A great deal of gray matter has been dedicated to the question of whether or not Josh Hamilton might sign a relatively short-term, high-dollar deal as a free agent.
Because of both an extensive injury history and past issues with substance abuse, there is a sense that one of the elite middle-of-the-order mashers in baseball might get no more than a three-year deal in free agency -- a shocking prospect, given that players with his performance history often command deals of twice that length, sometimes more.
However, as the question of whether Hamilton might accept a three year deal for upwards of $25 million a year is asked, another matter merits consideration: What might be expected of him over the next three seasons?
Of course, the challenges of making such a projection are part of the reason why his market has been atypical for a slugger of his profile. Nonetheless, it's worth considering him in comparison with other players who have posted similar numbers at his age.
In 2007, the Reds made one of the most incredible Rule 5 moves in history when they orchestrated his acquisition (purchasing his rights from the Cubs after Chicago selected him) even though he'd played just 15 minor league games in the previous four years due to injuries and suspensions while battling drug addiction. Not only did Hamilton stick in the big leagues for all of 2006, but despite missing considerable time due to injury, he showed incredible talent against the highest level of competition, hitting .296/.368/.554/.922 with 19 homers in 90 games for Cincinnati. The Reds then traded him to the Rangers for Danny Herrera and Edinson Volquez (whoops), and he flourished into a five-time All-Star and MVP winner in his five seasons with Texas.
It's probably more reasonable to compare his time in Texas than Cincinnati to those of peers, given that he'd been out of baseball for four years before playing for the Reds (even if it didn't show in diminished performance). So, what has the outfielder done in the past five years?
With the Rangers, between his age 27 and 31 seasons, he hit .305 with a .363 OBP, .549 slugging mark and .912 OPS along with 142 homers (28 per year) in 647 games (129 per year). His time in Texas spanned the entirety of what is typically a player's prime. So, even if a team signs him to a three-year deal, it will likely get early post-prime production.
So what do the post-prime years (ages 32-34) look like for players whose performances have been comparable to those of Hamilton between ages 27-31? If Hamilton signs a three-year deal, what sort of production would be typical for a slugger of his profile during those years, absent the concerns based on his unique history?
Hamilton is one of 60 players since 1901 with at least 2,000 plate appearances between ages 27-31 who hit 100 homers during that five-year stretch with an OPS+ (OPS as compared to league average, adjusted for park) between 130 and 140, meaning a player whose OPS was 30 to 40 percent better than that of his peers during the same period.
The average player in that group hit .286 with a .372 OBP, .498 slugging mark and .870 OPS with a five-year total of 134 homers and an OPS+ of 135 between the ages of 27-31.
Of that initial group of 60 players, five are active and have yet to perform through their age 34 seasons. Hamilton, of course, has yet to play a day in his age 32 season. The other four all have shown early evidence of notable decline.
Mark Teixeira played his age 32 season this year. He hit .251/.332/.475/.807 with 24 homers with a 116 OPS+.
Ryan Howard likewise played his age 32 season this year, after returning from a blown out Achilles tendon. He hit .219/.295/.423/.718 with a 91 OPS+ (meaning nine percent below league average) in 2012.
Chase Utley has averaged 93 games in his age 32-33 seasons, hitting .258/.353/.426/.780 with a 111 OPS+ in those two years.
Kevin Youkilis has averaged 121 games over the last two years in his age 32-33 seasons. He's hit .246/.355/.434/.789 with a 111 OPS+ in those two years.
And what of the other 55 players who have completed their age 32-34 seasons after having an OPS that was 30-40 percent better than league average at ages 27-31? First, a look at how they stacked up by OPS+:
130 or better: 15
Less than 90: 2
Overall, it would appear that -- the active players in this group notwithstanding -- history offers a reasonably promising glimpse of what players in Hamilton's hitting class between ages 27-31 do from ages 32-34. There is decline among the majority of players, but more than a quarter of the pool maintained an OPS+ of 130 or better, and nearly half the pool had an OPS+ of 120 or better.
