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OC Register: Hoornstra: Baseball’s old guys rule, for now if not for long

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Detroit Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera entered play Wednesday with three doubles, four home runs and 17 RBIs in his last 15 games. At 38 years old, Cabrera is 56 hits shy of 3,000 for his career – the established standard for automatic Hall of Fame induction. Yet his power is a recent rediscovery. As recently as 2019, Cabrera played practically every day for three months and hit only four home runs.

The reigning National League Player of the Week is Joey Votto, whose streak of seven consecutive games with a home run ended Friday. Votto, 37, hasn’t expressed home run power like that in years. In 2018, he lasted from the middle of May until the end of September while hitting only six.

What makes the recent surges of Cabrera and Votto special is not merely that they are closer to the average age of most fans, or that their Cooperstown credentials might still depend on their present performance. They are established stars in their respective cities whose decline years were becoming dangerously difficult to watch. Votto’s contract with the Cincinnati Reds is guaranteed through 2023; so is Cabrera’s contract with the Tigers. Fans have been wearing their jerseys in Cincinnati and Detroit, respectively, since each player was the Next Big Thing. Now they have teammates who grew up watching their careers blossom.

And it isn’t just them.

Buster Posey would be in a virtual tie for the National League lead in batting average (.329) if he had enough at-bats to qualify. The San Francisco Giants’ catcher last led the league in hitting in 2012. Teammate Brandon Crawford is on pace for the best home run, batting average, and RBI totals of his career. Both men are 34. Giants third baseman Evan Longoria, 35, was on pace for his best season in a decade when he sprained his shoulder in May.

Partying like it’s 2010 is the feel-good story of 2021. It’s the one trend I didn’t see coming.

Not long ago, a coach told me that veteran hitters were voicing more frequent complaints about an aging curve coming for them. After 32, it seemed, major league front offices automatically baked a “decline phase” into their projections for hitters. This drop in expected production is suppressing the players’ contract offers accordingly. The definition of “fair market value” for over-32 free agents is changing.

There’s nothing magical about the number 32, but the employment numbers seem to think so. And not without reason: between the ages of 25 and 31, a distinct aging curve is beginning to emerge. A hitter’s peak, measured by the percentage of his batted balls defined by Statcast as “barrels,” is the age-27 season.

Despite MLB’s youth movement, players younger than 25 are still more likely to be in the minors than the majors. If they happen to be on a 26-man roster, it’s likely because they were too good to keep down, and have continued to out-perform their older peers.

For players 32 and older, the picture is not so simple. There are few affiliated minor league jobs waiting for them, since organizations would rather hold those jobs for prospects. After dozens of lower minor-league teams lost their affiliations last winter, that’s been more true than usual. The choice is often between the majors or retirement, and the latter option is winning out earlier every year.

Nelson Cruz is effectively ageless, the rare veteran who has been allowed to persist in the big leagues without a long-term contract. At 41, he’s already hit 21 home runs this season for the Minnesota Twins and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Albert Pujols, 41, is enjoying a modest resurgence since signing with the Dodgers. A smattering of veteran catchers (Yadier Molina, Kurt Suzuki, Robinson Chirinos, Rene Rivera) have provided their teams value beyond their offensive output.

But they are the exceptions to the rule. Only 13 non-pitchers 37 or older have made a plate appearance this season. Does “Old Guys Rule” even count as a trend outside a few players?

To answer this question, I went back to the aging-curve chart. With the exception of one age group, it hasn’t looked this much like a parabola in at least a few years. Again, we’re sorting these groups by the percentage of batted balls that end with a “barrel,” defined as balls struck with an exit velocity and launch angle that result in a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 batting average – not too high, not too low, and not too soft. The higher the number, the better.

Via FanGraphs, here’s how the hitters in various age groups break down by barrel percentage in 2021:

Age … Barrel%

25-26 … 7.6

27-28 … 8.3

29-30 … 8.3

31-32 … 6.7

33-34 … 6.1

35-36 … 5.9

37-38 … 7.5

Now more than ever, we’re seeing a distinct peak (27-30), followed by a distinct regression. The 37- to 38-year-old group is being carried by only three players (Votto, Cabrera and Jed Lowrie) whose barrel percentage is above the median. The same small-sample effects apply to a degree for all over-32 hitters. “Old Guys Rule,” sadly, is not a league-wide trend.

Let’s enjoy it for what it is. A few old guys are enjoying a refreshing resurgence. It isn’t just major league hitters, although they look like the most obvious exception to the rule. Last Friday, the Dodgers traded for Max Scherzer, who at 37 is still among the game’s elite pitchers. On Wednesday, they agreed to sign 37-year-old left-hander Cole Hamels, who debuted during the (second) Bush administration.

Forty-eight hours into the NBA’s free agency period, the Lakers had signed six players age 32 or older. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, if all six play at least one game, it would be the most in a single offseason in NBA history.

I wouldn’t expect this to continue in the future, in any sport, though I hope I’m wrong. For now, it’s a moment to be cherished, for dusting off the jersey of some hot prospect you purchased 15 years ago, and remembering that no aging curve is an unbreakable rule set in stone.

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I remember years ago doing an analysis of hitters by age, and the results were counter intuitive. While there is a distinct aging curve there are two other significant factors. One is simply the fact that playing major league baseball requires a certain level of skill no matter your age, so it's hard to differentiate age groups based on rate statistics. The other factor is that, the older age groups tend to be dominated by all time great players who never really aged out of the league hitting wise. 

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