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Don't trust anyone over 30: Why older free agents are riskier than ever

Tom Verducci breaks down the risks of handing out big contracts to free agents who are already 30 years old or older, or soon will be.

Here are the new rules: Baseball is a young man’s game; productive players over 30 have not been this rare in 40 years; and free agency has never been more inefficient.

Now you understand why, over the next two months, baseball teams will throw millions of dollars at free agents based on the hope that the guy they sign is an exception to every rule staring them in the face.

We all know that, generally speaking, long-term contracts that pay players as they decline through their 30s as if they were still in the prime of their 20s don’t usually work out very well. But I wanted to define just how dangerous is this game general managers keep playing. So I looked at every free agent signed in the previous five years to a contract worth at least $50 million (excepting the one relief pitcher, Jonathan Papelbon). Then I examined all of those players who already have played under their free-agent contract at age 30 and older. I wound up with 33 players and 81 such seasons to study.

Here’s what I wanted to know: How often do these big-ticket free agents in their 30s provide what I consider a minimum of value—that is, enough plate appearances or innings pitched to be an official qualifier and an adjusted OPS or ERA greater than 100, or average. That’s a relatively low bar when you are talking about the top of the free-agent market. Here are the sobering numbers:

• 81 seasons age 30 and older after signing as a free agent.

• 54 of those seasons in which the player played enough to qualify (67%).

• 44 of those seasons in which the qualified player was even slightly better than average (54%).

The average annual value of the free-agent contracts worth $50 million or more over the past five years is $19.2 million. So for betting $19.2 million a year on a 30-something player, a team has a one-in-three chance that the player doesn’t even get on the field enough to qualify, and it has a veritable coin flip of a chance that he will be average or worse if he does play regularly.

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The laundry list of misses, to name a few, includes Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth, Jose Reyes, Anibal Sanchez, Ervin Santana, Melvin Upton Jr. and Nick Swisher. (The few hits include Adrian Beltre, Mark Buehrle and Curtis Granderson.) It does not include CC Sabathia, who signed his opt-out extension in 2011 just hours before officially becoming a free agent.

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Remember, I’m not talking about players declining in their mid- to late-30s; this is about value sinking as players turn 30. It’s the equivalent of your new car losing value as soon as you drive it off the lot. Now keep those numbers in mind as you clamor for your team to sign a big free agent and have that fancy mid-winter press conference in which the guy throws on his new jersey and cap.

Among the top free agents this year, here are the only years you can buy from players in their 20s: Jason Heyward (four, which is why he will break the bank), Justin Upton (one) and, though he may not be a $50 million pitcher, Mike Leake (one). The rest of the big-ticket items are about buying up seasons of players in their 30s, which have become shockingly poor values. Yoenis Cespedes, Johnny Cueto, Chris Davis, Dexter Fowler, David Price and Jordan Zimmermann will all play next year at 30; Zack Greinke will do so at 32. Maybe some of them turn out to be as reliable as Beltre has been for Texas. Maybe.

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Just how rare is the productive player in his 30s, anyway? To find that answer, I considered all hitters in 2015 (not just recently signed free agents) who played their age 30 season or older. Then I used the same modest requirements: How many of them played enough to qualify for the batting title and posted an adjusted OPS greater than 100? The answer was 32. Was that a lot or a little? It was the fewest since 1993, when there were 28 such players, only with two fewer teams.

Then I used the same formula on pitchers: How many 30-something pitchers last season threw enough innings to qualify and did so with an adjusted ERA of greater than 100? The answer was 15, the fewest since 2008.

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When you combine hitters and pitchers age 30 or older in 2015 who played regularly and were even just halfway decent, you get 47. In 2003—the last year without steroid testing with penalties (you knew we were headed there at some point, didn’t you?)—there were 71 such productive players in their 30s. In 1999, there were 83 of them, which means the number of reliable players in their 30s has dropped 43% in just 16 years.

I needed one more answer: How does having 47 productive players in their 30s stand up in historical context? To find that answer, and to account for expansion and with the help of, I had to compare the per team rate of productive players in their 30s. So here you have the seasons with the fewest such players per team since the divisional era began in 1969:

1969: 1.45
1970: 1.50
1972: 1.50
1975: 1.50
2015: 1.57
1992: 1.65
1989: 1.65

Now let that thought sink in for a moment. Despite all the advances in nutrition and training, despite all the additional layers of specialized experts in medicine and training, the rate of productive players in their 30s is the worst in 40 years—and the worst in the history of free agency. (We are just 36 days away from the 40th anniversary of the decision by arbitrator Peter Seitz that effectively killed baseball’s reserve clause.)

What in the name of Hanley Ramirez is going on here? Sure, the easy answer is to blame the decline of the older player on the ban on PEDs and amphetamines. But it can’t be that simple, seeing as testing with penalties began more than a decade ago. Other factors include:

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• Younger players are more preferred in today’s game. They are cheaper, generally better on defense (which gets more attention in a run-depressed environment), and because of better instruction and more intense levels of amateur play, ready for the big leagues quicker. Rookies hit more home runs in 2015 than in any other year since the rookie status was determined almost 60 years ago. Rookies of the Year Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa hit 26 and 22 home runs, respectively, while hitting in the middle of the lineup for playoff teams after just 181 and 282 games of minor-league apprenticeship.

• The emphasis on velocity for pitchers. Velocity is a skill that taxes the body, often compromises mechanics (increasing the injury factor) and declines with age. Twenty of the top 26 qualified pitchers this year as ranked by ERA+ were 29 and younger. Only seven of the top 61 were older than 31, as a generation of great pitchers seemed to hit a wall quickly (Lee, Sabathia, Josh Beckett, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Johan Santana, James Shields, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, etc.)

• Health. Many of the free agents go bust because they break down early and often (Crawford, Ellsbury, Werth, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, etc.). How baseball players train—or, to address concerns of old-school baseball sages, how they over-train—needs serious review. Players may be bigger, faster and stronger, but the advances in training have not made them more durable baseball players.

There could be many reasons why this is happening, including the catch-all excuse of the “cyclical” nature of baseball. The point is that it is happening. When teams hand out lengthy contracts to free agents this winter that pay them well into their 30s, the dollars and the risks will never be greater.