As the common saying in sports goes “Father Time remains undefeated.” It is a sad fact of life that aging athletes see their abilities degrade right in front of them. However, if teams use this knowledge to guess right on when that moment will be, they can save themselves millions of dollars and look a lot smarter in the process *cough* Albert Pujols *cough*.
There has been some recent talk about what the Orioles should do with J.J. Hardy. Hardy is in the last year of his contract and entering his age 31 season (in which he will turn 32). He just won his second consecutive gold glove and his first silver slugger award. Hardy has been solid, if not spectacular, in his three seasons with the Orioles. He has had two solid offensive seasons with 2012 being an aberration. He has also shown great power with seasons of 30, 22, and 25 homeruns. Furthermore, in 2013 he walked more and struck out less than he did in the previous two seasons with both stats trending better over the three seasons.
Hardy is good with the bat, but he is even better with the glove. In 2013, he was the 3rd best qualified defensive shortstop in the American League with a UZR of 13.3. By all accounts Hardy has been a great player on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the community. Even after saying all that, the Orioles should trade J.J. Hardy before the 2014 season.
The first sabermetric article I read—the one that piqued my interest in the subject—was on aging curves for players. The author attempted to determine at what ages can you expect peak performance from a player and then conversely at what age do players begin to decline in performance. There are multiple sources on the subject.
The above graph is one of many using one of the many criteria to determine a player’s worth. As one can see, around 32 to 33 years old is when players decline and produce less value for their team. If the Orioles were to extend J.J. Hardy they would be locking him up for his age 32 season—in which he would turn 33—and beyond depending on the number of years. Hardy at this point in his career is likely to be declining. However, this graph is too reductive to determining Hardy’s value. Hardy is a power hitting, slick fielding, shortstop and those types of player’s age differently than the general population of baseball players.
First, Fangraphs did some great work on when power peaks in a player. A long held belief is that power peaks late, however their research determined that power actually peaks relatively early in a player’s career. Using the .ISO stat they determine that the actual peak for power is at 24 years old. This could be for many reasons. One possibility being that the athletic peak and the skills peak are at different ages meaning that even though a batter is a better hitter later in their career their diminished athleticism reduces their power output. Check out the below graph for further clarification.
Secondly, over at Baseball Analysts, they looked at how different types of player’s age over time. They use WAR to determine overall value. However, they break down the graphs into multiple categories. Of importance to the Hardy discussion are their graphs on Good vs. Bad Defenders, players with High and Low Walk Rates, and players with High and Low Strikeout rates. It turns out good defenders don’t peak in value as high as bad defenders, but they maintain that value over the long term. The same goes for players with low walk rates and high strikeout rates of which Hardy is among.
All of those graphs indicate that Hardy may not decline as quickly as other players. However, Shortstop is a particularly difficult position and I thought that maybe shortstops might decline at different rates. Shortstop is a position that requires a high level of athleticism. Also, much of Hardy’s value is derived from his ability to play shortstop at a high level. It turns out that Jon Shepherd over at Camden Depot looked into this topic as well. His analysis found that peak age for a shortstop is around 26/27 for range and 27/28 for fielding efficiency. The decline after that is pretty steep. Read his piece for more information and further clarification.
So, what can one deduce from all of that? As players age, they tend to get worse—which isn’t much of a revelation. How the rates of decline vary for different types of players is more interesting, but no less revealing for a player like Hardy. A lot of those graphs and studies are in Hardy’s favor for a slow decline and some indicate a steeper decline. The potential for Hardy to decline defensively faster than offensively scares me more—a large part of his value is determined by his defense.
I think it is likely that Hardy maintains a decent value for a couple of years. So, simply letting him walk at the end of next year doesn’t make much sense from a value standpoint. On the other hand, extending may require another three year commitment which locks Hardy up for some years in which he will probably decline, maybe even steeply decline.
That is why trading him now makes the most sense. If the Orioles can attain a Starting Pitcher, a 3rd Baseman, or maybe some near ready prospects, then Hardy’s value will have been replaced if not surpassed. If I ran the Orioles I would see what I can package to trade Hardy now. Extending Hardy in his declining years will hamstring the team with a bad contract in my mind. Getting real major league value for him now makes more sense. It will be interesting to see what the Orioles do going forward with one of their perceived “core” players”