Sexson and old player skills

DMZ · April 21, 2008 at 9:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

One of the things we’ve mentioned a couple times in discussing Sexson is the concept of young player skills and old player skills, and I thought I’d spend a second and talk about what that means and what it implies. Warning! Many generalizations ahead before I talk about Sexson again.

In the largest sense, young player skills are speed and contact hitting. Putting the ball into play and running it out. You can think of speed and defense in here too, if you want, but I’m ignoring that for now. A current classic young-player hitter skill set is someone like Ichiro — high batting average, doesn’t walk very often, doesn’t hit home runs. Their extra-base power comes out of doubles.

Old player skills are walks and hitting for power. They stop being able to beat out infield hits as they slow, some of their well-hit doubles turn into long singles, while others go over fences. Think David Ortiz, or to some extent Raul Ibanez. The three true outcomes, where the defense isn’t involved at all: K, BB, or HR.

Now, players can be young and hit for power and walk, and old and hit for a high average and swing at everything. But generally speaking, as they get older, players swing at less and less and hit the balls they do swing at harder.

Now the balance between these two, when a player’s experience combines with ability to produce the greatest production, generally happens at about 27. It can happen a lot earlier, it can happen a lot later (and those spikes are more common than I think is usually recognized) but generally speaking, players get better until about 26-28, then start their decline.

That progression’s led to one of the great discoveries of sabermetric research. Once people started to be able to look at huge sample sizes over long periods of time, we found players who display old player skills don’t age well at all. If a player debuts hitting .280 with tons of walks and monster power, they generally don’t have the kind of careers that a top young speed-and-contact hitter might.

It makes sense. If a player has a really fast bat, they can afford to lose a little of that as they age, get better at recognizing pitches and driving them. But if they’re already reliant on those things, losing that bit of bat speed means their average goes from .275 to .250 to .225 and they’re no longer effective hitters.

Here’s a nice little graph I think demonstrates this well:

Sample Hall of Fame career path

(If you can’t guess who that is, I’m not going to tell you.)

Except that he always had a great eye. And his peak in these raw stats is age 31. Anyway, you can see over the course of his career his batting average declines as he ages until he just can’t effectively make contact but he’s still drawing walks. The power, though, goes up as he ages, spiking way up in his age 31 season. His best pure-power years are, in order, 31, 28, 27, 26, 34, 33, 25, 32, 40, and at number ten, 36 (24 is #11, 43 is #12). Considering his entire baseball-playing career, it’s clear that power is a relatively late skill that developed with experience.

A player can be hugely productive with old player skills. They K, they walk, they hit home runs. The top three players on the single-season strikeout list had great offensive seasons (Howard 2007, Dunn 2004 and 2005). This is the Sexson we’ve been seeing lately, a threat to lead the team in walks, strikeouts, and home runs at the end of the year.

But it’s extremely difficult to be a productive player hitting .250 for any length of time. If a hitter can’t put a strike into play for a hit, they’ll be challenged continuously, and things get really ugly really fast. It’s the cliff (the Cliff, sometimes) that’s cause for anxiety, and that’s why you get all the hand-wringing from me about what he’s hitting, what he’s laying off, and so on. They can fight it, but even the most talented players end up like Rickey Henderson in his last seasons, where he could not turn strikes even into singles, so he’d foul balls off until he drew a fourth ball. Less talented players – and every hitter is less talented than Rickey – don’t fare nearly as well.

What I’m worried about (and I think Dave would agree here) is whether or not a couple of things have happened, in descending order of the heartburn they induce:
– his bat speed’s deteriorated enough that he can’t be an effective hitter at all
– his bat speed’s down enough that his approach is falling apart, in consistency or
– his bat speed’s lost enough that he has regular, exploitable flaws

The last one’s the biggie. We’ve clearly seen some different versions of Sexson in the last few weeks, from disoriented and hacking to passive and bashing, and there’s the Rob Deer facsimile that can produce above-average offense while sporting an ugly batting average and striking out frequently.

