June 28, 2011

Ballplayers and age

Michael Sokolove is becoming my favorite sportswriter by combining the standard up close and personal reporting with the kind of big picture data synthesis that I prefer. He has a new article about New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter on his 37th birthday and the larger topic of aging in sports. 

Jeter, who signed a contentiously-negotiated 3-year $51 million contract in the offseason so he would get his 3000th hit with the Yankees, the only team he's ever played for, is a pretty terrible ballplayer this season, slightly worse than a generic "replacement-level" journeyman. Yet, that's kind of heartening in that it shows that Jeter, who has seemed like a class act during his long and remarkably consistent career, isn't juiced to the gills. (I'd add that Ichiro Suzuki, who is also 37, also appears to finally be in decline, too.)

That doesn't mean that Jeter never touched any steroids or HGH during his career, but, at minimum, if he did, he didn't let it go to his head like so many stars who flagrantly abused the stuff. 

Sokolove writes:
The mythology is that old-time players, who did not lift weights and knew nothing about nutrition, had mercilessly short careers. And that today’s players, who condition themselves year-round — often with the help of private trainers, the most up-to-date scientific methods, nutritionists and massage therapists — play longer and have more years of peak performance. It makes sense. It’s also not true. 
With more rigorous drug testing, a typical baseball career is beginning to look again as it did throughout the game’s history. Journeymen players stay in the game until their early- or mid-30s, and all-star-level players maybe a couple of years beyond that. A handful of superstars retain enough skills to make significant contributions into their late 30s. Those with the most talent almost certainly lose their skills at the same rate as lesser players, but they stay in the game for a long time because 85 percent of a superstar is still a very good player. 
The rotund, hard-living Babe Ruth was a productive player until age 39. Older baseball fans remember Willie Mays’s sad last years with Mets, when he was past 40 and couldn’t play anymore, and may assume that he hung on far too long. But at age 40, while still playing for the San Francisco Giants, Mays led the league in on-base percentage and stole 23 bases. 
Even the game’s greatest players, though, cannot defy biology. However long they play, their best seasons occur when they are still strapping young men in all their fast-twitch glory. 

Sokolove is being a little dogmatic. We've seen evidence of ballplayers in the past who extended their primes into their thirties by working out. Slugging shortstop Honus Wagner peaked in 1908 at age 34, probably because he lifted weights. Ruth got himself a personal trainer after his bad 1925 season and worked out during the winters, so he had his famous 60 homer season in 1927 at age 32.

What about more recent examples of late resurgences?

I could list some, but one of my readers has a theory that the impact of steroids on famous American sports statistics can be traced way, way back before Jose Canseco's 40-40 season in 1988. All those great seasons from the 1970s, 1960s, or even late 1950s that you think of as shining examples of a more innocent age? All on the juice, he asserts. After all, we know Olympic shotputters and the like were using steroids in the later 1950s, so why not professional athletes? 

QB John Hadl has said that the San Diego Chargers strength coach was handing out steroids in the locker room in 1965. Or how about The Juice? O.J. Simpson went from a pretty good high school player in 1964 to the most exciting college football player since Red Grange in 1967. How'd that happen? (When Ken Kesey read about O.J.'s little run-in with the law in 1994, he said: That sounds like a combination of cocaine and steroids.)

Growing up on the West Coast in the 1960s and 1970s, I assumed, like most people, that the outstanding performance of West Coast athletes was simply part of the general shift of money and talent to California. Maybe, but maybe there was also a Venice Muscle Beach / Hollywood / Castro Street gay / Olympic track & field steroids connection to West Coast pro athletes going on. 

I dunno. 

We do know that baseball players were using uppers by the early 1960s to be alert for ballgames. Having just brewed a pot of coffee to churn out this posting, however, I'm not feeling all that censorious about that. 


robert61 said...

Where did Kesey say that?

Anonymous said...

Concerning weight men (discus, shot) does this negate the traditional view that it was a sport where you peaked in your mid thirties but could still break world records into your early forties -did al orter's improvement just coincide with steroid improvement?

Dutch Boy said...

The football players at the JC I went to were using Dianabol in 1968.

