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.