When Talents Disappear, Part Two

October 16, 2020

The phenomenon I was trying (and failing) to get to in the Ronstadt article was that many, if not most, of the narratives about the marginal Hall of Fame candidates about whom we love to argue endlessly are similar: athletes who got cemented in our heads as sure-shot HoFers based on their abundant HoF talents in their twenties but who suffered some sort of physical decline in their early thirties that caused them to fall far short of the figures we had imagined they would have when they retired.   On the cusp of greatness, these athletes achieved so much at so young an age that we mistakenly assumed that making the Hall of Fame was a done deal, given only their completing their careers at a slightly reduced rate from their stellar success up to that point. Then we were shocked to find that when the career was over, they were no longer sure shots, and not even electable, to Cooperstown, and we went "Wha’ hoppen?"

Usually, wha’ hoppen was just that they got injured, and their numbers fell off a cliff. Sometimes—Lyman Bostock, Thurman Munson—the injury was a fatal one, making their so-far numbers into their final ones, but more typically the injury was a traumatic, career-interrupting one—as with Rico Carty or Tony Oliva—or just a chronic series of physical aches and pains that drastically reduced the players’ star quality, though the career continued: Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy et al.

Even there, I’d want to distinguish terms so the narrow circumstances I’m describing here are clear. I’m NOT talking about:

1)     players who fade after a promising few seasons. Lyman Bostock, for example, definitely needed to post several more spectacular seasons before he was considered a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. He may well have done just that, but after the 1977 season, he had only 13 WAR in 4 seasons, and wasn’t yet being described as a future HoFer by anyone outside his immediate family.

2)     players who fell short very late in their careers. I’m thinking here of Bostock’s fellow fatality Thurman Munson. The case against Munson for the HoF is not that his career lacked length, though it did, but that his peak wasn’t quite high enough for the Hall and his career was already on a sharp decline at the point he died. The argument against Munson is that if he’d continued at the pace he was on for a few more years, we would still be putting him in the "Maybe. Could be. Nah" category.

I had the crude notion that we simply total up various HoF Candidates stats through age 29, arbitrarily enough, and double them, to get a rough idea of the kind of numbers we projected,  numbers that in reality fell far short of clear sailing into Cooperstown. (I don’t know why more photographs aren’t taken of inductees literally sailing on Lake Otesaga straight into the town—the Susquehanna River begins about a block from the Hall of Fame, and it would make such a great picture, Willie Mays or Rickey Henderson on a sailboat entering that inlet. But I digress.) It’s crude, of course, but also accurate to state that this misconception lies at the heart of many such debates: we project a future that seems reasonable enough, but as Bill has shown repeatedly, the falloff in a player’s thirties is so common that our confident projections are just way-off wrong.  Actual sure-shots like Mays or Henderson are the freaks, athletes who avoid or survive major injuries to have extended careers into their forties--because of these freakish, almost anomalous, careers, we misapply our assumptions that this is a normal career path that we should expect most players to follow.

Through 1990, his age-29 year, Don Mattingly, for example, had  accrued 759 RBIs and a .317 BA with 1401 hits—his fans might have reasonably projected that he could last about as long as he had played up to that point (nine seasons, three of them partial). Playing until he was 38 seems (I say "seems") reasonable for someone of Mattingly’s gifts, and probably even longer, padding out his career with a few years as a full-time DH, pinch-hitter deluxe, maybe even a playing coach getting a few at-bats into his forties. If he had, and if he managed to wind up his career with 1518 RBIs, and maybe losing a few of those golden BA points to old age (and maybe not), with 2802 total hits, we wouldn’t be discussing his eligibility for the Hall at all—he would simply have been elected first-ballot when he retired in 2002 or 2004 or whatever.

But of course he retired in 1995 and his real-life totals were only 1099 RBIs and 2153 hits, hard to justify for a HoF first baseman, so hard that if he had swapped his twenties for his thirties, I doubt we’d be hearing any claims at all, just a few "Too bad he got off to such a slow start, innit? Oh, well"s. Mattingly had 33.1 WAR through 1990 (even with a negative WAR figure for 1990 itself), and doubling that puts him well over the gray line for the HoF.

