October 31, 2012

Hank Aaron's career trajectory: The Juice or Old Man Game?

I got the term Old Man Game from a Tucker Max essay about when he used to play basketball as a U. of Chicago undergrad with law school lecturer Barack Obama. The 35ish Obama was surprisingly ineffectual. He looked good, but he hadn't developed much Old Man Game cunning that would help his teams win, so team captains who used a high pick on the tall, smart-looking black guy often wound up losing.

Developing Old Man Game is a helpful explanation for Hank Aaron's career path in baseball.

It was embarrassing for Major League Baseball back in 2007 when Barry Bonds broke the sainted Hank Aaron's career home run record, which Hank had famously taken in 1973 from Babe Ruth. 

And, yet, Aaron's career path was a little strange, itself. He's was always seen in the press as second fiddle to Willie Mays, sometimes third fiddle to Willie and Frank Robinson. But he kept racking up homers as age took its toll on his rivals. 

In Milwaukee, per 162 games from age 20 to 31: 124 singles, 36 doubles, 8 triples, 36 homers. 

In Atlanta, per 162 games from age 32-40, 98 singles, 27 doubles, 3 triples, 43 homers.

The Atlanta ballpark is about 500 feet higher than Milwaukee's, and in general it was a better hitter's park. 

So, it looks like Aaron simply craftily focused upon the aging ballplayer's remaining strength: strength. You can see in golfers that drive length declines only slowly as they age, while putting often goes quickly.

On the other hand, I'm not wholly convinced by the statistical evidence from before the Dianabol Age (1958 onward) that this idea that players will be able to up their homers per game numbers after age 31 by uppercutting is wholly clear. Now that I think about it, I have this circular suspicion that the notion that players can compensate for aging by trying harder to hit home runs comes from Late Aaron and was mostly used to explain Late Aaron.

Okay, Stan Musial went up from 25 to 29 per 162 games over those ages, so that supports it, but some of Musial's early seasons were played with the WWII ball that didn't go as far so he'd have a ton of doubles.

Babe Ruth went up from 43 to 51, but there were big changes in the ball; the 1918 ball was made out of old newspapers or something to Help the War Effort; after Roy Chapman got killed by a dirty ball he didn't see in 1920, they used newer cleaner balls and banned the spitter. Then they switched to a lively ball around 1925.

Lou Gehrig went from 37 up to 38 but died before he hit 40. Gehrig had some Old Man Game -- in 1927, Gehrig was like Aaron in 1959 or Musial in 1948, ripping huge line drives for a ton of extra bases (but not quite as many homers).  But in the 1930s, Gehrig learned to pull the ball right down the short Yankee Stadium right field line for cheap homers. (Bill Dickey did, too.)

Johnny Mize from 30 to 32. Billie Williams from 28 to 29. Willie Stargell 33 to 36 when moving to a more homer friendly park. Hank Greenberg from 39 to 39, but retired young. Frank Howard 32 (mostly in cavernous Dodger Stadium) to 34. Joe Adcock 27 to 31. Jim Thome 40 and 40. Harold Baines 22 to 24. Frank Thomas 36 to 38. Barry Bonds from 35 to 53. Rafael Palmeiro from 26 to 40.  Mark McGwire from 41 to 64. Sammy Sosa from 41 to 46. Luis Gonzales from 17 to 28 (with a peak of 57 at age 33). Gary Sheffield 32 to 34.

Ted Williams declined from 38 to 36.  Mel Ott declined from 34 to 28. Frank Robinson declined from 37 to 30. Willie Mays declined from 40 to 35. Joe Dimaggio from 36 to 31. Willie Horton from 30 to 22. Ken Griffey Jr. from 42 to 32. Mike Schmidt from 38 to 36. Harmon Killibrew from 44 to 32. Ron Santo 27 to 18. Duke Snider from 36 to 21. Chuck Klein from 35 to 13. Al Kaline 27 to 21. Ernie Banks 40 to 25. Dick Allen from 35 to 27. Willie McCovey 37 to 30. Mickey Mantle 41 to 29. Eddie Matthews 38 to 25. Eddie Murray 30 to 25. Carl Yastrzemski 25 to 21. Reggie Jackson from 34 to 32. Alex Rodriguez 46 to 34. Manny Ramirez 41 to 37. Al Simmons 26 to 18. Brooks Robinson 17 to 14.

So, it looks like there are some legit examples of Old Man Game leading to more homers per game played, although it's hard to come up with anything completely trustworthy that's analogous to Aaron's trajectory. Overall, I'm inclined toward the Old Man Game explanation. But, still ...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

In 1973, Aaron hit 40 home runs for the Braves at age 39. However, that mark was only third-best on the Braves and fourth-best in the NL. The real outlier was Aaron's teammate Davey Johnson, the current manager of the Washington Nationals. Johnson hit a career best 43 that year at age 30. In his career, no other year comes close.

