JUPITER, Fla. • The back page of the The New York Post this past weekend trumpeted its baseball writers' spring training preview and had a provocative photo illustration (when doesn't it?) that featured three New York Yankees under the headline, "Old Folks Home."
Derek Jeter and Kevin Youkilis were given walkers.
Ichiro had a cane.
The paper called them part of the game's "most ancient lineup."
The Cardinals aren't too far from being the second-oldest.
The Yankees' projected starting lineup — which includes a designated hitter — will have an average age of 32.9. That is, by a good distance, the oldest in the game as spring training opens around Major League Baseball. The Cardinals' projected starting lineup — not including the pitcher — is set to have an average age of 30.5. According to the Post's article, that ranks ... well, fourth-oldest:
- Yankees ... 32.9
- Phillies ... 30.9
- Rangers ... 30.6
- Cardinals ... 30.5
- Dodgers ... 30.4
- Rays ... 30.2
- Red Sox ... 30.1
- White Sox ... 30.0
- Tigers ... 29.8
- Twins ... 29.4
- Reds ... 29.4
- Brewers ... 28.9
The youngest projected lineup in the majors this season, according to the paper, is the Kansas City Royals, at 26.0. The second-youngest is the stripped-down Houston Astros, at 26.3, or about roughly twice their total payroll, right? Of the "youngest" lineups entering this spring, the one that is considered to be the best — and, in fact, belongs to one of the best on-paper teams — is the Washington Nationals' lineup, which has an average age of 28.0.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, as quoted in George A. King III's article, the "average age of the 30 MLB teams' opening day lineups across the last 10 years is 29.7."
The Cardinals would be almost a year older than the average.
The number checks out with the opening day ages of the regulars:
1. Jon Jay, CF — age 28
2. Carlos Beltran, RF — 35
3. Matt Holliday, LF — 33
4. Allen Craig, 1B — 28
5. David Freese, 3B — 29
6. Yadier Molina, C — 30
7. Rafael Furcal, SS — 35
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B — 26
If Matt Carpenter earns his way into the lineup as the starting second baseman, the average age would jump to 30.6. He'll arrive at opening day at 27.
Several years ago, the Cardinals' analytics department took a look at when players peaked — specifically when prospects started to peak. The argument, as explained later by Jeff Luhnow, was that impact players tend to reach the majors younger. The example given then was how Colby Rasmus could get to the majors after his standout season in Class AA. The idea was that a player ready to play in the majors could get there sooner, contribute younger, rather than spending those at-bats in, say, Class AAA. The same could be said this year of the pitchers the Cardinals are auditioning for roles, all age 24 or younger: Shelby Miller (22), Trevor Rosenthal (22), and Joe Kelly (24).
The Cardinals are also considering when Oscar Taveras (20) or Kolten Wong (22) will make their entry into the majors.
In both cases it's expected to be before they reach 24.
The peak age of a player has been the topic of some debate. Bill James wrote often about how it was earlier than many major-league teams thought. During the Steroid Era, it also lasted longer than Major League Baseball was willing to admit. The general idea is that a player peaks at 27. Some studies have argued that it's 29.
At Baseball Prospectus Russell A. Carleton tackled the topic three years ago and arrived at this conclusion:
The good players do peak around 29, and those are the players about whom we first think. The great unwashed mass of players peak earlier.
The obvious take-home from this study is that method and sample will affect the answer to the question "at what age does a player peak?" I'd argue that this very fact means that the discussion of the one age for player peaks is actually kinda silly. Even beyond the usual cries that "You have to treat everyone as an individual!", assigning one number to "peak age" vastly oversimplifies the situation. Sure, if we're playing a probability game of "given no other information than his age, when can we expect this guy's peak?", then 27 is the best guess.
Or, perhaps, it's best to look at what has come to be a catchword around the Cardinals clubhouse in the past year or so: the "delta." There is obviously a peak range for players. The better players, you would figure, have the wider range — they hit the upswing toward their peak earlier and sustain the peak longer.
Perhaps 27 is that peak, but you'd imagine an accelerated rise to that peak and then a sustained, steady drop from it.
It would look like, say, a snow drift.
Perhaps 29 is the peak. Then it would be the same drift.
If so, then the average age of the lineup isn't as important as how the lineup gets to that average. For example, the Phillies have an average age 30.9, and if all the hitters are clustered around the 29-33 range then it figures to be a group that is, collectively, still in that prime.
The Yankees have a projected starter at catcher, Francisco Cervelli, who is going to be 27 on opening day.
They also have a left side of the infield that averages 36.0.
There's a 29-year-old in left and a 39-year-old in right.
The Cardinals' age range is a narrower field. There isn't a regular who is older than 35. There isn't a regular who is younger 26 (as of today).
UPDATE: The application of these numbers would be, of course, how they influence a team's production, not just the individual's production. Colin Wyers, at Baseball Prospectus, clued me into a study that he did last fall and how it drew a line -- fair warning: he did it, gasp, mathematically! -- between a team's chances of winning and its aging lineup. This is the crux of his study, which you can find here:
... a team like the Yankees would expect to win three games a season fewer over the next five years than a team with their won-loss record otherwise would. Over at the other end of the spectrum, a team like the Astros would expect to win one game per season more than a team with the same record but of an average age. ... But the age of a roster has a real impact on our estimates of how a team will perform going forward.
While the Cardinals' average age entering this season would put them on the Yankees' end of that statement, the rising youth mentioned above are going, perhaps, to lower that age as aging would start to limit the team's success. In other words, age won't catch up with the Cardinals if the kids come through.
Using the peak years described above, the Cardinals have three players who would qualify as being in theirs during 2013 — Jay, Freese and Craig — and one who just hit his peak.
That would be Molina, who had a career year in 2012.
After all, it's not what your age is that matters, it's how you age.