Dan O'Donnell is one of the sports talk radio hosts on 620 WTMJ in Milwaukee. I consider him to be one of the smartest sports talk hosts in existence, and I'm not just saying that because he's a friend of certain blog writers here.
Two days ago on his show I heard him wondering why so many people seem intent on getting rid of Prince Fielder. I called in too late, so instead I wrote this:
Dear Dan O’Donnell,
I heard you on the radio late on Wednesday night while I was driving home from my fantasy football draft. You were wondering why many people seem intent on getting rid of Prince Fielder in spite of his historically great season, and in spite of the fact that he is one of the most talented and productive Brewer players in franchise history. I have an answer for that question.
Certainly there are those that simply think he’s a weirdo for being a vegetarian, or too fat, or lousy on defense (who cares? It’s first base), or quiet, or some other reason that the rubes like to talk about when they call in to talk radio, but there’s a better answer, and his name is Boog Powell.
Old Player Skills
Bill James, back in pre-Moneyball era, coined the concept of “Old Player Skills.” What James found was that young, athletic players tend to age gracefully and remain productive for a long period of time. They tended to see an increase in power over time, combined with a loss of speed and athleticism. Young players who already possessed above average power along with a lack of speed and athleticism, on the other hand, tended to decline very rapidly after their peaks. As these players possessed the skill sets that athletic players tended to age into, James dubbed them “old player skills.”
PECOTA and Boog Powell
Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system is, perhaps, the most widely respected player projection system ever. Designed by Nate Silver (now a highly regarded political commentator and researcher at fivethirtyeight.com), it compiles a list of player attributes, and compares a current player to historically similar players in an attempt to determine how their careers will progress. I’ve been a Baseball Prospectus subscriber for many years now, and if you’re a power hitter hoping for a long, prosperous career, there is one player who you do not want on your list of comparable players. That player is Boog Powell.
Boog Powell was a fantastic slugger for the Baltimore Orioles, winning the MVP award in 1970 at the age of 28. He was big, unathletic, and struck out a lot (for the time). He was inconsistent in his younger days, belting 25 and 39 HRs in his age 21 and 22 seasons respectively, and flip-flopping between big seasons (39 HRs in 1964, 34 in 1966) and lackluster seasons (17 in 1965, 13 in 1967). Most players peak around their age 27 season, and Powell was no exception. Here are Powell’s lines from his age 26 season through his age 30 season:
1968 – 249/.338/.411, 22 HRs
1969 – 304/.383/.559, 37 HRs
1970 - .297/.412/.549, 35 HRs
1971 - .256/.379/.459, 22 HRs
1972 - .252/.346/.434, 21 HRS
You probably see a nice bell curve here, and that is no illusion. At age 30, 1972 was the last time that Powell would play over 135 games. Despite a brief resurgence in 1975 with Cleveland, after his age 30 season (in which his imminent decline was already clear) he would average only 100 games a season for the rest of his career. By the age of 34 he was no longer productive in any way, hitting 215/.305/.338. In his final season at age 35, the once mighty Powell would slug only .244 over a 50 game span.
Powell had a fantastic peak, but he declined quickly, and was mediocre to terrible, and frequently injured after his peak.
Just Like Boog…
In 2006 Travis Hafner was debatably the best hitter in baseball. Most would describe Pronk as a big, slow caveman type. He hit .308/.439/.659 with 42 HRs that year, in only 129 games. He was also 29 years old. His top 3 PECOTA Comps going into 2007 were as follows: Willie McCovey, David Ortiz, and Boog Powell.
In 2007 Hafner declined significantly, hitting only 24 HRs (in 152 games), losing 50 points of OBP and 200 points of slugging. Entering 2008, his top PECOTA comp was now Boog Powell. From that point forward, Travis Hafner basically ceased to be a viable major league player.
Mo Vaughn has the same story. Kent Hrbek too. So did Richie Sexson (Top comp – Cecil Fielder). I don’t have Cecil Fielder’s comps available due to his age, but if Boog Powell isn’t on there I’d be shocked. Surprised about David Ortiz’s collapse? Boog Powell is there too. Oh, and Ryan Howard. Boog is lurking around the 29-year-old’s comp list as well, along with Cecil Fielder and Mo Vaughn and David Ortiz and Travis Hafner.
Prince Fielder is still just 25 years old, and PECOTA is not destiny. While Powell is his top comp by a large margin (a similarity score of 51, his next closest comp is only a 30), there are some players on his list who were either great into old age (Barry Bonds) or should be (Mark Teixeira).
But you definitely do not want to sign a player like Fielder for big money into his 30s, and for an organization like the Brewers with a limited payroll, and a need to constantly develop from within, you definitely have to err on the side of parting with Fielder too early. Failing to get a king’s ransom for the Prince would be an organizational disaster.
The Brewers should definitely attempt to sign Prince Fielder for 4-5 more years. I might try to sign him for 6-7 and front load his contract in an attempt to make him more valuable on the trade market in 4-5 years. But under no circumstances should he remain a Brewer on his 30th birthday (unless steroids become legal).
SABRmetrics has been seeping into the general baseball knowledge repository for many years now, and I suspect that the concept of old-player skills undergirds some of the anti-Prince rhetoric you’ve been hearing. Prince is a fantastic player right now, and all the praise that he has received is well deserved, but that was also true of Powell, Vaughn and Hafner. And while the Brewers should not be in a hurry to get rid of their most valuable player, they should also be very cautious with the hefty lefty.
33 minutes ago