We can’t know what it’s going to be for a while. This is really an area where we don’t have good enough tools. We can look at the Pitch F/X data, but we can’t look into Richie’s head and see what he’s seeing, or measure his reaction speed, or all that. We can’t know if he’s lucky or adapting, or if he was lost or got beat by a good pitch sequence. We’re just guessing.

There are other teams with advance scouts who will be looking at his video with a far more discerning eye and better tools than I have access to, so we’ll get some of these answers as the season goes on. If he’s unable to make good contact on pitches of a certain type in a particular location, he’ll be getting a steady diet of them soon enough.

It’s a measure of how important his offense is to the team that we all spend so much time wondering about it, and I squint at the good at-bats and bad trying to see if he’s coming around, getting lucky, both, or what. A productive Sexson, even if not up to career norms, provides power and walks to a team that sorely needs them, and a repeat of last season’s performance could badly hurt an offense that doesn’t have an easy way to solve for his absence.

Top Mariner Old Player Skill Seasons
(% of PA that ended with a walk, strikeout, or HR, min 400 ABs)
1. Jay Buhner, 1997, 51%
2. Richie Sexson, 2005, 46%
3. Mike Cameron, 2002, 45%
4. Jay Buhner, 1996, 44%
5. Jay Buhner, 1991, 43%
6. Gorman Thomas, 1985, 43%
7. Danny Tartabul, 1986, 42%
8. Jay Buhner, 1995, 42%
9. Mike Blowers, no question about it, 1995, 41% (Buhner hit 17 more HRs, walked seven more times, and struck out eight fewer times that year)
10. Mike Cameron, 2001, 41%

Sexson’s 2006, if you’re curious, is #14. He’s on pace to get over 47% on the season, though, which would be amazing and still not enough to catch Buhner.

The all-time record is Mark McGwire’s 1998, when ~58% of his plate appearances resulted in a walk, strikeout, or home run.

So when we say old player skills, I hope everyone understands that we don’t mean “stinks” — we’re trying to describe a particular offensive profile, and talk about how players age and what it means for Sexson’s career. There’s cause for both hope and worry in his performance so far, but we’ve seen players succeed for the Mariners with that skill set before, and we’ll see it again — hopefully for the rest of this year for him.


44 Responses to “Sexson and old player skills”

  1. Evan on April 21st, 2008 9:13 am

    I’m a bit disappointed you told us who the graph was.

    I’m also surprised to see Mike Cameron on the old player skills list. Twice. I know he hit for good power, and he drew a lot of walks and struck out a ton, but he was also a guy with great footspeed. It’s kind of incongruous (though I don’t dispute these numbers – I just wouldn’t have picked him out of my head).

    If asked to guess before seeing the list, I would have put John Olerud on it long before I would have considered Cameron, especially given Olerud’s tendency to strike out looking.

  2. Evan on April 21st, 2008 9:15 am

    The chart and your description also makes me want to track down Rickey’s pitches/plate appearance numbers from late in his career. Rickey Henderson actively fouling off strikes would be a nightmare for pitchers.

  3. the other benno on April 21st, 2008 9:19 am

    Is there any way to measure bat speed? I imagine that it should be possible to run super-slo-mo video with time indices and see how long swings take, but does anyone do this or anything else?

  4. BillH on April 21st, 2008 9:44 am

    I looked up Barry Bonds’ ’01 season thinking his old player skill must have been better than McGwire’s in ’98 but he was ~52%, mostly because he didn’t strike out nearly as much as McGwire did in ’98. ’04 season was about the same.

  5. Sportszilla on April 21st, 2008 9:58 am

    Actually, McGwire’s 1998 isn’t the top year…last year 58.1% of Jack Cust’s PA ended in a K, BB, or HR

  6. Hooligan on April 21st, 2008 10:11 am

    Bat speed is more complicated than most people acknowledge. The speed the barrel of the bat is the primary variable (with no other factor being even close) that determines how hard a ball is hit. So Sexson’s recent homers, which have been nothing short of world-class distance, indicate his bat speed is still in an elite class, and likely just as fast as ever.

