To the Victor go the spoils.
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And rightly so, as free agent Victor Martinez will soon be handsomely rewarded for his mesmerizing performance as the Detroit Tigers’ designated hitter in 2014.
The question that now presents itself is whether the 35 year-old Martinez, who hit .335 this year, with 32 home runs and an OPS of .974, will play on in a Tiger uniform or sign elsewhere for the four-year contract he is reportedly seeking.
To that end, this article analyzes data from an elite group of players who played through their late 30’s and are deemed to be among the best all-time designated hitters.
Once these statistics have been reviewed, we’ll consider the advisability of signing Martinez to a contract which will end when he is 39 years and 10 months of age.
In doing so we’ll rely on the aforementioned statistic known as “OPS”, which stands for “On Base Plus Slugging Percentage”. This hybrid indicator is useful in evaluating a hitter’s ability to get on base and hit for power, and is thus highly correlated with overall offensive production.
The following scale serves as a reference point for OPS performance:
.900 and above…..elite
Coming off an injury which sidelined him for all of 2012, Martinez started slowly in 2013. On June 30th he was hitting a lowly .232, and pressure was building for manager Jim Leyland to take at bats away from what some perceived as a “washed up” 34 year-old Martinez.
To put it mildly, that would have been unwise.
Because from July, 2013, through September, 2014, Martinez posted an eye-popping OPS of .993.
To put that number in perspective, it comfortably exceeds the career OPS (.960) of future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera.
So it’s clear Martinez has been on a torrid pace for the past season and a half. But he’s 35 years old, and the question is, of course, not what he’s done but whether he can remain a legitimate offensive force throughout the length of an expensive four-year contract.
To illuminate the subject, I analyzed the performance of 14 elite hitters who served primarily as DH’s late in their career. With the exception of David Ortiz, each played at least through the age of 39. (Ortiz just completed his age 38 season).
Considering his outstanding career numbers, Martinez fits comfortably among this celebrated group.
The core question I pursued was the degree of performance decline which could be expected from an elite DH from ages 36 through 39, compared to his performance at age 35.
Of course this is the primary issue the Tigers must entertain as they consider whether to sign Martinez for the next four years.
With that said, let’s turn to the analysis, using OPS as the performance gauge.
This table looks at a hitter’s cumulative average OPS from ages 36 through 39, and compares it to the age 35 OPS.
Group 1–Improvement in OPS
This group of DH’s improved their average OPS from ages 36 through 39, compared to their OPS at age 35:
Hal McRae +14% (from .726 at age 35 to .827 age 36-39)
Carl Yastrzemski + 5% (from .776 at age 35 to .815 age 36-39)
Harold Baines + 4% (from .840 at age 35 to .874 age 36-39)
Paul Molitor + 2% (from .851 at age 35 to .868 age 36-39)
Reggie Jackson + 2% (from .758 at age 35 to .773 age 36-39)
Group 2–No change in OPS
This group had no change in their OPS from age 35 to age 36-38.
David Ortiz 0% (from .953 at age 35 to .953 age 36-38)
Group 3–Slight Decrease in OPS
This group had a slight decrease in their OPS from age 35 to age 36-39.
Brian Downing – 2% (from .841 at age 35 to .824 age 36-39)
Edgar Martinez – 3% (from .993 at age 35 to .963 age 36-39)
Frank Thomas – 3% (from .952 at age 35 to .923 age 36-39)
Group 4–Moderate Decrease in OPS
This group had a moderate decrease in OPS from age 35 to age 36-39.
Dave Parker – 7% (from .807 age 35 to .750 age 36-39)
Jim Thome – 8% (from .1.014 age 35 to .932 age 36-39)
Group 5–Significant Decrease in OPS
This group had a significant decrease in OPS from age 35 to age 36-39
Chili Davis – 10% (from .943 age 35 to .848 age 36-39)
Don Baylor – 11% (from .830 age 35 to .738 age 36-39)
Jason Giambi – 18% (from .971 age 35 to .796 age 36-39)
Examining another set of data is also instructive regarding Martinez’s situation, which is to compare strictly the age 39 performance of these premier DH’s (minus Ortiz, of course) to their age 35 performance. This yields usable information as to what can be expected of Martinez in the fourth and final year of a prospective contract.
This table looks at age 39 performance vs. age 35 performance, as measured by OPS.
Group 1–Significant Increase in OPS
This group had a significantly higher OPS at age 39 than at age 35:
Jackson +12% (from .758 age 35 to .847 age 39)
McRae +10% (from .726 age 35 to .799 age 39)
Group 2–Slight Increase in OPS
This group had a slightly higher OPS at age 39 than at age 35:
Yastrzemski +3% (from .776 age 35 to .796 age 39)
Thome +2% (from 1.014 age 35 to .1.039 age 39)
Molitor +1% (from .851 age 35 to .858 age 39)
Group 3–No Change in OPS
This group had the same OPS at age 39 and age 35:
Downing 0% (from .841 age 35 to .841 age 39)
Group 4–Slight Decrease in OPS
This group a slightly lower OPS at age 39 than at age 35:
*Baines -2% (from .840 age 35 to .819 age 39)
Parker -3% (from .807 age 35 to .781 age 39)
Group 5–Significant Decrease in OPS
This group had a significantly lower OPS at age 39 than at age 35:
Thomas -10% (from .952 age 35 to .857 age 39)
E. Martinez -11% (from .993 age 35 to .888 age 39)
Davis -14% (from .943 age 35 to .812 age 39)
Giambi -20% (from .971 age 35 to .776 age 39)
Baylor -21% (from .830 age 35 to .658 age 39)
*It’s interesting to note that of the 13 players in this sample, the median decline is only 2%.
The Bottom Line
I began research for this article with the expectation the data would reflect a pronounced decline in performance from age 35 throughout the age 36-39 period, which would be especially apparent at age 39.
I was prepared to argue the Detroit Tigers would be foolhardy to offer Victor Martinez a hefty four-year contract, which would be a time bomb poised to explode in their faces on the back end of the pact.
The data suggest otherwise.
Though this research is not designed to be scientific in nature and is limited in scope, it strongly supports the fact that great hitters tend to remain great hitters throughout their careers, even through age 39.
Any decline in performance from age 35 through the late 30’s is likely to be negligible.
My humble advice to the Tigers?
Pay the man.