David Wright is pretty much the same: through 2012, his age-29 year, Wright had accumulated 41.3 WAR and was considered (by me, anyway) a sure shot HoFer. His stats through 2012 were 1426 Hits,  204 HR, 818 RBI, a .301 BA, a 135 OPS+. Double those stats, and you’d have him playing another 9 seasons (2012 was his ninth MLB season), through 2021 at age 38—again, not at all unreasonable, and about where his fans saw him. It was not to be, of course, but you’d have never convinced his fans in 2012 that wasn’t a reasonable, if not slightly rosy, expectation. We cling to these things like my collie-mutt clings to the rubber balls I throw her—all the arguments and pleading in the world will not persuade her to give me back that ball. Her loss.

Let’s try another David, this time a Goliath of a David: Dave Parker after his age 29 season, 1980, had just played his thousandth game (1017, as opposed to 1262 for Wright and 1117  for Mattingly) and had accumulated only a fraction of his eventual numbers: about 45% of his lifetime hits total of 2712. I don’t think people believed Parker was a strong potential HoFer after his age 29 year. I sure wouldn’t have. Doubling his raw stats through age 29 yields just 2394 hits and 278 HR with 1224 RBIs, obviously inadequate for a corner outfielder after our (projected) 16-year career.  And he had his best seasons at ages 34 and 35 with Cincinnati. But Parker’s real problem (apart from the problem with the White Stuff), I would argue, is the lousy White-Stuff-related poor and partial seasons at ages 30 and 31, which basically combined for a single season’s worth of mediocre stats: 15 HR, 77 RBI, .264 BA in 140 games.  I think fans just wrote him off as a HoF candidate after that point, and refused to let his final nine seasons, through age 40, persuade them to re-consider his overall case. His actual totals are better than Wright’s or Mattingly’s but I don’t find people making a very strong case for him. That nose injury cost him plenty, even though he made an impressive comeback from it.

This sort of thinking is known as fossilized thinking—we make up our minds while a process (in this case, an MLB career) is still in progress, and we’re hard-pressed to budge off it.

A few more:

Dale Murphy

Hits

RBI

HR

WAR

Retirement year/ age

(projected and actual)

Through age 29, doubled

2450

1478

474

62.6

1995/ 39

Actual career numbers

2111

1266

398

47.3

1993/ 37

 

Dick Allen

Hits

RBI

HR

WAR

Retirement year, age

(projected and actual)

Through age 29, doubled

2512

1470

468

85.8

1980, 38

Actual career numbers

1848

1119

351

58.7

1977, 35

 

Even a player not generally regarded as HoF-worthy, Johnny Callison, a teammate of Allen for many years, was putting up close-to-HoF numbers:

Johnny Callison

Hits

RBI

HR

WAR

Retirement year, age

(projected and actual)

Through age 29, doubled

2688

1252

346

74.0

1980, 40

Actual career numbers

1757

 840

226

38.5

1973, 34

 

Callison’s numbers through age 29 are fairly weak for a HoF-candidate who played corner outfield, though we must consider that he reached those numbers in the 1960s, so his name never showed up in HoF discussions very much. They’re nothing next to Allen’s age-29 stats doubled, but I think people would have had to consider Callison, who finally fell way short of consideration, based on those projections. I think maybe if he’d had one more big offensive year, he would have crept into the common consciousness as a legitimate HoF candidate but his numbers had started to decline after 1966. Blame the 1960s—that’s what I do, pretty much for everything that ever went wrong.

Jay Jaffe ran some similar numbers recently, going into Mattingly and Murphy in great depth particularly, and reached some similar conclusions: https://blogs.fangraphs.com/injury-shortened-primes-consi​gn-mattingly-and-murphy-to-modern-baseball-ballot-also-rans. His point, and mine, concludes that career totals matter much more than peak numbers (cough—Harold Baines), and there’s something a little screwy about that, almost as if the Cooperstown voters are simply and mechanically checking off numerical standards—career WAR, HR and RBI totals, etc.—and shrugging off the responsibility they have (or should have) to evaluate each player at his most impactful. If we were to elect players automatically once certain bells and whistles went off—DING! DING! DING!! 3000 HITS!!! WE HAVE A WINNER HERE!!!—it would be a lot easier to accept some of their recent choices.

