Fielder: It's all about health

So we're in the second half of January now, and Prince Fielder is not yet signed as a free agent. I think it's probably pretty easy for Scott Boras to get people interested in having Fielder be a part of their team, but the hesitation enters when they start talking about contract length. Teams would love to sign Fielder through 2015, without a doubt. If he said he was willing to sign a contract for just those years, the numbers could get silly. Unfortunately I think they're looking for nothing less than six years, and probably closer to eight or nine.

It's pretty well established that (steroids aside) a player's total production drops off after age 30-31. Players tend to have their best years in their late 20's, and Prince is rolling full steam into this time of peak production. But when he hits age 30, what happens next? The team that signed him for six years has enjoyed the peak of his career, and now will be paying that premium cost for diminishing performance. The question is, by how much? How far can his numbers be expected to drop in the late years of his career?

I decided to take a look at the historical figures of guys with abundant power and how their numbers declined (or didn't) as they aged. For my quick and unscientific study, I decided to consider only guys who had demonstrated they had massive power at an early age - anyone who had hit at least 50 HRs by age 27. This includes consistent performers like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, but also wilting violets Jimmie Foxx and Ralph Kiner.

I added up all their numbers together in three age brackets: Ages 28-30, 31-33, and 34-36. When you look at any one career, all of their activity is different- wildly different. Willie Mays stayed healthy and played to age 42. Hank Greenberg missed the middle of his career due to World War II. Ruth stayed strong and had some of his best years after age 30, Cecil Fielder never recaptured the glory of his 50-HR season.

When all totaled, the first thing you notice is what most people would expect. The homers decline with age.

Average HRs per season, with non-productive seasons included:
Age 28-30: 36 HR
Age 31-33: 24 HR
Age 34-36: 17 HR

If I'm a major league team looking at that, I'm thinking that the first three years are a no-brainer, the second three are a risk, and the final three would be total charity. There's no way I'm paying a premium amount for those last three years.

But what if the money was put in incentives? There were players who stayed productive, right? Not everyone could have declined or clubs would never take a chance on anyone that old. Well, as it turns out, productivity is not really a concern - staying healthy is.

Here's the interesting discovery: The power never goes away, only the body's ability to stay healthy enough to play. When you take a look at the HR's per plate appearance for the same age brackets for these gentlemen of prodigious power, it looks like this:

Average HRs per plate appearance:
Age 28-30: .059 HR/PA
Age 31-33: .056 HR/PA
Age 34-36: .056 HR/PA

So it's not an issue of whether he'll be able to hit for power, but whether he'll be able to stay in shape enough to play. And people look at his body and wonder how he's in shape enough to play right now, much less in 6-9 years. And I guess that's why he's still on the market.

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