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.

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30 comments

  1. JB Allen

    October 19, 2011 09:37 AM

    Isn’t age a factor in talent evaluation, and don’t you sort of have to evaluate talent in a temporal context, as in “what will this player look like in two-to-five years?”

    My complaint about the Phillies’ age isn’t that it’s worsened the team all that much these past years, it’s that the team is not very well set up going forward. By 2013, the Phillies won’t be a lock to make the playoffs, and will still have a lot of money tied up in diminishing returns.

  2. Santos

    October 19, 2011 10:06 AM

    This was the same thing said about the Yankees when the Rangers defeated them in the ALCS last year. At a press conference, someone asked Brian Cashman if the Yankees lost because they looked so old compared to the Rangers. He responded by saying something along the lines of “No one said we looked old when we swept the Twins in the division series last week”.

  3. The Citizens Bankers

    October 19, 2011 10:17 AM

    Love how you slipped “and avoid bad luck” in there right at the end. That’s the troof, Troof!

  4. Cutter

    October 19, 2011 10:33 AM

    Age isn’t the problem. It’s the decline of the players from their peak performance that is.

    If the 2011 Phillies lineup had the 2007 versions of Utley, Howard, Rollins, and Ibanez, their offense probably wouldn’t have an issue.

    The concern won’t be “How old are these guys?” but rather “What can we expect out of them at their age?”

    And the answer seems to be that they’ll spend some time on the DL, and their numbers are going to be down from what they were a few years ago.

  5. Andrew R.

    October 19, 2011 11:40 AM

    Sign Jamie Moyer for 1-year/ $1M!!

    The age of this team doesn’t bother me. You got what you expected out of Raul. Polanco was damn-near flawless at third, Halladay did just fine at 33, and will do just fine at 34 too.

    The team just didn’t hit when it mattered. Ryan Howard thinks it’s a “God Rule” that he should get a fastball when the count is 2-0, 3-1, or 3-0. Polanco doesn’t strike out, but that’s because he weakly slaps a low slider right to 2B on the first pitch.

    Age was not the issue this year.

  6. KH

    October 19, 2011 12:43 PM

    If we want to be a good team past the next couple of years age is certainly a problem. I’m not sure who said this team’s age was the primary reason they didn’t win this year however. If they score 2 runs in game five they might still be playing. Thats how close it was versus the Cardinals. I totally disagree with whoever said we got what we expected from Raul Ibanez by the way. He had a negative WAR I believe.

  7. Phillie697

    October 19, 2011 12:46 PM

    @JB Allen,

    Name one team, besides the Yankees who can spend like there is no tomorrow, that can be a lock to be in the playoffs every year. Assuming we make it to the playoffs next year (I think it’s a pretty good bet), we would have made the playoffs 6 years in a roll. I can think of 25 fanbases who will kill for that kind of streak.

    Having old players isn’t the problem; over-paying relative to their performances is. Howard, big mistake. Utley, not so much. Ibanez? Big mistake. Polanco? Perfectly fine for what he brings to the table. If we can re-sign JRoll to a reasonable contract, there is no reason why having him back is a bad thing. Putting together a team is about maximizing talent while utilizing the limited resources you have; age IS a factor, but as Bill warned, when you act like it’s de-facto the ONLY factor, that’s when you run into problems.

  8. JB Allen

    October 19, 2011 01:25 PM

    Phillie697 –

    I don’t understand. Are you trying to ridicule my post while almost completely agreeing with it?

    I’ll say it again: I’m not taking anything away from what the Phillies have accomplished, but expressing concern over where they’re going. And those last six years of success you’re pointing out? That was because of player development. I don’t see that happening now, and that worries me a lot more than the date on Polanco’s birth certificate.

  9. LTG

    October 19, 2011 03:14 PM

    BB,

    Who is the target of this article? Does anyone think that simply getting younger will improve any team? Even if someones says that the Phillies need to get younger, it is only charitable to attribute to them the position that they need the same or better talent at a younger age. And there are multiple reasons for wanting younger talent. For example, it is cheaper; it lasts longer; and it tends to hold up over the course of a long season.

