Talkin' about the age-33 falloff phenomenon, with Bill James

Monday June 29th, 2009

After a one-week vacation, we are back with the continuing evolution of an experiment that last appeared two weeks ago: a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James ...

Today's topic is actually an age -- 33 years old. Many years ago, Stan Musial set a baseball player's prime from age 28 to 32. And even though this isn't 100 percent true*, there is truth in it. For many good-to-great players, 33 is the age when they begin to grow old. Maybe the bat slows a touch. Maybe nagging injuries nag more. Maybe the legs lose a little bit of their spring. Maybe the shoulder aches when they try to throw home.

*Bill famously debunked that prime years ago; he showed that a player's prime is quite a bit younger than that -- roughly from age 26 to 30. He says the numbers has moved some through the years, but the descent certainly begins before 32.

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: Alex Rodriguez, of course, is 33 years old and he in struggling in many ways. David Ortiz is 33 years old and he is struggling in just about every way (though he has been coming on the last couple of weeks). Alfonso Soriano, Placido Polanco, Edgar Renteria and Eric Byrnes are all 33 years old and all are having difficult years for one reason or another. Lance Berkman's batting average is way down. Carlos Guillen has been hurt all year. And so on.

Again, this isn't universal. Torii Hunter is 33 and he's off to the best start of his career. Russell Branyan is finally getting a chance to play in Seattle and at 33 he's been phenomenal. Bodies do age differently. And we are not even going to get into the whole discussion of performance enhancers ...

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.

* * *

Joe: Let's start with Royals outfielder Jose Guillen. I've spent much of this year watching him; Guillen has never been a GREAT player, but he has been a good player, in large part I think because of an unusually quick bat. In 2007 he hit .290/.353/.460. In 2008 he had a mostly lousy year, but he had about a five- or six-week stretch where he hit the ball about as hard as anyone I've ever seen -- he hit .390 and slugged .662 from May 7 through June 17, and many of his outs were smashes.

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 Barry Bonds, but it seems to be a shift in the way he plays the game.

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.

Bill: Historically, hitters' bats die at age 33 ... not always, of course, but there is quite significantly more loss in batting ability at age 33 than at any other age. Let me give you a few for-instances from history ... and obviously, I'm just hitting a few highlights; there are many others involving players with less recognizable names.

1) Hall of Famer Hack Wilson 1932, age 32: .297, 23 homers, 123 RBIs 1933, age 33: .267, 9 homers, 54 RBIs

2) Hall of Famer Al Simmons 1934, age 32: .344, 18 homers, 104 RBIs 1935, age 33: .267, 16 homers, 79 RBIs

3) Hall of Famer Heinie Manush 1934, age 32: .349, 11 homers, 89 RBIs 1935, age 33: .273, 4 homers, 56 RBIs

4) Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri 1936, age 32: .287, 14 homers, 109 RBIs 1937, age 33: .244, 14 homers, 70 RBIs

5) Hall of Famer Bill Dickey 1939, age 32: .302, 24 homers, 105 RBIs 1940, age 33: .247, 9 homers, 54 RBIs

6) Walker Cooper 1947, age 32: .305, 35 homers, 122 RBIs 1948, age 33: .266, 16 homers, 54 RBIs

7) Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr 1950, age 32: .294, 27 homers, 120 RBIs 1951, age 33: .289, 13 homers, 73 RBIs

8) Gus Zernial 1955, age 32: .254, 30 homers, 84 RBIs 1956, age 33: .224, 16 homers, 44 RBIs

9) Del Ennis, perpetual 100-RBI guy 1956, age 32: .286, 24 homers, 105 RBIs 1957, age 33: .261, 3 homers, 47 RBIs

10) Hall of Famer, Duke Snider 1959, age 32: .308, 23 homers, 88 RBIs 1960, age 33: .243, 14 homers, 36 RBIs

Joe: This is off-topic -- and I know about 10 million books have been written on the subject -- but it's still astounds me that from 1951 through 1957, you had Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays all playing center field in New York City. And in those seven years:

• 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 lost the MVP award to teammate Roy Campanella in 1955 by five points, but a writer had put Campanella in both the first slot and in the sixth slot on his ballot. (Some accounts have the writer putting Campy in the first and FIFTH spots, but it appears to be the sixth spot.) The writer was ill and could not clarify; had his ballot been thrown out, Snider would have won the award. Had Snider been given the sixth spot on that ballot, he would have shared the award with Campy.

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.

Bill: Continuing with Mickey Mantle ...

11) Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle 1964, age 32: .303, 35 homers, 111 RBIs 1965, age 33: .255, 19 homers, 46 RBIs

12) Bill White, slugging first baseman, later National League president 1966, age 32: .276, 22 homers, 103 RBIs 1967, age 33: .250, 8 homers, 33 RBIs

13) Rocky Colavito 1966, age 32: .238, 30 homers, 72 RBIs 1967, age 33: .231, 8 homers, 50 RBIs

14) Hall of Famer Al Kaline 1967, age 32: .308, 25 homers, 78 RBIs 1968, age 33: .287, 10 homers, 53 RBIs

15) Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda 1970, age 32: .305, 34 homers, 111 RBIs 1971, age 33: .276, 14 homers, 44 RBIs

16) Hall of Famer Willie McCovey 1970, age 32: .289, 39 homers, 126 RBIs 1971, age 33: .277, 18 homers, 70 RBIs

17) Dick Allen 1974, age 32: .301, 32 homers, 88 RBIs 1975, age 33: .233, 12 homers, 62 RBIs

18) Hall of Famer George Brett 1985, age 32: .335, 30 homers, 112 RBIs 1986, age 33: .290, 16 homers, 73 RBIs

19) Hall of Famer Eddie Murray 1988, age 32: .284, 28 homers, 84 RBIs 1989, age 33: .247, 20 homers, 88 RBIs

20) Amos Otis 1979, age 32: .295, 18 homers, 90 RBIs 1980, age 33: .251, 10 homers, 53 RBIs

Joe: Well, I knew Amos Otis had to be coming -- seeing as he's your favorite player and all. He's a good example, too. Right up until he turned 33, Otis was an outstanding player, a rare TRUE five-tool guy. Ten years, 1970-79 (and remember, this was a decade dominated by pitching), he hit .300 twice and 18-plus homers four times, stole 30 or more bases four times, drove in 90 runs three times, scored 90 runs three times, played Gold Glove center field and (people forget this) made the throw that led to Pete Rose's famous collision with Ray Fosse in the All-Star Game. At 33, after his superhuman reflexes became merely great, he never could quite adjust -- and he never got 500 at-bats in a season after 32.

Bill: A few of these players did come back and have very good seasons after age 33. I don't think anyone I've listed here got all the way back to where he had once been (after age 33), but some players (such as George Brett and Eddie Murray) did snap back and have some good years after age 33 -- as A-Rod may, or Ortiz, or Lance Berkman.

Continuing on with my list:

21) George Foster 1981, age 32: .295, 22 homers, 90 RBIs in a strike-shortened season of 108 games 1982, age 33: .247, 13 homers, 70 RBIs in a full season of 151 games

22) Andre Thornton 1982, age 32: .273, 32 homers, 116 RBIs 1983, age 33: .281, 17 homers, 77 RBIs

23) Greg Luzinski 1983, age 32: .255, 32 homers, 95 RBIs 1984, age 33: .238, 13 homers, 58 RBIs

24) Buddy Bell 1984, age 32: .315, 11 homers, 83 RBIs 1985, age 33: .229, 10 homers, 68 RBIs

25) Alan Trammell 1990, age 32: .308, 14 homers, 89 RBIs 1991, age 33: .248, 9 homers, 55 RBIs

Joe: This amazes me... you know from 1983 to 1990, Alan Trammell put up a 124 OPS+. Over those same eight years, Cal Ripken Jr. put up an OPS+ of ... yes, 124. I personally believe Trammell is a Hall of Famer, but I don't think he will get elected and the reason seems to be that he never played a full season after age 32.

Bill: Maturity in a player is the development of talents; not the development of NEW talents, but the development of those talents that the player has always possessed.

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.

Joe: You will hear players say, all the time, "I wish I knew then what I know now." There's no doubt that David Ortiz is a smarter hitter now than he ever was. No question that Alex Rodriguez knows more about how pitchers are trying to get him out now. No question that Lance Berkman knows more about the game than he did at 26 when he mashed 42 homers and drove in 128 runs.

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.

Bill: It's like baking bread, or cooking an omelet. The baking of the bread helps the bread up to a point, and then, if you leave the bread in the oven beyond that point, the same things continue to happen, only they don't HELP the bread any more; they begin to ruin the bread.

Eight more players:

26) George Bell 1992, age 32: .255, 25 homers, 112 RBIs 1993, age 33 .217, 13 homers, 64 RBIs

27) Cecil Fielder 1996, age 32: .252., 39 homers, 117 RBIs 1997, age 33: .260, 13 homers, 61 RBIs

28) Albert Belle 1999, age 32: .297, 37 homers, 117 RBIs 2000, age 33: .281, 23 homers, 103 RBIs

29) Brian Jordan 1999, age 32: .283, 23 homers, 115 RBIs 2000, age 33: .264, 17 homers, 77 RBIs

30) Bill Mueller 2003, age 32: .326 (led American League), 19 homers, 83 RBIs 2004, age 33: .283, 12 homers, 57 RBIs

31) Jason Giambi 2003, age 32: .250, 41 homers, 107 RBIs 2004, age 33: .208, 12 homers, 40 RBIs

32) Cliff Floyd 2005, age 32: .273, 34 homers, 98 RBIs 2006, age 33 .244, 11 homers, 44 RBIs

33) Ivan Rodriguez 2004, age 32: .334, 19 homers, 86 RBIs 2005, age 33: .276, 14 homers, 50 RBIs

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.

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