A Player who has been in the Major Leagues 2-4 years often finds himself at a career crossroad where we wonder what type of career he will have. Will he be a stud in his prime years like Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, David Wright, or Adrian Beltre? Or will he merely be a serviceable CI option, which has value, but won’t carry your team to the Promised Land? Perhaps he will not be either. Maybe he will never adapt to the adjustments that MLB pitchers make to exploit his weaknesses, and he will be destined to a career of platoon, defensive part timer, or all or nothing slugger. Conventional theory has it that a player’s power blooms around age 27, but for a few superstars who are sluggers from day one. Also, with a few late-blooming exceptions, if that studly power has not manifested itself by then, it is probably not coming.
So, is 27 the magic season? Last week we looked at the age that current slugging 1bmen had their “breakout” season and found that indeed, there was a distinct pattern of career power development. It seemed to come a year earlier then expected as most of the breakouts were at age 26 as opposed to age 27. Let’s take a look at some current generation star 3rd basemen who had their first breakout season in the last 10 to 15 years and see what age that group had their “coming out party”. For this exercise, I looked at the career stats of the most prolific power hitters of our current generation (BaseballReference.com). I scanned down their career stats, without looking at age, until I found that true “breakout season”. Often it is the season in which they were trusted enough to play nearly every game at their position and showed spikes in basic metrics such as Slug %, OBP, K/BB rates. They also show exponential gains in counting stats, such as going from a mid teens homer threat to full-blown 35 HR slugger, or 100 RBI man. How old was that player when he turned those doubles into homers and had this magical, and career defining type of season? Let’s look.
I was going to skip Miggy, who has transcended all established norms and put up monster stats seemingly since he was out of diapers (or at age 21 anyway when he broke in), but then I noticed something interesting. While he had a breakout level season at the age of 21, his rookie season, a closer look shows that he spiked again later in his career at the age of 29 when he had his Triple Crown, MVP season. So, noticing a trend, I looked at other top slugging 3bmen who had their breakouts at a very early age to see if they also had another spike around that age 27 power prime season. As we did with the 1bmen, let’s put up the basic stats from the first breakout season of this current generation of 3bmen. For the sake of simplicity, and 6 X 6 relevance, we will skip some of the more advanced sabermetric stats and only concentrate on HR, RBI BA & OPS. Someone else can debate the advanced metrics and WAR if they so choose, but we’re not doing that here. Then, on 6 of them who seemingly “broke out” at age 24 or earlier, we will also look at their stats from a few years later to see if there was a further spike in power production when they hit their power prime ages. This chart includes 3 players (Reynolds, Encarnacion and Davis), who were also featured in the 1b analysis, as they have recently played both positions, and several players who either came up at other positions (A-Rod, Miggy, Hanley) but now play 3rd or came up at 3rd and now play other positions (Bautista, Gordon).
Player HR RBI BA OPS AGE
1a. David Wright*** 27 102 .306 .912 23
1b. David Wright 33 124 .302 .924 26
2a. Alex Rodriguez* 36 123 .358 1.045 20
2b. Alex Rodriguez 41 132 .316 1.026 24
3a. Aramis Ram *** 34 112 .300 .885 23
3b. Aramis Ramirez 38 119 .318 .951 26
4a. Miguel Cabrera** 33 112 .294 .879 21
4b. Miguel Cabrera 44 139 .330 .999 29
5a. Scott Rolen *** 31 110 .290 .923 23
5b. Scott Rolen 34 124 .314 1.007 29
6a. Chipper J ***** 30 110 .309 .923 24
6b. Chipper Jones 45 110 .319 1.074 27
7. Adrian Beltre 48 121 .334 1.017 25
8. Evan Longoria 33 113 .281 .889 24
9. Hanley Ramirez 29 81 .332 .946 24
10. Jose Bautista 54 124 .260 .995 29
11. Ryan Zimmerman 33 106 .292 .888 24
12. Alex Gordon 23 87 .303 .879 27
13. Chase Headley 31 115 .286 .875 28
14. David Freese 20 79 .293 .839 29
15. Eric Chavez 32 114 .288 .876 24
16. Brandon Inge 27 83 .253 .776 29
17. Kevin Youkilis 29 115 .312 .958 29
18. Chris Davis 33 85 .270 .827 26
19. E. Encarnacion 42 110 .280 .941 29
20. Mark Reynolds 44 102 .260 .892 25
Here is the “Bell Curve” using the initial breakout seasons of this group. Following that will be the Bell Curve using the Power Prime breakout seasons of the 6 players who got an early jump on their power hitting careers.
Age 20 – 1* Peaked again later in career
Age 21 – 1 ** Peaked again later in career
Age 22 – 0
Age 23 – 3 *** All 3 peaked again later in their careers.
Age 24 – 5****One of the 5 peaked again later in his career.
