Until recently, most studies had shown that a hitter’s peak seasons occurred between ages 25-29. However, in the past few years, some studies have indicated that peak may now occur between ages 26-30, which can have some free agent and player performance implications.

Teams have “control” over most players for only a certain period of the players’ careers. If a player hasn’t reached the majors within six years, the player can file for free agency. Once a player is added to a team’s 40-man roster, the team has three “option” years where a player can bounce to the minors and back to the major leagues. After three seasons, the player can’t be optioned to the minors without “clearing waivers” which means every other team in the majors has passed on the player (for various reasons–does not necessarily mean the player doesn’t have ability). Essentially, after four years on the 40-man roster, the player can file for arbitration (there are certain exceptions to this rule) and after six years on a major league roster, the player can file for free agency.

Well, there’s a method to this contractual madness. It’s possible for a team to control a player (to some extent) for twelve years, especially if they sign straight out of college. The six years in the minors allows a player to mature and reach the majors. If a player plays four years of college ball, the expectation is that the player will reach the majors more quickly than a player straight out of high school (college ball replacing the “lower minor leagues” in this case).

If you look back into history, the vast majority of star players reach the majors at a very early age. See below…

Johnny Bench reached majors at age 19; three seasons in minors, 265 games
Pete Rose reached majors at age 22; three years in minors, 354 games
Joe Morgan reached majors at age 19; two years in minors, 280 games
Ken Griffey, Jr., reached majors at age 19; two seasons in minors, 129 games
Frank Robinson reached majors at age 19; three seasons in minors, 292 games
Barry Larkin reached majors at age 22; two seasons in minors, 175 games

The ones that fade “early” usually start later…

Chris Sabo reached majors at age 26; last fulltime season at age 31; five years in minors, 523 games
Hal Morris reached majors at 23; became fulltime at age 26; last fulltime season at 33; four years in minors, 444 games
Pokey Reese reached majors at 24; last fulltime season at 29; six years in minors, 546 games
Tommy Helms reached majors at 23 ,became fulltime at 25; last fulltime season at 33; seven minor league seasons, 829 games.

So, if the best players seem to reach the majors by age 22, or maybe 24, if they completed college and played two years in the minors. Six years later, or between the ages of 28-30, a player can file for free agency, which coincidentally, comes at the end of their most productive (prime) seasons. Essentially, their free agent contract is paying them for what they had done previously and not for expected current or future production.

Now, I want to be careful about that last statement…I’m not saying players are not productive past the age of 30, even if some old major league trade axioms foster the idea of trading a player before he turns 30 (the Frank Robinson deal), or if the adage that it’s better to trade a player one year too soon than trading a player one year too late.

However, I am saying risk does increase greatly past the age of 30. Hall of Famers typically play at a near Hall of Fame level for many years past the age of 30. Still, their past years probably were before the player turned 30 years of age. Defense usually declines first, then speed, and players with “old player” skills (slow, power, lots of walks) find it most difficult to continue, as do players whose only real attribute is their speed.

Having said all that…something changed the last few years. The steroid era seemed to push the peak age to the 26-30 year level. Now that steroids are “gone,” the cycle seems to be reversing. Here’s a question and response from a recent Bill James Online posting:

In an ESPN chat yesterday Gordon Edes wrote: “Like Bill James said last month, we’re going to start seeing older players follow more traditional career arcs (i.e., decline) than we saw during the steroid era.” I was not aware you had made this comment — does this quote accurately reflect your expectations?
Asked by: Anonymous
Answered: February 10, 2010

I talked to Gordon last month, and if that’s in his notes I’m sure I must have said it. In any case, it is certainly true. “The age profile” of successful major league hitters declined quite markedly in the years 2004-2007. From 2007 to 2009 it moved back up a little bit, but. . ..in 2004 there were 19 major league hitters aged 36 or above having seasons of some quality. In 2009 there were 8.

It’s something to beware. The better teams will know to deal their aging players a little more quickly than teams not following this change in performance expectations. It may also disrupt some current computer algorithms used for projecting player performance. It’s someting to beware for any team signing or trading for players in their 30’s, especially if they’re counting on defensive and offensive performance…which pretty much means any player that’s not a pitcher.

The 2010 Reds are counting on lots of offensive and defensive production from the left side of our infield and from their catcher, and all three are past 34 years of age. It bears watching in 2010, as does how Reds manager Dusty Baker manages the situation in the case of performance decline. It’s mindful to consider Baker’s answer to a similar question (as seen on Redleg Nation TV) about Willy Taveras’s playing time in 2009 as to his probable managerial direction.