Raul and the Cliff

No, “Raul and the Cliff” isn’t the name of a new sitcom featuring Raul Ibanez and Cliff Lee. Rather, the title refers to the cliff from which the Phillies left fielder is supposedly going to tumble as a result of his relative old age (he’ll be 39 in June) and perceived proneness to injuries.

During the off-season, some — including myself — suggested reducing Ibanez’s playing time in favor of a platoon. It makes sense, since he is 40 points of wOBA better against right-handers than left-handers. However, the ultimate goal for many was simply to reduce his playing time overall, not to achieve optimal strategy or ensure that Domonic Brown got 600 PA in right field.

Contrary to popular opinion, Ibanez is far from toast. His 2010 season was disappointing, but only when compared to his ’09 season. Phillies fans are mostly familiar with him from the past two seasons and not from his time with the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, so it was only natural to make the comparison.

Ibanez finished ’09 with a .379 wOBA, a career high. His great numbers were buoyed by a .280 isolated Power, the sixth-highest in baseball that year, behind Albert Pujols, Carlos Pena, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and Mark Reynolds. Look at those six names and sing the Sesame Street song, “one of these things is not like the other”. Ibanez’s previous career high was .243 in ’02 and his overall career average is .192. There weren’t any flukes with Ibanez’s on-base skills; just his power.

His ISO dropped to .169 last year and his slugging percentage plummeted by more than 100 points. In 71 more plate appearances, Ibanez hit 18 fewer home runs than he did the previous year. His .793 OPS was his lowest since 2005, but given the drop in offense across baseball, Ibanez still finished with a .341 wOBA and a 112 OPS+.

Think about it for a second: isn’t it kind of amazing that a 38-year-old posted a 112 OPS+? It is — in the last 50 years, only 45 players age 38 or older have posted an OPS+ of 112 or greater, and many of them are among baseball’s best.

Rk Player OPS+ Year Age Tm BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Barry Bonds 263 2004 39 SFG .362 .609 .812 1.422
2 Barry Bonds 231 2003 38 SFG .341 .529 .749 1.278
3 Edgar Martinez 160 2001 38 SEA .306 .423 .543 .966
4 Willie Mays 158 1971 40 SFG .271 .425 .482 .907
5 Hank Aaron 147 1972 38 ATL .265 .390 .514 .904
6 Edgar Martinez 141 2003 40 SEA .294 .406 .489 .895
7 Frank Robinson 141 1974 38 TOT .245 .367 .453 .820
8 Frank Thomas 140 2006 38 OAK .270 .381 .545 .926
9 Willie Mays 139 1970 39 SFG .291 .390 .506 .897
10 Rico Carty 138 1978 38 TOT .282 .348 .502 .850
11 Dave Winfield 137 1992 40 TOR .290 .377 .491 .867
12 Darrell Evans 137 1985 38 DET .248 .356 .519 .875
13 Stan Musial 137 1962 41 STL .330 .416 .508 .924
14 Joe Morgan 136 1982 38 SFG .289 .400 .438 .838
15 Darrell Evans 135 1987 40 DET .257 .379 .501 .880
16 Carlton Fisk 134 1990 42 CHW .285 .378 .451 .829
17 Tony Gwynn 133 1998 38 SDP .321 .364 .501 .865
18 Willie McCovey 132 1977 39 SFG .280 .367 .500 .867
19 Reggie Jackson 130 1985 39 CAL .252 .360 .487 .847
20 Pete Rose 130 1979 38 PHI .331 .418 .430 .848
21 Eddie Murray 129 1995 39 CLE .323 .375 .516 .891
22 Rickey Henderson 127 1999 40 NYM .315 .423 .466 .889
23 Frank Thomas 125 2007 39 TOR .277 .377 .480 .857
24 Fred McGriff 125 2002 38 CHC .273 .353 .505 .858
25 Jeff Kent 123 2007 39 LAD .302 .375 .500 .875
Rk Player OPS+ Year Age Tm BA OBP SLG OPS
26 Ron Fairly 123 1977 38 TOR .279 .362 .465 .827
27 Andres Galarraga 122 2000 39 ATL .302 .369 .526 .895
28 Dave Winfield 122 1990 38 TOT .267 .338 .453 .790
29 Harold Baines 120 1997 38 TOT .301 .375 .458 .832
30 Dave Winfield 120 1991 39 CAL .262 .326 .472 .798
31 Graig Nettles 120 1985 40 SDP .261 .363 .420 .784
32 Gary Sheffield 119 2007 38 DET .265 .378 .462 .839
33 Graig Nettles 119 1983 38 NYY .266 .341 .446 .787
34 Pete Rose 119 1981 40 PHI .325 .391 .390 .781
35 Dave Parker 118 1990 39 MIL .289 .330 .451 .781
36 Brian Downing 118 1989 38 CAL .283 .354 .414 .768
37 Rafael Palmeiro 117 2003 38 TEX .260 .359 .508 .867
38 Paul Molitor 116 1996 39 MIN .341 .390 .468 .858
39 Darrell Evans 116 1986 39 DET .241 .356 .442 .798
40 Reggie Jackson 116 1986 40 CAL .241 .379 .408 .787
41 Davey Lopes 116 1983 38 OAK .277 .341 .423 .764
42 Joe Morgan 116 1983 39 PHI .230 .370 .403 .773
43 Steve Finley 115 2003 38 ARI .287 .363 .500 .863
44 Raul Ibanez 112 2010 38 PHI .275 .349 .444 .793
45 Carl Yastrzemski 112 1978 38 BOS .277 .367 .423 .790
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/8/2011.

When we talk about baseball players aging, we usually do so in very broad terms. Players with certain body types and skill sets will age differently than players with other types and sets. Just because a player is old doesn’t mean he is due to immediately fall off a cliff.

PECOTA projects Ibanez with a triple-slash line of .260/.330/.439, which is a slight decline from last year. A .770 OPS would fall right around the National League average for left fielders. I’m more optimistic than PECOTA on Ibanez’s future — I could see him falling between his 2008 and ’10 offensive performances (123 and 112 OPS+, respectively).

No matter where he ends up, one thing is for certain: reports of Ibanez’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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