Anyway, it’s kind of fun to look at careers that seemed inevitably Hall-of-Famish based on the malformed thought "And he’s still in his twenties!!", not accepting that that thought often translates into "Stick a fork in him, I think he’s almost done." Bill once pointed out that Jason Bay’s somewhat disappointing career-shape is actually the norm. In that article (actually, I think, a "Hey Bill" answer that I had my hands on just a few short months ago), Bay was never headed for Cooperstown (he got off to a late start, so he had only five big seasons in his late 20s, that weren’t gigantic seasons—doubling his hits through age 29 yields a measly 1500 or so) but I think the perception that got fossilized by 2008, when he turned 29, was "Hey, this guy has a 131 OPS+, and he averages over 30 HR, 100 RBI, 100 Runs per 162, and he’s not 30 yet." That perception, accurate enough statistically, seemed to promise a pretty good decade for Bay in his thirties, but sadly enough lasted only through his age-30 year, when he hit a career-best 36 HRs and 119 RBI, but after that (almost instantly on being acquired by the NY Mets, in fact), just about nothing. That this is not bizarre, strange, extraordinary, weird, uncanny, or peculiar, was Bill’s point—it’s more common than not. Another example that I (as a bottle-scarred Mets-fan) remember from Bill’s response was Howard Johnson, who, like Bay, was not a Hall of Famer through age 29 but was a solid star, occasional All-Star, a one-time MVP contender, but who fell off that craggy cliff after age 30. (Like Bay, HoJo had his best power numbers at age 30, a Bay-like 38 HR and 117 RBI, and then zilch). Shit happens, is the simplest explanation of the phenomenon, but somehow we (fans of these players and teams especially) take it as a shock to the system when it does. It shouldn’t.

This observation is really just a variation on one of the first apercus by Bill that blew my mind: players tend to peak around age 27, not the later figure (often quoted as somewhere in the early thirties) that we just assumed, so it’s inaccurate to use 20s/30s as a rough first half/second half dividing line for careers. But I think we still do it to an extent, in a kind of asystemic way, when thinking of players. If a guy on my team is turning 29 this year, I’m probably thinking of him as a fairly young player, and certainly not as someone who’s years beyond his likely peak and who may be a few steps from that Wile E. Coyote cliff.

The other part of the illusion is, as I say, supported by those few outliers, the Mayses and Hendersons, who take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. A fysical phreak plays well into his 40s and we phoolish optimists speculate that all our phavorites can do the same, but of course they can’t, and we’re left wondering "Wha’ hoppen?" Shit hoppen.

I wonder what can be done with another Golden Oldie of Bill’s that we don’t pay that much attention to anymore, the Favorite Toy, by which (for you young’uns under 60) Bill used to project how much career a player still had in the tank. The biggest variable that it couldn’t account for was, of course, sudden injury, so it tended to project rather conservative stats, averaging out the remaining careers of those players who were fated to step into the path of an oncoming bus the next day with those Henderson-Mayses who were granted baseball immortality by the baseball gods. The formula, as I recall (I haven’t seen it in use in decades) was based on a player’s current productivity and his listed age, and it pre-dated Win Shares but I’d imagine that it would be perfect for Win Shares (unless Bill simply abandoned it because it didn’t do such a good job of speculating about the future.)

For example, it (adapted to Win Shares for the sake of simplicity) would take a 35-year-old player coming off a season of 16 Win Shares, and assess him (on the basis of having another 1.5 seasons left in him at his current rate) as having another 24 Win Shares left in the tank. Mind you, Bill wasn’t predicting with the Favorite Toy that this particular man would keep producing at his current rate for the next season and for half of the one after that, at which point he would retire or die or get grossly fat overnight. No, the F.T. was just approximating, on average, what 35-year-olds with a current Win Shares production of 16 had left in their careers over however many seasons they had coming to them. Some 35 year-olds would play another decade but not very well while others would put in just one more final year of excellent play (the whole 24 Win Shares in one shot) and then retire in a burst of glory. And of course, since this was an average figure, it would be achieved by some players retiring immediately while others put in another 48 Win Shares.