    If your just picking on the talking-heads who throw around all kinds of explanations without research, then your point will hold regardless of what the proposed explanation is. They are creating narratives on the basis of superficial plausibility. We don’t have much reason to form beliefs on that basis. Of course, that the narrative is superficial does not entail that it is simply wrong.

    There are some curious stats that need explaining and that age *might* help explain. For example, since 2007 the Phillies production against fastballs has been declining (with a brief uptick in 2009), reaching negative weights in 2011. And Polanco’s ISO has been significantly below his career average since joining the Phils. I admit there could be many factors that together provide a sufficient explanation, but I want to know whether and to what extent age is one of them. It would be an enlightening article to dig up the statistics that appear to call for an age-explanation and try to determine whether an age-explanation is actually called for.

    By the way, most explanations are post hoc. An explanation is usually only called for when something unexpected happens and then we have to go back and figure out what it happened. Providing possible causes of error in experiments is a form of post hoc explanation that we accept.

    Post hoc explanations are only problematic apriori if the same fact is used to explain contradictory outcomes. (They can also be problematic because a posteriori false.) But age is not like this in sports journalism. Veteranosity is not a reference to physical age but to psychological “age.” And any direct inference from physical age to psychological age is, of course, a fallacy, one that is not uncommon. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two kinds of age allows that veteranosity can explain success while oldness can explain failure without running afoul of the post hoc fallacy. That they do not run afoul of the post hoc fallacy does not mean they are often or ever correct, but that might be because those cause are never significant contributors to the success of teams. And, it is worth noting, that it is difficult to find empirical evidence for and against these kinds of explanations because we don’t have well-developed conceptions of veteranosity nor well-developed methods for measuring physical age (years only being a proxy).

  10. Phillie697

    October 19, 2011 04:30 PM

    @JB Allen,

    You don’t see player development because we’ve mortgaged a lot of our future to GET the six years straight of playoff appearances. There was a cost for that you know… The team is old for a reason is what I’m trying to say, but given that, just “going young” isn’t the answer either.

    @LGT,

    You don’t have to look further than THIS blog to get evidence people wanting to get younger for the sake of getting younger. Just refer back to the comments section for both posts about JRoll and Polanco, people shouting to get them replaced with younger players without actually identifying worthwhile young players who can perform at their levels of performance to begin with, all for the “sake” of wanting to get younger. I have said in both posts that I would love an improvement at either spot, but I challenge someone to actually SHOW me where the improvement will come from.

    No one is denying age definintely causes decline in performance, but you know what? As talented as Dominic Brown is, I’ll take a 39-year-old Barry Bonds over him anyday. Hell I’ll take a 39-year-old Barry Bonds over ANYBODY anyday, including Albert Pujols and a in-his-prime-26-years-old Matt Kemp. Age isn’t everything, and that’s Bill’s point. A good GM will take actual performance, regardless of age, over anything else, with age only ONE factor in trying to determine what that ACTUAL performance might be. And quite frankly, JRoll and Polanco have been productive players, each in their own way, way more than our soon-to-be-$25-million man that’s for sure.

  11. JB Allen

    October 19, 2011 05:25 PM

    Phillie697 –

    No argument here that trading away prospects has generally paid off for the Phils. And you’re right that a 39-year old Barry Bonds beats out a 25-year old Dom Brown. But what about four years of Dom Brown vs. one year of Barry? And how about if those four years of Dom Brown cost the same as one year of 39-year old Barry?

    I’m pretty sure you’re thinking about all that, but I don’t know that really has. Assuming the post-Arbuckle Phils will develop players like the Arbuckle-era Phils, will the Phillies be able to retain these players as they did with Howard, Utley and Rollins in their primes, when Howard, Utley and Rollins are still absorbing $50MM+ a year?

    Maybe I just can’t get my head around the Phillies being a top-five payroll team going forward . . .