    My physics professor used to theorize an athlete maintains bat speed by slightly lengthening his swing as his “true swing velocity” declines. Like using a longer driver in golf…you’ll hit iot farther, but with less accurate results.

    The other major factor is that a player’s reaction time declines with age; they may be able to generate the same bat speed but have to mentally decide to swing a split second earlier because it takes longer for the “swing!” signal to travel from their eyes to brain to muscles.

    But, yeah, you have to clarify that Sexson’s bat speed is fast as ever (since his home runs are as long as ever), but he’s having to cheat a little to get that speed.

  7. UofMichgoMs on April 21st, 2008 10:12 am

    3 – I’m sure scouts do that to get some idea. But each swing may end up different based on the pitch thrown. A lot of caveats would apply to a measurement of bat speed like that.

  8. Mariner Fan in CO Exile on April 21st, 2008 10:12 am

    Good analysis Derek (and an important clarification that the mainstream fan/announcer, etc. miss). It’s also important to realize – I think – that a team can’t survive on just old player skilled-types if they want to have any longevity. The “cliff” you mention always looms in the background, in my view, and reliable “young player skills” need to balance out some of the fluctuations you see. These fluctuations often manifest themselves throughout the year (some of the old player types are feast or famine kind of guys) and not just year to year. The hardest part of all of this is determining when to pull the plug on one of these guys. Has he fallen off the cliff, or is he simply adjusting with the more limited skillset he’s got? It’s hard to know, and we have a couple of examples of guys we all pronounced dead who have at least come back for a time. Is the wait always worth it? Is sticking with a guy the right way to get him to come around?

    Less talented players – and every hitter is less talented than Rickey – don’t fare nearly as well.

    Now that would be a fun debate – for another thread.

  9. Colm on April 21st, 2008 10:13 am

    Guys like Olerud and Edgar had some of the facets of the pure “Old Player” skillset – but both hit for a very good average throughout their careers. That’s not the case with guys like Jay Buhner or Mike Cameron.

    As for Cameron: good foot-speed, great base running instincts and un-effing-paralled defence in center are all young player traits – but none relates to his hitting. He was a guy who’d bat 250 with good power and walk enough to get his OBP up around 350. Classic old-hitter skillset.

  10. b_rider on April 21st, 2008 10:18 am

    Interesting analysis.

    It makes me wonder, however, whether it is as much a matter of being “old” vs. “young” as just what type of hitter you are. Presumably, Ichiro will always be a “young” hitter. Cameron and Cust (and Buhner (?)) were always “old” hitters. How often does a player actually evolve from being one to the other over the course of their career? Is that what Rickey did?

  11. Mike Snow on April 21st, 2008 10:25 am

    Actually, McGwire’s 1998 isn’t the top year…last year 58.1% of Jack Cust’s PA ended in a K, BB, or HR

    Derek did say minimum 400 ABs. Cust had 395, so wouldn’t have been included in the sample. Granted, using at-bats as a threshold is a little awkward when one of the things being measured doesn’t count.

  12. galaxieboi on April 21st, 2008 10:29 am

    Awesome post, Derek.

    I emailed my uncle, a hitting instructer back in Colorado, for his analysis of Richie’s swing. I brought up the homerun that was a little up and in on him and asked him about extension. Here’s what he wrote back.

    As for the hitting, YES, extension is very important…but the extension they’re talking about comes at contact and THEN they get their arms fully extended to drive thru the ball. That said, extension comes a little sooner on the outside pitch as it’s further away from us. The inside pitch the extension doesn’t typically happen until they’ve gotten to contact.

    So, to me, with Richie’s swing is that it gets “long” BEFORE he gets to contact creating length in the swing. The longer the swing, the more time it takes to actually get to the ball. The more time it takes to get to the ball, the LESS time we have to SEE it and MAKE a GOOD DECISION…hence, his swinging at bad pitches all the time.

    Does that make sense? For that fact, if you’d have watched the game last night (Phils and Mets) they specifically talked about Chase Utley’s swing in that he’s DIRECT to the ball w/ his hand path. There isn’t any extra movement, no LONG movements…just direct to the ball. Richie doesn’t do that.

