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MLB Is Having a Midlife Crisis

Baseball’s age-35-plus players are struggling at an unprecedented rate. So what’s the explanation — and can the league’s old guard turn things around?

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

Baseball’s oldest players have fallen, and they can’t get up. The sport’s millennial takeover continues apace, as the majors skew younger thanks to improved minor league development, financial incentives to roster pre-free-agency players, and the (presumed) disappearance of PEDs from the game. But for every young star who sells jerseys and smashes homers, there’s an older has-been who fades from the league leaderboards, and, in recent years, veteran production has receded to pre–Steroid Era levels.

That’s normal and expected. But the collapse of baseball’s old guard in 2017 is a new development. This is unusual. This is unprecedented. This is baseball’s midlife crisis, in more ways than one.

Let’s start with the broad view. Throughout MLB history before this year, 7 to 8 percent of total WAR in the average season (not counting the negative totals from pitchers batting) belonged to players age 35 or above; even in down years for older players, that figure hovered in the 5 percent range, which is where it has resided in recent youth-driven years. In 2016, for example, players 35 and older accounted for 5.1 percent of the league’s total WAR. This season, players in that age range have combined for negative-0.6 wins above replacement. That’s a negative percent, which has never come close to happening.

Only eight of 26 batters 35 and older have amassed positive WAR, and only 10 of 30 pitchers in the same age range have done so. It’s hard to determine which group is faring worse.

On the hitting side, 35-and-older players this year have a collective wRC+ — which measures a player’s overall value at the plate and adjusts it by ballpark — of 84, or 16 percent worse than the overall league average. Over a full season, that would be the second-worst mark ever, ahead of only 1965’s 81 wRC+ for this subset of hitters. Since 1965, baseball’s elderly cohort hasn’t posted a season-long wRC+ below 95. As older players naturally lose ground on defense and with baserunning, they must rely almost exclusively on their bats to contribute. This year, even that much has been beyond their grasp.

Compared with the overall league population, the 2017 season’s 35-and-older cohort has a batting average 9 percent worse than average, which represents the worst such mark in modern baseball history. By this method of comparison, the group also boasts the third-worst on-base percentage ever and second-worst slugging percentage ever, ahead of only the figures in 1965. And even that relation is somewhat misleading, as in 1965 the two older players with the most plate appearances were both weak-hitting, era-typical shortstops on recent expansion teams (Roy McMillan on the Mets and Bob Lillis on the newly branded Houston Astros), whom nobody confused for middle-of-the-order bats. This year, the veteran stragglers comprise All-Stars, Silver Slugger winners, home run leaders, and MVPs. They include, among others:

  • Adrián González, who was struggling before heading to the disabled list for the first time in his career. Since his first taste of big league success in San Diego in 2006, González hasn’t had a full-season wRC+ below 112; this year, that mark sits at 75.
  • Albert Pujols, who has experienced the unfortunate combination of a career-low walk rate and a career-high strikeout rate. A career-high ground ball rate helps explain why the Angels DH isn’t hitting for power.
  • Mike Napoli, whose 45 wRC+ is 53 points worse than his previous career low, and José Bautista, whose 86 wRC+ is 36 points worse than it’s been in any year since he first broke out in Toronto.
  • Ichiro Suzuki, whose joyous play has been sapped with a sub-Mendoza batting average and a strikeout percentage more than double his career rate.
  • Curtis Granderson, the worst qualified batter in the National League, who is hitting .148/.214/.273 with a 29 wRC+. Steamer (FanGraphs’ projection system) projects that if Tim Tebow were promoted to the majors today to take Granderson’s spot in the outfield, he’d hit a near-equivalent .173/.216/.260 with a 28 wRC+.

From the pitching perspective, the state of affairs is no less dire. Of the seven 35-and-older pitchers with at least 30 innings this season, six are posting a career-worst ERA, FIP, or both; John Lackey is the only exception, and even he — like the rest of the Cubs staff — is struggling to match his 2016 performance. Overall, this group of pitchers features a collective ERA 28 percent worse than league average and a FIP 20 percent worse; both of those marks would be the worst ever by unhealthy margins.

Pick a category that determines a pitcher’s success, and this year’s veterans are failing at it. Compared with the league average, they’re posting the highest home run rate since the dead-ball era (a whopping 25 percent higher than league average), the second-worst strikeout rate since the 1969 mound lowering, and the worst walk rate since 1901, versus other 35-and-older cohorts against their respective league averages. The group also has the worst relative batting average against since 1909 and the worst relative WHIP since 1901.

On an individual basis, the pitchers’ output is less surprising than the hitters’. The six aforementioned starters are R.A. Dickey, Adam Wainwright, CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colón, Bronson Arroyo, and Hisashi Iwakuma, all of whom evinced cause for concern in recent seasons. The most prominent 35-and-older relievers — Fernando Rodney and Francisco Rodríguez — doubled as the sport’s most volatile closers until Rodríguez was relegated to a lower-leverage role last week.

CC Sabathia (AP Images)
CC Sabathia (AP Images)

Taking batters and pitchers together, the trend is clear, the catalyzing factors less so. Compared with the past 10 to 15 years, during which time individual pitch and batted-ball data became available, age-35-plus batters are hitting fewer line drives than before, but they’re not hitting the ball softer overall, nor has their plate discipline evaporated — which is odd, given that they’re striking out more than the league average for the first time since 1979. Pitchers don’t seem to be exhibiting much change in their command of the strike zone either, and while they’re inducing slightly fewer swings-and-misses than they have in recent years, the difference is minor enough that it doesn’t by itself explain those lackluster strikeout and walk rates.

The plummeting performances also aren’t entirely attributable to the disappearance of good players from the pool. David Ortiz and David Ross retired in the offseason and Adrián Beltré hasn’t played yet this year due to injury, but every other effective 35-plus bat from last season is still around, and the most valuable 35-plus pitcher last year who hasn’t appeared in 2017 is Jake Peavy, who was worth only 0.9 WAR and managed a 5.54 ERA.

It seems, instead, as if every older player just stopped playing well at the same time. That explanation for this year’s near-uniform decline across the over-35 cohort isn’t satisfying on a macro level, but with nearly all the players in this group, the underlying causes of their foundering production are clear on a case-by-case basis — such as Pujols’s ground ball rate and Suzuki’s strikeout problems. While most of those problems began before 2017, they accelerated and metastasized at once.

The data doesn’t necessarily suggest that old players are doomed for the foreseeable future — though watch out, current age-34 players; Miguel Cabrera, for one, is posting the worst numbers of his career — and as the season progresses, all those worst-evers might abate. Outlier stat lines should regress somewhat to career norms and the underperformers should start to receive less playing time, allowing the veterans who are playing well — from Nelson Cruz and Matt Holliday at the plate to Lackey and relievers like Koji Uehara on the mound — to grab a larger share of the cohort’s total plate appearances and innings, respectively.

Even if the numbers begin to normalize later this summer, though, the reality of watching Ichiro whimper with a whiff or Pujols shuffle to first, unable to ward off another double play, will remain jarring. Young players are exciting and upbeat and fun, but so was Ichiro once, and so was Pujols. Now they’re playing out the dusks of their careers, sans bat, sans WAR, sans glove, sans everything.

Leaguewide stats are current through Sunday’s games.