The Mets dug into their pockets and signed a legitimate starting outfielder. His name is Curtis Granderson. He has power and speed, is a great clubhouse presence and has already laid down the gauntlet, stating that real New Yorkers are Mets fans. Right there, Granderson became an immediate favorite amongst the Met fan base, all before he’s swung a bat or caught a fly ball in a Mets uniform.
However, even amongst the positive feelings of this signing, there are a few things that can’t be ignored when discussing Granderson, such as his age, his high strikeout rate and his increasingly diminishing batting average. So what should we expect from Granderson?
I dove into the Baseball-Reference statistical universe to try to find an answer, specifically utilizing the Bill James concept of similarity scores. For questions about similarity scores, please refer to Baseball-Reference as to explain it now would take up to much of this post and that websites definition would probably be better than mine anyway. To simplify the concept, similarity scores attempts to find statistically similar players so that some form of adequate comparison can be made. Statistically, two things were of preeminent importance. One, the player had to have played at least 60 games in a season at age 33 and beyond. Two the player had to have played the majority of their games in the outfield for a season to be included. I eventually came up with the following 52 players for this case study
Ron Gant, Bob Allison, J.D. Drew, Jose Cruz, Jason Bay, Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson, Jayson Werth, Reggie Sanders, Mike Cameron, Jeromy Burnitz, David Justice, Larry Doby, Vic Wertz, Dave Henderson, Gus Zernial, Frank Thomas (the 1962 Met, not the member of the White Sox), Bill Nicholson, Josh Willingham, Sam Chapman, Raul Ibanez, Ben Oglivie, Eric Davis, Torii Hunter, Jermaine Dye, Sid Gordon, Brian Jordan, Tommy Henrich, Glenallen Hill, Ray Lankford, Tim Salmon, Geoff Jenkins, Bobby Higginson, Oscar Gamble, Tony Armas, Roger Maris, Leon Wagner, Kevin McReynolds, Frank Howard, Kevin Mitchell, Michael Cuddyer, Jay Buhner, Jim Wynn, Bobby Bonds, Rocky Colavito, Greg Vaughn, Darryl Strawberry, Cliff Floyd, Jackie Jensen, Vernon Wells, Andy Pafko, Bobby Murcer and Rick Monday
Gant through Gibson are seven of the 10 most similar players, through age 32, to Granderson, in order from least to most, with Gant being the statistically most similar. The other three are Roy Sievers, Jesse Barfield and Wally Post. These three were not added to the study for several reasons. Sievers had played outfield in his career, but was a first baseman from his age 33 through 36 seasons. Barfield retired after age 32 and Post was barely a bench player beyond the age of 32.
Werth is one of the 10 most similar players statistically throughout his career to Granderson. Some of those players were also the ones on the 10 most similar through age 32 players. Others on this list that weren’t included were Larry Hisle (bench player after age 32), Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (have yet to play an age 33 season), Preston Wilson (did not play in the big leagues past age 32) and Phil Nevin (was not an outfielder beyond age 32). Sanders was a similar player through age 27 to Granderson and all of the others on the list were close in similarity, by age, to the ten most similar players to Granderson through age 32. All of the remaining players were directly associated with the players mentioned in this paragraph and its predecessor. No players were added to the study beyond this second degree of separation.
You may say that the study is inaccurate in the sense that all of these players have different positives and negatives, as well as played in different eras. You could raise the point that strikeouts should play a larger factor in the study and that some of the older players have miniscule strikeout numbers compared to Granderson. However, this is what makes the study valid. Strikeouts are one of the most subjective stats in baseball history. A perfect example of this is Thomas, a member of this study. Thomas was considered a high strikeout player in his time, yet his career high in strikeouts was 95, accomplished with the 1962 Mets. That landed Thomas at 10th in the National League. In 2013, that total would have tied Thomas with Daniel Murphy for sixth on the Mets and would have placed him in the top 61 for the entire National League. WAR is the great leveler in Sabermetrics, so using it in this context, even comparing Granderson to players whose age 33 seasons occurred in the 1940’s, provides this study with strong evidence to give the Mets fan a good idea as to what to expect from Granderson throughout the life of his contract.
So what were the results of the case study?
Good news Mets fans, we have a lot to hope for from Granderson at Age 33. 45 of the 52 players were involved in the age 33 study. Per 162 games, the average WAR was 2.5. The outliers in this age group were Dye, with a -1.6 WAR in 2007 and Gordon, who posted a 4.8 WAR in 1951. Five of the 45 players had a cumulative negative WAR, but that was balanced by six of the 45 players having a four plus WAR. In even better news, 16 of the 45 players had a three plus WAR, which was further shown by the fact that any player that played 140 games or more averaged at least a three WAR. In the age group, 62% of the players played at least 120 games, 49% played 130 or more games, 29% played 140 or more games and 18% played 150 or more games. The WAR totals in the age 33 bracket show drastic differences based upon games played. For players only playing 120 or more games, they averaged a 2.5 WAR. As the games increased, the WAR increased, going up to 2.8 playing 130 or more games, and topping out at 3.2 if a player was in 140 games or more.
