December 27, 2022
The Phillies have rightly decided that the time is now to go all-in and try and get back to the World Series. But their championship window might be smaller than you think.
On paper, the team is slated to pay 10 players a combined $195 million in 2023. All 10 of those players are aged 30 and older. And eight of those 10 will be under contract for multiple years.
It's a bold move, and one that is challenging father time and the injury bug, as players tend to regress in their 30s across the board in baseball — and older players sustain more injuries and recover from them more slowly.
Interestingly, half of their big-time contracts are 30 years old. Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Aaron Nola, Taijuan Walker and Nick Castellanos were all born in either 1992 or 1993. Rhys Hoskins, a soon-to-be free agent is also 30.
Is there a risk of every single important player on the roster declining together? In theory, there is — but it is not that cut and dry.
FanGraphs did an analysis of WAR regression by age and presented the following as a general rule of thumb:
We have to apply an aging curve. Simply put, an aging curve represents the average improvement or decline expected based on the player’s age. Human beings generally can’t run as fast at 36 as they can at 26. They get injured and tired more easily. Sometimes their vision or hand-eye coordination diminishes. No two players bodies age in exactly the same way, but overall there are consistent trends.
For example, players are typically much better overall at 27 then they are at 37. Pitchers lose velocity as they age. Base running ability peaks early.
Keep in mind that aging curves are averages and that some players will do better or worse for lots of reasons. They are guides, not rules. Some of the main beliefs about aging are that defense and running peak early, hitters start to decline around 30, and that pitchers lose velocity pretty much from the day they make the majors. To that end, a basic rule of thumb is that once a player gets to 30, you sort of expect them to lose about 0.5 WAR per year of value due to aging. Some players will age better or worse, but that’s an average estimate. [FanGraphs]
Just for fun (or to torture ourselves), the table below lists the 10 players currently under contract with the team plus Hoskins, who will be paid under his final year of arbitration. Now, we know that it is an absurd assumption to make that every single player will regress exactly 0.5 WAR each season after age 30. But just to illustrate the curve of what could happen, here's a look at that in table form (we'll start the decline after age 30):
|J.T. Realmuto (32)||6.5||6.0||5.5||5.0|
|Aaron Nola (30)||6.0||—||5.5||5.0|
|Bryce Harper (30)||5.9*||—||5.2||4.7|
|Zack Wheeler (33)||5.1||4.6||4.1||3.8|
|Trea Turner (30)||4.9||—||4.4||3.9|
|Rhys Hoskins (30)||2.9||—||2.2||1.7|
|Taijuan Walker (30)||2.6||—||2.2||1.7|
|Kyle Schwarber (30)||2.2||—||1.7||1.2|
|Matt Strahm (31)||0.3||-0.2||-0.7||-1.2|
|Craig Kimbrel (35)||0.2||-0.3||-1.0||-1.5|
|Nick Castellanos (31)||-0.1||-0.6||-1.1||-1.6|
*Harper's WAR from 2021, his last full season.
That's a steep decline. Some players, like Wheeler and Kimbrel, will be free agents before 2025, but many of the others are totally locked in. For some context, the Phillies' entire team had a 42.3 WAR in 2022, the 8th best in the big leagues. The Dodgers led all teams at 61.4.
So the Phillies are old and could regress. That isn't particularly unusual — the Astros, for example, won the World Series with an average age nearly an entire year older than the Phillies last season (28.2 for Philly, 29.3 for Houston). The Braves were in the middle of the pack at 28.2 when they won it all in 2021, and the Nationals were the oldest in the majors at 30.8 when they won in 2020. It's just not particularly a recipe for sustained excellence.
If you average out the Phillies' most likely 26-man roster, you get an average age of 28.8 — you can thank Alec Bohm (26) and Bryson Stott (25) for helping keep the Phillies under the 30-mark.
So why is this so troubling? The Phillies' farm system offers few up-and-coming position players. Their best one is Justin Crawford, who is still 18 and years away from making the majors. Half of their top 30 prospects (via MLB.com) are non-pitchers and six of them are still teenagers.
A youth infusion should be coming this summer by way of Andrew Painter, Mick Abel and Griff McGarry — but the Phillies front office is content to rely on superstar hitters closing in on the wrong side of 30 to fuel their competitive run.
The Phillies should be pretty good next season, and chances are they will be able to withstand the aging process in 2024 as well. But Harper and Turner will be Phillies until they are making $54 million combined at ages 38 and 40 respectively. A lot more will be riding on the success of Bohm and Stott in the infield. Having cheap homegrown talent in the lineup every night is a luxury the Phillies desperately need to avoid being in the market for yet another $100 million-plus infielder this time next year.
An "old guy strategy" brought a world title to Philadelphia once already. Dave Dombrowski and his aggressive front office are banking on it being twice in the not so distant future.
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