Youth Is Served: News Stars Helping to Refresh the Game

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

Baseball is a young man’s game. Nothing drives that point home more than watching an aging superstar slowly lose his skills. Even though extraordinary figures like Nolan Ryan, Mariano Rivera, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens seem to defy the debilitating effects of father time, in the end, all great athletes are eventually conquered by their fleeting youth.

It has been often suggested that the advent of testing for PEDs (which many will probably take to mean steroids, but, more relevantly, also includes amphetamines) has led to a resurgence in the number of younger players having success. It’s nearly impossible to determine whether the decline of performance enhancers has had such impact, but we can at least try to see if, in fact, the game’s best players have become increasingly younger in recent years.

Average Age of MLB Players, All vs. WAR Leaders, 2000-2011 YTD

Note: “Top” categories composed of 30 best position players and 20 best pitchers ranked by WAR. In cases where there were ties, more players were included in the average.
Average age determined via a weighted average based on innings played at each position (plate appearances for DHs) and player age.

The chart above reveals that the average ages of the top players and pitchers in baseball have gotten younger. For position players, the decline has been more gradual, while the trend for pitchers has been much more dramatic. Also evident from the chart is both top pitchers and positions players have gradually become younger than the average age of all comparable players. Regardless of whether the impetus for this trend is PED testing, cyclical turnover, better player development and injury management or some combination of the many variables at play, the re-emergence of youth in the game seems unmistakable.

We know that in general the current major leaguer is more likely to be fresh faced than grizzled, but does that hold true for every position? The chart below provides a snap shot of the average age for each role on the diamond as well as the top players who perform them.

Average of Age of MLB Players by Position, All vs. WAR Leaders, 2011

Note: “Top” categories composed of five best position players and 15 best pitchers ranked by WAR. In cases where there were ties, more players were included in the average.

Not surprisingly, the oldest players occupy the DH position, while the freshest legs play out in center field. In between those two extremes, the average age for most of the other positions fluctuates in a narrow band around 28 and 29. The one exception is 3B, which is the only position on the field with an average age above 30.

Also worth noting is that other than 3B and RF, the top players at each position skew younger than the average. The biggest difference exists behind the plate, where the average age of the top five performers is 2.5 years younger than the aggregate. Meanwhile, just about every other position is being paced by players who are on average at least one-half year younger than their peers.

Although 2011 data is subject to smaller sample size-related discrepancies, the diamond-wide overview seems to support the prevailing trend that the game’s best players are younger. With all the recent talk about the impressive crop of young superstars in the NBA, it’s time for baseball to also start heavily promoting the new emerging stars in its game, especially as the steroid-related stigma of the previous era gradually fades.  The golden age of baseball is now, and the good news is the next generation of players seems more than capable of continuing it.