Among the side effects of baseball’s information age and analytics- driven decisionmaking is the squeezing of the free-agent market for players who reach a certain age.
Data tells us that players tend to decline starting in their early 30s, and recent years have been filled with case after case of quality players in that age range settling for less money or shorter deals than they had hoped to find on the open market. Just a year ago, in fact, Josh Donaldson fit that description — agreeing to a one-year deal with Atlanta, albeit for $23 million.
So naturally a year later, with Donaldson a year older (he turned 34 in December), he found a more robust market and a four-year deal worth at least $92 million ($84 million for the four years and an $8 million buyout on a fifth year) from … the VERY analytics-minded Twins.
Wait, what gives?
In short, the Twins are betting on Donaldson beating the odds.
The Twins’ willingness to offer that sort of length and money on a deal for Donaldson is a matter of balancing what the big-picture numbers about age and regression are saying vs. what an individual of an, ahem, advancing age such as Donaldson might do as he gets older.
“That’s the great question right there,” Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said. “We have tools now, systems in the game to better understand what is underlying the performance. We talk about exit velocity, quality of contact, swing and miss, chase out of zone and walk rates, things like that. We recognize that individual skills age differently.”
At age 33 last season Donaldson had the ninth-best walk rate, for instance, among qualified hitters. With exit velocity, Donaldson ranked No. 7 in all of baseball last season — an average of 92.9 mph — while hitting 37 homers with a .900 OPS in a bounceback season with Atlanta after injuries derailed him in 2018.
Another familiar age-defying player — Nelson Cruz — was No. 3 in exit velocity last year, by the way. Falvey invoked his name twice during the course of a short interview: once in talking about his unique skill set that has seemed to be age-proof and again to praise how he has taken care of his body.
He pointed to Donaldson as possessing both qualities as well, helping explain again the Twins’ willingness to offer such a long and expensive contract.
“Sometimes power ages differently than speed. Sometimes contact ages differently than either of those two,” Falvey said. “That’s a long roundabout way of saying you have to dig into an individual player and what his skills are to see how they might translate over time. But maybe more than that, is to think about how that player takes care of himself.”
Cruz has his famous naps. Donaldson puts in his time, too.
“He’s incredibly conscious of recovery,” Falvey said. “We’ve heard he’s one of the last guys to leave the park every night, not because he’s sitting around in the clubhouse forever but because he’s in the training room doing some very specific things around recovery.”
That gives Donaldson, in the Twins’ eyes, a chance to remain elite beyond his years.
“Aging patterns are aging patterns, and you have to look at them in aggregate,” Falvey said. “What you’re trying to figure out is, ‘Can this person beat the average curve relative to the standard across the industry?’ We try to look at it from a skill-specific level and understand what the player is doing to keep his body in as good condition as possible. It’s a bet and a risk, but it’s always a bet at any point of a player’s career whether they can stay healthy.”