In Monday's Inquirer, we wrote about the confidence Raul Ibanez brings into his 16th major-league season. He will turn 39 on June 2 and that will make him one of the lone everyday players at that age in baseball.
Ibanez had a disappointing first half in 2010, causing Charlie Manuel to wonder about the effect of Ibanez's off-season sports hernia surgery. He had a very good second half and finished the season with a .793 OPS -- a solid season. The league-average OPS was .723. Among qualified hitters in the NL, Ibanez finished 35th in OPS.
It was a season very much saved by a torrid July and September. Still, it was Ibanez's lowest OPS in a season since 2005. From 2006 to 2009, he averaged an .857 OPS.
"I expect to be better," Ibanez said earlier this week.
Who is the most productive aging athlete?
But, as I noted in today's story, that will be a challenge.
We looked at everyday players aged 39 or older who had at least 400 plate appearances in a season since 1990. (Even that is being generous since Ibanez has had at least 524 PA in each of the last nine seasons.) We excluded players who were mainly designated hitters.
Thanks to Baseball-Reference's wonderful Play Index tool, here are the 13 seasons who meet Ibanez's criteria of being better than a .793 OPS.
The top three are by Bonds, and you can basically throw him out for whichever reason you believe (A. He's the best hitter ever, or B. He was using.) Ricky Henderson, Jeff Kent, Tony Gwynn, Carlton Fisk and Dave Winfield are/will be Hall of Famers. Rafael Palmeiro should/could be one, depending on your view of life.
So that leaves Andres Galarraga, Gary Gaetti, Steve Finley and Tony Phillips. Ibanez has better career numbers than three of those players -- Gaetti, Finley and Phillips. Galarraga was a very, very good player who is victimized by the Coors Field factor. After his spectacular age 39 season, Galarraga had an OPS better than .738 for three more seasons.
Finley's .823 OPS in 2004 was a 40-point drop from his age 38 season in 2003. It was his final productive season in the majors.
Gaetti's .852 OPS (only 492 PA) in 1998 was a 142-point increase from his age 38 season in 1997. It was his final productive season in the majors.
Phillips' .795 OPS (only 484 PA) in 1999 was a 51-point increase from his age 39 season. It was his final season in the majors.
As we noted in the story, Ibanez has a few factors in his favor: He wasn't an everyday player until 2002, when he was 30. He is far healthier now than a year ago, when he was continuing his recovery from off-season sports hernia surgery. His second half of 2010 was far more impressive than the first.
But the point we're trying to make here? Gaetti and Phillips are the exceptions to the rule. History suggests we should not expect an improvement from a 38-year-old Ibanez to 39.
Here's a guess though: The Phillies will gladly take a .792 OPS from Ibanez again -- or even something 20 points lower.
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