  12. LTG

    October 19, 2011 05:52 PM

    Phillie,

    I take it you think there are people who believe that younger players are superior to older players despite the older player’s increased production. That is what I deny. I think it is uncharitable to interpret those who express a desire for younger players that way. Unless they explicitly say otherwise, we have to attribute to them the belief that there exists a younger player who 1) can provide the same or better production and 2) the Phils can acquire or bring up. So, I think you do the right thing by challenging them to find that player. But BB’s article fails to attribute a reasonable position to these people, and as a result treats a superficial position the only way a superficial position can be treated: superficially. If we want to learn something about how and whether age should be used in these deliberations, it would be better to look for evidence that going younger does/does not have benefits assuming there are players of approximately equal production over a whole season at different. We might, for instance, learn that age plays no role in predicting the success of players at the end of a season or in the post-season.

    So, my complaint is that BB rejects an unreasonable position, while leaving unanalyzed the generalities about age and decline that everyone treats as knowledge.

  13. hk

    October 19, 2011 06:51 PM

    I think Bill’s target in this article is the Phillies GM, who recently said, “I think we do have to try to get young if we can. It’s not easy to do. We did get a little younger with our staffs. At some point, we’re going to have to get younger with our position players. It’s a young game, and it’s played by young players.”

  14. LarryM

    October 19, 2011 08:47 PM

    I’m with you a good part of the way here … though given the age profile, as you say yourself, decline and injuries are increasingly inevitable. And at some point, the aging curve gets really steep, and all of the sudden you’re looking at a .500 team.

    Of course that doesn’t happen over night, and poor playoff performance doesn’t tell you anything. And with this team especially, getting younger quickly would probably mean getting worse in the short run – it’s hard to imagine many possible moves that at the same time make them better and younger in the short term.

    But at the same time, I think the age profile should – has to – influence the team’s short term decisions. Rollins is a case in point; letting him go almost certainly makes the team a little worse in the short run, but a 5 (or even 4) year contract will do enough damage down the road that they need to bite the bullet and let him go (not that you necessarily disagree, given other posts). And of course giving Brown a legitimate chance in LF should be a no-brainer way to get younger and possibly better in the short run. (Too bad he likely won’t get that chance.) They should at least kick the tires on Reyes as well, even if he most likely will be too expensive.

    All that said, I’d make my big FA signing push Michael Cuddyer, not exactly a youth oriented move.

  15. Burt Lavallo, friend to all

    October 19, 2011 10:48 PM

    “Lance Berkman, at the old age of 35, posted one of the best offensive seasons in the last 50 years.”

    this is sort of misleadingly put. berkman posted one of the best offensive seasons in the last 50 years *for someone over 35.*

    not that his season isn’t impressive. but it’s not quite as impressive as your formulation suggests.

  16. Phillie697

    October 20, 2011 09:04 AM

    @LTG,

    I take heart of your comments, but my position, and maybe this is Bill’s position as well, is that while you’re criticizing Bill for “superficially” analyzing a very general proposition, isn’t shouting at the rooftops that we should replace JRoll and Polanco without actually doing the analysis and coming up with actual viable names that even I have to say, “you know, that just may be a good move” the same thing you’re accusing Bill of doing?

  17. hk

    October 20, 2011 09:04 AM

    LarryM,

    Signing Cuddyer, who made $10.5M last year, would probably require the team to exceed the luxury tax unless they cut spending in another area – and this assumes they will not exercise Oswalt’s option. The big salary increases to the closer (Madson or otherwise), the shortstop (Rollins or otherwise) Lee, Hamels and Pence plus the smaller ones to Victorino, Polanco, Ruiz, et al will pretty much offset Raul, Lidge and Oswalt coming off the books. Therefore, if we assume they will enter the season with a payroll below the luxury tax threshhold, they would have to commit to Galvis or another very cheap option at SS or Bill’s Thrift Store Bullpen approach in order to absorb Cuddyer’s salary. While I would like to see them go the latter route, I don’t think the GM will agree.

