Struggles of Jeter, Tejada more evidence of lack of aging stars
Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada were born 32 days apart in 1974. They played on the same American League All-Star team three times, during a golden era of shortstops in the league that included Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Omar Vizquel. Now, as each approaches his 37th birthday, the Yankees' Jeter and the Giants' Tejada remain linked. They still play shortstop for championship-caliber teams, but are off to slow starts and bear intense scrutiny on virtually an at-bat by at-bat basis.
Jeter is hitting .244 with just two extra-base hits while tapping out five groundballs for every ball he hits in the air. Tejada is hitting .205 and has only six extra-base hits and seven line drives. Both of them are coming off down seasons, so the sample of concern goes back more than one month.
There is no doubt Jeter and Tejada are struggling enough that their managers will face questions about where they bat in the order and how many days of rest they should be afforded. But guess what: This is what life used to be like for 37-year-old middle infielders. All of us have to recalculate what should be expected of players as they age through their late 30s.
It's not just Jeter and Tejada. An entire class of players must be held to the kind of actuarial tables that were in place for years before steroids and PEDs came along. It's normal for players to slip as they age past 35. It was abnormal for players of that certain age to get better.
The late-30s impact player no longer exists in baseball, as we are reminded every week. The Reds' Scott Rolen, 36, went on the DL with a bum shoulder and a .217 average. Manny Ramirez, 38, quit on the Rays after as many hits as failed drug tests (one) in 17 at-bats for the Rays. Jason Varitek, 39, and Mike Cameron, 38, have hit a combined .102 for Boston with one extra-base hit.
There are 12 36-and-older players this year with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Only two of them rank among the top 80 players as ranked by OPS: Chipper Jones (64th) and Jamey Carroll (79).
The rest of them all rank below the OPS median: Johnny Damon, Ichiro Suzuki, Bobby Abreu, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Orlando Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero, Raul Ibañez, Jeter and Tejada. It's a who's who of who was.
The Steroid Era tricked us into thinking players still could be impact players at this age. We're finding out how fraudulent that era was. The ban on amphetamines, in place since 2006, also could be taking a toll on older players, including how often they stay in the lineup.
The Year of the Pitcher is becoming the Era of the Pitcher. Offense in April is the worst anybody has seen at the start of a season in a generation -- since 1992. There were three more shutouts on Monday night. And don't expect offense to perk up with the weather. The highest-scoring month last year, as ranked by runs per game, was . . . April. In fact, the rate of runs scored decreased without exception as the season wore on; May was worse than April, June worse then May, July worse than June, and so on.
Scoring is down five percent from last April, which was down six percent from the April before that. And much of the offense that has gone out of the game is because of the decline of the older player. Take a look at this: the batting statistics for 36-and-older players so far this year as compared to 2003, the last year players could use PEDs without any penalty:
In 2003, there were seven 36-and-older qualifiers who posted an OPS of .800 or better. Last year there was one: Matsui. Teams have learned not to build rosters around older players and not to commit long-term money to them. The extensions for Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Braun, for example, expire when they turn 35 and 36. Teams have begun to make the proper recalculations. Now the rest of us must do the same, and realize star players won't remain stars as long as they did in that tainted era.
Have you noticed that pitch counts are creeping up? Roy Halladay and Wandy Rodriguez each exceeded the 125-pitch mark last weekend. Those games no longer are aberrations.
There have been as many games this month in which the starter threw at least 125 pitches (seven) as the past five Aprils combined. Take a look at the number of 125-pitch games in April and overall since 2003:
What happened in 2004-05? Cubs phenoms Mark Prior and Kerry Wood broke down, and thanks to the ubiquity of pitch counts, which crept into box scores and onto stadium scoreboards, critics loudly blamed their injuries on throwing too many pitches. The injuries to Prior and Wood, and the public discussion that followed, changed managing the way the breakdowns of the 1980 Oakland Athletics staff under Billy Martin changed managing a generation earlier.
Both instances, because they received so much negative coverage, put a shudder into managers, who didn't want to be the next manager to be thrown into baseball's version of the public stocks. The A's meltdown caused managers to cut back on innings and complete games; the Cubs' meltdown caused them to cut back on pitches.
A reaction, as commonly happens, became an overreaction. Now managers have begun to loosen the reins on pitch counts. A 125-pitch game no longer is cause for the pitch count police to put a manager into a bleak interrogation room under a bare bulb. Those seven 125-pitch games already this season have been thrown by seven different pitchers: Jeff Weaver, Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Halladay and Rodriguez.