    Hope this adds to the discussion.

  13. PositivePaul on April 21st, 2008 10:47 am

    So when we say old player skills, I hope everyone understands that we don’t mean “stinks” …

    Well, they are still called “skills” after all. “Stinks” pretty much means that someone doesn’t have enough “skills” to hold a job in MLB. For the first few games, it sure seemed like Sexson didn’t even have old player skills.

  14. JerBear on April 21st, 2008 10:48 am

    Thanks for the clarification, Derek.

    And I thought you just meant like, bowhunting skills….computer hacking skills….

  15. Colm on April 21st, 2008 11:03 am

    Damn, I guessed and guessed and looked at Fangraphs until I’d worked out who the graph referred to – before I realised that you named him in your little pop-up caption.

    Thanks for helping me waste 20 minutes Mr Zumsteg.

    Age is obviously withering my mental acuity too. Birthday today; feeling old.

  16. galaxieboi on April 21st, 2008 11:27 am

    Happy birthday, Colm.

    I’ll be back in Denver for some job interviews this week and hopefully well get a chance to drop in on my uncle’s batting cages. Then maybe we can take a peek at Richie’s present swing and his swing from 5 years ago on this machine. The thing is really awesome.

  17. OppositeField on April 21st, 2008 11:32 am

    That was fascinating. Thanks so much.

  18. jlc on April 21st, 2008 11:43 am

    DMZ – Interesting analysis. I expected to see Edgar on the Mariners’ list, but then realized he hit a lot of doubles rather than HRs (and for average, as Colm said), so wasn’t in this skillset. I don’t know if it’s because I always expect to see Edgar on a Mariners’ list, or because I think of him with no knees, which is not what the skill set is about.

    galaxieboi – Thanks for passing on the critique.

    Colm – Happy birthday. I’d like to say your mind adapts to age, but…

  19. Joe on April 21st, 2008 11:54 am

    BTW, Norm’s is starting up their “Cheap Sexs on Mondays” thing again (Bud/Bud Light for the price of Sexson’s batting average). However, it doesn’t start until May 5 (Norm may be just a dog, but he understands small sample size fluctuations… which puts him ahead of a lot of humans, alas).

    So, if you like crap beer cheap, or you just want to salvage something out of Sexson (especially on nights when the M’s often don’t play), have at it. And hey, who knows, maybe a miracle will happen and you’ll relish spending over $3 for a Bud.

  20. galaxieboi on April 21st, 2008 11:56 am

    I always think about Dave Kingman, Rob Deer and Mickey Tettleton when someone says ‘old players skills’ or ‘Three True Outcomes’. Kingman, who was the Athletic I disliked the most, in particular always catches a ton of flack for his low batting average and ton of strikeouts. Bill James does a nice job defending his honor in an essay it his Baseball Abstract. Player X is Dave Kingman was almost my screen name here.

  21. galaxieboi on April 21st, 2008 12:00 pm

    And hey, who knows, maybe a miracle will happen and you’ll relish spending over $3 for a Bud.

    Yeah, you couldn’t pay me $3 to drink a Bud. If there were any justice, German brewmasters would rise up and smote Bud for butchering their invention.

  22. Tiboreau on April 21st, 2008 12:11 pm

    I’m also surprised to see Mike Cameron on the old player skills list. Twice. I know he hit for good power, and he drew a lot of walks and struck out a ton, but he was also a guy with great footspeed. It’s kind of incongruous (though I don’t dispute these numbers – I just wouldn’t have picked him out of my head).

    This is, I think, part of the problem that led to the M’s constantly tinkering with Cameron’s batting approach. He looked like the type of hitter who’d hit .300, his baserunning and defensive skills implied the young player skill they preferred at the plate–high contact rate–but he was never that type of hitter and the Mariners were for the most part discontented with a solid hitting and very good overall contributer to the team’s success due to his low average and high K totals.