  18. Phillie697

    October 20, 2011 09:19 AM

    @JB Allen,

    When it comes to developing young talent, money is generall not the issue, especially not with a high-revenue club like the Phillies. Young players, because of the way FA is set up in the MLB, are almost by definition dirt-cheap. If you can’t afford young players, regardless how good they are, you’ve got more serious problems. They usually start to get expensive only when they are no longer young; there are only so many players like Jason Heyword or Starlin Castro that will get to enjoy FA at a relatively young age, and Phillies don’t have one of those players.

    What the contracts of Howard, Utley, and hopefully Rollins if we re-sign him to a reasonable contract (I really really REALLY don’t think RAJ is going to sign him to a 5/60 contract, not from everything he’s said so far) will do is hinder our ability to play in the FA market to plug holes in our lineup, not to mention, especially in Howard’s case, paying premium money for league-average performance. So not only will we not have money to spend on new talent, the talent we are spending money on isn’t as good as money can buy. That’s the real problem.

    When Phillies announced that Howard extension, I posted somewhere, “Phillies, out of playoffs by 2014, and I get to relive the dark days of 2000-2005.” Most people laughed. I hate to say it, but I think I was right. I really really REALLY hope I was not. RAJ, prove me wrong!!!

  19. LTG

    October 20, 2011 11:14 AM

    Phillie,

    I concede your point. Nevertheless, I want BB to ignore the light-weights and do some heavy-lifting now that the off-season has come and we have time to reflect. BB is intelligent and I certainly hold him to a higher standard than most on these matters. Also, how is it you only start counting the dark days at 2000? By my count they start at 1988 with a tiny blip of sunlight in 1993. At least from 2000-2005 the Phillies seemed to understand how to build a competitive organization and were producing talent and even were competing, if always falling just short. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s it seemed like the Phillies were content to lose. I struggle to remember what it was like now, but when I do, I remember that I never expected a good season. I just watched players that I liked on the team, and kept my eye on other teams to root for when the post-season came around. That was dark.

  20. LTG

    October 20, 2011 11:18 AM

    hk,

    I would just run the same line against your point that I’ve been running on Phillie’s points: for BB’s argument to target RAJ, you have to attribute to RAJ a very implausible belief (simply younger = better). There is a more charitable way to interpret the talk of getting younger, and that interpretation should be granted, especially to RAJ.

  21. hk

    October 20, 2011 11:53 AM

    LTG,

    I grant you that RAJ probably, or at least hopefully, meant younger and better as opposed to just younger. However, it makes me wonder what premium a GM who makes such a quote might place upon age when considering his options to fill a need.

  22. JB Allen

    October 20, 2011 01:26 PM

    Phillie –

    You said it better than I could. Maybe the Phillies can do as the Yankees have done and develop AND KEEP talent while paying big money for veterans, but their margin of error is a lot smaller. And that’s especially true when decent-but-not-great players are locked into big contracts.

    That said, I think the Phils should probably re-sign Rollins, although I don’t know who could man first base and spell the other infielders while not sucking at the plate.

  23. Jefft

    October 20, 2011 02:18 PM

    I agree that age didn’t do the team in, nor did it end the post season run. However, RAJ needs to break the habit of paying free agents into their age 35+ years. I shudder to think of this team in 2016 with Lee and Howard still on the roster taking up the salary space that they are due.

  24. Phillie697

    October 21, 2011 08:38 AM

    @LTG, I said 2000-2005 for that exact reason, some of you might not remember as far back as the 90s, LOL. Believe me, as a life-long Phillies fan, I remember those days when I felt like a Royals fan. Kids these days have it good.

    On a totally unrelated note… We certainly have done some fair share of La Russa bashing in this space. So now he’s taken two WC teams to the WS in the last 10 years and looking like he has a chance to go 2 for 2 on winning the whole damn thing as a WC, should we maaaaaybe concede that it’s not just the team he gets to manage, maybe that some of it, in fact quite a bit of it, has to do with HIM?

