40 the new 30 in major league baseball
By MATT BROWN, STATS Editor
April 9, 2007
Tom Glavine took the mound for baseball's first game April 1 and went six solid innings to earn a win. In the ensuing week, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Jamie Moyer and Orlando Hernandez all recorded victories as well.
On Saturday night, Sammy Sosa and Frank Thomas each blasted a home run that traveled over 400 feet. Not to be outdone, Barry Bonds showed that he still has a little speed to go with his power, stealing a base to go along with homer No. 735 in Week 1.
Wait a second, is this 2007 or 1992?
Last April, 47-year-old Julio Franco became the oldest player in major league history to hit a home run. For good measure, he did it again in September -- more than a month after turning 48. Franco broke into the majors in '82 -- that's right, a quarter of a century ago -- and is back with the New York Mets this year as a reserve first baseman with intentions of playing until he's 50.
While Franco is used only in a supporting role, however, many of his contemporaries will make or break their team's season. The Mets' Glavine (41), Boston's Schilling (40) and Atlanta's Smoltz (turning 40 on May 15) are all staff aces. San Diego expects key contributions from pitchers Greg Maddux (40) and David Wells (43), as does Philadelphia from the 44-year-old Moyer.
And then, of course, there's Bonds, who hit seven homers in spring training for the Giants and, at age 42, appears nearly certain to get the 21 more he needs to break Hank Aaron's all-time record -- performance-enhancing drug allegations notwithstanding.
All told, 21 players on active major league rosters have seasonal ages -- their age as of June 30 -- of 40 or higher. Move the benchmark up a few years, and more than 15 percent of major leaguers (115 of 750) have a seasonal age of at least 35. And those figures don't include players on the disabled list -- like Arizona pitcher Randy Johnson (43) -- or 44-year-old free agent Roger Clemens, who will receive untold millions if and when he makes his annual midseason return.
This bounty of older players is a recent phenomenon. At least 113 players 35 or older have appeared in the majors each season this decade. Through the rest of baseball history, 100 players of at least age 35 had appeared in only one season: 1945, when 106 older players appeared while young stars like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were fighting in World War II.
Fewer teams existed in years past, but the percentage of older players has also risen. In the 1970's, 5.1 percent of players were 35 or older. That figure rose to 8.2 percent in the 1980's. After a dip to 7.0 percent in the 1990's, the proportion ballooned to 10.6 percent this decade -- more than double what it was only 30 years ago.
And these players aren't just taking up a roster spot and playing the role of clubhouse veteran. Prior to 1982, batters with a seasonal age of 35 or older had never hit more than 232 home runs in any season. They've homered at least 565 times in each season this decade, including 588 last year and a record 756 in 2004, when Bonds hit 45 long balls at age 39.
Older pitchers have been just as productive. Thanks in part to Tommy John surgery, more pitchers can enjoy long careers now than in any previous generation. In the 1970's, pitchers with a seasonal age of at least 35 accounted for only 6.2 percent of all wins recorded in the major leagues. Through the first seven years of this decade, that percentage has jumped to 12.7.
In 2006, older pitchers combined for 316 wins -- more than double the 148 they recorded just 10 years earlier, in 1996.
The simplest, yet most telling, measure of how important these players are may be the number of All-Star games in which they've appeared. In that category, the numbers are undeniable. In the 1960's, a total of 36 players made the All-Star game with a seasonal age of 35 or older. Fifty-nine such players earned the honor in the 1970's, 55 in the 1980's and 60 earned the honor in the 1990's.
So far this decade, 67 players age 35 or older have been named to All-Star teams. That's already a record, and if the pace sustains itself the number will reach 96 after the 2009 Midsummer Classic.
The surge is not for a lack of young talent either. Last year's MVPs and Cy Young award winners -- Justin Morneau and Johan Santana in the AL, Ryan Howard and Brandon Webb in the NL -- were all 27 or younger. But the numbers show that more players are now remaining productive through their late thirties, and even into their forties, than in any other era.
Why is that? The reasons vary. Advancements in medicine. A focus on nutrition. Year-round training. The dangling carrot of multimillion dollar contracts has made long-term fitness more profitable than ever for high-caliber athletes. All of that has combined to make 40 the new 30 in baseball.