Shouting Thomas said...

Babe Ruth worked out?

Source, please.

Anonymous said...

OT: Here's a columnist for the libertarian Orange County Register touting the economic success of Texas as "the new California" (i.e. the lost Golden State of beloved Steveosphere memory)


It sounds like he needs to read Steve's VDare column on "the state of Texas, where the GOP’s low-tax, low-wage, low-regulation strategy has worked roughly as intended in recent decades"


Luke Lea said...

Don't forget Doc Ellis's no hitter on LSD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vUhSYLRw14

Luke Lea said...

Left out of the Doc Ellis video was this quote from Wikipedia:

"Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder. I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate. They say I had about three to four fielding chances. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn't hit hard and never reached me."

keypusher said...

Ruth's numbers for almost his whole career were ridiculously good, but he was a better hitter in 1920-21 and 1923 than he was in 1927. Check out his slugging percentage and on-base percentage.


Shouting Thomas: google "Artie McGovern".

Jack said...

Dirk Nowitzki won his first NBA Title at almost 33 as the undisputed team leader.

Anonymous said...

Sokolove really is good. His book Warrior Girls raises an issue that must not be at all popular in the NYT Mag crowd, i.e. the fact that high school and college girls playing sports get injured (especially ACL tears and concussions) at far, far higher rates than boys. Sokolove confronts the basic facts, but then backs off from any controversial conclusions. He suggests more specialized exercise regimens that would strengthen girls' knees so they'll be injured just like boys, etc. Still, given the context, this is not bad. He's also highly readable; a good writer on the whole.

Anonymous said...

Getting back to old age and BB players. First, there's too much of this "oh, those old guys boozed it up and ate hotdogs all day". In fact, a lot of oldtimers had short careers because (1) Sports medicine was in its infancy and (2) Sports didn't pay that much. Until the mid-60s a lot of stars made more money off-season then on. So when they got to their mid-30s they were ready to move on.

As for the Babe, there two Babe Ruths. One the young Babe, who ate like a hog, whored around and drank too much. That Babe has legend, but he actually disappeared in the mid-1920s when he got married and the drinking/gluttony caught up with him. After that, he become much more health conscious and less of a wild man. Of course, he still smoked and drank and put on a few pounds.

P.S. And Mantle was hurt more by the lack of modern sports medicine than by the night life.

P.P.S. - Tiger woods career would be over if sports medicine was still at the 1985 level.

Anonymous said...

Jeter gets treated with kid gloves by the sports MSM. A testament to the conflict of access journalism,in part, but c'mon, how come there's not more suspicion about his HR and slugging % stats? Living in the NYC area my whole life, I recall the comparison of great young SS in the mid 90s -- Garciaparra, A-Ro(i)d, Jeter: who was the better SS? "No-mah" (as they call him in Boston) and ARod juiced but Jeter has gone unscathed by HGH/roid allegations.

Of all the Yankees from the past 15 yrs who got caught using HGH/roids or seem, ahem, to have performed a little suspiciously:
little Chuck Knoblauch, Clemens, Pettitte, Mike Stanton, possibly John Wetteland (muscular guy now suffering from depression and erratic behavior), Scott Brosius (ahem, former Oakland A-nuff said!), Ruben Sierra (former Texas Ranger), Denny Nagle, Kevin Brown, Giambi, Glen Allen Hill, Ja Grimsley, Justice, Sheffield and others.


Jeter is no dummy, he's a notorious womanizer and clubber who somehow manages his image well enough to appear on the cover of my son's cub scout magazine (Boys Life). If he's smart enough to manage his PR in spite of his taste for the NY/Vegas/LA/South Beach night life, he's smart enough to pass an IQ-er, HGH test.

Congrats Jeter -- you have played your adoring fans better than you played SS for the pinstripes!

Anonymous said...

Athletes were using steroids in the 70's but they apparently weren't doing it very well. That's why all the stats went nuts from the late 80's on.

Certainly in football in the 70's steroids were used, so it wasn't like they were unknown before that. The East German Women's swim team was notorious for a reason.

Steve Sailer said...

