February 3, 2004
The wrong side of 30
I have often said, when talking about a player's age, that he is "on the wrong side of 30." The theory being, of course, that players tend to peak in their mid-to-late 20s, and then tend to decline in their 30s.
A good example of this saying in use would be with Detroit's recent signing of Ivan Rodriguez. The Tigers signed Rodriguez for four years and my response to a contract of that length might be to say: "Pudge is a very good player right now, but he's also a catcher on the wrong side of 30, so there's a good chance he won't be a very good player by the time the contract is over."
Rather than study the peak years and decline years of players, which has been done by people much smarter than me already, I simply want to look at some of the all-time best performances in major league history for players on the right side of 30 and the wrong side of 30.
For the purposes of this little exercise, we'll break down the entire history of baseball into two groups:
1) The right side of 30 (30 and under)
2) The wrong side of 30 (31 and over)
*Lee Sinins' invaluable Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia was used to make this possible and only seasons from 1900 to the present are included.
Let's take a look at the leaders...
30 AND UNDER 31 AND OVER
Christy Mathewson 289 Phil Niekro 264
Walter Johnson 277 Warren Spahn 255
Catfish Hunter 201 Cy Young 244
George Mullin 195 Gaylord Perry 219
Chief Bender 193 Early Wynn 199
Bob Feller 192 Eddie Plank 197
Hal Newhouser 191 Dazzy Vance 197
Don Drysdale 190 Lefty Grove 185
Grover C Alexander 190 Grover C Alexander 183
Wes Ferrell 190 Nolan Ryan 183
Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander is the only pitcher to appear on both top-10 lists and, not coincidentally, he ranks 3rd all-time in total wins, with 373. Cy Young would also appear on both lists, ranking 3rd on the "30 and Under" list in addition to 3rd on the "31 and Over" list if seasons before 1900 were counted. Young, in addition to having an award named after him, ranks 1st all-time in total wins, with 511.
I think probably the most amazing things to me here are Phil Niekro and Warren Spahn's win totals after the age of 30. If you only take their wins on the wrong side of 30, ignoring what they did in their first three decades on earth, Niekro ranks 36th all-time in career wins and Spahn ranks 38th. To me, that is absolutely amazing.
Niekro didn't get a chance to be a starting pitcher until he was 28 years old. In his first year starting games, 1967, he pitched 207 innings with a league-leading 1.87 ERA. He went on to pitch until he was 48 years old, starting a total of 716 games, which ranks 4th all-time.
Spahn pitched 15.2 innings as a 21-year-old and then didn't return to the major leagues until he was 25. He then pitched at least 240 innings in every season from the time he was 26 until he was 42. For the mathematically-challenged among us, that means he pitched 240+ innings in 17 straight seasons. During that time, he had an ERA above 3.50 just once (3.71 as a 27-year-old) and posted an ERA below 3.00 eight times.
Greg Maddux (165), Roger Clemens (163) and Pedro Martinez (152) are the active leaders in wins through the age of 30, while Randy Johnson (149), Clemens (147) and David Wells (142) are the top three active winners after turning 30.
30 AND UNDER 31 AND OVER
Ken Griffey Jr. 438 Babe Ruth 405
Jimmie Foxx 429 Hank Aaron 389
Mickey Mantle 404 Barry Bonds 366
Eddie Mathews 399 Mark McGwire 345
Frank Robinson 373 Willie Mays 341
Mel Ott 369 Rafael Palmeiro 334
Hank Aaron 366 Andres Galarraga 292
Juan Gonzalez 362 Reggie Jackson 282
Alex Rodriguez 345 Hank Sauer 281
Sammy Sosa 336 Willie Stargell 279
Harmon Killebrew 336
Unlike the wins leaderboards, the home run leaderboards are filled with guys from this era. The 30 and Under list includes four players who are active and the 31 and Over list includes three, plus Mark McGwire, who retired just a few years ago.
I think my favorite thing from the home run leaders is that Alex Rodriguez ranks 9th all-time in homers through the age of 30. This might not seem particularly interesting, except for the fact that Rodriguez will be playing his age-28 season in 2004. That means he's got three seasons to add to his 30 and Under total, which likely means he'll be at the top of the list at some point.
ARod has averaged 52 homers a season over the last three years. If he can duplicate those numbers over the next three years, that would put him at 501 career homers through the age of 30. That's nearly 15% more than the current 30 and Under leader, Ken Griffey Jr.
Another active player, Barry Bonds, is in a position to become the all-time leader in homers after the age of 30 this season. He needs 40 homers to jump over Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, and Bonds has hit 40+ homers in each of the last four seasons, including 45 last year.
Speaking of Hank Aaron, he is the only player to appear in both top-10s, ranking 7th all-time in homers through age-30 and 2nd all-time in homers after age-30. Aaron is, of course, the all-time total home run leader with 755, although Bonds is about two good seasons away from passing him.
