We are taught at a young age to respect our elders, but when it comes to baseball, we are constantly drawn to the youngsters. However, veterans are often reliable and provide a steady hand in the clubhouse. Justin Gorman takes a look at the elder statesmen of MLB to see what they are providing to their teams.
There is a youth movement across Major League Baseball that is reaching a fever pitch. We at Sons of Sam Horn have discussed it on numerous occasions, especially as it relates to the kids that have had the opportunity to make a material impact at Fenway Park. The excitement surrounding these young players is understandable – fans want them to become the next superstar for their team for years to come.
While these nascent superstars are occupying the lion’s share of the conversation, the leaders of the pride keep watch from the periphery. The elder statesmen of baseball, many in the twilight of their careers, no longer command the attention they once did. Despite yielding the spotlight, veteran players have proven that they still add value to their organizations through their leadership, ability to mentor the young guns, and occasionally – their performance.
Sean O’Neill did a fantastic breakdown of Bartolo Colon, who would easily make the list of old men with substantial contributions to an MLB team in 2015. To provide some updated statistics on the 42-year old Colon, he currently holds a 9-9 record with a 4.60 ERA – and is averaging 7.06 K/9. Since Sean did the legwork, I will concentrate on five other sprightly players who are making their mark at an advanced age:
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies (Age: 42)
LaTroy Hawkins has never been an All-Star pitcher, but he has filled different roles during his 21-year career in the majors. In his first five years for the Twins, he was a starter before he was moved to the pen in 2000, where he had a pretty good run as a closer. In the last 15 years, Hawkins has only registered three years with an ERA+ under 100, both as a closer and a set-up man. I admit that ERA+ is a somewhat fallacious measure for a relief pitcher, but in this case, it demonstrates his consistency over time. This season, he has performed well enough that he is easily earning his $4.5M contract – over 21 1/3 innings, he has a 3.63 ERA, striking out 20 batters (an 8.4 K/9) and cruising to an ERA+ of 133, while registering two saves along the way. Hawkins announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2015 season, but based on his performance thus far, it is fair to think he may be able to make a material contribution to a team in 2016.
Ichiro Suzuki, Miami Marlins (Age: 41)
A perennial All-Star, and the 2001 MVP and Rookie of the Year, Ichiro’s reputation precedes him. The Marlins signed him to a 1-year, $2M deal in the offseason, a relative bargain for a player who has proven time and again that he can play. This year, Ichiro’s batting line is mediocre (.243/.295/.284), but he has appeared in 94 games for the Marlins – and remarkably, he has stolen nine bases in fourteen attempts. FanGraphs provides a chart on K% for batters – and Ichiro’s numbers this year would qualify just outside of “great” by their measure: 31 strikeouts in 239 plate appearances equates to a 13 K%. Nobody is arguing that he is the All-Star caliber player he was for so many years, but he is contributing enough to the Marlins to substantiate the claim that his contract has been a steal.
Torii Hunter, Minnesota Twins (Age: 39)
Another player with multiple All-Star selections, Torii Hunter returned to the Twin Cities this year after several years with the Angels and Tigers. Hunter’s price tag ($10.5M) was much higher than Ichiro or Hawkins, but he has put up formidable numbers. He is currently sporting a line of .251/.304/.438, with 16 homers and 54 runs batted in. He does not have the speed that he used to, and he has lost a step defensively, but his offense is on par with the other free agent outfielders this past offseason – Melky Cabrera (2015 salary: $13M, age 30) is batting .272/.312/.371; Nick Markakis (2015 salary: $11M, age 31) is at .288/.370/.362; and Alex Rios (2015 salary: $11M, age 34) has limped to a .261/.294/.337 in only 54 games. As Tony Kosinski and I discussed, baseball contracts are non-linear – the 2015 free agent market for outfielders was relatively thin, and Hunter had the added benefit of reputational goodwill in Minnesota. His performance, as well as his fan appeal, made his $10.5M contract a fair market value this past offseason, and he is rewarding the Twins with a level of performance that exceeds reasonable expectations for a man his age.
David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox (Age: 39)
Ortiz is the example on this list whose contract is most divergent to his statistical line thus far – he is making $16M this year and has churned out a .243/.332/.468 line. The consummate David Ortiz sympathizer will point out that the entire Red Sox offense has struggled this year, and despite that, he has still gone deep 19 times, driving in 54 runs. Others will point out (and rightfully so) that he has gotten absolutely eviscerated by left-handed pitching – Ortiz is batting .277/.387/.558 against righties and an abysmal .163/.184/.255 against southpaws.
It remains to be seen if his numbers continue to normalize as they have since the beginning of the year, but the value he provides to the Red Sox is obvious – despite his inability to hit left-handed pitching, Ortiz still draws crowds. Fans want to see Papi up until the day he retires – he is a Boston living legend – his reputational goodwill is off the charts. He is still contributing enough both on and off the field to justify the salary he is drawing out of a large-market team in the apparent midst of rebuilding. Additionally, the Sox have team options for $10M each of the next two years. The salary could go up to $16 million based on plate appearances – if Ortiz is at least a serviceable platoon DH against right-handed pitching, then he will provide the Red Sox with a certain return on investment until he throws in the towel.
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees (Age: 39)
It gives me agita to write this, but Alex Rodriguez is having a sensational year for his age. I needn’t rehash his career statistics nor his PED use, but the three-time MVP has put together a banner comeback year in 2015. Through the 90 games A-Rod has played, he is boasting a .277/.375/.539 slash line with a 152 OPS+, his highest since 2007. The Evil Empire sits atop the AL East standings in large part due to Rodriguez’s resurgence this year.
A-Rod will take home $22M this year, and $21M each of the next two seasons. Additionally, he will be owed $30M in marketing bonuses for home run milestones from 660 HR to 763 HR. The Yankees can only hope that he will replicate this level of performance for the next two years to mitigate the monumental contract he has, regardless of the non-linearity. If he were to carry this level of play through age 41, then the argument may be made that he was worth the money at the tail end of his contract, which nobody would have guessed as recently as four months ago.
It will remain rare to see players play deep into their 40s. Julio Franco (106 PA in 2007 between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets at age 48) and Jamie Moyer (started 10 games for the Colorado Rockies in 2012 at age 49) are recent exceptions to that rule, and that sort of longevity is likely to remain the exception. However, the five players listed above, plus Colon and numerous others, do prove that veteran players still remain extremely relevant in the game of baseball, and for good reason.