Age Is Relative, Anyway

One constant in minor league analysis is the term “Age Relative to League,” which is another contextual barrier that must be considered in any prospect report. This season, four players have been regulars in High-A while still in a teenage season: Jay Austin (Astros), Anthony Gose (Phillies), Daniel Fields (Tigers) and Wilfredo Tovar (Mets). Austin and Gose are in their second full professional seasons, while Fields garnered a surprise assignment to Lakeland, and Tovar seems to be in High-A only because Wilmer Flores has the shortstop position locked down in Low-A. So while I could tell you that Gose and Tovar have hit 2.5% above the Florida Sate League OPS average of .686, Fields at 2% better, and Austin 0.5% worse than the California League .743 average, it wouldn’t be worth much without knowing their ages.

For both leagues, the average age is 22.9 years. Austin and Gose have the same August birthday, and are 19.8 years old, Fields is a half-year younger at 19.3 years, and Tovar another half-year younger at 18.8 years old. To be even around the league averages at ages 3-4 years younger than their competition would seem impressive even to those unfamiliar with baseball. However, I think we can even look at this a little more in depth. While we always quote “age relative to league,” I don’t think that properly gets at the heart of what we’re trying to say. I’m not impressed by Gose because he has similar numbers to 24-year-old teammate Korby Mintken, but instead because he’s keeping his head above water while facing pitchers like Andrew Brackman (age 24), Charlie Furbush (24) and Andrew Liebel (24). Where we’ve previously quoted “age relative to league,” I have begun to wonder if the more poignant phrase might be “Age Relative to Competition.”

As a broad introduction to this altered bit of semantics, I used the 2010 High-A teenagers as my guinea pigs. With just a little bit of legwork, I was quickly able to record the age of every starting pitcher that each hitter has started against this season. Though this analysis isn’t lock-tight without accounting for the number of PAs the players had against each pitcher, or without even considering the relief pitchers they faced, I do think it will give us a macro view at how we can better quantify “Age Relative to Competition” going forward. I have put together histograms for each player (based on the age of every SP they have started against), and present them below ranked by average age of opposing starting pitchers, from oldest to youngest.

Note: I used whole integers for the pitchers’ ages, rather than decimal points like I listed for the hitters above.

Anthony Gose – 22.7 years (2.9 year difference)

On April 27, Gose led off for Clearwater against Chris Capuano, the 31-year-old making a rehab start. Against the lefty, Gose went 0-for-3, striking out in his first plate appearance. While Capuano represents the oldest player that Gose has seen by far, he also went 1-for-4 (with 3 Ks) against Andrew Miller in his rehab start on May 11. It’s been a lot of pitchers 4-5 years older against him for the most part, and Gose has succeeded none the less, mostly thanks to a .343 BABIP (.422 in SSS vs. LHP’s) and the ability to turn 9 doubles into triples.

Jay Austin – 22.3 years (2.5 year difference)

The one teenager outside of Florida, the Astros were aggressive with Austin after his .680 OPS in the Sally League (average pitcher age: 21.6; league average OPS: .692) last season. After all, Lancaster is a much easier place to hit than Lexington in a vacuum — about 17% if we’re still to trust Dan Szymborski’s 2008 Minor League Park Multipliers.

In addition to the average age of pitchers he’s faced, we must also consider the quality of stuff. And just by eyeballing, I can say that Austin seems to have faced a touger group of pitchers: Wil Boscan, Mike Main, Nick Schmidt (3 times), Tyler Chatwood (twice) and Ethan Martin. And those are the “young opponents.”

Wilfredo Tovar – 22.2 years (3.4 year difference)

While I admittedly do not know a lot about Tovar, you have to be impressed what he’s been able to do through 18 games in St. Lucie. His one vicious stretch was four games from May 18-21, when he went 1-for-16 with 8 strikeouts. The starters on those days included one 21-year-old solid prospect (Chris Archer), and three accomplished college pitchers: Chris Rusin, Charlie Furbush and Luke Putknonen. In his other 14 games, the 18-year-old is hitting .358.

Daniel Fields – 21.9 years (2.6 year difference)

The Tigers pulled a fast one last August by signing Fields, a sixth-round draft pick, for $1.6 million to give up his scholarship to the hometown University of Michigan. They pulled another this spring by proactively moving Fields from shortstop to center field, and assigning him to Spring Training site Lakeland rather than close-to-home West Michigan. (Again, quoting the old Park Factors, Lakeland plays average, while West Michigan is very pitcher-friendly.) Fields has both a better walk rate (13.3 BB%) and ISO (.128) than league average (7.6% and .110), but until his strikeout rate comes down (30%), he’ll still look overmatched, even against the steady stream of 21-year-old pitchers he has faced.

There is more work to be done on this issue, and certainly more in-depth analysis available at our fingertips. But I do think that considering a player’s specific competition, rather than using blanket statements like “Player X is young for his league,” is a big step in the right direction.

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Very interesting stuff. The first number I look at when I see an impressive batting or pitching line is that players age. It is important. It’s why I still have hope for a few struggling prospects of my favorite team.

One thing you didn’t mention though was relief pitchers. What if one of those players faced a pitcher only once or twice in a blowout? And then faced a no-name relief pitcher for four innings of mop-up duty?