Less than 10 percent of the group dropped to below-average status, and, in fact, the only two players who had an OPS+ of less than 90 (Glenn Davis and Richie Sexson) had incurred injuries well before their age 31 seasons that ultimately prevented them from playing past their age 33 seasons.
However, on average, the group sees a notable (though not catastrophic) decrease in playing time, from an average of 582 plate appearances a year between the ages of 27-31 to an average of 512 plate appearances per season from ages 32-34 (that figure excludes Davis’ age 32 and 33 seasons and Sexson’s age 34 season, since they were out of baseball by that point).
So, players who belonged to the Hamilton category lose an appreciable amount of their value through decreases in playing time and productivity during their age 32-34 seasons, but not enough to remove them from the class of very good players. Indeed, some continue to perform at elite levels.
But, given that so much of the question about Hamilton revolves around whether he can be had for three years or if a team will have to extend to four years to sign him, it’s worth it’s also worth examining -- while acknowledging that there are concerns specific to Hamilton -- how players with his track record performed at age 35 (which would be the fourth year of a deal).
Foremost, there’s a sharp decline in the ability of players to stay on the field. Of the initial group of 60 players with an OPS of 130-140 between the ages of 27-31, six remain active and younger than 35 (Hamilton, Teixeira, Utley, Youkilis, Howard and Carlos Pena).
Of the remaining group of 54 players, seven never played a game in their age 35 seasons. Five more had 100 or fewer plate appearances in their age 35 seasons. The majority had fewer than 500 plate appearances.
A breakdown of the number of plate appearances by the 54 players in the original group who have concluded what would have been their age 35 seasons:
So, fewer than 50 percent had as many as 500 plate appearances; more than 40 percent of the group had fewer than 300 plate appearanes in their age 35 seasons, and more than 20 percent (12 of 54) had fewer than 100 plate appearances, meaning that their value was utterly negligible.
In other words, whereas the Sox had accepted in the past that signing elite players through their age 35 (Carl Crawford) or 36 (Adrian Gonzalez) seasons was simply a cost of doing business, for a player with Hamilton’s offensive profile, it would appear that a deal to add him beyond his age 34 season would represent a considerable risk that could threaten to create a sizable financial albatross four years down the road simply on the basis of the likelihood that he would stay on the field.
In that context, it’s notable that the Sox signed Shane Victorino for his age 32-34 seasons, while striking a deal with Mike Napoli for his age 31-33 seasons and Jonny Gomes for his age 32-33 campaigns.
In addition to the health risks of signing a player with Hamilton’s profile through his age 35 season, his productivity also likely would take a considerable hit in the fourth year of a deal. Of the 42 players in the Hamilton group with at least 100 plate appearances at age 35, here’s how they did by OPS+:
130 or over: 6
Less than 90: 3
Less than 80: 5
Overall, the majority of hitters (29 of 42, 69 percent) from the Hamilton group at age 35 are average to above average, with a select few remaining tremendously productive. But, by age 35, the potential for complete breakdown in productivity is also present in a fashion that wasn’t seen from ages 32-34, with almost one out of every five players (8 of 42, 19 percent) performing at levels that are at least 10 percent worse than league average.
All of that being the case, it’s not only Hamilton who represents a cautionary tale for a deal of more than three years at his age. It’s virtually anyone with his track record, regardless of background, who reaches the point of potentially precipitous decline in value by the time he turns 35.
The Sox in recent years have received some brutal lessons in the payroll-choking impact of having high-salaried players who were unable to stay on the field. The team was unable to maneuver in response to needs last offseason in no small part because it had so much money tied up in players who weren’t going to be on the field (Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Bobby Jenks, among others) for significant stretches of 2012.
If the team hopes to avoid a repeat of such scenarios, and to remain true to the mantra of fiscal discipline, then it is difficult to see how pursuing Hamilton for more than three years makes sense.