Young players are my favorite. There's nothing like following a kid through the minors, seeing the progress, maybe catching him live in the Arizona Fall League, watching his debut, and seeing him take off in the majors. Think about it: a very large chunk of all internet baseball writing is done in this vein, focusing on the minors, scouting and/or the development of young major leaguers. I can only speak for myself, but the uncertainty of the unknown with young players is what piques my interest, resulting in me often neglecting the performances of veterans. This is a classic case of bias, and I acknowledge it. But let me make an attempt to right that wrong right here: there have been some outstanding performances by 35-year olds in 2014.
In the Expansion Era (1961-present), there have been 50 batters to amass more than 4.0 bWAR in a single season at the age of 35. Think about that, over 53 years, there are only 50 players to eclipse an only somewhat-high bar. 4.0 bWAR isn't a league MVP number, it's just a highly productive player number, and only 50 35-year-olds have pulled off the feat since '61.
But 2014 is special, as there are three players who already have, or should shortly, break into this category: Chase Utley, Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre. Here's the entire list, with the three players mentioned above and their projected bWAR by season's end.
This is obviously some pretty elite company, and quietly, Chase Utley has found his way on to the list. His biggest issue over the last few years has been his health. His fragility over that time is well known, but he's still always hit, albeit not quite to the same tune as he did in his five peak seasons (2005-2009). He's on pace to have his best season since 2010 and with 25 more games played, should have an age 35 season equivalent to that of Carlton Fisk and Wade Boggs. That's not bad for an oft-injured second baseman who many had written off as too old and too fragile to be a productive player. At least Utley is trying to make Ruben Amaro look good (what's your excuse, Dom Brown?).
Martinez has massed his bWAR in an interesting fashion, however. He's only played in the field 27 times this year, meaning all of his value has come from the bat, as he's lost a slight margin from defense and base running. His .327/.396/.554 line is the best of his career, resulting in a wRC+ of 157, essentially swapping places with Miguel Cabrera and picking up Detroit's offensive slack single-handedly. He's been durable this season, too, and should play 150 games before the end of the regular season. Like Utley, injuries have kept him from down in recent years, but he's avoided missing significant time in 2014, much to the Tigers' benefit. He'll likely crack the top-25 before the season is over, putting him in Mike Schmidt and Jim Thome territory. Should the Tigers take the AL Central from the Royals, every Tigers fan should heartily thank Victor Martinez.
Adrian Beltre is getting ripped off. He's having an amazing year, both at the plate and in the field, and no one has noticed. This is for two reasons: a) the Rangers are terrible this season and, b) Beltre usually mashes and plays tremendous defense at third, so it's not like this was unexpected. Still, Beltre is on pace for 7.0 bWAR, putting him in elite company. His 139 wRC+ and .877 OPS have helped project him into the top five age 35 seasons in the Expansion Era. That's simply incredible, and the fact that no one seems to be noticing is an outrage. Any time a player is finishing with numbers similar to Pete Rose, he's doing something remarkable, and for Beltre in particular, it's more of the same.
As these players continue to age, they'll likely continue to regress. Utley has somehow managed to play an entire season so far, something he's been struggling with in recent years. It'd be foolish to think he'll keep this up in coming years, but when healthy, he's proven to be a productive player. Similarly, Martinez has finally stayed healthy, but he's also conjoined his health with his best season at the plate. Age 35 is a strange time to do this, but I don't think anyone's complaining about his renaissance, although it'll probably be a somewhat short-lived one. Beltre doesn't quite fit the above narrative, as he's simply shown no signs of slowing down in his 30's, and while it might be hard to think he'll just keep on being a 7-win player, he looks like the kind of guy that could remain productive for several more years provided he avoids any kind of severe injury.
This has been quite a year for 35-year old baseball players, and while we all like to talk about Mike Trout, Javier Baez and Byron Buxton, the players above are playing historically well. Let's all take a minute and tip our caps to the veterans who are still grinding it out and exceeding expectations. Congratulations Chase, Victor and Adrian on some historically good age 35 seasons and outstanding baseball careers. Well done, fellas.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
Jeff Wiser is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can find his work on craft beer at BeerGraphs and follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.