    Actually, McGwire’s 1998 isn’t the top year…last year 58.1% of Jack Cust’s PA ended in a K, BB, or HR

    And, of course, Cust didn’t hit the same number of HR that McGwire hit in ’98. I think Cust is the first ballplayer to qualify for a batting title who struck out or walked in over 50% of his PAs–if not first, at least one of the few. It’ll be interesting to see what his ’08 batting line will look like.

  23. RosanjinScholar on April 21st, 2008 12:14 pm

    Interesting post. Based on some of your previous analysis, would it be fair to say that Clement is the classic young player with old guy skills? That is he punishes guys who don’t have really good fastballs and thus cannot exploit his bat speed issues.

    I saw him get blown away last year in Peoria by a SF minor leaguer throwing nothing but heat and I was concerned, since you assume young players typically feast on fastballs and struggle with breaking pitches. I know that is a small sample and I would be interested in anyone who has seen him this year and has a perspective on that.

  24. Joe on April 21st, 2008 12:29 pm

    I don’t know, if Sexson kept is power and was actually hitting over .300, I’d happily pay for a few $3 Buds.

    I just wouldn’t drink them.

    If there were any justice, German brewmasters would rise up and smote Bud for butchering their invention.

    If there was any justice, the Czech company (and town) they stole the name from would force them to drop their pretensions and call the beer what it really is. Though I don’t know that “Carbonated Pisswater” would look good on a bottle. (Maybe they could adopt a vaguely Belgian mien with something like L’Eau du Pissior).

  25. Robo Ape on April 21st, 2008 12:37 pm

    #6 and #12 regarding “lengthening” swing:

    Maybe, but last night’s shot was very much inside. A longer swing to make up for lost reaction time or acceleration (or even dy/dx of acceleration) would see Richie unable to turn on that pitch. Maybe he’s using a shorter bat?

  26. Carson on April 21st, 2008 1:02 pm

    Derek – Coincidentally, Rob Neyer has an article up about somewhat the same thing (specific to Jack Cust).

    I’m half tempted to to pay their stupid fee to read his stuff sometimes. So, I’m glad you covered it for free! Good stuff.

  27. galaxieboi on April 21st, 2008 1:05 pm

    A longer swing to make up for lost reaction time or acceleration

    What my uncle was saying was that the longer your swing before contact, the less time you have to recognise the pitch and make your decision. Bat speed, length of swing, whatever- the point being to get your bat through the ‘zone’ as quick as you can.

    Richie is probably pretty strong, but strong enough to muscle a pitch up and in for a homerun? I’m hoping he’s realized that he couldn’t catch up to the baseball with a long swing and decided to shorten it up some.

    Like I wrote earlier, maybe we can find some ABs of his from ’02 or ’03 and compare them side-by-side to ’07 and the first week of this year on that fancy machine my uncle has. This is the part of baseball analysis I really love- mechanics (which makes my love for Lincecum all the more irrational).

  28. galaxieboi on April 21st, 2008 1:07 pm

    (Maybe they could adopt a vaguely Belgian mien with something like L’Eau du Pissior).

    Nice. If Richie was somehow hitting .300 with power I too would purchase $3 Buds and give them to my friends with less…discerning taste in our fine hoppy friend.

  29. moocow on April 21st, 2008 1:21 pm

    Do you think Isolated SLG would be a better measure to chart on your graph? That way, it takes out the relationship between BA and SLG currently in there (e.g. every season Rickey’s BA takes a dip, so does his SLG, even if he’s hitting for the same amount of power he did the previous season).

    Come to think of it, maybe Isolated OBP (is there such a thing? I can’t see why not) or BB/PA would also be more informative than raw OBP here…

  30. stripesjr on April 21st, 2008 1:24 pm

    Here is some analysis from the hardball times that, although it is off topic, kind of looks at what Sexson did on that inside pitch.

  31. JonBBT on April 21st, 2008 1:26 pm

    I was also wondering how this could relate to Jeff Clement. Any insight?

  32. Robo Ape on April 21st, 2008 1:28 pm

    29: I’ve always thought a better rubric would be something like Avg Bases Per Hit, which would be slugging/batting average. ISO tells you extra base hits per at bat, but why even bother with the whole “per at-bat”.