Sammy Sosa ranks 10th all-time in homers before age-30 and he already has 203 career homers after age-30, despite being just 34 years old last season. With two more typical Sosa years, he'll also be on both lists.
Mike Schmidt is the only player among the top 10 all-time home run leaders who doesn't make the top 10 for 30 and Under or 31 and Over. Schmidt's 548 career homers ranks 9th all-time, but he hit "only" 283 homers through age-30 and just 265 after age-30.
The only name on either home run list that isn't a household name to most baseball fans (myself included) is probably Hank Sauer, who ranks 9th all-time in homers after the age of 30, with 281. Sauer appeared in a total of just 47 games in his 20s and played his first full-season as a 31-year-old in 1948. He hit .260/.340/.504 that year, finishing 4th in the league in homers with 35.
Despite his incredibly late start, Sauer hit 30+ homers in each of his first five full-seasons, including a 37 HR/121 RBI season in 1952, which got him the NL MVP. He then hit just 19 homers in 1953, but bounced back in 1954 and hit a career-high 41 homers, which was good for 3rd in the league.
Sauer finished his career with 288 homers in just 1,399 games. Among non-active players with fewer than 1,400 career games, Sauer ranks 2nd all-time, behind only Hank Greenberg and his 331 homers in 1,394 games.
RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE
*Runs Created Above Average (RCAA) is a Lee Sinins stat that is defined as "the difference between a player's Runs Created total and the total for an average player who used the same amount of his team's outs."
30 AND UNDER 31 AND OVER
Ty Cobb 909 Babe Ruth 929
Mickey Mantle 896 Barry Bonds 817
Babe Ruth 866 Ted Williams 612
Ted Williams 863 Honus Wagner 552
Jimmie Foxx 842 Edgar Martinez 537
Lou Gehrig 784 Stan Musial 478
Rogers Hornsby 770 Willie Mays 477
Mel Ott 741 Tris Speaker 466
Stan Musial 726 Lou Gehrig 463
Frank Thomas 607 Ty Cobb 460
The best 30 and Under hitter in baseball history? According to RCAA, it is Ty Cobb. Through his age-30 season, Cobb was a career .370/.434/.516 hitter with 2,361 hits, 1,077 RBIs, 1,240 runs scored and 704 stolen bases. He also had already won nine batting titles while leading his league in OPS+ 10 times.
The entire 30 and Under RCAA leaderboard is really a who's who of inner-circle Hall of Fame hitters. Cobb, Mantle, Ruth, Williams, Foxx, Gehrig, Hornsby, Ott, Musial. Even Frank Thomas, the only active player on the list and someone whom I think is often overlooked, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those all-time greats.
One thing I noticed looking at those two lists is how much higher the RCAA totals are for the 30 and Under guys. All 10 of the 30 and Under leaders were 600+ RCAA, while just three hitters reached 600+ RCAA after they turned 30. All of which would go along with the idea that there is such a thing as "the wrong side of 30."
Cobb, Ruth, Williams, Gehrig and Musial each appear in both the 30 and Under and 31 and Over top-10s for RCAA. As I talked about in some depth last month, Ted Williams' RCAA rankings (4th and 3rd) are particularly impressive, considering he missed all of his age-24, 25 and 26 seasons, as well as almost all of his age-33 and 34 seasons while serving his country. Despite missing all that time, Williams still ranks 2nd all-time in career RCAA, behind only Babe Ruth. For more on Ted Williams and his missed seasons, check out this entry from last month.
Edgar Martinez's appearance on the 31 and Over RCAA leaderboard was surprising to me. I am generally of the opinion that Martinez has been underrated for a long time, but apparently even I am guilty of that in this case. Edgar wasn't an everyday player until he was 27 and he still ranks 5th among all active players in career RCAA. And, as you can see above, he is 2nd to only Bonds among active players in RCAA after the age of 30.
What exactly does all this stuff mean? Well, I'm not sure exactly, but I thought it was interesting. In case you're curious, the following players will be "on the wrong side of 30" for the first time in their careers in 2004:
Shawn Green Bartolo Colon
Mike Cameron Jason Schmidt
Cliff Floyd Keith Foulke
Corey Koskie Derek Lowe
Scott Spiezio Brad Radke
Todd Walker Mike Hampton
Jay Payton Latroy Hawkins
David Bell Ryan Franklin
Alex Gonzalez Armando Benitez
Chris Singleton Brett Tomko
Deivi Cruz Shawn Estes
Pokey Reese Jason Isringhausen
Neifi Perez Ramon Ortiz
Interestingly enough, studies suggest that the decline phase for baseball bloggers begins much earlier than the decline phase for baseball players. Luckily I still have some time left before I'm on the wrong side of 22.
See ya tomorrow...
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