  25. hk

    October 21, 2011 10:00 AM

    Phillie697,

    Re LaRussa, I think TLR gets too much credit when his teams win and too much blame when they lose. Whether you want to look at it in the big picture (winning with WC teams and losing with huge favorites) or the small picture (he was a genius for how he handled the bullpen in Game 1 and, according to Curt Schilling, his decision to pull Motte for Rhodes may have cost his team the series). To me, the job of the manager is to put his players in a reasonable position to succeed and as long as the manager does this, the players (plus luck and randomness) should get the lion’s share of the credit or blame for the results. For instance, to me, you can make a reasonable argument for and against replacing Motte with Rhodes…Motte has a higher K% vs. LHB’s, but Hamilton has a higher K% vs. LHP’s. LaRussa went with his gut, chose between two reasonable choices and the results didn’t work out in his favor.

  26. MG

    October 21, 2011 10:24 AM

    Polanco’s age though does matter given that fact that he has been a medical case history the last 2 years. He has had (these are the things that were publicly-disclosed):

    2010:
    - Multiple cortisone shots to his elbow
    - Reported hip problems
    - Offseason elbow surgery

    2011:
    - Pain/discomfort on his surgically-repaired elbow mentioned several times during the season
    - Reported hip problems again this year
    - Back issues this year including disc problems and having at least 2 cortisone shots during the season
    - Double sports hernia surgery this offseason

    Now it doesn’t necessary matter that Polanco is 35 but it does matter since the likelihood of a guy recovering at say 35 is a lot less than 31 or 32 even. He simply sounds look like a guy who is physically starting to break down with multiple ailments on different parts of his body.

    Likely a real concern that Amaro has that Polanco can say healthy enough to be counted on to play 140+ G as a regular everyday starter next year.

    One of the next great areas in baseball is going to be injury prevention and detection. Several teams are already investing in his area with much greater emphasis on medical services in their minor league teams.

  27. Chip

    October 21, 2011 12:12 PM

    Raul will be gone Mayberry will get some time, Brown will get some time. I dont think we are replacing Rollins or Polanco, sign Madson,Let Oswalt and Lidge go hopefully between Worley, Kendrick and Blanton we have the the #4 and #5 starters. I say a utility player that is is better than Wilson and Martinez is needed. What else we are going to do I am not sure!Maybe another leftie in bull pen!

  28. Phillie697

    October 21, 2011 07:12 PM

    @hk,

    I’m not interested in the decisions a manager makes in one measly game or one measly series. Name one other manager who took 2 WC teams to the WS and might possibly win them both. Results don’t lie, no matter how much you want to break it down into its components in order to criticize/praise. The question is, if you put, say, Charlie Manuel with those two teams, would things have ended up the same result?

    It’s not as if the Cards underachieved this year; they had the talent of a WC team. And of course he’s had some failures… but who doesn’t (I don’t know, the 2011 Phillies come to mind immediately)? Remember that commercial by Michael Jordan some years ago for Nike, about how many potential game-winning shots he took and missed? Greatness isn’t measured by failures. Greatness is measured by one’s capacity to succeed despite the failures. I’m not quite convinced of La Russa’s greatness, but I’m willing to keep an open mind at this point.

  29. hk

    October 21, 2011 07:46 PM

    Phillie697,

    I think Charlie Manuel is a bad comparison – especially in the years when he didn’t have Jimy Williams as a bench coach – because I think Charlie’s one of the worst in-game managers in the game. Too often, Charlie choose the wrong option and increases the likelihood that his players will fail (i.e. letting Raul Ibanez face Arthur Rhodes in Game 4 when Rhodes had just entered the game and hat to face a better). As far as LaRussa is concerned, I must have missed most of the bashing as it seems to me that most of what I read and heard led me to believe that most people felt he out-managed Charlie. Whether LaRussa’s a great manager or not is hard for me to say. Truthfully, I’m not even sure what makes a great manager, but I do know that it’s more than the W-L record.

  30. Mandy

    October 28, 2011 10:54 AM

    Age shouldn’t be the main talking point. I think we should focus on the skills of the players at their age and the declining number of them.

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