The Journey of a Superstar Getting Old at the Shortstop Position
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On Monday, Derek Jeter returned to the New York Yankees. Again.
If it seems like 2013 has been a tough year for the longtime Yankees shortstop, well, that's because it has.
Not only has Jeter missed practically all season while recovering from a fractured left ankle suffered during the 2012 playoffs, followed by a right quad strain and a right calf strain, he also turned 39 years old in June.
It seems even the formerly durable Jeter, who played at least 148 games in 15 of his 17 full seasons prior to this one, is finally facing down Father Time—and losing.
To put things in perspective, even if Jeter were to play in every one of the Yankees' final 31 contests from here on out—which will not happen—he would have only 37 in the "games played" column for 2013.
While Jeter looks to be on his last legs—legs that he's having trouble keeping healthy—he was undoubtedly a superstar for the better part of the past decade-and-a-half.
Witnessing Derek's decline, which has been oncoming for a few years even if he was still pretty darn great this time a year ago, makes one wonder how and when other recent elite shortstops have experienced their own downturns.
Let's dive in and dissect these declines.
First, we'll need to define what a superstar shortstop is. For that, we'll set a standard of at least three seasons of 5.0 wins above replacement (WAR).
Here, then, is a list of all the shortstops who achieved this over the past 30 years, in order of total career WAR.
|PLAYER||TOTAL CAREER WAR||AGE AT OFFENSIVE DECLINE||AGE AT POSITION SWITCH||AGE AT LAST 4.0-WAR SEASON||AGE IN FINAL SEASON|
Now before going any further, it's worth pointing out that there were a few other names who were tough cuts based on the criteria. Chief among them were Omar Vizquel, Michael Young and Edgar Renteria, but Vizquel topped the 6.0-WAR plateau only once (in his fantastic 1999), same goes for Renteria (in 2003) and Young never did. In other words, including them in the list would open this up to way more players, which would simply dilute the overall talent pool and defeat the purpose.
As far as determining when these superstars started their offensive declines, it's a combination of objective and subjective measures. By using metrics like weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and weighted on-base plus slugging plus (OPS+), it's possible to get a sense of when things started to go south on offense.
Of course, not every player neatly fits into a linear downward trend. For instance, Nomar Garciaparra had a resurgence in 2006—at age 32—with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but that was really more of one last hurrah (or perhaps a dead-cat bounce) than proof that he was still the offensive force he'd been earlier in his career.
And in many cases, a player needed to be compared to himself in order to determine when the decline actually began. Alex Rodriguez is a good example of this, because it could be argued that he was an above-average player compared to all big leaguers even last season (despite missing time with injury). But when comparing A-Rod against A-Rod, it's pretty clear that he dropped off from his elite-level production in 2010.
As for those who have an "N/A" next to their name in the "Age at Offensive Decline" category, it's simply that Jose Reyes and Troy Tulowitzki have yet to experience any dramatically decreased output with the stick.
Hanley Ramirez, though, is a curious case indeed on this front. It appeared that he fell off in 2011 at the just-entering-his-prime age of 27, which would be rather odd. Except it's pretty tough to say that a player who is currently sporting career highs in wRC+ (181) and OPS+ (179) is in decline, right? For now, the jury is still out, so Ramirez also gets the "N/A."
Overall, the average age of offensive decline comes in at 33 or 34 years old, which makes sense considering a player's prime is typically between ages 27 and 32, give or take.
It's tougher, if not impossible, to determine a full picture of when superstar shortstops start to decline for a few reasons.
First, defensive metrics are still imperfect in many ways, and it's best not to read too much into performance in any one season; even those who have studied, researched and developed these statistics will suggest analyzing a sample size of at least two or three seasons to get a truer take.
Beyond that, the primary options for evaluating glove work today are runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR), which have only been around for the past 10 seasons or so. In other words, there's literally no way to use these to measure the dropoffs of Ozzie Smith's or Cal Ripken's defense.
And speaking of Ripken, he raises another issue: the position switch. It's silly, in many ways, to attempt to compare a player's ability with the leather from one position to the next. This is the reason why the chart above has a column that points out when the players shifted off of shortstop (if they have or ever did).
Aside from Rodriguez going from short to third base upon joining the Yankees in 2004 to allow Jeter to remain at his position, it's safe to assume that a move from shortstop to another spot (namely, third base or outfield in the above cases) coincided closely enough with a decreasing ability to handle one of the most demanding defensive positions.
One last point here. Again, Ramirez is an odd bird, as he was moved from short to third by the Marlins as a 28-year-old—only to return to his initial position after being traded to the Dodgers in the middle of 2012. The fact that he's still at shortstop can be attributed to the dearth of talent at the position and the Dodgers' lack of any other legitimate options, but Ramirez has never been a particularly strong defender.
Last Great Season
Because some of these players were more offensive-minded, while others were more defensive-oriented, it helps to combine both aspects of their skill sets (and others, like baserunning) by using wins above replacement (WAR) to uncover when they had their last great season.
Using FanGraphs standards for the metric, a WAR of 4.0 or higher in a season is considered All-Star-caliber, which explains that column in the chart above.
The average age of this final fantastic year is 33.5, which corresponds rather well with the average age of offensive decline—33.6—from above, wouldn't you say?
For the purposes of this calculation, it's assumed that none of Rollins, Rodriguez, Jeter or Tejada, all of whom are still active, will ever again hit 4.0 WAR. That's not a guarantee, but c'mon, would anyone really want to bet on it happening?
Also, Reyes, Ramirez and Tulowitzki weren't considered, because they're still in the primes of their careers and could easily put together at least one or two more All-Star-caliber years.
This isn't to say that many of these players weren't effective after their final 4.0-WAR campaign or that their careers were more or less over (more on that below), but for the most part, they were no longer all-around elite once their offense started to falter, right around 33 or 34 years old.
The counter to that, though, is the fact that Smith, who is perhaps inarguably the best defensive shortstop in the history of baseball, had his final four-win season at age 37—two years older than anyone else.
As the chart shows, the six superstar shortstops over the past 30 years who have hung 'em up did so at an average age of 38.5. That's up there, especially in baseball age.
While it's obviously way too soon to speculate on Reyes, Ramirez and Tulowitzki at this point, Jeter (39 years old) and Tejada (39) will only raise that number once they call it quits, and Rodriguez (38) is likely to do the same (depending, of course, on how his appeal, suspension and the aftermath of his involvement in Biogenesis plays out).
That leaves just Rollins (34) among the "old guard," and his contract is guaranteed through next year and could keep him in Philadelphia through 2015, at which point he would be 36. Barring some injury happening before then, Rollins is likely to bring the average retirement age back down, but only a bit, and it wouldn't be totally shocking to see him hang around into his late 30s.
The point here is that players who have been truly elite shortstops at one point or another since 1983 have managed to hang around for a long, long time. Part of that is because they're generally among the more athletic, agile players on the diamond due to the demands of the position, and part of it is because they're able to extend their careers by moving to another spot (as discussed).
So where does all this leave Jeter? Given the data above and translating it to Jeter's situation—his advancing age, recent injury issues and a contract that runs only through next season—the end to a Hall of Fame career appears to be right around the corner.
Of course, this is the same guy who led the major leagues in hits last season as a 38-year-old. If anything, Jeter already has proven that the typical decline curve—even among superstar shortstops—doesn't always apply.
All WAR statistics come from FanGraphs.
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