Nationals Baseball: Age-ism

Wednesday, December 02, 2015


I just wanted to go into a little more about age as a limiting factor because I think it's being undersold.

As far as just looking at age by itself, there is no magic number where one year you are great and the next you are terrible. Age is a slow process that effects everyone differently. However, the overall decline is clear and it eventually comes for everyone. That means the longer you rely on a pitcher the more risky the proposition. Late 20s are a lower risk than early 30s are a lower risk than mid 30s etc. etc.

Since we can't determine when the decline will happen (or what kind of decline it will be) it makes a lot of sense to try to get as much production in lower risk time frames as possible. When looking at ZNN vs Scherzer in 2016 and beyond* the edge for ZNN is clear.

I've used the term "old 26" and "young 30" before. I do that because baseball reference considers a player age for a season to be his age on July 1st. You have to pick some date, that's the reality of it. While not perfect, their solution is a pretty good compromise between getting a date close to game #81 and getting a date that's easy to remember. However, you can see the problem that happens with having to pick a singular date. A player 29 turning 30 on June 30th would be considered the same age as a player 30 turning 31 on July 2nd, even though clearly they are more accurately thought of as being a year apart. To compensate for that I like to call players with in-season birthdays "old" and "young". If you have a birthday in-season before July 1st you are "young" and if your birthday happens after that date you are "old".

Really this is far more useful for prospects (being "old" vs " young" in the low minors can be the difference between elite and good) and only comes into play in the majors if you happen to be directly comparing a "young" player and an "old" player relatively close in age. Hey! That's what we are doing here! ZNN is a "young" guy (May 23rd birthday) and Max is an "old" guy (July 27th). And that means we are getting a big heaping handful of starts from a younger ZNN.

On April 1 2016 Max Scherzer will be 31 years and 247 days old (give or take a day on these things - leap years and all). Jordan Zimmerman will reach that same age sometime during February in 2018.  Every start Jordan Zimmermann makes in 2016 and every start he makes in 2017 will be at a younger age than Max Scherzer will be to start next year. 

To me that matters, that matters a lot. When you look at career pitching aging curves and see the declines that seem to be precipitous between 31 and 33, when you look at Hall of Fame careers and notice that they all pretty much peak in their late 20s/early 30s**, you get nervous. Sure Scherzer is a great pitcher right now, better than ZNN. But ask me if I want basically 30 and 31 year old ZNN or if I want basically 32 and 33 year old Max, I hesitate and land on ZNN. Ask me if I want basically 32 and 33 years old ZNN or basically 34 and 35 year old Max and I don't even hesitate.

I'm not saying it's wrong to see it another way. Maybe you care more about that Tommy John injury or think there is something special about Max that will allow him to be good longer***  I am saying that for me what I can feel sure about knowing is limited to the fact that in general as you age you get worse. That makes age paramount to me over any single injury and the age advantage for Zimmermann is big. 

Now there's also another thing to consider. I did say in the beginning that I was "looking at age by itself". As Indy once said though "it's not the age, it's the mileage".  What kind of mileage do these guys have and what does that say about them? Does that age plus something else lead us to look at a specific age in the future that may in fact be a point of no return? Tomorrow, my friends.

*I'm not asking here which is the better contract or who will give the Nats the most value over time. If you want to look at that you would put Max and ZNN a year closer in age since Max signed it last year. I'm looking solely at who I would want from 2016 forward. You can argue that "Max w/ ZNN for a year then Max alone after that" is better than "No Max at all and ZNN alone after" but that's a different question. 

** What's up with Randy Johnson's career? Freak arm, am I right?  

*** I tend to believe the opposite though - that ZNN's career that leans more toward pitch to contact lends itself more to a Mark Buerhle type 2nd act than MAx Scherzer's get them to swing and miss career. 


Scherzer's Blue Eye said...

Posted this to you on Twitter: look at Kevin Brown's 30-38 years. People like to poo-poo that contract the Dodgers gave him--but he was still a very good pitcher in the twilight of his career.

Donald said...

I'm trying to understand where this post is coming from. For the next 5 seasons (2016 - 2020), you are saying that Scherzer will likely be better in 2016 but it's more like a toss-up (leaning slightly towards Znn) in 2017 & 2018 and a strong preference toward Znn in 2019 & 2020? Does that lead you to conclude that the Nats shouldn't have signed Scherzer last year and extended Znn instead? Scherzer was certainly better than Znn in 2015, and will probably be better in 2016 and 2017. I'd rather have Scherzer and Znn for 2015, followed by Scherzer for 5 years than no Scherzer in 2015 and then 5 more years of Znn. 2015 didn't play out the way we hoped, but if anything, last year called into question Znn's longer-term value more than Max's.

Or is this more just to say if we were starting with a clean slate, you'd take a 5 year contract for Znn today over a 5 year contract for Scherzer? Even there, I'm not sure I agree. You are usually the proponent of winning now at all costs and Max gives you a better chance in 2016 and 2017. Maybe Znn gives you a better chance in 2018 - 2020, but a lot is going to transpire before then, so why even factor it in?

