The Hypothesis: The news that "multiple reports say [A-Rod] is in the best shape of his life" (10/13/14) is useless for predicting his performance. Or am I just a snarky, condescending jerk for mocking the concept that diet and exercise can help a near-fortysomething who, to play well for a team I like, reportedly is working harder than the many who let their bodies go by their early/mid-30s – like those Girardi "ripped … for being overweight, not being 'hungry'" in an impressive bit of managerial wordplay? The Slipshod Methodology: I Googled "best shape of his life" yankees and "best shape of my life" yankees to find others with off-season "best shape" reports; the first five pages of results from each search yielded 10 "best shape" claims. (I included a few that didn't quite say "best" but did claim dramatically better physical condition.) I then looked at their performance the seasons before and after the offseason "best shape" claim. I could've looked at more players, or other teams, but others have done broader studies of "best shape" claims, like Rob Pettapiece at Baseball Prospectus. Many folks mock "best shape" claims -- Craig Calcaterra has fun compiling them -- but Pettapiece actually found that players with "best shape" reports "may, in fact, outperform their projections" – yet by only about 1-4% (depending on how you do the comparison), leaving his findings less than conclusive. Also, I wanted to focus on the Yankees because there's a chance the more intense New York media, and more intense national attention on the Yankees, may make such reports either more accurate, or more like empty bluster, than, say, a report about whoever is the Twins' second baseman -- which is to say I wasn't sure which way more intense Yankee coverage cuts.
The Answer: Not one offseason "best shape of his life" report was followed by a breakout season. The closest were WAR rises by three "best shape" players following injury-shortened seasons – but two of those (Giambi 2008, Martin 2011) saw improvement mainly due to increased playing time when they stayed healthy; only one (Hughes 2012) saw both increased playing time and better-quality performance, yet even he didn't have a breakout performance, just returning to pre-injury form. We charitably could credit their "best shape" for helping the three avoid injury – except that more players with a "best shape" report did worse rather than better, including a few with major injuries, the next year: (1) two suffered badly injury-shortened seasons right after "best shape" reports (Chamberlain 2011, Sabathia 2014); (2) three saw modest performance declines (2012 Teixeira, 2012 Swisher, 2014 Jeter); and (3) oddly for such a newsworthy guy, the least eventful season was A-Rod's 2011, which roughly equaled his 2010 (modestly better performance but in less playing time, yielding slightly lower WAR).
Special Bonus Best-Shape-Hurt-Me Report! The last example on the below list is Teixeira 2013, who gave a dark twist to his own "best shape" report: reflecting on his prior two injury-addled seasons, Tex blamed his injuries on the overwork it to get in his "best shape." So, to sum up: a report that a player is in the "best shape of his life" is sometimes used to predict a breakout year – yet almost never accurately; but it also can be used after the fact to explain injuries. Overall, it seems most accurate to say a "best shape" report predicts absolutely nothing about player's performance.
Sample Bias Alert! Nobody writes that a twenty-something superstar (Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw) or mediocrity (Shawn Kelley) with no major injuries or body issues is in the "best shape of his life." You write about players' "shape" only because they had been (a) chubby (Chamberlain/Hughes), (b) injured (Jeter), (c) old (Giambi, A-Rod), or (d) generally declining in their thirties due to the usual ambiguous mix of injury and age-based wearing down (Sabathia's velocity declining each of the past several years, Teixeira's increasingly pervasive random ouchies). There are exceptions, guys who weren't old/pudgy/injured, but who declared "best shape" because they're either health nuts always talking about exercise (Martin), chatterboxes always talking about something (Swisher), or (less charitably) braggarts. But overall, the "best shapers" are disproportionately a group from whom you would expect continued, possibly sudden decline. So it's possible the this group of thirtysomethings, rehabbers, chubs, and fading stars, did help stave off impending steeper decline with their newfound devotion to "Sweating to the Oldies," broccoli, Zumba, quinoa, or Tae-Bo.
