Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
This past season, Adrian Gonzalez experienced ups and downs that James Loney could relate to. There were times, specifically in May and mid-June where he looked like the worst hitter in the lineup. Thankfully for the team, the start and end of the season for Gonzalez were reminiscent of his San Diego days where he dominated pretty much any pitcher thrown at him.
The results were spectacular, a .482 slugging (best since 2011), a 130 OPS+, and -don’t laugh- but he drove in 116 runs. On a team that had so much trouble coming from behind and driving in runs at times this season, having Gonzalez knocking guys in pretty consistently, certainly added value. He struck out less and walked more than 2013 and played in more games. Consistency matters, and even though the mid to high 3 WAR numbers don’t jump out at you, good production and defense does.
Unfortunately, we might never see Gonzalez hit to the extent he did last season.
Gonzalez is 32 years old! That’s an old baseball player. There were 31 baseball players last season who played in enough games to qualify for the batting title and were the same age/older than AGon. Durability is important, especially for an old player, because once injuries happen, they’re hard to come back from as an old guy. But then again, being old makes you more likely to suffer an injury. Getting old sucks! Especially for a professional athlete.
The good news is, Gonzalez is probably playing the position that ages the best in terms of baseball players. CF’s play a demanding position, Third Basemen deal with a lot of hard grounders and usually are the ones switching to the other corner infield spot, playing ShortStop at a major league caliber level is best suited for young players, Second Basemen are second baseman primarily because they weren’t good enough to stick at shortstop. Corner OF isn’t too demanding but with the way the game’s going, the Nelson Cruz‘s and Michael Cuddyer‘s of the world aren’t going to be allowed to lumber around in the OF for 140+ games a year. Catcher might be the most demanding position on the body, so the position that demands the least wear and tear on the body is probably First Base.
Heck, since expansion started, there’ve been 182 instances of a 1b going into his age 32 (or older) season and posting an OPS+ of at least 100. That’s 39 times more than the next best position (RF). That’s the good news, the not so great news is that Gonzalez already completed his age 32 season, and when a player gets into his 30’s, every year counts. Adjusting the age up to the number of 1b going into their age 33 season, we find that the total number of instances in which a player posted a 100 OPS+ or greater dwindles down to 134.
That’s still a really solid number considering that there’ve only been 86 total instances of a shortstop qualifying for a batting title at age 33 or above, regardless of his performance.
But you know better than I that being just “average” at a historically offensive centric position isn’t going to cut it. First baseman are generally slow guys, too slow to play the outfield and thus pretty horrendous baserunners (their ceiling is generally much lower). AGon actually enjoyed his “best” baserunning season since 2010, he only gave up 2.8 runs on the basepaths according to fangraphs this past season. He gave up more than 5 runs in every season from 2011-2013 and was as bad as 8.7 Runs Below Average back in 2011. Within his own capacity he’s not a terrible baserunner, but because he’s so slow, it’s nearly impossible for him to be a positive. In other words, many first baseman have to rip the heck out of the ball in order to be offensive assets, because their position allows them to be good hitters as they advance towards “old age”.
Thankfully Gonzalez makes up for his baserunning capabilities with stellar defense relative to his position. The metrics love him, the guys who make the gloves love him, the fans love him. He’s been a good defender at first base for a long time, and in an age where Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Howard, and Garret Jones type players are absolutely butchering the position, good defense at first base is a plus thing to have.
You also know that defense is a very good way of adding value. It’s also essential to either have defensive flexibility or plus defense at a specific position in the National League nowadays (having plus defenders who don’t need to be substituted out late in games is really important). Defense is factored into WAR, so lets sort the first baseman who had seasons where they were over the age of 33, at least league average hitters, and worth at least 2.0 bWAR.
That list is a very solid one, it is filled with 91 such seasons since 1961. 1b has 4 more such seasons than 3b as a total position. The general idea is simple, if we were talking about, say, Jimmy Rollins, i’d be a lot less optimistic about his chances for a healthy and productive 2015 (historically speaking), but first base is home to a lot of players who have aged well, sheer numbers tell us that first basemen age the best in terms of consistent production into the mid 30’s.
Gonzalez will decline, he absolutely will, but the hope is because he doesn’t play at a historically demanding position, because some of Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Yasmani Grandal, [insert hyped up Cuban infielder], Scott Van Slyke should expect to get better/become good MLB players and lessen the pressure on Gonzalez to be a run producer, because the shoulder that plagued him from 2012-2013 showed signs of life last season, because he’s a supremely talented defender, the total impact on the team will be minimized and he will be worth starting through the end of his contract. This is good, because with all the other worries on the roster (Clayton Kershaw being a pitcher, Hyun Jin Ryu’s shoulder, Carl Crawford‘s mess of a contract, Brandon McCarthy‘s shoulder, etc, etc, etc) it’s nice to have a sense of certainty coming from an aging player. As much certainty as an aging player can give a team, at least.