Don't expect big dropoff from Sheff, Schill

Gary Sheffield and Curt Schilling are getting multiyear deals even though both are on the wrong side of 35.

Originally Published: December 1, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Well, it was anything but a slow Thanksgiving weekend news-wise.

Gary Sheffield
APGary Sheffield is one slugger who might be worth big bucks.

What nobody seemed to mention, though, was this: The big news was made by two players, both of whom are on the wrong side of 35.

I've been told, by somebody who's studied the issue recently, that there's been no discernible change in aging patterns ... but doesn't it seem like a significant percentage of the best players have been around for a while?

Should the Yankees be worried about Gary Sheffield's age (35), and should the Red Sox be worried about Curt Schilling's age (37)? Yes, and yes. Or rather, both teams should have been worried. Sports doctors are doing wonderful things these days, but it still doesn't make a lot of sense to sign fragile outfielders (like Sheffield) and old power pitchers (like Schilling) to long-term contracts.

And the Yankees and Red Sox were worried. The Yankees apparently held firm on a three-year contract with Sheffield, and the Red Sox signed Schilling to a two-year extension that expires after 2006. Which was smart of both teams.

But both were also smart to acquire who they acquired. There's not some sort of magic age after which a baseball player can be counted upon to suddenly become a doddering old man, needing help from a Boy Scout just to cross the street. And if there's not a magic age, then what do you look at? You look at recent performance, just as you would for anybody else.

And two easy measures of recent performance -- easy, because I can snag them from Baseball-Reference.com and they're easy to explain -- are OPS+ and ERA+. Both are about what you'd think, with the "+" meaning the stat has been adjusted for the home ballparks, and is being compared to the league average. Here are Sheffield's OPS+ for the last three seasons:

    167
    140
    167

What does "167" mean? It means that after making a few relatively minor adjustments, Sheffield was roughly 67 percent better than your average National League hitter. And yes, I know this is simplistic, but one doesn't have to be particularly sophisticated to realize that Sheffield was a great hitter last season, one of the half-dozen best in the league.

And here's Schilling, ERA+-wise:

    154
    136
    159

Coincidentally, Schilling and Sheffield both posted great numbers in 2001, were slightly less great in 2002, and returned to great in 2003. Doesn't mean anything, just something you can't help but notice.

Schilling
Schilling

Anyway, those numbers for Schilling really don't tell the important part of the story. The important part is Schilling's strikeout rate, which has been outstanding for three seasons running. You know about those young Cub fireballers, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior? Yes, last season they sported the two highest strikeout rates in the major leagues. And No. 3, behind Wood and Prior but ahead of every other starting pitcher in the major leagues? Curtis Montague Schilling, with 10.4 K's per nine innings. And as you probably know, the number of strikeouts per nine innings is a much better predictor of future success than is the number of years on this earth.

The point is that both players are among the greatest talents in the game, wrong side of 35 or right. And while it's reasonable to expect both to decline in the years ahead, it's also reasonable to expect at least one of them to be quite productive in 2006. Absent injury.

And of course, that's the rub. It's long been my opinion that while older players aren't particularly likely to, say, pull a hamstring or tear an elbow ligament, they're more susceptible to nagging injuries that might cost them a few games here and a few games there. In 2003, Schilling started only 24 games because of an emergency appendectomy and a broken hand, certainly not age-related injuries. The Red Sox will be disappointed if they get only 24 starts from Schilling, but they can certainly live with 30 (in fact, the Sox are quite accustomed to paying big money for 30 starts per season).

Sure, Sheffield might pull something or strain something, and wind up playing 120 games instead of 145 (which is roughly his norm). But if not Gary Sheffield, then who? If you can afford to pay him what he's asking, he's worth the risk, and the same goes for Schilling. The Yankees and the Red Sox are essentially playing a different game than all the other teams, and spending big money on great players who might be slightly more likely to get hurt is just a part of that different game.

Two certain Hall of Famers
Just a few words about the Hall of Fame ballot that was just announced ... I've been wrong about these things, but it's exceedingly likely that among the first-timers, Paul Molitor will be elected by a landslide, Dennis Eckersley by a slightly smaller landslide, and they'll be the only ones this time around.

The others? Joe Carter will out-point the rest of the first-timers, but will fall well short of election. Yes, he was a "run producer" (heh heh), but if Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, and Andre Dawson can't make it, Carter doesn't figure to fare so well, either.

I'm not going to get into a Hall of Fame thing this week, because time seems to pass faster with each passing year and it seems like we just did this a month or two ago. Rather, I'll just mention that I would vote for both Molitor and Eckersley, along with holdovers Rich Gossage, Ryne Sandberg, Alan Trammell and Bert Blyleven. And if I could vote for only one of these great players, it would be Blyleven, who's been criminally ignored by the voters for far too many years.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

ALSO SEE