Anyway, it would be simplicity itself to apply it to, say, David Wright’s career as of 2012 to see what it projected he had coming to him in terms of Win Shares. As I say, it seemed to short players in their 30s a few seasons. (Going on dim memory here, it projected something like a 29-year-old would play for another 4 seasons, and 3.5 for a 30-year-old, 3.0 for a 31-year-old, 2.5 for a 32-year-old, like that until it hit 1.5, which every player would retain throughout his career—on average of course.)  It might not seem very reasonable that a 29-year-old would play only until he was 33, but then life isn’t very reasonable, is it? Mostly the F.T. was good for checking our expectations for career length and career productivity.

This article, like the Linda Ronstadt article that preceded it, was mostly written in November of 2019, but I was reminded that I had it on my laptop (that I disastrously lost access to, a tale of horror I’ll run down for you in the course of yet another piece I’ve since recovered) when all of a sudden everyone on this site started publishing their own "Good half/Bad half of players’ careers" articles, so I thought I’d join the parade. Just as well to stimulate me, as I’ve been delaying publishing a lot of stuff for no good reason at all recently, just storing it on my hard drive and thinking, "Yeah, that one’s just about ready to go" and then getting distracted by some shiny object or other.

Dan Marks, for just one example, in his recent "A Career Half-Empty? Or Half-Full?" compared four burn-out cases to their most comparable long-career counterparts. Daryl Strawberry, whom Dan compared to Reggie Jackson, is an interesting one to break down into a 20s vs. 30s thing, if only because of the statistical oddity of Straw ending up with exactly 1000 RBIs. By the end of his age-29 season, he had 832 of them, leading us mistakenly to think that he’d have a heck of a lot more than 1000 by the time he was done.

 

Straw

Hits

RBI

HR

WAR

Retirement year, age

(projected and actual)

Through age 29, doubled

2318

1664

560

80.6

2000, 38

Actual career numbers

1401

1000

335

42.2

1999, 37

 

Obviously, there’s very little difference between his actual retirement age and his projected retirement age, but he pretty much stopped playing full-time when he hit 31. Aside from misplacing the true centerpoint of players’ careers, I think we too often falsely project their careers forward, almost as if we were saying, "OK, all he needs to do is just keep playing a few more years, and he’s in Cooperstown," when actually there are several hurdles to get past, really high hurdles, difficult, intimidating hurdles that we take for granted. HoFers typically have to 1) get off to a fast start, as Strawberry did, in terms of reaching MLB early, getting the chance to play, and playing well immediately, and then 2) sustain that good fast start, meaning not backsliding a bit and settling into that slightly lower level of excellence, as Wally Joyner or Kevin Seitzer did, and then 3) push that good, fast, sustained start to the next level, giving a few years of actual freaky-peak performance, and then 4) maintain a slow dropoff from that peak that remains at near-peak levels in the years that other players are assuming part-time roles or even retiring, and finally 5) end with a series of part-time but still-productive seasons that add incrementally to career totals.  It seems to me that steps 4) and 5) are too often taken as a given—if a player has jumped over hurdles 1), 2) and 3), we assume 4) and  5) will be a piece of cake, but there’s really no reason to make that assumption.  Sort of like if you’ve drawn three aces in a poker hand, thinking that makes it more likely that you’ll draw a fourth ace, or even a fifth one. It’s rare enough to draw two aces, is my point here.

Of course, there will be glitches and missteps even in a perfect 1) through 5) progression, and there are greats who omit an entire step or two, usually at the very beginning or the very end, but these would be your peakiest of peaky performers. My point here is that just jumping over hurdles 1) and 2) is normally what we would consider a star player, often a potential sure-shot HoFer, but it isn’t so.

Obvious ways that step 3) or 4) become unachievable: an injury that we can see easily, like Tommy Davis’s broken ankle (or was it a very bad sprain?), or a physical problem that causes a player constant pain, like Don Mattingly’s or David Wright’s back problems, or a medical condition that is invisible but debilitating, like Rico Carty’s TB, or a substance-abuse problem, like McDowell or Strawberry, or a psychological condition (no names here) that wears a player down. All of these and more take their toll, and it’s got to be great good luck just to avoid any of these to accrue a twenty-year career.

