The man responsible for the above quote, a rallying cry for young progressives in the 1960s, turns 78 this year. The context of the phrase has nothing to do with baseball, but perhaps baseball is where it’s most applicable.
The late Ron Santo would also have turned 78 in 2018; he was born just a few weeks before Weinberg. Through 1970- his age-30 season- Santo accumulated 61.8 bWAR, the second wholesale mlb jerseys most in history by a third baseman through that age (Eddie Mathews had 73.8 bWAR through age 30). However, Santo’s career dwindled considerably in his thirties. He produced only 8.7 more bWAR before retiring at age 34. His precipitous decline kept him out of the Hall of Fame until 2012, a little more than a year after his death.
Charlie Blackmon was born on July 1, 1986. The first of July is the cutoff date for determining the age of a player’s season, so even though he was 31 for much of 2017, last year is considered his age-30 season. And what a season it was! The Rockies’ star center fielder led the National League in BA (.331), TB (387), H (213), R (137), 3B (14), and PA (725). He won a Silver Slugger and finished 5th in the MVP voting.
From a historical perspective, Blackmon’s age 30 season was very good, but not particularly special. The best age 30 season ever was Cal Ripken‘s, an 11.5 bWAR mark in 1991 earned him that honor. Blackmon’s 6.0 bWAR is tied for the 70th best among position players at his age.
However, Blackmon has an advantage that neither Cal Ripken nor Ron Santo had at the precipice of their thirties: upward momentum. Blackmon has played 7 seasons in the major leagues. Remarkably, his bWAR has increased every single year.
The Rockies drafted Blackmon in the 2nd round out of Georgia Tech in 2008. He progressed quickly through the system despite a lack of top prospect heraldry and debuted in the majors in 2011 at age 24. His first season didn’t go well; he slashed .255/.277/.296 through 102 PA. The following year was only marginally better with an 84 wRC+ in 121 PA.
He played about half a season in 2013 with roughly league average offense (adjusted for Coors Field). In 2014, he won the starting job and made his first All-Star team, despite still being only an average player. He stole a career-best 43 bases in 2015 and made marginal improvements to his OBP and SLG. In 2016, his power really developed for the first time and he posted a 130 wRC+. In 2017, he was one of the top players in the National League.
What’s missing from his curriculum vitae is any kind of setback. There’s no “sophomore slump,” “adjusting to the league,” or “down season.” What’s even more impressive is that Blackmon was a pitcher up until 2007, when, as the legend goes, he bluffed his way into an outfield job in summer ball due to a sore pitching arm. Is it really that ridiculous to think he could continue to get better? Here is a chart of his year-to-year bWAR:
On average, his bWAR increases by 1.1 every year, without any decline whatsoever. Whereas Santo was winding down at 30, Blackmon is just heating up.
The Great Beyond
There are only two possible paths for Balckmon’s future:
He can age like a normal athlete, and at some point in the near future he will start to decline. This may happen gradually or dramatically, and it could begin as soon as 2018.
He can progress mathematically, gaining an approximately 1.1 bWAR every year without decline, for the rest of eternity.
The first possibility is no fun for anyone. It certainly won’t be enjoyable for Blackmon and it’s a boring thought experiment. Every baseball fan knows what an aging player looks like physically and statistically.