Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Baseball's This is 40

Can Ortiz (left) and Rodriguez still hack it at 40? (Sporting News)
David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez are about to embark on their age-40 seasons. Based on how good both were at 39, many are expecting them to remain productive this year. However, it's important to remember that, even in today's world of modern medicine and training, it's still incredibly rare to be a good baseball player at age 40. The list of productive seasons by 40 year-olds is a short one, but as you can see below it's happened enough so that another strong season by Rodriguez and/or Ortiz isn't out of the question. Here are some of the best performances by 40 year-old position players in baseball history, listed in chronological order (notice that there have been much more lately).

1927 Ty Cobb
With the home run boom in full swing, Cobb's slashing brand of baseball was already becoming obsolete. But while he may have felt like a dinosaur as the game changed around him, he was still good at doing the things he knew best, namely singles and steals. In the Georgia Peach's first season with the A's but last season as an everyday player, he batted .357/.440/.482 with 93 RBI and 22 steals--good for 4.4 bWAR.

1930 Sam Rice
This was a great year for hitters regardless of age, so you can't fault Rice for joining the party. His counting stats were off-the-charts (121 runs, 207 hits, 13 triples), and his rate stats (.349/.407/.457) were pretty good, too. Altogether, Rice was worth 4.7 bWAR--the highest total of his career.

Appling was a name that came up a lot the last few years when people were comparing Derek Jeter to past shortstops at the same age. Appling was pretty much the only one still able to hit a damn as he approached middle-age. He remained as robust as ever at 40, compiling 4.6 bWAR and making his final All-Star team. The future Hall of Famer also slugged a career-high eight home runs and batted .306/.386/.412 (126 OPS+)--exceptional numbers for a shortstop back then.

By wRC+, Mays at 40 was better than any baseball player who ever lived. That shouldn't come as a surprise, seeing as how he was at almost every other age, too. Compared to the rest of his body of work, 1971 was actually a very strange season for the Say Hey Kid. He walked a league-leading and career-high 112 times, which gave him a league-leading and career-high .425 OBP, but he also struck out 123 times--his lone year in triple digits. He still had enough of his trademark power and speed to muscle 18 home runs and 24 doubles while stealing 23 bases in 26 tries--his most thefts since 1960. Mays was still playing center field on a regular basis, too, which helped him rack up 6.3 bWAR in what turned out to be his last great season.

After getting Babe Ruth's record out of the way early on, the newly minted home run king went on to enjoy the last fruitful season of his illustrious career (as well as his last with the Braves). He had a record-20th consecutive season with at least 20 homers, walked more than he struck out, and batted a rock-solid .268/.341/.491 (128 OPS+). He promptly fell apart after moving back to Milwaukee and becoming a full-time DH, but in the year he broke Ruth's record he was still a pretty good ballplayer.

Few players have been better at 40 than Aaron (left) and Mays (Bronx Banter)
1981 Pete Rose
Charlie Hustle was still a hit machine at 40, leading the majors in hits for the seventh and final time while batting .325 with a .391 OBP. It probably helped that '81 was cut short by a strike, otherwise Rose might have worn down. It turned out to be his last great season, though he hung on for another six years to become baseball's hit king.

The DH definitely prolonged Mr. October's career, helping him play six seasons out west after leaving New York. While his bat was all out of postseason heroics by that point, it still had a fair amount of juice left, which he used to bat .241/.379/.408 (116 OPS+) with 18 home runs for the division-winning Angels (a team eventually undone by the late Dave Henderson's homer).

Evans was another player who never seemed to get old, remaining productive through age 41 (ditching third base for first and DH helped). His age-40 campaign was actually one of his best, resulting in the third-highest bWAR (4.9) of his 21-year career. Aided by the offensive explosion that occurred across baseball that year, Evans bashed 34 home runs, totaled 99 RBI and worked 100 walks, giving him a strong .257/.379/.501 batting line and 135 OPS+. Those numbers would likely represent a best-case scenario for A-Rod and Ortiz next year.

Fisk only played 76 games--his fewest since 1974--but that didn't stop him from winning his third and final Silver Slugger behind the plate. His half-season numbers--a .277/.377/.542 line (155 OPS+) with 19 homers and 50 RBI--would be phenomenal for anyone in a full season, let alone a 40 year-old backstop. This year is one of many reasons why Fisk was the best "old" catcher in baseball history.

Winfield was still plugging along at age 40, joining the Blue Jays for their first-ever World Series championship. The future Hall of Famer played a big part in helping them get over the hump, finishing fifth in the AL MVP vote after batting .290/.377/.491 with 26 home runs and 108 RBI, giving Toronto another slugger to pair with Joe Carter. Winfield would go on to play with Minnesota for two years and Cleveland for one before calling it a career.

Molitor remained a productive batsman for the Twins at age 40, batting .305/.351/.435 with 32 doubles, 10 home runs and 89 RBI. You could certainly get a lot worse from your DH.

Henderson had been playing for 20 years by this point, but his skills remained largely intact. Suiting up for the Mets that year, Henderson had the last great season of his career, hitting .315/.423/.466 (128 OPS+) with 12 home runs and 37 steals.

Martinez bounced back from a down and injury-plagued 2002 to enjoy his last great season at 40. Seattle's Hall of Fame-worthy DH helped the Mariners to a 93-win season by batting .294/.406/.489 (141 OPS+) with 24 homers and 98 RBI, bringing him just shy of 500 doubles and 300 homers for his career (he would reach both milestones in his next, and final, season).

Most people don't remember just how good Alou was, or how he literally didn't age. Over the last five years of his career, which cover his age 37-41 seasons, he hit .312/.376/.539. He was terrific in limited action for the Mets in 2007, slashing .341/.392/.524 (137 OPS+) with 13 homers and 49 RBI in 87 games. Unfortunately, that was one of the years New York collapsed down the stretch, denying Alou one last shot at postseason glory (the same thing happened again in 2008, and Alou wisely retired).

Like Henderson, Lofton was another speedster who aged well. In what was his final season, he batted .296/.367/.414 with 86 runs and 23 steals while splitting time between Texas and Cleveland, joining the latter just in time for their ill-fated playoff run (somewhere, J.D. Drew is trying to smile).

Edmonds came back from sitting out all of 2009 after not getting a worthwhile offer, signed a minor league contract with the Brewers and finished up his career with a solid season, going out on his own terms. While he only played 86 games, the former star center fielder was still productive at the plate, hitting .276/.342/.504 (125 OPS+) between his stint with Milwaukee and a late-season trade to Cincinnati.

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