This leads to a strong conclusion that Granderson, who up until last year was a very reliable player injury wise, will most likely have at least a three plus WAR, with an outside chance of exceeding four, with a minimum expectation of 2.4.
A slight dip occurs at this age range. 47 of the 52 players were involved in this age group. Per 162 games, the average WAR was 2.3 and actually dipped to 2.2 when eliminating the outliers from the group. The outliers at age 34 were Wagner with a negative 0.7 WAR in 1968 and Justice, who posted a 5.1 WAR in 2000 when he was traded to the Yankees in a package headlined by Jake Westbrook going to the Indians. Again, the chance of getting a negative WAR or a four plus WAR were low, as in both cases only six out of 47 players achieved either distinction. This also represented approximately the same production as at age 33, so there wasn’t much of a dip in this category. However, the percentage of players who scored a three plus WAR did show a fairly large decrease, dropping from 36% at age 33 to 26% at age 34.
WAR also dipped in the games played levels. 120 plus gamers dropped from a 2.5 to a 2.4. 130 plus went from a 2.8 to a 2.5. Age also started to affect the legs of the players. In the age 140 and 150 game brackets in the age 33 season, the WAR remained constant at 3.2. In the age 34 bracket, WAR tops out at 3.3 in the 140 plus game bracket, but for those six players that topped 150 games, it drops to 2.8.
For the Mets, this means that in the second year of his contract, if they give Granderson the appropriate rest he needs, he should still top a three WAR for the club.
A significant change occurs at age 35. To start, 31 of the players drop out of the survey due to injuries, retirement or becoming full time designated hitters. Along with this dip comes a drop in average WAR per 162 games, from 2.5 at age 33 to 1.9 at age 35, which drops further to 1.8 when the outlying players are eliminated, those being Chapman, who posted a negative 1.1 WAR in 1955 and Henrich, who had a 5.4 WAR in 1948. Although it isn’t any more likely for an age 35 player to post a negative WAR then in the previous two age groups, it was also only a 24% chance that a player would accumulate a three WAR a drop of 12% from age 33.
This resulted in the need for a player to play at least 140 games to accumulate a two plus WAR. Those numbers showed significant decreases as well, as in the age ranges of 33 and 34, if you played more than 140 games, a player could be expected to accumulate a 3.2 WAR or better, while in the age 35 bracket, this drops to 2.6, at least a 0.6 difference. On top of that, the amount of players able to play more than 140 games showed a 5% decrease from ages 33 and 34 and only 2 of the 21 players were able to play in 150 or more games, a 7% decrease from the previous two age brackets. The 150 plus game players also showed a drastic WAR drop from 2.8 to 1.3, a 1.5 point decrease.
If Granderson stays healthy and cracks the 140 game barrier the Mets will be fine, again, as long as they rest him enough or play him fewer times say, against lefties. We would hope that he accumulates a 2.5 plus WAR, with a more outside chance of repeating his three WAR performances from his age 33 and 34 seasons. However, injuries could totally diminish Granderson’s value. If Granderson can’t get to the 140 game plateau, his WAR would drop below two (in the case study, both 120 and 130 plus gamers averaged a 1.8). If injuries knocked him below 120 games, he would become barely above replacement level (in the case study, those players averaged a 0.4 WAR). However, even at age 35, 67% of the players were able to play at least 120 games, making it a good chance that Granderson will still remain productive.
The regression in WAR stops at age 36, as the cumulative WAR of the 17 players that make it to age 36 is 2.1 per 162 games and 1.9 when the outlying players are eliminated, those being Zernial, who posted a negative 0.5 in 1959 and Henrich, who posted a 4.2 WAR in 1949. This represents a minimal increase over the same numbers from the age 35 group, which shows that some players can have some rejuvenation in production at older ages. However, this comes with a large caveat as the amount of players able to play at least 120 games drops to 41%, a 26% drop from the year before. If the player was able to reach 120 games, they showed solid production, producting an average 2.3 WAR. This number doesn’t increase much as games played increases, topping out at 2.4 for players playing 140 plus games. However, it drops precipitously after 150, going to a 1.4 average for the only two players, Burnitz and Ibanez, who played over 150 games as 36 year olds.
So, if Granderson can play 120 games at age 36, he should remain productive, to a 2.3 WAR player. Let’s hope that happens, because if he can’t play 120 games, he again would be barely a replacement level player, averaging approximately a 0.6 or worse WAR.
So, after all of this analysis, what can we conclude? If Granderson can play 155 games in 2014 and 145 games in 2015, he still should remain a three WAR player, with a decent possibility of eclipsing that number in either or both years. That’s worth the 29 million he’ll receive over those two seasons. After that, it’s all about health and usage. If he isn’t over used and remains healthy enough to average 130 games over the last two seasons, he’ll be a two plus WAR player, just with a lesser probability of higher level success. However, if the Mets are able to get a 10 plus WAR player out of Granderson over his four year deal, then the contract is a success. Let’s hope that’s the least of what the club gets and not the alternative, a player who is productive the first two years, but barely replacement level the last two years.