  33. pygmalion on April 21st, 2008 1:32 pm

    What would isolated OBP be isolated from?

  34. JMHawkins on April 21st, 2008 1:44 pm

    I suspect there are at least a couple of physical aspects to “bat speed” even if we factor out reaction time. Legs and torso matter a lot in determining the raw speed that you can push the bat through the zone, but you also hear scouts talk about “quick wrists”. Perhaps that’s where the “long swing” part comes from. The speed you generate with your legs, hips and torso is “long” speed. Your writst provide the last bit of snap to the swing. They also guide the bat to the ball, determining whether you hit or miss the ball (and if you do hit it, whether you square it up or pop it up). Seems that if your wrist speed went, you’d have more trouble making contact, even though your torso might still be capable of generating lots of barrel speed through the strike zone.

    But, man, look at that graph. Amazing how consistent the OBP and AVG were over a long career.

  35. 6-4-3 on April 21st, 2008 1:53 pm

    I’ve often thought it’s too bad many hitters develop good plate discipline too late in their careers for it to be a real benefit. Yeah, they get on base a lot, but then they can’t go from first to third on that base hit because they’ve got no speed. Yes, it’s better than not getting on base, but it seems like they aren’t able to take advantage of this skill to the maximum extent.

    Conversely, think about how devastating somone like Vince Coleman could have been if he could get on base more. OK, essentially he would have been Rickey Henderson rather than Vince Coleman!

  36. joser on April 21st, 2008 2:08 pm

    This reminds me of a barstool conversation I had with a friend: what if you had a player like Vlad or Ichiro, who could get the bat on the ball almost anywhere, but this guy couldn’t get around on the ball. In other words, he could foul off pitches forever (or watch them go by for balls) but couldn’t ever get a hit. (Never mind such a player would get nowhere near a professional game, it’s just a gedanken experiment). Now he might walk, which is some value (and occasionally he’d get an out on a caught foul ball). But what he’d really do is run up the pitch count. If this guy sees 15+ pitches in an at-bat, he essentially takes the starter out of the game one inning earlier per plate appearance. So if you’re the opposing manager, what do you do with this guy? You treat him like Barry Bonds — you IBB him. He’d be all OBP, no ISO (or AVG). We didn’t really think of Rickey in this context, but… yeah.

  37. kevinzelko on April 21st, 2008 2:36 pm

    How does Youklis fit in that comparison?

  38. true_slicky on April 21st, 2008 2:38 pm

    Old young player skills = Juan Pierre? Urrgh…

  39. galaxieboi on April 21st, 2008 2:48 pm

    How does Youklis fit in that comparison?

    Youk isn’t a homerun hitter and he certainly doesn’t strike out much (at least for our purposes). He walks a lot.

  40. Bender on April 21st, 2008 3:44 pm

    I work at Norms. People come for the 40’s, not the cheap Bud…

  41. Breadbaker on April 21st, 2008 4:47 pm

    What’s fascinating is who’s not on the list. The “old player’s skills” term comes from a post that was in, I think, the 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract, and the player involved was Alvin Davis.

  42. nathaniel dawson on April 22nd, 2008 1:55 am

    1986 it is…..but I don’t know if that’s the first place he brings it up.

    “Another young player with an old player’s skills–superb strike-zone judgement, power, but slow and already lodged at the left end of the defensive spectrum…I didn’t realize he was quite so slow before reading Jeff Welch’s study. He can hit, though…”

    The study he refers to was of a tabulation of base-running errors by the Mariners in 1985. It seems Davis was thrown out twice at second on singles to left field.

  43. 6-4-3 on April 22nd, 2008 9:27 am

    I expected to see Ken Phelps in that Mariner top ten list.

  44. galaxieboi on April 22nd, 2008 9:40 am

    What would isolated OBP be isolated from?

    Batting average? Take out the hits and you’re left with everything else- BB, HBP, ect.. I’m not sure why you would, but that’s what you’d be doing.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.