The Ten Recent "Best Shape" Claims: (1) 2008 season: Jason Giambi (a) "Best Shape" Report - "desperately seeking yet another second act" (published 9/08 but recounting spring reports): "At 37 and entering the final guaranteed year of his Yankees contract, Giambi arrived in spring training in possibly the best shape of his life, looking not only to impress a new manager ... but desperately seeking yet another second act." (b) 2008 Performance: A bit better, but nowhere near a return to form. His WAR roughly doubled from 0.9 in 2007 to 1.9 in 2008, largely because his playing time rose 75% (83 to 145 games). Maybe his "best shape" increased his durability, but 2007-08 Giambi still was a pale shadows of 2005-06 Giambi, whose 4.1-5.2 WAR was in line with his mid-1990s to 2000s prime. So the "best shape" report after 2007's sudden plummet wasn't followed by a return of prime Giambi or even a rise to the level of an above-average player.
(2) 2011 season: Russell Martin (a) "Best shape" Report - MMA with the Ultimate Fighting Champion! (2/7/11): "[Martin] declar[ed] himself in the best shape of his professional baseball career. Much of the credit goes to Jonathan Chaimberg, the former trainer for reigning Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. 'I feel like I've trained myself the right way this year. … It's just really high intensity, power endurance-type training,' said Martin of MMA training. … [Martin] pointed to being in poor shape the past two seasons as one of the reasons for his declining performance." (b) 2011 Performance: In retrospect, Ultimate Fighting Champion Georges St. Pierre's lack of proven baseball skill could've been a hint that Martin's improved martial arts might not improve his baseball. His WAR rose from 1.9 in 2010 to 2.7 in 2011, but mainly because his playing time in 2010 was low due to a torn hip labrum. His WAR actually more than doubled two years later, when he left the Yankees (4.4 WAR in 2 years) for the Pirates (9.8 WAR in 2 years).
(3) 2011 season: Joba Chamberlain (a) "Best Shape" Report - I am not fatter, Cashman! (2/17/11): I love this one's origin: in response to Cashman accusing him of getting fat ("'He's obviously heavier,' Cashman said. 'That's as much as I'll say.'), "Chamberlain … insist[ed] that he's in the best shape of his life. 'Everybody's going to say weight, but scales are scales. It's how your clothes fit, how everything goes like that. I feel great. I'm getting to know my body better …." (b) 2011 Performance: I have to give a grade of "Incomplete": Chamberlain got off to a nice start in 2011 but, after barely two months, ended his season for Tommy John surgery.
(4) 2011 season: Alex Rodriguez (a) "Best Shape" Report - Just 9% Body Fat! (3/21/11): "'I feel a little more consistent, a little more energized and, for the most part, my body feels healthy,' Rodriguez said, later adding it's the healthiest he's felt in 'years' .… Rodriguez might be in the best shape of the past four years, dropping 10 pounds, lowering his body fat to 9 percent …." (b) 2011 Performance: Not much change. His WARs went from identical 4.1s in 2009 and 2010 to 3.9 in 2011. He racked up that 3.9 despite playing about 30 games fewer thanks to knee surgery, and his hitting pre-surgery (.852 OPS) far exceeded his post-surgery (.698 OPS). But even his pre-surgery hitting was basically in line with his .847 in 2010, and well below his monster hitting through 2009 (OPS in the mid-.900s to 1.000s).
(5) 2012 season: Phil Hughes (a) "Best Shape" Report - No More "Baby Huey look"! (2/14/12): "Hughes muscles up trying to make Yankees rotation" (article title): "Hughes has been working out intensely during the offseason and … [is] in outstanding shape …. The right-hander is on a mission … since his terrible 2011 season …. He’s looking to … be an All-Star again. A much stronger and in-shape Hughes was on display yesterday …. [Hughes] said his body composition has changed for the better even though he remains the same weight as last season. The Baby Huey look has been replaced with lean muscle. … 'I really pushed myself this offseason.’ Hughes said he feels his velocity also is better …. Hughes worked out four days a week … in the offseason, … [and] 'started throwing earlier than I normally would.’" (b) 2012 Performance: Well, 2012 Hughes (1.9 WAR) managed not to repeat 2011's nightmare of "dead arm" reports and negative WAR, but 2012 was basically a slightly weaker version of the Hughes of 2009 (2.6 WAR) and 2010 (2.0). His 2012 K rate (7.8) wasn't really above prior levels either (10.0 in 2009, 7.5 in 2010). I can give 2012 Hughes credit for avoiding whatever 2011's "dead arm" was, but even if he finally lost his baby fat, new lean Hughes remained about the same league-average pitcher as old pudgy Hughes.