I’ve often thought that there must have been some really unlucky player, not one who was unlucky because he died, or suffered some debilitating injury, or anything obvious like that, but one who just suffered from a terrible roll of the dice, a guy enjoying a star career who just runs into a rare but not impossible random series of unlucky events. Let’s say this player has just played his sixth MLB season, meaning that he’s signed his first long-term, big-bucks deal that’s based on a pretty good six-year career, and now the universe aligns against him, as it will for one player in 100, or 1 in 10,000: say he’s a mid-range power hitter, 15 to 25 HRs per 162, and all of a sudden the winds shift in his home stadium and 10 balls per season that would have gone out are now caught on the warning track. Or he’s a pitcher who, through some random fluke, gives up a series of devastating homers because hitters are guessing his pitches’ locations with freakish accuracy. And because this goes on for much longer than purely random luck normally will go (though that’s all it is) and because his team happens to have a good young player who can replace him easily, and because his big contract makes him unattractive to other teams, he becomes a bench player, loses confidence, even loses some of his skills through lost playing time, and never gets his career on track again.

It seems to me, just by extrapolating through life, that something like this mystery must have happened to some players, maybe a whole bunch of players, in MLB history, but we’ll never know who they are. We just think, "Huh. Whatever happened to him?"  By "extrapolating through life" I mean that we probably all know someone, maybe really well, whose life makes no sense at all. I had a friend who was, no kidding, probably the most talented musician in the tri-state area—he played several instruments with phenomenal ability, wrote killer tunes, sang like an angel, and was more book-smart than anyone I ever knew. (He graduated Yale with a 4.0 cume in biology and could have gone to any medical school in the universe, but he decided to give himself a year to make it in the music industry first.) Long story short, that year off lasted for the last 40 years, and as far as I know, my friend is still living in his crummy NYC tenement apartment, playing gigs in small clubs, writing brilliant songs, cutting albums that sell 200 or 300 copies, and wondering wha’ hoppen to that musical stardom everyone he knew assured him was just around the corner.

"The world has need for only so many ballerinas" a character on MAD MEN said to explain her daughter’s stunted career, and I guess that’s the best explanation possible. It’s also true that the best-trained, most skilled, prettiest dancers don’t get picked as prima ballerinas unless they also happen to be in the right place at the right time, and maybe not even then.

Which gets us back to Linda Ronstadt, who had a good, long successful career, but at the very end, ran into a wall, sort of the Lou Gehrig of the musical world you might say, the luckiest singer in the world because she had the long, varied, strong, sustained career that she had and so can’t complain about the bad luck she ran into at the end. She can’t complain about it, and neither could Gehrig, I suppose—it just wouldn’t be seemly. But we can note that they caught the bad breaks that they did, and I just did.

 
 

COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
This isn't necessarily relevant to the article but I was looking at Gehrig's stats and his last truly great (by his standards) season was 1937 when he was 34. In 1938, his numbers declined significantly although it was still a very good season for most players. In 1939, of course, he was in the full throes of ALS. I'm just wondering (and there's no way to know) whether 1938 the ALS setting in or just the beginning of a natural decline phase?

As for comparing Gehrig and Ronstadt, one difference is that, as bad as Parkinson's is, she is still alive. And, it's interesting that almost 80 years after Gehrig died, there is still no effective treatment, as far as I know, for ALS.
9:50 AM Oct 19th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Would anyone deny that Gershwin died when he had many productive "seasons" ahead of him? That's the important thing that Lou and Linda had in common: they had put in remarkably long careers when they suffered terrible injuries.
8:49 AM Oct 18th
 
ajmilner
I suppose a better "Gehrig of the music world" would be George Gershwin, who died of a brain tumor at age 38, essentially at the peak of his career.
8:08 PM Oct 17th
 
doncoffin
(Actually ESPS, not Baseball Reference.)

5:12 PM Oct 17th
 
doncoffin
Baseball Reference still supports the Favorite Toy, although it's supported in a "black box" format...entry the player's current numbers & it cranks out a number. (It can be fun to use it for players for whom you know the actual career totals.) So, for Mattingly. through his Age 28 seasons/Projected/actual:

H: 1300/2607/2157
2B: 272/529/442
HR: 164/335/222
RBI: 717/1546/1099

His actual totals (except for doubles) were about 70% of his projected totals through age 28.