"If he's smart enough to manage his PR in spite of his taste for the NY/Vegas/LA/South Beach night life, he's smart enough to pass an IQ-er, HGH test."

You know, by this point in my fading career as a sports fan, I'm kind of impressed by that. It's come to that ...

Anonymous said...

The reason why California has had better athletes is because California (or at least Southern California) has more sun. Sunlight on skin produces vitamin D and vitamin D is necessary to build muscle mass.

Gc said...

It`s obvious that injuries play a big part. Many athlete nowadays have a history of some kind of big injury which in the old days would have ended their careers. When they get older those big and small injuries pile up and still end their careers.

Anonymous said...

Why do we still care about steroids in sports? We get athletes performing better for longer with them and breaking more records. I fail to see how this is a bad thing for anyone.

jody said...

that randy barnes shotput world record is clearly a drug record, as is the javier sotomayor high jump record.

something drug related is going on in jamaican track & field right now. 2 or 3 sprinters running super fast? you might be able to buy that. but now there are 7 guys running 100 meters in 9 seconds. in a nation with 2 million people? no way.

white men can't jump alert: jesse williams wins the high jump at the US national championship with a leap of 7 feet 9 inches, the highest jump by an american in 15 years and 1 inch off the (drug enabled) world record.

Gc said...

"Why do we still care about steroids in sports? We get athletes performing better for longer with them and breaking more records. I fail to see how this is a bad thing for anyone."

More steroids means more risks. IMO, It is a win even if they just take less juice. What I would wan`t to see is how to use steroids with minimal risks when I get old.

DYork said...

Baltimore Colt Art Donovan has said that "pill" were available in the 1950s. I think he meant amphetamines at least.

And Joe Don Looney was using steroids of some sort in the early/mid 1960s.

Hapalong Cassidy said...

One of the most incredible examples of longevity I've seen is boxer Bernard Hopkins. It's not just the length of his career, but the time at which he reached his peak. Different athletes peak at different times - Mike Tyson seems to have peaked at age 21 and flamed out before he reached 30. Hopkins started out slow - going pro in his early twenties after a stint in prison and starting out 0-1. But he kept improving and seemed to reach his peak at around age 37-39, handing one-sided beatings to legends like Felix Trinidad and Oscar de la Hoya in the process. And at 46 today, he's still winning championship fights.

Figgy said...

Was checking out Pete Rose's lifetime stats yesterday. In 1987, when Rose was 37, he hit .302 with 198 hits. The next year, at 38, he had 208 hits, batted .332 and led the league in OBP!!! I've never heard of Rose being connected to PEDs. The explanation for him was he "just had one of those bodies that keeps on going." Plus it's pretty obvious he had an amazingly high energy level.

Contrast that with the rapidly detriorating Mr Jeter (and many others as well) and you'd have to conclude Pete was a freak.

Anonymous said...

"Why do we still care about steroids in sports? We get athletes performing better for longer with them and breaking more records. I fail to see how this is a bad thing for anyone."

maybe we care about sports a little too much?

MQ said...

Another question -- if steroids slow aging and improve physical performance, why shouldn't we all get to use them in moderate/healthy doses? Like women get to use estrogen as they age.

JHB said...

I've never heard of Rose being connected to PEDs."

Yes, but you've probably never heard of Tom House being on PEDs in the 1970s, and he freely admits using steroids as well as asserting that half of the Atlanta Braves bullpen was juicing. (Davey Johnson went from 5 HR the year before he joined the Braves to 43 HR his first year with the Braves, by the way, and there was another very good home run hitter in that dugout).

Ballplayers hit their peaks very close to age 27 under normal circumstances. Let's look at the starting eight for the 1975 Big Red Machine, along with the age that they hit their career high for home runs:

Johnny Bench (22)
Tony Perez (28)
Joe Morgan (32)
Pete Rose (28)
Davey Concepcion (31)
George Foster (28)
Cesar Geronimo (29)
Ken Griffey (36)

Home run hitting peaks a little after a player's prime, but it's very unusual that seven of these eight stars peaked late. The sole exception, Bench, was injured frequently playing catcher, sapping his slills there. I wouldn't be surprised if it were revealed someday that some of the Big Red Machine juiced.

