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Hanley Ramirez and Disappointing Primes

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In the wake of the Dodgers' recent acquisition of Hanley Ramirez, it seems fitting to reflect on the once-and-future shortstop's strange and fascinating career arc. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that baseball fandom at large viewed Hanley as one of the 2 or 3 best players in the game. As recently as 2010 he appeared regularly atop trade value rankings, top-100 lists, and was a first-round staple in fantasy drafts of all varieties. As Hanley approached what are often regarded as a player's prime years, his momentum seemed unstoppable.

From age 23 to 25 his seasonal WAR totals grew steadily with each year:

Season Age WAR
2005 21 -0.1
2006 22 4.6
2007 23 4.2
2008 24 6.5
2009 25 7.1

By the time Hanley turned 25 he had amassed 22.2 WAR (per Baseball-Reference). In baseball's history, only 57 position players have had that sort of exceptional start to their career and an astonishing 75% of those players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame (if eligible). So when Hanley's age-26 season came to a close in October of 2010 with his final WAR tally at just 2.6, there was a clear, unmistakable sense of disappointment. Fans were perplexed; this was not simply a 'slightly above-average' shortstop, this was g.d. Hanley Ramirez!

Of course, things just got worse in 2011. Hanley's offense plummeted well below-average and his declining defense only further deteriorated his value. By season's end, his WAR had flat-lined at 0.0. (It's almost as if Baseball-Reference is deliberately rubbing it in with the clearly superfluous, but emotionally-powerful, additional zero).

With the coming of Spring 2012, hope sprang once again. It was a new season for Hanley-- one with a new ballpark, new teammates, new uniforms, and even a new position. The newly-renamed Miami Marlins were widely expected to compete in the N.L. East and Hanley Ramirez, the third baseman, was anticipated to play a vital role in that vision.

There were a great number of us that fell for the hype. We bought in on the seductive promise of a Hanley resurgence. But who could blame us? The blogosphere was ablaze with talk of 'rebound' and 'bounceback'. Fantasy sites everywhere softly crooned in our ears, "buy low". And yet, at the time of last Wednesday's transaction, Hanley Ramirez had only contributed 0.4 WAR to his Marlins in 2012. This leaves Hanley with a whopping 3 WAR combined over his highly-anticipated age 26, 27, and 28 seasons.

Is this planet-sized sense of disappointment in Hanley Ramirez justified? How often in baseball's history have we seen such a promising young player rack up WAR totals so quickly and then utterly disintegrate with the coming of his so-called prime years?

I took all players from baseball's past and present that had at least matched Hanley's 22.3 WAR before their age-26 season and then compared the sum of their WAR from the subsequent 3 seasons.

Prime Disappointments

# Name Debut pre-26 WAR 26-28 WAR 26-28 PA Career WAR
1 Grady Sizemore* 2004 25 1.5 938 26.5
2 Hanley Ramirez* 2005 22.3 3 1023 25.3
3 Orlando Cepeda 1958 23.5 4.2 682 43.9
4 David Wright 2004 25.1 7.3 1735 37.9
5 Mike Tiernan 1887 23.4 7.5 1626 40
6 Fred Dunlap 1880 22.7 7.8 973 33.7
7 Willie Randolph 1975 25.8 8.3 1542 60.8
8t Sherry Magee 1904 32.5 8.6 1607 54.1
8t Cesar Cedeno 1970 33.8 8.6 1356 48.6

How soon we forget about Grady Sizemore. I suppose that probably isn't so much the case in Cleveland where fans are still imagining what their playoff hopes would look like with a 6 WAR center fielder added to the mix. But Grady's case is obviously owed almost entirely to a laundry list of injuries that have derailed his career. Sizemore, of course, is not yet finished with his 26-28 timeframe as he is due for an early August return from his latest DL stint, so his 1.5 WAR prime is still subject to change. Though it is very unlikely that Sizemore out-performs Hanley by more than 1.5 WAR during the remainder of 2012 and passes off his #1 Prime Disappointment honors.