Anonymous said...

What just cause he is black you gotta question?

How bout you investigate jordy Nelson and his HGH use. He is on the same team as clay Mathews after all, and we do know how slow white people are right?

Anonymous Rice Alum #4 said...

Someone who cares more about baseball history can comment, but didn't the rules get tinkered in favor of more offense (smaller strike zone, lower mound) around the time the Braves moved to Atlanta?

Anonymous said...

It's all about ballpark. Aaron moved from a stadium that was costing him home runs to a stadium that was artificially inflating his numbers. In 1971 when he hit 47 home runs, for example, only 16 of those were hit on the road. From 1970 to 1973 he averaged 15.5 home runs on the road, but 24.3 at home.

From 1966 on he hit 357 home runs, but 200 of those were hit in his home park. By contrast, of the 398 home runs he hit from 1954 to 1965, only 185 of them were hit at home.

Kyle Kopelovich said...

Wow! Using 100 percent speculation to tarnish the image of a black sports hero. I don't know how anyone cannot recognize the racist pattern there. Why Don't you ever talk about Mark McGuire, Lance Armstrong, the roided out freak Kevin Love, or the Thug Chris "Birdman" Andersen of the Denver Nuggets who is covered in gang tattoos? I'd rather take my kids out to watch the wholesome Hank Aaron then a tattoo covered criminal Freakshow like Chris "Birdman" Andersen.

Anonymous said...

Steroids build slow-twitch muscles and add bulk. Bat speed generates home runs and is caused by fast-twitch muscles.

Some hitters switch to a more upper cut swing during their careers, which may explain more home runs later in their careers.

Anonymous said...

You may like this, Steve: Paul Erdos.

Anonymous said...

OT, but Drudge and other blogs all atwitter with idea that the Daily Caller is about to break a big sex scandal about NJ Senator Bob Menendez, about his using taxpayer dollars for trips to the Dominican Republic, frolicking with hookers at orgies, then not paying them and rumor has it he set up other senators. Story not up yet. Let's see what is real, what is only rumor.

Anonymous said...

This whole pre-Atlanta/post Atlanta argument, is a lance Armstrong like distraction. But to address this argument, lets limit the comparison to exclusively his time in Atlanta. His first three seasons in Atlanta (age 32-34) he hit 44, 39 and 29 homeruns, respectively. At 37-39 he hit 47, 34, and 40. Not to mention 2 of the 3 highest slugging percentages of his entire career. And its not only power, he also had two of his highest obps for his career during that three year stretch. Think about that, a man who is almost 40 showing zero decline.

But it's more than just the physics defying numbers. You have the teammates who admitted doing steroids, and you have teammates who also had career years during that same stretch. I know he did a lot for cancer research . Oh wait, I confused him with lance again. My bad.

Steve Sailer said...

"His first three seasons in Atlanta (age 32-34) he hit 44, 39 and 29 homeruns,"

Okay, but those were notorious pitchers' years the last one being 1968. They changed the rules and expanded in 1969, so offensive numbers were up due to a lower mound and lots of marginal pitchers in the league.

AL said...

Tucker Max: I said all of this at dinner, dispassionately laying it out like it was a scouting report. Then the woman said, "Um, you just described his presidency."

Cool story, bro!

Anonymous said...

Grape juice?

Anonymous said...

Kyle: Wait are you talking about this roid freak Kevin Love?


The dude has been on a diet and doing yoga. Hardly a steroid suspect.

And Chris Andersen? The guy was kicked out of the league for recreational drug use, not steroids.

anony-mouse said...

Aaron was the last MLB player to have played in the old Negro leagues, so he may have hit homers there that weren't counted to his lifetime total.

Anonymous said...

"Okay, but those were notorious pitchers' years the last one being 1968. They changed the rules and expanded in 1969, so offensive numbers were up due to a lower mound and lots of marginal pitchers in the league."
at age 39, aaron was #2 in the league in slugging percentage. so its not just a matter of his numbers being inflated, its his performance relative to the rest of the league. non-roided players in their high 30s dont lead the league in anything.

Pat Boyle said...

There are other factors working here and other possible explanations.

I remember reading an interview with Musial in the sports pages. He explained that he had taken up calestenics. He was I think nearing forty and decided to exercise - for the first time in his life.

No one in nineteenth century baseball ever lifted weights much less ate a special diet or engaged in a formal exercise regimen. That sort of thing became popular just about the time that Aaron got his second wind. Cooincidence?

There is also the simple fact that Aaron seemed to only really try to hit homers later in his career. Yesterday you wrote about Reggie Jackson - the man who only wanted to hit homers. Ruth became the home run king of all time largely because he just decided to. There was a sports writer of the time who who encouraged Ruth to stop hitting homers now that he proved that he could do it, and return to getting singles again. In those days they assumed that hitting singles was better for the team while hitting the rarer homers was only good for the player. There's something to that.

