Trouble With the Aging Curve

Ever since I became enamored by the baseball statistical community, I’ve tried to gather as much information as I could. I registered on several websites dedicated to the analysis of baseball statistics such as baseballprospectus.com or FanGraphs.com or HardballTimes.com. I read every book, article I could get my hands on and even tried my hand at producing my own research and analysis in order to achieve two goals in my life: 1. Publish my research and become a savvy baseball analytical mind; and 2. Work within a baseball organization.

My first basic analysis came in the form of three year projections in order to try my hand at fantasy baseball. Personally, I’m proud to say that my first dip within the analytical waters where fruitful as my projections helped me win my league 3 times out of 5 attempts[1]. But, after many years keeping my projections and questions to myself; I’ve finally felt compelled to start more serious research and publish my questions and results online to share with people interested in these topics. So, without further ado, I give you my first serious publication.

***

Many readers will often find that writers, commentators and analysts highly value a player before they reach their age 30 season. But, once they pass this mark, players will begin to gradually decline; their production will falter, they’re prone to getting injured more than once within the same season, their speed will begin to abandon them. In other words, the shine begins to disappear and is replaced by a shelled version of a player we, the fans, and managers value. Furthermore, I’ve often read in many articles that players even peak at the age of 27 – this being the season where a player will give his (all-time) best performance before beginning that slow decline into retirement.

Now, I have two problems with this:

  1. What stats determine that a player’s best season is his age 27 season?
  2. Does this peak age season vary for every position or are all players subjected to the same aging curve?

To answer the first question, I used player statistics starting from 1960 up to 2013 and looked specifically at power numbers – slugging percentage, isolated power and on-base plus slugging[2]. I then calculated each player’s age in accordance with their birthday and how old they would be by June 30th and took this to be their age-season. Once I had this, I began running histograms in order to determine the lowest performance, highest performance, mean and first and third percentiles.

For this analysis, I only used the data for players who were between 20 and 35 years of aged during any given season. What I found, starting with SLG, was that players – power-wise – don’t reach their peak at 27 but after their 30s. A player’s SLG increases gradually as he gets older until he reaches his age 31-32 season. A player will have a mean SLG of 0.437 by age 27, while, during his age-32 season, the mean SLG will be 0.447 – ten percentile points higher or an increase of 2.3%.

So, as we can see, SLG-wise, a player will show a better performance past his 30th birthday. But maybe I am biased. Maybe if I checked ISO, we will find different results.

What I found were very similar results. A player’s isolated power, again, on the mean, didn’t peak at age 27. The ISO was 0.159. And, the ISO didn’t peak during the age-32 season but a year earlier during the age 31 season. During this season, ISO was 0.167 while the next season it began to decline at 0.165. ISO increases by 5.0% during those five years.

Finally, I decided to take a look at OPS to see if I could find a similar pattern. Again, players mean OPS peaks during their age 32 season, going from 0.784 at their age 27 season to 0.801 by the time they’re 32. It’s not much of an increase (2.2%) but it’s something.

What I can determine, then, is that a player’s power begins to develop once he hits 27 years of age and will gradually increase right up to when he turns 32. But, after this, his power performance will begin to decline, though not by much.

Another thing that I concluded from looking at these three histograms is that, even though there are gradual increases every season.  Player performance – power-wise – will be fairly consistent from one season to the next. Save for the early seasons (21-25 when a player is still developing), there are no surprising jumps in power[3] from one age to the next. Therefore, though we might prefer younger players for cost control reasons, when we need power production, we can’t fully disregard an older player’s power performance. Chances are they will still produce the same.

***

Having checked how power changes as a player ages, I come to my second question: Does the aging curve differ across positions? Well in football – or soccer for Americans – we have four major positions: striker, midfielder, defense and goalkeeper. Through statistical analysis by Arsenal F.C.’s data department, Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s manager, found that a players decline varies on the position he plays on the field. That is to say, a striker will age differently than a goalkeeper, and a defender will age different to these two positions.

And, as we all know, work at different positions takes a different toll on a player’s body. Catchers will suffer become more fatigued as a season rolls by than players at any other position; shortstops, as well, have a more demanding position that will require more physical effort. We expect different results from each of the three outfield positions. So, it would be natural that players at different positions age differently on the power curve[4].

