Jose Bautista and Defying the Curve

So Jose Bautista will not receive the six years or $150 million he was reportedly seeking a year ago. According to Ken Rosenthal, Bautista has reportedly reached an agreement on a one-year deal with a mutual option to return to Toronto. Nick Stellini has already addressed some of the implications of the deal for the Blue Jays.

Since the conclusion of the PED era, baseball appears to have returned closer to its roots. Baseball appears to be a young man’s game again. Teams are hesitant to pay for seasons in players’ 30s. Teams prize prospects and pre-arbitration seasons more than ever. Teams are well aware of age curves, and aging models suggest Bautista is probably not the next David Ortiz, as Craig Edwards wrote back in November.

Those factors — plus a down season impacted by injury, plus a market that might have overcorrected against bat-only players — all conspired to limit Bautista’s market. The FanGraphs crowd projected Bautista would sign a three-year, $65 million deal.

But was the industry too skeptical of Bautista’s future this winter? Are the Blue Jays on cusp of a landing Bautista on another bargain of a contract?

For starters, the depth of Bautista’s 2016 decline was exaggerated. While Bautista has declined defensively, while those skills are probably not returning, Bautista’s 16.8% walk rate was the second best of his career. He still has elite discipline. And he still made plenty of quality contact in 2016:

Most interesting to me is that athletes like Bautista believe aging models may not apply to 21st-century athletes.

We are on the cusp of a weekend in the NFL when the Pittsburgh Steelers’ best defender, 38-year-old James Harrison, will be targeting perhaps the best player in the league, in the 39-year-old Tom Brady. Both are reportedly maniacal and on the cutting edge with regard to fitness and nutrition. So is the 36-year-old Bautista.

Are the Bautistas and Bradys going to have us rethinking and rewriting aging curves?

Because of the advances in training, medicine and technology, Pirates head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk – who was previously a part of innovative strength and training staffs while with the Dodgers and Indians – said in October that he suspects our aging curves are in danger of becoming outdated.

“I think we are rewriting (age curves),” Tomczyk said. “I don’t think we fully understand the 21st-century athlete. That’s why we are emphasizing recovery. It’s why we are collecting as much data as we possibly can on how their bodies are responding to help them perform day-in and day-out.”

There are number of teams – and athletes – that believe player efficiency and career length can be enhanced through rest, recovery, nutrition and training.

Bautista is among the most devout believers.

Bautista and San Francisco Giants reliever Mark Melancon are among a growing number of athletes interested in blood testing and analytics according to Fox Sports.

In a fascinating interview with Bautista from last spring, Peter Gammons reports that Bautista’s winter routine includes a 5 a.m. daily wakeup call with “flexibility, eyesight work, nutrition, yoga and complex weight work.”

Said Bautista last March:

“I am preparing to be physically capable of doing the same,” Bautista says. “I am preparing to defy those aging curves by my strict adherence to physical, mental and nutritional routines. When I missed time (at 31) with hip problems, I changed everything,” he says. “I studied, I learned about my body, and how to keep it at peak performance levels, and how to maintain it. I study how Chip Kelly prepares his players. I do what he teaches. I do what Tom Brady does. It is about discipline and diet and strive for physical and mental states that defy aging. I love a good steak; I cannot eat red meat. There are a lot of things I love, but I cannot be who and what I want to be and eat and drink them.

“It has been suggested that when I told the Blue Jays what it would take for me to sign an extension and pass up free agency (next November), it was because I absolutely believe that I will perform at my expected level past the age of 40.”

While no one can defy time forever, the idea of 21st-century athletes extending peaks and careers – through legal means – is fascinating.

Of course, athletes raised in the modern culture of sports specialization perhaps have been adversely impacted in areas like pitchers throwing year round, which could be a factor in the Tommy John surgery spike.

While it’s still early to know much about the 21st-century athlete, are there any signs that age curves might be changing?

FanGraphs’ Jonah Pemstein helped me compare aging trends across two periods. The first period, 1991-2003, accounts for the years leading up to PED testing. That interval is believed to have warped aging models and to have represented the peak of the PED era.

We know that players in their 30s, today, account for less playing time and value than they did in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But Pemstein found that, since PED testing began, players aged 30 and older account for a greater share of WAR in the period of 2004-16 as compared to 1960-90.

A changing curve? (Age 30+ production)
PlayerType Era WAR Age 30+ players Total WAR WAR30+pct
Batters 1960-1990 4439.5 13654.2 32.5
Batters 2004-2016 2630.1 7408.4 35.5
Pitchers 1960-1990 3178.3 10287.1 30.9
Pitchers 2004-2016 1752.6 5588.4 31.4

While players aged 30 and older are producing more overall value today as compared to that same group from 1960 to -90, hitters nevertheless appear to face slightly steeper aging curves where wOBA is concerned:

Across generations hitters with strong plate discipline skills, like Bautista, are better bets to age well.

Consider walk rates for each era studied:

While overall production for hitters is declining more steeply once players reach their mid 30s, some skills – like strikeout rate relative to era – are aging more gracefully.

It will be interesting to see if modern strength and training, combined with wearable technologies, bend aging curves. If players begin to age more gracefully, it will perhaps change the way some teams view roster construction. If players like Bautista begin to beat the curve consistently, there will be more lucrative free-agent seasons for players, and owners’ share of revenue – which has been increasing for 20 years – will perhaps decline.

I think most were skeptical Bautista would become an every day player earlier in his career. I think most were skeptical Bautista could repeat his 2010 breakout. I think many were skeptical about the Blue Jays giving Bautista a five-year deal after his 2010 breakout.

Maybe betting against Bautista will be another losing position, or maybe age curves are more natural law than they are malleable. But if players like Bautista are right, then we will have to toss out much of what we know about age and performance.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

Great post