Also, not sure where it's coming from, but the Nats seem to mistrust TJ arms past 6 years or so. They seem to have made a study of the TJ process more than just about any club so who knows if there's any rational basis for it. But I'm sure that played a huge role in their contract decisions. Of course, that doesn't bode particularly well for extending Strasburg.

Harper said...

I'm saying the 2nd, clean slate thing. And while I would take Scherzer in 2016 (how can you not looking at most recent year) I'm not even sure I'd take Max 2016-17 over ZNN 2016-17.

As for the "should they have signed Max" thing - there's just a lot of unknowns there. What I would say is I think I would have liked ZNN extended and the money used for Max directed elsewhere. But who knows if that was even an option when Boras hypnotized the Lerners? If you say Max in 2015 - Max forward or no Max in 2015 - ZNN forward and leave it just as that. I'd take Max in 2015 because you get that year that was as close to "All-in" as the Nats would get.

Really though - what I want is Strasburg signed long-term. I think the Max signing was moving from Stras/ZNN to Max/Giolito and I don't think Max will be around (good & healthy I mean) long enough to really get that 1-2 punch. I think ZNN or Stras are better bets.

Froggy said...

Doesn't Zach Greinke disprove your theory Harper?

John C. said...

I have no problem feeling that both Zimmermann and Scherzer are likely to be approaching/into the part of the career where their performances are likely to decline (with some individual variation in performance along the way). Because of the age difference that you cite, I also agree that Scherzer is the part of his career where his decline is likely to be modestly steeper than Zimmermann's going forward.

Where I disagree is that this means that Zimmermann is likely to outperform Scherzer over the next five season. Could it happen? Sure! You know, baseball. There is a small but nonzero chance that Tanner Roark outperforms both of them over the next five years. I'm unconvinced by your belief that JZ's "pitch to contact" M.O. will age better than Scherzer's stuff. The problem isn't pitching to contact, it's that if your stuff/location slips slightly the contact gets much louder and more damaging (see, e.g., a recent Fangraphs article on Zimmermann's fastball problems in 2015). JZ's seeming inability to develop a consistent third pitch concerns me.

But even assuming all that, the talent difference between Scherzer and Zimmermann comes into play. Scherzer's decline would have to be unusually steep, or Zimmermann to have an unusual lack of decline, to close the gap in the next 3-4 years. One projection system, Steamer, has them both slipping a bit in 2016 - likely Scherzer from his 2015 height and due to age, and JZ because of a combination of recent performance, age, and the move to the AL. Scherzer is projected to 5.7 fWAR, JZ at 2.5. Even if you assume (arguendo; I'm not convinced) that JZ is better in 2020 than Max, it's likely that Max's lead generated in 2016-2018 will have put him far enough ahead in production that he is still better over the total five year period.

As for signing Stras long term, I'm not against it; I think that his reputation as a supposed "hothouse flower" is completely overblown. But to think that Strasburg is a better bet going forward I find difficult to endorse because of his injury history. Sure, their rate stats are actually very comparable, and yes, Stras has less mileage on his second elbow than Max has on his first, but that's in large part because Strasburg's injuries kept him from piling up pitch counts. It's hard for me to award him an expectation bonus going forward due to lower pitch counts given the reason. And that's before you get to the "first/second elbow" thing.

Donald said...

Harper -- Christmas has come early for you! Per MLB Trade Rumors re arbitration:

•And the Nationals will pay $900K to outfielder/first baseman Tyler Moore for the 2016 season, also per Heyman (via Twitter). He’ll land a bit shy of his $1MM projection, but the more relevant matter here is the fact that Moore will keep his roster spot.

Rob Evans said...

WHAT!!! Mary Tyler Moore is staying! Give me a break...

Anonymous said...

Great post John C. Scherzer can decline faster than Z'nn and still be a better pitcher over the next few years. I also agree that Strasburg's rate stats compare favorably with Scherzer's but serious deficit in IP ought to be a discounting factor rather than an enhancing factor. One bandied about justification for the Werth deal was that Werth would age gracefully because he missed so much time with injuries during his 20s. Whatever you think of the Werth contract, I don't think that's proven to be true.

Harper, your primary argument appears to be that you like Z'nn better than Max as a long-term bet because Max is older (and perhaps also because of Max's past heavy usage). Age is surely a relevant factor, but I've long been under the impression that there's more variance in pitcher aging curves than there is for hitter's. Max's stuff/performance will inevitably decline. What makes you think it will be steeper than average? Leading indicators of age-related decline - decreased velocity and decreased K% - are quite stable for Max. His FB velocity was higher than his average last year and his K% was a career high (an elite skill for Max). Z'nn's 2015 K% was a bit below his career average, down from his 2014 career high. There doesn't appear to be anything in Z'nn's velo, which has been amazingly consistent post TJ - every year between 93.0 and 93.8. Does your argument just boil down to "Max is 31 and 31 year old pitchers get worse."?

Harper said...

Froggy - well there are always going to be exceptions, both careers (see Randy Johnson), and seasons (see a lot of pitchers) so I'd like to see what Greinke does next year. I think a whole run higher and a very solid season is far more likely than a Cy Young one, which would make the season, not the career the exception.

