In December of 2013, Jeff Zimmerman asked if hitter aging curves are changing. He posited, based off of the following graph and the fact that teams are putting more resources into their lower level affiliates, players are more prepared when they reach the majors.
He concluded that “the most recent rate of decline is almost the same as pre-PED aging rate”. A month later, in January of 2014, he had a follow up article that included this graph and excerpt.
“Finally we are getting somewhere. Players are now seeing their power decline almost immediately. Players no longer gain power, naturally or unnaturally, over their first few major league seasons. For example, home runs went from a peak of 5,692 in 2000 to 4,661 in 2013 (18% point drop). Besides the obvious PED elephant standing in the corner, I think players are more and more in shape when they reach the majors and they don’t have any more strength to gain.”
But we’re in 2017 now, and while the intuition of Zimmerman’s theory still reads as cogent, the theory itself has been splintered by the home run spike of the past season and a half, initiating a renaissance of the word “juiced” and pushing more to the foreground of our minds, the chapter we just can’t seem to close the book on - the steroid era.
Because the steroid era conjures up impassioned and ignorant discourse about the morals of performance enhancing drugs, let’s list a few aspects of the infamous epoch that we can possibly consider common ground:
- Be real - it was really fun. The home run race of 1998 was captivating; frenetic even - which is a word not commonly associated with baseball.
- The pants were unbearably tight. Looking back at pictures is uncomfortable; more uncomfortable than even, I imagine, the players were playing in said pants.
- Players were hitting better later into their careers - old dudes ruled!
Now here is a list about 2016 that runs (almost) symmetrically with the list above:
- It was really fun. Balls were flying over the fence at an historic rate, and enjoyable though it was, it coincided so perfectly with the malcontent asserted over the run scoring environment, that the thrills we were experiencing had to subcontract nervous laughter as past ignorances gave way to suspicion.
- The pants are a little baggy. How was Ian Kinsler the only one wearing his pants the right way in 2016?
- Old dudes were crushing the baseball.
Since the causation theories regarding the spike are well documented, I feel I don’t need to discuss what may or may not be juiced. I’m just here to fan the flames; let’s talk about the old dudes.
For the first time since 2004, when a 39 year old Barry Bonds posted the 4th highest wRC+ of all time, players 36 years and older, as a group, posted a wRC+ above average (no minimum plate appearance restriction).
Since wRC+ takes into account quite a few factors, perhaps a more straightforward stat will better convey that in 2016, players age 36 and up, performed in direct opposition to Zimmerman’s assertion that power declines almost immediately after entering the league.
2016 saw a league-wide jump in exit velocity and average distance on fly balls and line drives; so of course league average Isolated Power increased. But the old dudes? I can think of only one appropriate reaction to this:
There is actually an explanation for this, and it is likely indistinguishable from the one
the best looking baseball writer on the internet Jeff Sullivan made when he examined the effects that the distance increase on fly balls and line drives made on the “middle class” of power hitters; so why waste the effort in trying to rewrite anything Mr. Sullivan has written?
“The strongest hitters just don’t stand to benefit so much from a distance increase, because they would hit relatively few “almost-homers.” The weakest hitters also wouldn’t benefit too much, because they would seldom challenge the warning track. But those guys with warning-track power would benefit the most, because then it’s just a matter of a few feet turning an out into a dinger.”
“The marginal value of an extra few feet for a player with average power surpasses the marginal value on an extra few feet for a player with tremendous power, or for a player with zero power. Think of it as operating a lot like the win curve we’ve talked about a million times. An 89th or 90th win is far more valuable than a 108th win or a 56th win.”
Jeff broke the league up into quartiles based on power and I’ll do the same, but instead of power I’ll use age groups. The league’s ISO went from .150 in 2015 to .162 in 2016 - marking an 8 percent increase. Since every quartile saw an increase in their Isolated Power, to better demonstrate the distribution of the increase we’ll use 0.0 percent to represent the 8 perent average increase. Here’s how the age groups stacks up:
That massive blue line on the right speaks for itself. Now one could argue that it’s just an extraordinary group of old guys, but I maintain that it’s just not natural. The personnel within the group didn’t change much, although they did add Nelson Cruz, had Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre each return to full health, and saw an unprecedented power display from Bartolo Colon. Still, is that enough oomph to explain the highest HR/FB rate on record (data goes back to 2002) among a group of players aged at least 36 years? That’s meant to be rhetorical, but that’s just what they did. They posted a 14.7% HR/FB rate, besting the previous high mark of 11.8 percent set back in, say it with me, 2004.
At the end of the day, let’s hope it’s just the ball that’s juiced, and hell, let’s hope they keep it that way because baseball is in a great place right now. The spotlight is where it should be - on the young, exciting super stars; but the best veterans have a larger network of moments rooted in our emotional infrastructure, and nostalgia has always been a part of the game. Augmenting the faces of the future with gracefully aging veterans is the formula to the best product Major League Baseball could deliver to their fans...
Now they just need to figure out what to do with the damn pants.
Mark Davidson is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can send him bat flip gifs and follow him on Twitter at @NtflixnRichHill