Steve Sailer said...

"Ruth's numbers for almost his whole career were ridiculously good, but he was a better hitter in 1920-21 and 1923 than he was in 1927."


The interesting thing is that Ruth stood out in two ways: as a technical innovator (he more or less invented the uppercut swing) and as a performer

Anonymous said...

More accurately, as hitting is such a skill, there are two peaks for players. Defensively, the peak is very young. Early twenties. This is when players are fast, quick, agile, etc. Then offense peaks later, late twenties, sometime early thirties.

If you're a first baseman and no one cares all that much about your defense, then there's more or less just the offensive peak. If you're a center fielder or a shortstop, your defensive value likely begins its decline just as you approach your offensive peak.

Steve Johnson said...

I've always found the difference in peak age for different sports interesting in what they show about both the sport and the change in performance by age.

It seems that the pure athletic peak for men is in their early twenties. Peak strength is in the thirties or even early forties. Reaction time? Early twenties if not sooner. Technical skill? Don't know - late twenties? thirties?

Baseball is interesting because players are gaining strength, losing reaction time, improving pure hitting skill (pitch recognition and coordination in putting bat on ball), and losing foot speed all at the same time.

The result? Overall, players peak at 27 but it's not that simple - some players will age better and others worse. Players with "old player skills" age worse. Old player skills are things like drawing walks and hitting for power. Players with "young player skills" (fielding skill, speed, etc.) age better. Why? Players improve their old player skills (that's why they're old player skills) and get worse at young player skills. If you get too bad at the young player skills you can't play at the major league level any more. Players with more skill in those areas have further to decline before being unable to play the field and it's a rare player who hits well enough at an advanced age to play at a low defensive value position.

JHB said...

The peak age for hitting is age 27. Without steroids, it may be younger.

If one looks at the studies of MLB players purporting a later peak, you'll find that they tend to include a comparatively high threshold for inclusion. One popular study showed a peak for home run hitting of age 29, but it excluded all players who never hit 20 or more home runs. If you run a study of that lesser sort of player - a sort vastly outnumbering the few who ever reach the mark of 20 MLB HR in a given season - they peak around age 27, not age 29, and certainly not in their early thirties.

Another pair of factors affects the development pattern of players. Studies that go too far back in time, before World War Two, reflect a time when boys did not learn to pitch, field, and hit baseballs growing up. There was less competition, by far, for spots in MLB back then, and those who reached MLB held a greater advantage over those outside the game. Accordingly, the peak age was older. (Ted Kluszewski was perhaps the last big home run hitter who had little experience in baseball before reaching MLB, having focused on football in his youth. He peaked in HR production a little late, with 49 HR at age 29, after hitting as few as eight home runs in full-time play at age 24. Anecdotally, he was washed up at age 32.)

The other factor overlooked is that steroids affected most of the modern era of baseball. The best player of his era was Barry Bonds, who peaked in his late thirties. We all now believe he used PEDs. We all now believe that many of his peers used PEDs, and there is considerable suspicion that PED use may have affected baseball from 1961 (the year of Mantle's acknowledged steroid use) through at least 2007 (the first year of unannounced random drug testing in MLB: because testers had been requesting parking passes, previous tests were essentially announced). Steroids prolong careers; any study of player longevity affected by PEDs will show a later peak than one reflecting the aggressive testing in MLB today.

One can see the change in the average age of batters in MLB here:


The average age of hitters was 28.8 in 1927, the year of Ruth's 60 HR season. Except for a peak around WWII, from there it dropped as more and more young amateurs started playing baseball. In the 1960's, with well-developed amateur baseball, international scouting, and few steroid users, the average age of batters dipped as low as 27.3, staying as low as 27.4 in 1977. The age went up rapidly after that point, reaching 28.8 years by 1985, and peaking at 29.3 years in 2004. The mean age has dropped back below 29 years the past three seasons. That rapid rise after 1977 could be attributed to several factors (e.g. salaries, sports medicine), but certainly the career-extending effects of PEDs must be considered, particularly given the post-2007 drop in average age.