Similarly, Orlando Cepeda at #3 was hit hard with three years riddled with knee injuries at the ages of 27-29, amassing just -.3, .3, and 2.3 WAR in those seasons. He did manage to bounce back at the age of 29 with a strong 6.6 WAR, earning himself the MVP award which may have been the deciding factor in the Veteran's Committee's decision to elect Cepeda to the Hall of Fame in 1999.

That leaves David Wright with the third most disappointing prime which was not attributable to a significant loss of playing time-- although injury is almost certain to have had an effect. Wright suffered a concussion in mid-August of the 2009 season which likely played a significant role in holding his WAR totals to just 2.9, 2.5, 1.9 through ages 26-28. Like Cepeda, however, he is currently rebounding as a 29 year-old to the tune of a 5.5 WAR in 2012.

The query also returned a trio of dead-ball era players in Mike Tiernan, Fred Dunlap, and Sherry Magee. As a consequence, we can't be certain these players weren't dealing with injuries during their disappointing primes. For instance, it is still a mystery what caused Mike Tiernan's WAR drought through his prime years, and his SABR page offers no explanation either. There was no loss of playing time, no injury, no reported personal distractions, though in 1894 the media wasn't nearly as invasive as it is now. Tiernan did, however, return the following season to post a 5.3 WAR season at age-29.

Sure Shot Fred Dunlap was a promising young player in the early days of the National League who averaged 3.7 WAR in his first four seasons as a professional. In 1884 he made the jump to the Union Association and led the league in just about every statistic they recorded back then. Dunlap returned to the NL for the following season, but had clearly lost something and never again posted a WAR above 2.

Sherry Magee was really only a victim of one poor season. His 1.9 WAR as a 27 year-old is sandwiched by a wealth of +4 seasons on either side. Similarly, Wille Randolph's only crime was slowing down from great to merely good for a few seasons before resuming his all-star level of pay in his early thirties.

Cesar Cedeno, on the other hand, was on a meteoric career trajectory in his early twenties-- accumulating a gargantuan 38.5 WAR before he turned 27. This is something only 23 position players have accomplished in baseball history and Cedeno remains the only HoF-eligible player of the 23 that does not have a plaque in Cooperstown. According to his Baseball Page, his career was ultimately derailed by "injuries and attitude problems" which are often blamed on the turf in Houston's Astrodome in the late 70's and an unfortunate incident in which a gun went off in Cedeno's motel room, resulting in the accidental death of his girlfriend.

Cedeno and Dunlap are really the only cases where a post-prime 'rebound' in a general sense did not occur. For the most part Wright, Cepeda, and Randolph recovered immediately from their poorly-timed 3-season slump-- something to consider while we still await the fate of both Ramirez and Sizemore. Conveniently, Fangraphs allows us to view these stories all at once using their excellent WAR graphs feature, through which we can see that generally the group rebounded as they headed into their early-thirties:

Source: FanGraphs -- Grady Sizemore, David Wright, Hanley Ramirez

Naturally, injuries have played a key role in each of these 'disappointments', and Hanley is no exception. His shoulder and elbow problems have been well-documented and there is little doubt they have not interfered with his value to at least some degree. History suggests this type of player will return to at least half of his former production-levels, and that total attrition is highly unlikely. But Hanley's case is still clearly the most disappointing, and it is debatable to what degree his struggles are wholly related to injury.

I do find it terribly interesting, however, considering how rare and extraordinary these cases are, that 3 of the top 4 prime disappointments are so recent. Wright finished his age-28 season just last year and Ramirez and Sizemore will complete theirs in 2012. Curiously, both Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman also meet the arbitrary 22.2 WAR before their age-26 qualification. I left them off the list for obvious reasons, but both have had substantial problems with injuries both in the past and the present and could very well find themselves on this list within a year or two. There is no immediately identifiable common thread between these players, but saying it's simply a coincidence might be a hard sell.