For years it’s been assumed hitters will get to the major leagues and peak offensively around age 30. Teams and fans can hope the new, shiny, 20-home-run-hitting rookie will improve over time and someday will hit 30 to 40 home runs. Hitters were expected to improve until their late twenties and then begin to decline. But recent data show there’s no longer a hitting-peak age. Instead, hitters arrive at their peak and simply decline with age.
I pretty much stumbled on this finding a few days ago. I created an stolen base aging curve for Mike Podhorzer and then created one for home runs. I separated the data into pre- and post-PED ban eras, the latter of which happened between the 2005 and 2006 seasons. It didn’t surprise me to see a slow decline in the home run curve during the PED era. My biggest surprise was the post-PED data where home runs no longer peaked, they only declined. I examined just about every overall offensive stat (OPS and wOBA, to name a couple) and found the same thing: Hitters no longer peaked, they only declined. Here’s a look at the wOBA aging curve from pre- and post-PED ban eras, along with a note on how the curves were created.
Note: The aging curve was created by the delta method by weighting plate appearances using their harmonic means. With this method, there’s a small survivor bias summarized by Mitchel Lichtman at the Hardball Times:
… survivor bias, an inherent defect in the delta method, which is that the pool of players who see the light of day at the end of a season (and live to play another day the following year) tend to have gotten lucky in Year 1 and will see a “false” drop in Year 2 even if their true talent were to remain the same. This survivor bias will tend to push down the overall peak age and magnify the decrease in performance (or mitigate the increase) at all age intervals.
For 20 seasons, hitter production began to decline significantly around age 30. Over the past seven seasons, the decline has occurred immediately.
A problem exist when using wOBA in the recent lower scoring environment. The league wOBA in 2006 was .337, and in 2013 it was at .318. That’s a drop of 19 points in seven seasons, or 2.7 points per season. Players will have the appearance of aging from season to season.
Hitting (wOBA) has been on the decline for several reasons. Teams have been better at evaluating players’ defense abilities and deploying better defensive alignments in the field. Also, the quality and quantity of hard-throwing relief pitchers has increased across the league. Finally, 2006 was the first full season with the harsher PED punishments (from 50-game suspensions to 100-games suspensions t0 lifetime bans). This overall decline leads to a large year-to-year aging factor. The recent decline in offense led me to create aging curves with wRC+, which is weighted to the season’s, the league’s and the park’s run-scoring environment. I ran the aging curve to look at four, seven-year time frames.
With wRC+, the most recent aging curve doesn’t immediately begin declining like the wOBA curve. Instead, it remains constant until it begins to decline. The decline starts at the same point when previous players began declining (between age 25 to 26 season). The curve shape is the same for pitcher aging curves: no up and down, just constant and then down. Additionally, the most recent rate of decline is almost the same as the pre-PED aging rate (82-89).
This information is important in predicting young players’ performance. Once a hitter makes it to the majors, he doesn’t really improve. In the past, people used to hope for improvement and growth as the player aged. These days, people should expect to see the player performing at his career best immediately.
A couple possible reasons may be behind the lack of improvement. First, players are more prepared for majors, physically and mentally. In the past, a player may not have had the best conditioning, coaching and training while he was in the minors. Teams are putting more resources into their minor league affiliates, and there isn’t room for improvement with the major league team. Second, teams may be better at knowing if or when a player will be MLB ready, meaning the player doesn’t have to mature and grow at a lower level. They are ready to contribute immediately
This trend of contributing right away may have been occurring before 2006. The uncontrolled use of PEDs may have masked the lack of an up and down curve. Players were improving chemically past their previous peak and were able to maintain their performance over time.
For years, pitcher performance declined as those players aged, but hitters seemed to have an up and down performance curve. In the past few seasons, hitters no longer improve once they arrive in the majors. Instead, their performance is constant until they begin to decline, which, on average, is at 26 years old. Improved training and development is probably behind the shift. If fans are hoping for a young position player’s performance to peak, they might be sorely disappointed. Chances are the player is likely producing at his career-best already.
Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.