Age 25 – 2
Age 26 – 1
Age 27 – 1
Age 28 – 1
Age 29 – 5
15 of these 20 3B fall into a near perfect Bell Curve of age at which they put it all together, except for a group of late bloomers who’s careers as impact players were delayed until they were 29 (Bautista, Encarnacion, Freese, Youkilis and Inge). Looking at that curve, it appears the most common breakout season for a 3B, other than the five late bloomers, is between 23 & 25, with age 24 being the most common breakout season. So, what does this mean? It means that the theory looks accurate, albeit three years earlier then the age 27 theory states, and 2 years earlier then 1B. The curve changes a bit if you instead use the 2nd power spike seasons of our 6 super stars, which would look like this:
Age 24 – 5
Age 25 – 2
Age 26 – 3
Age 27 – 2
Age 28 – 1
Age 29 – 7
Again, removing the outliers, this inches the curve back up slightly closer to where the 1bmen had their power spike at age 26, but still clearly shows the 3bmen either developing much earlier or much later than the 1bmen. Perhaps the large variance is due to the higher relative level of athleticism of a player who starts out as a 3Bman or Shortstop as opposed to a 1bman, and conversely, the number of players who move to 3rd from other positions to fill a need or get to the majors faster if they are a journeyman of sorts. I don’t know that answer but am just throwing some possibilities out there.
You might ask, “How does this help me?” Well, just like in my 1b, 2b and SS articles, you may get shut out of the top 10 choices at 3b for one reason or another. If that happens, how should you decide which 3bman to take a flier on in the later rounds? You’ll need a CI as well. Well, if it happens to me, I’m going to grab Kevin Youkilis and hope that I can squeeze one more good year out of him in that patchwork Yankee lineup. But if someone beats me to him, I need a “Plan B”. I see quite a few 3bmen that are nearing the magic ages of 24-26 that we just proved out. Perhaps I should take one of them, and hope to get the next David Wright or Evan Longoria. That sounds a lot more exciting than taking Jeff Keppinger or Chris Johnson. I’ll leave you with the short list (ranked in order from closest to 26 to younger) and later in the week we’ll look at Outfielders and see when they have their power coming out party.
- Evan Longoria – Age in 2013 – 27. Wait, wasn’t he a 1st round pick a couple of years ago? Yeah, but derailed by a hammy and other injuries, his value has dropped. While he already sports elite power numbers, like a HR every 16.1 AB, one can only imagine where he’ll be should he enjoy a “2nd” spike such as the 6 players above. If he stays on the field, enjoy the MVP quality season.
- Pablo Sandoval – Age in 2013 – 26. Doesn’t it seem like the Panda has been around for a long time? Well, he has. He broke in at 21 and this will be his 6th season. Also beset by injuries (wrist) and weight issues, the Panda could be in line for a power spike if he can control both problems. Always able to hit for average, his age 22 (25, 90, .330, .943) gave us a tease of what he can do with the stick.
- Trevor Plouffe – Age in 2013 – 27. Not many knew who he was till he hit 24 HR (17.6 AB/HR) last season in a season shortened by a thumb injury. He never hit more than 15 HR in a season in the minors, is very streaky and seldom takes a walk. Classic all or nothing type whose ceiling is unknown at this point.
- Todd Frazier – Age in 2013 – 27. No longer blocked by Scott Rolen and versatile enough to play 4 positions, and NOT coming off an injury. He hit 19 HR with a .498 SLG and should see a spike to the 30 neighborhood.
- Josh Donaldson – Age in 2013 – 27. Hit 22 HR between AAA and MLB. Hey, someone has to play 3b for the A’s, right?
- Pedro Alvarez – Age in 2013 – 26. Teased in 2010, horrible in 2011, and nearly sent packing in 2012….till he hit 4 HR in 3 days. He was the most added ESPN player that week and found his way to 30 bombs. (17.5 AB/HR) Power is real.
- Kyle Seager – Age in 2013 – 25. Like Plouffe, he came out of nowhere and hit over 20 HR without having hit more than 14 in the minors. He played every day and the fences are moving in at Safeco.
- Will Middlebrooks – Age in 2013 – 24. Following the themes here, he came from relative obscurity to hit 15 HR in half a season cut short by a wrist injury. He slashed a .288BA, .835OPS and his 17.8 AB/HR was better than Ryan Zimmerman, Chase Headley, David Wright, A-Ram and Han-Ram. He did have a huge season at AAA in 2011 and allowed the Sawx to trade Kevin Youkilis. Lots of name dropping right there.
- Mike Moustakas – Age in 2013–24. Long thought to have 30 HR power, he cranked out 20 in 2012 but was hampered by; you guessed it, a knee injury that sapped his power in the 2nd half. In 2010, in AAA, he posted a 36HR, 124RBI, .322BA, .999OPS season which put him on the map, unlike some of his fellow 3bmen here.
- Lonnie Chisenhall – Age in 2013 – 24. He put up good but not spectacular minor league numbers and now has a job. He shows patience at the plate unlike some others on this list. Let’s see what he can do with what is billed as 20 HR power.
- Brett Lawrie – Age in 2013 – 23. This post hype sleeper may not have the big power of some of the guys here, but with 30 SB potential to go along with as yet undeveloped 20HR power, he could be a David Wright type in a stacked Toronto lineup. And, yes, he is only 23.
- Manny Machado – Age in 2013 – 20. Manny was 19 when he hit 2 HR in his MLB debut last season. He is a SS by trade but many think he will end up at the hot corner, and he has the bat for it even if he is a few years away from realizing his power potential.
There, that is 10 players outside the top 10, plus a couple in it. Who said 3B is not deep anymore? I think it is far deeper then 1b this season now that 1b lost several players and 3b gained some from other positions, plus add in this crop of up and comers, and like 1st base, this is just the start of a changing of the guard. See you later in the week when we move to the OF.