The Fallacy of Age

Several things are true of older players, generally speaking. One, their overall production tends to decline with every passing year. Two, they become more and more injury prone. And three, their price relative to expected production, injury risk, and the general player pool at their position is too high. For these reasons, Phillies fans — particularly those Sabermetrically-inclined — opposed the long-term deals awarded to Brad Lidge, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, and even Cliff Lee to a lesser extent.

There is no question the Phillies are made up mostly of veterans. In 2011 among all Major League teams, the Phillies had the highest average age for position players at 31.5, about three years older than the MLB average. Even without Jamie Moyer, the Phillies sent out the seventh-oldest pitching staff, averaging 29.2 years of age, about a year older than the MLB average.

Given the injury bug that bit the Phillies in each of the past two seasons, along with the general late-season breakdowns of several players and the disappointing performances in the post-season, the theme of the off-season for Phillies fans and even GM Ruben Amaro is that the team needs to get younger. If Jimmy McMillan ran the team, he would have said, “the players are too damn old.”

As a catch-all slogan, it is a fallacy and it tends to be a post hoc explanation. Had the Phillies gone on to win the 2011 World Series, the headlines would have extolled the team’s “veteranosity”. The Phillies didn’t win just because they had talented players; they won because of the experience of players who had been there and done that!

However, the Phillies lost, so certainly Placido Polanco‘s 2-for-19 post-season is clear proof that he’s too old to be an everyday player, or at least that’s what some people would like to think. Rather than take the Phillies at face value, people create narratives to explain the unsatisfactory results. Nevermind that the oldest team in baseball won 102 games during the regular season with the best pitching staff and an above-average offense. Nevermind that Jamie Moyer made 32 or more starts in every season between 2001 and ’08, his age 38-45 seasons and he did so while posting an ERA eight percent better than the league average. Lance Berkman, at the old age of 35, posted one of the best offensive seasons in the last 50 years.

Age is a very important factor. It can make or break a long-term contract; make a correct decision and reap the surplus value, or choose incorrectly and live with the consequences of wasted money and a dead roster spot. As a theme, though, it is simply excuse-making. That is especially true for a big market team like the Phillies, which can sign free agents almost with reckless abandon and ship away top prospects on a whim, getting younger is less important than simple, efficient talent evaluation.

Going into 2012, the Phillies don’t need to get younger; they need to get better. And avoid bad luck.