Here's a link:
www.espn.com/mlb/stats/billjames)
5:10 PM Oct 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I did read your post, 3for3, and it was terrific. But wasn't it weird that so many people were working independently on the tiny issue of stages to the HoF at the same time? I read it, and then promptly forgot to reference it because I had no idea after a week or so WHERE I'd read (or dreamt) it. You gave a lot of examples that I would have felt obliged to follow up on, which is a good thing because who needed this piece to be any longer. But it was a terrific thread--thanks.
9:50 AM Oct 17th
 
3for3
You might want to check out my reader post called 'On the Road'. In it, I lay out a 'schedule' for players to reach 60 WAR, which is a decent guideline for HOF consideration. My system assumed a peak at 26/27. At 29, one needed 64% of 60 WAR to be on the road.


1:00 AM Oct 17th
 
tjmaccarone
Nomar Garciaparra would be another example here. Through age 29, he looked like an absolute sure-fire HOFer, with over 41 WAR. After age 29, he totalled another 3 WAR.
2:35 PM Oct 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I hate defending what I write, but I'll make an exception for you, manushfan. Ronstadt and Gehrig may be the best comparison I've made this month. 67 for a musician is the equivalent of 37 for a ballplayer. Both of them had extremely long and excellent careers in their fields, and it would be perfectly normal for each of them to have retired (out of choice) when they did, or a few months later, but because they came down with harsh injuries that cut them off a little bit early, we extend a little extra compassion to them. No one could make the case that both of them didn't enjoy as much success as they ever could have wished for, but both cases strike their fans as sad, if not tragic, anyway.​
12:23 PM Oct 16th
 
SaKish
Minor clarification- it is Otsego Lake and the Otesaga Hotel
12:22 PM Oct 16th
 
Manushfan
Calling Linda Ronstadt the 'Gehrig of the music world' is silly. She was 67 when she got Parkinson's. She'd had a very long run, if anything the Gehrig of the music world would be someone like Elvis or Lennon or Buddy Holly, say, depending on how young you wanna make them. John Mellencamp's not wrong when he puts the average run of a successful music act at 8-10 years. Linda was huge from '75-80 and again the last part of the 80's, at the very least. That's going above and beyond.
11:47 AM Oct 16th
 
jfenimore
Enjoyed this immensely. Matt Harvey's name kept rattling around inside my head the entire time.
11:36 AM Oct 16th
 
evanecurb
Loved the article; one of Stephen's best.
11:28 AM Oct 16th
 
evanecurb
War hero (Battle of the Bulge), Purple Heart recipient and Washington shortstop Cecil Travis had 1370 hits and a .327 batting average in 1102 games through age 27. I always think of him first when I think of derailed Hall of Fame careers. Travis was so good that he replaced Hall of Famer Joe Cronin (Clark Griffiths' son-in-law), who was traded to Boston in 1935. Through age 27 (all with the Senators), Cronin had 200 fewer hits in 110 fewer games, and a batting average that was 24 points lower than Travis at the same age.
11:25 AM Oct 16th
 
evanecurb
A digression, but one that was stimulated by a paragraph from Steven's article.
"players tend to peak around age 27, not the later figure (often quoted as somewhere in the early thirties)"

This is the primary reason for the continued cooling off the free agent market and the trend toward younger big league players. The owners have finally realized that most players are beginning their decline phase around the time that they enter free agency. The players and their advocates are crying foul, but the six year team control period was first proposed by the players' union back in 1981 as a means of limiting the number of free agent markets and pushing up their prices. It turns out to have finally backfired after working well for 35 years, and is surely going to be a major point of contention in labor negotiations this winter.
11:13 AM Oct 16th
 
DaveNJnews
I do think people in 1980 regarded Dave Parker as a potential future Hall of Famer. He had a formidable reputation at the time.
10:22 AM Oct 16th
 
malbuff
Fine article, Steven, thank you. I especially liked the 1-2-3-4-5 step progression through a HOFer's career trajectory. It's good when one can articulate what many of us take as an assumption.
8:49 AM Oct 16th
 
 
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