Sox signed Shane Victorino to a three year, $39 million contract. Because Victorino’s 2012 and Kinsler’s 2013 look pretty darn similar.

Shane Victorino 666 8% 12% 0.128 0.278 0.255 0.321 0.383 0.310 93 7.0 1.7 4.4 2.9
Ian Kinsler 614 8% 10% 0.136 0.288 0.277 0.344 0.413 0.334 105 -0.5 2.7 -0.3 2.5

For both players, we’re looking at their age-31 season. Both players experienced significant power drops from their career norms, and were moderate walk/high contact gap hitters who did most of their damage against left-handed pitching. Victorino had a little more baserunning and defensive value, while Kinsler was a slightly better hitter. The overall package was about the same, though, as 2012 Victorino was worth +2.6 WAR per 600 PAs, while 2013 Kinsler was worth +2.4 WAR per 600 PAs.

This isn’t the only year in which the two players are similar. Just for fun, here are their career totals, side by side:

Shane Victorino 4,827 7% 12% 0.155 0.299 0.277 0.342 0.432 0.340 106 42.0 77.8 59.9 30.4
Ian Kinsler 4,791 10% 12% 0.182 0.281 0.273 0.349 0.454 0.351 111 39.8 104.9 18.2 29.1

Kinsler has walked a little more and had a little more power, but the BABIP difference — thanks to Kinsler’s propensity for hitting a ton of infield flies, he regularly runs below average rates of hits on balls in play — cancels a lot of that out. Overall, Kinsler has been a slightly better hitter, even after adjusting for their home ballparks, while Victorino has provided a little more value with the glove. The skillsets are pretty similar, though. Victorino has been essentially the outfield version of Kinsler for the better part of the last decade.

Victorino, of course, had a monster season for the Red Sox in 2013, essentially squashing all the doubts about whether his 2012 performance was a sign that his skills were eroding. He posted a 119 wRC+, the second best of his career, in part because his power rebounded close to his career average. Even after moving down the defensive spectrum, his defensive value was as high as it had ever been, though there are certainly some error bars around that estimate. In retrospect, Victorino should have looked like a +3 WAR player coming off a +3 WAR season, and a lot of the hand-wringing over giving him 3/39 seems to have focused too much on the trees and not enough on the forest as a whole.

That Victorino had a monster season at age-32 doesn’t ensure that Kinsler will do the same. N of 1 doesn’t prove anything. However, I do think that players that project as roughly average hitters who add value with their gloves and legs are probably written off prematurely after a season in which their offensive levels show some decline.

Jimmy Rollins, for instance, posted a wRC+ of 85 and 88 at ages 30/31, as his power trended downwards from his peak, but then rebounded to post wRC+ marks of 103/100 at ages 32/33, and when combined with everything else he did, he was one of the league’s best shortstops. Alex Rios fell apart at age-30, then bounced back to have the best offensive season of his career at age-31. Randy Winn was excellent with this same offensive skillset through age-31, then fell apart at age-32, but rebounded to become a productive player again at 33/34.

Or, perhaps if we want to hit a little closer to Texas’ home, there’s the Michael Young example. Same basic set of skills at the plate, though his power took a big step the wrong way as he got to age-30. From 29-31, he was essentially an average hitter who had lost most of the thump that he displayed in his prime, and was losing his defensive skills as well. His age-31 season included a 95 wRC+, his first year being a below average hitter since his age-25 season. Then, at age-32, Young posted a 128 wRC+, the second best mark of his career. Average again at age-33, then a 127 wRC+ at age-34. Young was a better player from 32 to 34 than he was from 29 to 31.

Guys like this, who hang around league average production, seem to be judged fairly harshly as soon as they have one below average year with the bat. Since they weren’t ever great hitters to begin with, and their value comes through accumulating singles and doubles and avoiding strikeouts, we don’t really view them as offensive threats. When the numbers go south, even a bit, it seems like the assumption is that they’re headed for some kind of cliff of impending doom.

I think there are too many examples that run counter to that idea to take it at face value. It’s easy to look at Kinsler and see a mediocre hitter who is getting worse. It was easy to look at Victorino and see the same thing a year ago. Or any other number of similar players over the past few years. I don’t see a lot of evidence that these early 30s declines actually do spell impending doom for these players, though. Good contact/gap power guys don’t just stop hitting after they turn 30. Defensive and baserunning value might peak early, but it doesn’t evaporate after a guy leaves his twenties.

Ian Kinsler has been an above average player every year since 2007, and at his peak, he was one of the best players in baseball. The Tigers made this deal to get rid of Prince Fielder‘s contract, but getting Ian Kinsler isn’t a bad thing for the Tigers either. Let’s not be so quick to write off players of this ilk after the first sign decline.

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However, according to Dave, we should be very quick to write off players of Fielder’s bulk after the first sign of decline.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist. I understand why Dave largely says that, but I’d feel much more confident that Fielder’s career was all downhill from here if he was a couple years older and not going to a ballpark that should suit him better.)