A Look At How Recent Great Second Basemen Have Aged
Yesterday I opined that the Yankees should not resign D.J. LeMahieu this off-season. I believe I made that case clearly.
One thing I wanted to examine, though, was the theory that second basemen do not age well. It is said that historically second basemen peak in their early 30’s. If this is true, it would be something the Yankees should consider before offering D.J. LeMahieu a long term contract.
I decided to do a quick study to see if this is the case. Using Baseball-Reference, I compiled a list of the best second basemen (by bWAR) over the last 50-years. I wanted to determine when each player’s last productive years were. I wanted to determine if they peaked in their early 30s as some argue is the case.
The following are the Top 10 second basemen by bWAR over the last 50 years (since 1970).
Joe Morgan (100.5)
Lou Whitaker (75.1)
Bobby Gritch (71.1)
Robinson Cano (68.9)
Ryne Sandberg (68.0)
Roberto Alomar (67.0)
Willie Randolph (65.9)
Craig Biggio (65.5)
Chase Utley (64.4)
Jeff Kent (55.4)
(Note – Rod Carew is on the list at Baseball-Reference, but he was primarily a first baseman from his age-30 season on.)
I’ll now do a quick study of each to see how they aged:
JOE MORGAN – The N.L. MVP in his age 31 and 32 seasons, after his age 32 season, he was never really that great player again. Morgan was good as a 33-year-old, but then began a sharp decline. From 1973 to 1977, Morgan averaged 22.8 home runs per year. After 1977, he never hit more than 16 homers in a season and averaged just about 8 home runs a season. His batting average from 1973-77 was .303. Following those years, he hit just .248. From 1973-77, Morgan was better than a 9 WAR player each season. Over the next four years (1978-81), he was a 2.5 WAR player.
LOU WHITAKER – Lou Whitaker was a 4.0 win player over his age 30-33 seasons. In the immediate years after, he actually improved. His best year was his age 34 season when he had a WAR of 6.8. The next two years he went right back to his recent norms with an average WAR slightly over 4.0. Lou Whitaker remained a productive second baseman playing at, or better, than his career norms through his age 36 season.
BOBBY GRITCH – Starting in his early 20s, Bobby Gritch had five consecutive years where he posted a WAR of 6.0 or better. He was an excellent second baseman. After that, though, after his age-27 season, Gritch wasn’t the same. He had some good years, but the consistency wasn’t there. Gritch’s age 28 (1.5) and 29 (3.5) seasons were down years considering where he had been. He bounced back for his age-30 season (6.0) and was a steady 4.0+ WAR player through his age 34 season. Gritch’s last three seasons produced the following: Age 35 (1.8), Age 36 (2.9), Age 37 (1.9). After that at age-37, his career was over.
ROBINSON CANO – In 2016, as a 33-year-old, Robbie Cano put up the following numbers for Seattle: .298/39/103. He had a 7.3 WAR that year. From his age-32 season on though, with the exception of that season, Cano has been a 2.16 WAR player. These are the exact ages that will comprise the lifetime of D.J. LeMahieu’s next contract.
RYNE SANDBERG – As a 32-year-old, Ryne Sandberg batted .304/26/87. This came following three seasons where he averaged .296/32/92. These were the years that cemented his Hall-of-Fame numbers. But, by and large, after that age-32 season, he was never the same. Over the next five seasons, he had two 3.0+ WAR seasons, two seasons with a WAR under 1.0, and he sat out one full season.
ROBERTO ALOMAR – From his age-24 season through his age-33 season, Robbie Alomar averaged .315/16/79. And, for the most part, after that age-33 season, he was done as a top player. His homers went from 11 to 5 to 4. His batting average in those years was .266, .258, .263. Alomar was a 7.3 WAR player that age-33 season. Those last three years his years WAR totals were 0.6, -0.1, and -0.7. His last season was his age-36 season.
WILLIE RANDOLPH – Willie Randolph batted .305 for the Yankees as a 32-year-old second baseman. The next year he hit .230. That was his last year as a Yankee. Randolph then bounced around having some good years, one remarkable year (he his .327 for the Brewers as a 36-year-old) but he wasn’t the same player. For his age 30 to 32 seasons, Randolph was a 4.2 WAR player. From age 33 to the end of his career (minus that year with Milwaukee) he was a 2.0 WAR player.
CRAIG BIGGIO – In order to get to 3,000 hits, Craig Biggio played until he was 41-years old. He played and played and played. As a 31-year-old, Biggio put up a WAR of 9.4. That was, by far, the highest of his career. The next season, he put up a WAR of 6.5, the second best of his career. As a 33-year-old, Biggio’s WAR was 5.1. He was never, nearly, that good again. The following are his yearly WAR totals following his age-33 season: 1.4, 3.3, 0.4, 2.6, 1.2, 2.1, 0.4, -2.1.
CHASE UTLEY – For Chase Utley’s age-26 to 30 seasons, he was, on average, a 7.92 WAR player. After age 30, he was basically a 3.5 WAR player through his age-37 season. Utley remained a solid player, but he was not the superstar he had been before turning 31.
JEFF KENT – At 32-years-old, Jeff Kent was a 7.2 WAR player. He dropped the next year to 5.2, but was 7.1 the next year (at 34-years-old). After that, he never was that great again. He was good (2.8, 3.9. 3.8) over the next three years, but he wasn’t great.
CONCLUSION – Past performance is no guarantee of future success, and no two players are alike, but when looks at the very best second basemen of the last fifty years, it does seem clear that most suffered a big drop in production following their age-32 or age-33 seasons. Some remained good, very few were great. No second baseman on this list remained a all-star type player throughout his age 32-36 seasons.
Will this happen to D.J. LeMahieu? Who knows? Time will tell.
History though, and the trends of these great players, seem to indicate that the next four or five years may not be as glamorous for LeMahieu as the previous two have been.
The easy answer for the Yankees when it comes to D.J. LeMahieu is to sign him. “He’s great,” we all say. (And we’re right!) I take great pause, though, in assuming, based upon his own seven seasons before coming to New York, and the historical trends of the great players who came before him, in assuming that he will remain the great player he was these last two years over the bulk of his next contract.