Two Aging Sluggers, One Last Hurrah

In the “post-steroid” era, the idea is that careers will be shorter and production in a player’s late thirties will decline rapidly. Without conjecturing about the steroid use of these two older men, we can take a look at the numbers and see two guys that are seemingly sustaining decent levels of production despite their advancing years. Their last hurrahs should even continue – provided they stay off the DL (or the Pavano as those in New York may call it).

Jim Thome – Really, the only piece of bad news when it comes to the 38-year-old Thome is that he’s striking out more than he has since 2001. Striking out doesn’t do wonders for a man’s batting average – and Thome’s .256 batting average might scare some people off. But you don’t own Thome for his batting average, since it has been in decline for three straight years and his career number sits at .278 anyway.

Will the power continue? That is the big question. Amazingly, some of his secondary power numbers are above his career norms. Check his home run per fly ball percentage (30.0% this year, 27.8% career) and his line drive percentage (21.1% this year, 20.3% career). The only worry is that he’s hitting a high number of infield flies (12.5%), and the last time he cracked double digits in that department was his disastrous 2005 campaign with the Phillies (.207/.360/.352).

With everything else in line with his career numbers, Thome looks pretty safe. Keep an eye on his infield flies and as long as they trend toward his norms, you’ve got a safe geezer on your squad. Let him collect the long balls as long as he’s in uniform.

Gary Sheffield – Sheffield’s case is less cut and dry than Thome’s and his decline has been more precipitous over the past couple years. After his .225/.326/.400 disasterpiece last year, the Tigers had seen enough and let the 40-year-old go. They did this despite the fact that their current DH, Marcus Thames, has a .765 lifetime versus righties, compared to Sheff’s .898.

No matter. It seems that Manuel’s philosophy of running Sheffield out there until he found what he had lost worked. Now his starting right fielder is boasting a more than decent .270/.390/.482 and fantasy owners are wondering if he can continue his success.

First, the bad news. Despite his rocket bat speed, he’s never been a good line drive hitter (17.2% career) and he’s on a three-year decline that has exacerbated the situation. His current percentage (12.4%) may not sustain his current .283 BABIP, meaning his ZiPS RoS projection might be spot-on in terms of his batting average (.242). Certainly, the ‘old’ way of projecting BABIP (line drive rate plus .12) would suggest that he’s in for a decline in the batting average department.

One thing that the old method does not account for, however, is speed. His current 4.5 speed score puts him in speedy company – right ahead of Alfonso Soriano and Emmanuel Burriss. Normally, his 53.1% groundball percentage (the highest of his recent career) would be seen as a negative. But perhaps Sheffield is relying on his decent speed and actually benefiting from the increased grounder rate.

One this is for certain – he’s not your typical aging slugger. After all, he stole 22 bases just two years ago. Here’s thinking that his speed will help him beat his batting average projections from here on out, and that Sheff will keep cooking at this rate.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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