Could Max be an exception? Sure. Could ZNN? Sure.

John C - I see your point. It's not like we're ever going to settle this. Meet you back here after 2018 and we'll declare a winner.

I understand your point on Strasburg too. But it's not about pitch counts here - it's about "4 years younger" The chances Strasburg has his 4 best years in the next 4 is completely possible. The chances Max has his 4 best years in the next 4 is very unlikely. Even weighted for injury risk I gotta believe Stras is a better bet to form a multi-year 1-2 punch with Giolito than Max is. If Stras has a major injury soon (arguably more likely that Max) it's possible he still comes back from it. If Max has a major injury soon it's possible that ends him.

At this point I don't think they do sign Stras long term though. What I wanted was a 1-2-3 punch be it Max-Stras-Lito or ZNN-Stras-Lito. I think they are just going to give us Max-Lito and hope Ross takes another half-step up.

Harper said...

Anon - pretty much. Max is entering the age where steeper declines become more common. ZNN has a another couple years before hitting that.

I also think people are jumping way fast on "this is ZNN now". But we'll see.

Anonymous said...

Harper - I have to take issue with this: "If Stras has a major injury soon (arguably more likely that Max) it's possible he still comes back from it. If Max has a major injury soon it's possible that ends him."

If the injury is a torn UCL, one would have to like Max's chances to come back MUCH MUCH better than Stras's or Z'nn's because the success rate for 1st TJ surgeries is so much better than for 2nd TJ surgeries. The reality is that a second TJ surgery would likely end Stras/Z'nn but not Max. 31 year old pitchers have come back from TJ surgery many times before.

If the injury is a serious shoulder injury, the success rate for a return seems quite low regardless of who has the injury. I'll grant you that Stras or Z'nn has better prospects than Max because of age, but moving from a low number to a slightly less low number isn't all that important.

If the injury is some sort of leg injury (ACL, achillies), I think the younger man probably has a better chance of success. We'll see how Wainwright does next year.

Wally said...

I get the point, but like several others, I think that you can't just pick out age and say that is what makes the difference. It has to be something like comparing true talent level + relative age to make the case. And I think all agree that Miracle Max starts at a higher true talent level than JZ, so you look at the age difference to see how much that closes the gap. But on the other hand, to potentially support your point, I do not think decline is linear, and when it starts, it is hard to predict how quickly and far it will come (look at Verlander and Sabathia, for example). I'd say the the best predictor of a gradual decline is command, followed by quality of secondary stuff, and velocity or pitch to contact has little to do with it. So, mixing all of that, on performance alone over the next 5 years, I'd say Stras > Max > JZ.

So like you, I would like to see Stras extended, but within reason. JZ money is no brainer to me, but Stras won't accept. I'd be willing to go as high as Lester money, but then I think that I would drop out. How high would you go?

blovy8 said...

All of this either/or implies an assumption that a "fair" deal could have been made with Zimmermann at some point. It appears to me that Zimm actually took less than he was worth to pitch in Detroit, and did not wish to do that with the Nationals. Also, at that price, wouldn't the Nats bid on Zimmerman given that deal is probably 100 million less than it would take to extend Strasburg and was pretty much the evaluation they made of his value with just an added year? If they don't want to go a few million more than that for him, what does it say about a potential Strasburg offer that would take 100 million more? Has there even been a leak about what a Strasburg extension offer would look like? Boras would be looking for a Price/Kershaw/Greinke ace level deal with incomplete evidence proving that he can have that value. While the franchise philosophy appears to be limiting the exposure to high-stress situations for young TJ surgery-recovering pitchers, it does leave you wondering if that creates less value for these guys in the Nats' system. As in, the innings limits and skipped starts over minor issues hinder the amount they actually pitch. The benefit of Scherzer is that he doesn't have those limits, despite the "no restrictions" things Rizzo says, they do seem to have more for these young guys. As a usage pattern, I bet they get more from Max just due to that even if their talent level becomes closer over time.

Anonymous said...

Harper, do you think that Boras might give the Nats a break re Stras because Rizzo took the heat over the 2012 shutdown? By a "break," I mean that Boras wouldn't insist on Price/Kershaw money for Stras, but would settle for the next level down (Lester?).

Dave said...

Kinda late to the party here, but while this is a nice analysis in the abstract about the relative pitcher values, I am in blovy's camp around the probable realities of Rizzo's choices. Based on JZ's contract with Detroit, and his insistance on a full "no trade" clause the first 3 years, with only a 10 team exception (basically the size of the 2 Central divisions) for the next 2, I think it looks like the "rumours" that JZ really wanted to get back to the midwest were probably true. When he said to the press that he would only sign a "fair value deal", that could well have been translated in private to Rizzo as it would take a silly overpay for him to even consider the East Coast. Similarly, it could well be that there haven't been leaks about a Strasburg extension because he is telling Rizzo the same thing, but focused on going to the West Coast.
In those scenarios, the Max signing would make a lot of sense as a recognition by Rizzo that he couldn't sign either of the other two, so needed to sign a major FA to fill that gap.

Robot said...

something something Nolan Ryan something something....

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