What I found out was that my thoughts were correct: positioning on the diamond does affect a player’s power performance but not by much. These are the results based on the mean:

Position Peak Age SLG
Catcher 33 0.413
First Base 31 0.451
Second Base 35 0.390
Third Base 34 0.417
Shortstop 35 0.389
Left Field 32 0.441
Center Field 32 0.433
Right Field 32 0.447

 

As we can see from the data, first basemen will usually be the first position players to peak. After them, the three outfield positions will peak at age 32. Catchers will then follow suit. Finally, the hot corner will peak at 34 and the middle infield will produce more power by the time they turn 35 than any of their previous years.

What we can conclude from this table is the following; because the demand on power from first base more than defense, players will tend to flex their muscles more often than not; whilst primarily defensive positions such as catcher, second base and shortstop will develop more power later in their careers than when they start off. Outfielders, on the other hand, tend to produce power throughout their careers.

The position that does surprise me is the hot corner. I would have expected third basemen to peak earlier in their careers because most players at the position are power hitters. Then again, there are many good defensive third basemen who aren’t big power players (I’m looking at you Juan Uribe).

***

After reviewing all the numbers, I can safely conclude that as players age, power doesn’t decline. On the contrary, power also increases though not by very much. Furthermore, the gradual increase in power at the plate will vary by position, much like a football – soccer – player’s performance will vary according to his position. Therefore, though we may like young players because of their hustle, cost-control and their energy, it doesn’t hurt to carry a few veterans in the lineup, if not to mentor the young ones, to provide some pop within the lineup.

 

[1] A small sample size, I admit, but nevertheless, a positive achievement as it encouraged me to delve deeper into baseball analytics.

[2] I didn’t look at OBP as I believe that this stat has more to do with a player’s ability at identifying pitch types, though in retrospect, this can also become better as a player ages and gains more experience.

[3] Though there are many outliers as you can see.

[4] I have charts and charts of histograms for each position measuring SLG, ISO and OPS but since I don’t want to oversaturate with information.



Print This Post

A philosophy major and a marketing analyst, ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by baseball. But, once I started playing at the old age of 16, I began to study stats and trends. I found these amazing but never gave them much thought. Just after I saw Moneyball was when I really got into statistics and analysis, especially in sabermetrics. Ever since, I have tried to acquire as much data and knowledge to try and write my own investigations based on the data I have gathered. If ever I get to publish an analysis, I'd be glad to have it reviewed and commented as detailed as possible by other analysts who share this newfound passion of mine.

newest oldest most voted
mebpenguin
Member
mebpenguin

Interesting article. How did you control for selection bias in your sample, especially at the extremes?

Brian Cartwright
Guest
Brian Cartwright

In creating the aging curves for the Oliver Projections, I found similar results. Power, mostly in the form of HR%, does peak after 30. Strike zone judgement and contact peaks ion the late 20’s, and speed may peak as early as 19. For overall productivity, I found an average of 27.

Tangotiger
Guest
Tangotiger

If I had to bet, I would bet that the methodology used is wrong. I would bet the author did one of a few things:

1. He only looked for players who were playing at age 35, and then compiled all their stats from whenever they entered the league through to age 35

2. For any player that did not play at an age, he ignored that age, rather than assuming he probably was not talented that year.

Or something else. But I don’t believe the results here.

He did not talk about the delta method, he did not talk about survivorship. He did not talk about making sure the pools of players were the same. He did not reference any of the prior research done on aging studies.

Tangotiger
Guest
Tangotiger

What researchers should do is read MGL’s two articles at the top of the page here:

http://www.hardballtimes.com/author/mitchel-lichtman/

RMR
Guest
RMR

A nice reminder from Tango that good research starts with a thorough lit review.

DavidKB
Guest
DavidKB

There is some apt criticism in the posts above. I’m only adding this because I hope you’ll take it as motivation to do more work. A lot has been said on aging curves, but certainly not everything. There are tons of hypotheses no one’s thought of yet that could distinguish players who are likely to peak early vs late in one stat area or another. That sort of information is very valuable if you can tease it out.

Roger
Guest
Roger

Excellent comments. I encourage the author to take them to heart as there is much to be done in this area.

Guy
Guest
Guy

How does this get published?

MGL
Guest
MGL

Guy this is community research. I don’t know that the content gets reviewed prior to publication.