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Carlos Lee, Aging and the Hall of Fame

Do you want to know a startling fact? Well, I'm going to tell you anyway. In the nearly six months that I've been writing regularly for TCB, I have written 156 stories. Take away the 20 or so game threads this spring and that leaves about 130 stories about the Astros. Do you know how many of these stories dealt with Carlos Lee for more than about 100 words?

Just one.

That was one of my roster breakdowns way back in October. Here's part of what I wrote:

The only way his bat offsets his terrible other baseball skills is if he continues hitting like a Top 20 guy. Guys his age, with his body type tend to drop off a cliff pretty quickly with the aging curve. Let's hope Lee can put up at least one more decent season before his contract expires.

Lately, any comment from me about Lee has centered around my desire to change his nickname from 'El Caballo' to 'El Bufalo' (the spanish word for Buffalo, because TuhTonka, the Sioux word, felt clunky), since infielders are scared of running in to him in short left field. One of the Astros announcers actually said on-air that, "one of the things we forget about Carlos is he can’t stop quickly." Really? Tell me that quote isn't dying for a joke or two.

By all accounts, though, I'm probably too hard on him. He's a fairly fun-loving guy who's not as serious as Craig Biggio and doesn't always seem to hustle. Also glaring in any discussion of Lee is his contract. Desperate for offense, then-GM Tim Purpura and owner Drayton McLane threw a huge six year, 100 million dollar contract at Lee that will pay him 18.5 million in each of the next three seasons. That ranks him third in the National League in salary.

All that hides a very consistent player who helps form the heart of the Astros order, however. The only question becomes what can we expect from Lee going forward. After all, as my quote above says, players with his body type tend not to age well. Then again, players with his body type also don't play in the outfield this late in their careers and don't strike out less than 10 percent of the time either.

It's that unique skill set that gave me an idea for a study. I wanted to look at all the players in the past 50 years who struck out less than 60 times in their Age 33 season. I'd total up the rest of the seasons in their careers and try to get a sense of what Carlos Lee might do for the rest of his. It seemed like it could take a while, but in the end, I wound up with 43 players who fit that profile.

First, I narrowed the list down with a couple of modifiers. I only looked at players who were 'regulars' in both their Age 33 and Age 34 seasons. That means the players had to have at least 500 plate appearances in both of those seasons or they were cut. I did this because many of the guys with this low strikeout total were pinch-hitters and weren't really comparable to Lee.

That narrowed a list of 75 outfielders down to 28. I also added the 10 players listed on Baseball Reference'scomparables list by age. Of course, five of those guys are either also 33 years old right now or didn't play past that season. That left five players who were added to the study, though they didn't fit the strikeout profile.

The third group I added were first basemen who struck out less than 60 times. Since many people seem to think Lee would move to first base or DH if he weren't playing on the Astros or in the National League. 11 guys fit that profile and were added to the rest. As a control, I also looked at all the players who were listed over six feet tall and weighing over 230 pounds.

Let's look at the four groups to cull out the most similar batters to Lee.

Group One (the outfielders): Notable names on this list were three Alous (Moises, Felipe and Matty), Don Buford, Rocky Colavito (he of 'four HRs in the same game' fame), Jim Eisenreich, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Al Kaline, Rico Carty, Jose Cruz, Billy Williams, Tim Raines, Gary Sheffield and Pete Rose. The main trait of this group is they don't hit home runs. Of the 27 guys in this group, they averaged 17 years in the major leagues and five after the age of 33. They also hit 46 home runs, 11 triples and 96 doubles past that age, with 563 hits and a K/PA rate of 9.69 percent. Also interesting is the addition of Jose Cruz. The years can leave some players behind, though I hope that doesn't happen with Cruz. Do you realize he hit 39 triples after he turned 33? Only Pete Rose has more with 44, but Rose played five more seasons than Cruz. Since Cruz made barely $800,000 in each of his last three seasons, it's safe to say he earned less during his entire career than Lee did in 2009. No wonder he was angry at his firing.

Group Two (the comparables): Only five guys to worry with here. Shawn Green, Rafael Palmeiro, Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield and Dante Bichette. Of course, Palmeiro's "B-12 shots" helped him slug 255 home runs and pick up 1,045 hits past Age 33. On the other end of the spectrum is a guy like Green, who had one season past Age 33, though his BB and SO rates were both right around Lee's career numbers. On the plus side, this group hit more home runs than the outfielders, averaging 136 home runs, 11 triples and 148 doubles.

Group Three (the first basemen): Some great names in this group, including Vic Power, Bob Watson, Scott Hatteberg and Bill Buckner. Former manager Mike Hargrove also made the list, as did Ron Coomer, Chris Chambliss and Cubs stable Mark Grace. The only guy I didn't recognize on the list? Bruce Bochte. The guy I was surprised with? Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz switched to first full-time (more or less) during his Age 33 season. In fact, Yaz is the most positive projection for Lee's career. Lee's strikeout rate was about one percent below Yaz's career, but dropped precipitously after that season. He also had the most hits after 33 of any player in the study with 1,307. If Lee gets even 1,200, he'd top 3,000 for his career. Add in Yaz's 164 home runs and Carlos would be just shy of 500 homers to go with 3,000 hits. There's a name for a player like that...

