Talkin' about the age-33 falloff phenomenon, with Bill James
Today's topic is actually an age -- 33 years old. Many years ago,
Whatever changes, 33 is an age when many players find that they can no longer do the things they once did. Right off, we should say: This isn't true of all players and not even most players (and we are talking every-day players here, not pitchers). Bill figures that about 70 percent of players perform about the same at age 33 as they did at age 32.
But, he also figures that more players -- and especially more GREAT players -- find 33 to be their most punishing season, the year that long fly balls stop leaving the park, the year that groundballs stop rolling through the infield, the year the bat feels heavy in July and August.
This is true this year, just like it is true every year:
Again, this isn't universal.
The point here is only that if you look throughout baseball history, 33 does seem to be the tough year, the one that players have to overcome.
* * *
Well, he's 33 years old this year, and he seems in better shape, he seems more focused, he seems more determined than ever not to be a distraction for the team. But, again, he's 33. And you can see changes: His bat no longer seems as quick. This shows up in different ways ... he seems to be behind the fastball. He's seems to be taking more pitches. He seems to struggle against those third and fourth starters he once loved facing.
And it has been fascinating to watch -- I've never been a huge Jose Guillen fan by any means, but this year I have to admit that I've become a fan because it feels like I'm watching a player fighting with mortality. I see him, with men on base, bloop balls to right field rather than try to pull the long ball over the wall. I see him more willing to walk -- Guillen has been a famous hacker through the years, walking once every 21 or so plate appearances. This year he has walked 21 times in 240 plate appearances, which isn't exactly
Guillen's descent as a player really began last year, but this year, at 33, you can see it so much more clearly -- he can barely move in the outfield, he can't pull the ball hard except when a pitcher hangs a breaking ball, and so on. He has always been what the scouts call a mistake hitter, but more and more he finds that he's missing mistakes. Every day you can see how hard he's trying to adjust, though, and it's affecting in a way -- watching a ballplayer try to fight against time.
• Mantle twice led the league in homers, won the Triple Crown, won two MVP awards, posted a 174 OPS+.
• Mays led the league in triples three times, homers once, stolen bases twice, batting average once, won an MVP award and played center field defense as well or better than it had ever been played before.
• Snider led the league in homers once, RBIs once and runs three times; should have won the MVP in 1955*; hit 257 homers in those seven years; and inspired a generation of fans in Brooklyn.
Snider never hit with the same power after he moved out of the comfort of Brooklyn's Ebbett's Field, and he also faded quickly at age 33. And even though he put up comparable numbers to Mantle and Mays during those New York years, his late-career fade probably changed the perception about him. It took Snider 11 tries to get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Continuing on with my list:
Aging is a narrowing of talents, and the narrowing of talents begins long before the player reaches the major leagues. Players, as they age, don't run as well, don't throw as well. They continue to develop those talents that they have, but the range of talents continues to narrow. What I'm trying to get to ... I don't think that "maturing" as a player is one thing and "aging" is a different thing. I think it is one continuous process, that helps the player up to some point, and hurts him beyond that point.
That's the cruelty of 33 for so many players ... and every player eventually hits that age. The brain is sharper than ever, but the body can't quite get them there.
Eight more players:
The human body is like bread that won't stop baking. Age 33 is about the age at which you KNOW the bread is getting over-done and you wish that you could turn off the oven, but you just can't.