(6) 2012 season: Nick Swisher (a) "Best Shape" Report - Diet & "Football-Style Workouts"! (3/14/12): "In his best shape, Swisher expecting results" (the article title): "Nick Swisher has made many changes since the end of last season. The 31-year-old outfielder returned to the football-style workouts he used before the 2006 season. He improved his diet instead of 'playing for the tie" between fitness and food like he'd always done. … He made all those changes, because he wants to have a "monster breakout" year that will put him in a new class of players." (b) 2012 Performance: Swisher's production modestly dropped to .246/.341/.423, for a 115 OPS+ after five years in the 120s. With his total WAR the same in 2011 and 2012, we'll call that "no change" – and nothing like "a 'monster breakout'" putting him "in a new class of players."
(7) 2012 season: Mark Teixeira (a) "Best Shape" Report - Running & "The Juice Diet"! (11/30/11): "Slimmer Teixeira seeks improvement vs. righties" (article title): "'I feel really, really good …. I'm eating a lot healthier; I've always eaten pretty healthy, but [I'm on] the juice diet, making sure I'm not adding any unwanted calories. I've been able to run so much more, just being in better shape and getting over some nagging little injuries. Being able to move more and eat better really helps.'" (b) 2012 Performance: Between 2012 Swisher's and 2012 Teixeira's diet claims, and 2012 Hughes' baby-fat-loss report, I'm picturing a 2012 preseason Yankee clubhouse full of nothing but vegetable platters and lowfat protein shakes. Alas, like Swisher's, Tex's hitting got a tad worse: a 115 OPS+, his worst since his 2003 rookie year, with a drop to 24 HR after years in the 30s. His dWAR rose, yielding 3.8 WAR that was on par with his recent past seasons – but not really an overall improvement. He failed his goal of improving against righties too: his OPS against RHP went from .963 (2009) to .804 (2010) to .773 (2011) to .770 (2012).
(8) 2014 season: Derek Jeter (a) "Best Shape" Report - Don't Call It a Comeback... (2/19/14): "[H]e could play the way he did in 2012. That was the year he appeared in all but three games for the Yankees, batted .316 and led all of baseball in hits with 216. … He said he was in the best shape of his life …." (b) 2014 Performance: Jeter's .617 OPS was his worst ever (excluding his 17-game 2013). It might be hard to fault a 39-to-40 year-old shortstop from having a tough time re-acclimating after essentially a full year off. But he actually hit better the first four months of the season (OPS in the mid-high .600s each month from April through July) before hitting a wall from August (OPS .487). Reasonably solid play until the last two months looks less like rust and more like limited physical stamina that undercuts a "best shape of his life" claim. No disrespect to Jeter, because a full shortstop season while turning 40 is almost unprecedented, showing he must have been in unusually outstanding shape for his age – just not better shape than 20s to early 30s Jeter, of course.
(9) 2014 season: C.C. Sabathia (a) "Best Shape" Report - Throwing All Offseason & "Showing off Dramatically Improved Physique"! (1/20/14): "Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia throws curveball showing off dramatically improved physique / The formerly rotund pitcher was revealed this weekend to be in likely the best shape of his life" (the article title): "'I’m actually the same weight as I was last year, just a little more toned and a lot more strong' …. [H]e started working out in mid-October, while other teams were still battling it out in the playoffs, and that he has also been throwing the whole off-season. ‘My arm feels great’…." (b) 2014 Performance: Well, joint injuries, especially degenerative ones like Sabathia's knee melting, can happen without undercutting a "best shape" claim. But I still think Sabathia's 2014 belies the report: his utter inability to pitch at a major-league level undercuts a claim that he really was "throwing the whole off-season." I suppose he could've been "a lot more strong," but only if you gerrymander the definition of the word "strong" to include, "I'm less fat with more muscle but can't put even my lesser weight on my disintegrating knee."
(10) Special bonus – exercising into "best shape of my life" caused my injuries: Mark Texeira. Best-Shape-Was-Injurious Report (3/18/13): "One thing I’ve thought about the last two years, I’ve been in the best shape of my life [and] I’ve had two injuries, so I think maybe it was just overuse …. Maybe I’m swinging too much. I swing twice as much as anybody.” Maybe he should replace some of the extra swinging with mixed martial arts lessons from an ultimate fighting champion? I hear that can really get you into the best shape of your life...