No one will ever match Ruth no matter how much juice they shoot up. Ruth became the all time home run champ when he hit 59 homers in one season. He eclipsed the previous mark by "Home Run Baker" in the American league. Baker had hit about twenty a couple times. That had been enough when no one was focusing on homers.

For McGuire or Bonds to match that they would need to hit 180 or more. Ruth hit more homers than the rest of the whole league several times. Today that would take - what? 200 or more?

Ruth wasn't just the first home run hitter he was the first man to really try to hit home runs.

Aaron had big wrists. He was seen for most of his career as a natural singles hitter. He could flick a line drive anywhere on the field. He won batting championships. Then he decided to hit home runs more. And so it came to pass.


Douglas Knight said...

It's weird that Tom House seems to say that it was pitchers using steroids in the early 70s. I guess they might want to use them to recover from injuries, but he also says that he was trying to improve his fastball. Or maybe he just means that he talked to other pitchers, but didn't know what batters were doing.

Man Mountain Molehil said...

OK, completely different field, but...

Concert pianists are said to peak ca. age 65. At their best with a lifetime of experience, but before the physical degradation becomes too high.

Maybe it takes 20 years for a ball player to become wiley enough to exploit various advantages and improve their hitting.

jw said...

A Braves fan who remembers says the fences were brought in to help Aaron break the record. Wikipedia says Fulton County stadium had fences 10 feet closer in left center from 1969 through 1973. The stadium was long known as the "launching pad", which frequently gave Chief Noc-a-homa something to dance about. For comparison, Yankee Stadium was 295 ft to the right field line in 1923 and 510 feet to straightaway center field.

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason Aaron hit more homers isn't just the park in Atlanta, its that he concentrated on homers. His stealing stats are interesting. At 35 he was still trying to steal 35 bases a season, by 37 his steal attempts were down to 4. The Triples/Doubles show a decline past 35. Plus having a great year past 35 isn't that unusual. Ted Williams lead the AL at 40 in Slugging percentage. Bonds is the total phony. His Slugging percentage suddenly leaps from .677 at age 26 to .867 at age 37 and .812 at age 40.

middleagedconstabularyvet said...

5 reasons a 30 plus guy (not necessarily Hank Aaron, who I really doubt cheated at all)hits more hrs than his 20 plus self - one, average chess pheonom meets great (i.e. one of best dozen in country) coach at age 8, similarly situated baseball phenom, for economic and organizational reasons, meets similar mentor, if ever, at age 25 - takes 5 years plus to absorb those lessons ..two, phenom grows up in house with alpha dad and hot mother, but she can't cook, and bad boy dad hasn't got money for Alice from the Brady bunch - result, phemom's body doesn't recover from and completely flush out Mom's bad cooking until ten to fifteen years after leaving home, which is how long it takes him to finally offset the predetermined muscle sharpness decline and overpower his contemporaries who had moms who can cook, three, polite twenty somethings listen to paternal managers and don't go for personal stats in favor of team, but in their thirties they shift loyalites from the warrior band to their own families and get better stats (although fewer championships), four, 30 something people are crabbier and less social, don't like teammates as much, so swing for the fences even when a single would win the game for their team, and five, 30 something men are better paid and have more access to higher quality paid and unpaid sexual partners, thus enabling them to better manage the timing of testoterone fluctuations which are so important to dominance in numerous physical, and even some intellectual, fields. Also, what commenters said from 910 to 333 is right on target.

middleagedvet said...

By the way, I wouldn't discount the (to name some possible, but not certain, beneficiaries)Musial/Rockne/Tebow/Rivera effect, described at Proverbs 15:29, relating to answered prayers of the more non-wicked amongst us(analyzed in conjunction with the reasonable inference that older players, as opposed to really really older players, would be more likely to seek, in the interests of justice, to benefit from such prayers)

Anonymous said...

Here is bill James on age and peak performance:

"Good hitters stay around, weak hitters don't. Most players are declining by age 30; all players are declining by age 33. There are difference in rates of decline, but those differences are far less significant for the assessment of future value than are the differing levels of ability (James, 1982, p. 205)."

Not true for bonds or Clemens...or Aaron.

Anonymous said...

"Not true for bonds or Clemens...or Aaron."

False. Aaron's numbers decline after 33 when you adjust for the move to Atlanta and the expansion pitching and the concentration on HR's as opposed to everything else. BTW, another reason Aaron hit 714 HRs is his low BB numbers. Ruth, Mantle, Williams lead their league in BB's because pitchers wanted to walk them rather than have them hit HR's. Not with Aaron.