Control Group: Seven in this group, including Jason Varitek, Jim Thome, Boog Powell, Dave Parker, Frank Howard, Carlos Delgado and Barry Bonds. The original search turned up 12 guys, but Derrek Lee, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero and Jermaine Dye. Of the seven, only Barry Bonds had a SO rate close to Lee's,, with Dave Parker and Boog Powell being the closest comparables to Lee.

The immediate thing that jumps out at me from this group is the number of Hall of Famers or potential Hall of Famers. Between Dawson, Kaline, Yaz, Winfield, Gwynn, Henderson and Billy Williams, the list is already well represented in Cooperstown. Rose, Sheffield, Palmeiro, Moises Alou and Raines could all have cases for induction. That means a quarter of the players in this study were HOF-type players.

But, before we get into that, let's talk about what these players tell us about the rest of Carlos Lee's career. Looking at all 43 players, Lee should play about five or six more seasons. Judging by their stats, he can be expected to get about 575 hits, 102 doubles, 10 triples and 57 home runs and about 2,300 plate appearances.

What was striking about all these players is that the decline in strikeout rates is sustainable. Of the 43 players, 25 had a decline in strikeout rate over their career averages while another five had upward changes less than one percent. One of the big changes in Lee's tenure with the Astros is the reduction in his strikeout rate. He makes more contact yet is more prone to double plays.

Looking at the players most similar to his rate stats and home run totals through last season, the numbers perk up. This group of 18 players averaged 2,372 plate appearances, 580 hits, 104 doubles, eight triples and 87 home runs. The home run rate of this group is at 3.57 percent for the career and 3.65 percent for the seasons after 33. That tracks with Lee's numbers too, since his home run rate of 4.47 would decline as he ages and that kind of dip fits with his previous record. The players closest to Lee in both physical build and in strikeout rates are Gary Sheffield and Billy Williams. Of course, Lee couldn't be more different from those two in how he's percieved. The guy I really think profiles closely to Lee is Boog Powell. He played just two seasons past 33 and got only 393 plate appearances. Powell wasn't a regular then while Lee should be the starting left fielder for at least two or three more years, barring serious injuries or a move to first.

This is a pretty crude approximation, since we don't weight anything nor normalize for ballpark and era effects. So, where does that leave Lee? Playing six more years, Lee could end up with 9,300 plate appearances, 394 home runs, 2,400 hits and close to 900 extra-base hits. Those numbers are pretty good. You can definitely see Lee making a push for 2,500 hits and 400 home runs if he's that close. Those numbers are awful enticing to the current Hall of Fame voters.

Which is why I think Lee could be a very polarizing player in 10 years. He could be the hitting version of Jack Morris, a guy who the old guard trumpets while the stat community realizes is a paper tiger. After all, Lee stands to finish his career with a WAR total of 36 or 40. That number doesn't count his first three seasons with the White Sox. Even then, a career WAR around 50 for a player with 17 seasons of experience isn't very impressive. Lee has a career wOBA of .361. If that dips down to .350 by the end of his career, he still has a solid hitting resume. The problem will come with his defense. Lee has almost always been rated as below average in the outfield. He had two seasons with Chicago where he had postive UZR totals, but the rest of the time it's been negative.

As I mentioned, his BABiP is always low and leads to lots of double play balls. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as one of the worst runners in the majors last season. That leaves us with a player who stands out as a hitter, but is bad at the other two phases of the game (defense and baserunning). Would that be enough to discount his Hall of Fame case?

Think about this: that projection is based on hitters who don't have a ton of power. It's not out of the realm of possibility for Lee to average 25 home runs for the next four years. That puts him at 400 home runs easily. He'd be 37 at that point and it'd be difficult to hit another 100, but not impossible. Plus, his total could be higher in the next four, giving him an incentive of 500 dingers to work for. If he ended up with close to 500 home runs and over 2,700 hits, how many Hall votes does he get?

Looking at BRef's excellent Hall of Fame predictors, we can see that Lee is woefully behind in the Black and Grey Ink. He just doesn't lead the league in enough categories nor does he win many awards. Still, his Hall of Fame monitor is at 73, with a potential HOFer scored at around 100. His HOF Standards watch is at 31, with a possible HOFer at 50. That's pretty darn close right now. Just think what happens when he starts hitting milestones.

So, we've discussed Lee's chances at the Hall and how he'll age. I'll leave you with this question: if the Astros traded/didn't pick up Berkman's option, moved Lee to first and traded for Carl Crawford to play left, would the team be better off in the short term and/or in the long term? Something to think about, huh?