Tuesday, August 6, 2013

“But He was so Good Last Season”

I am always astounded to read about major league sports team owners, or even management (who should know better), and their unwavering belief that certain older star athletes will be the saviors of the organization, notwithstanding the inexorable decline that sets in after a certain age.

In fact, banking on older athletes, especially in the NFL, where the physical wear and tear means an average player’s career is less than 4 years, seems like even more than a crap shoot than the rookie draft. Its certainly more expensive; older players usually command huge compensation even as their physical skills start an often precipitous decline.

A classic example is taking place in California this year, where the California Angels shelled out truly monster numbers for players Albert Puljos and Josh Hamilton, only to see them perform at a level well below their previous career highs. Puljos is in his 12th season of a career that has been truly remarkable. Hamilton, although a year younger than Puljos, has also had a stellar career, although its been marred by incidents of drug and alcohol abuse. But, as this article notes, most baseball players peak before their 30th birthdays. Guessing on which player is likely to have longevity passed 30 is an art, not a science. This is particularly true once you factor in the lingering affect of the injuries incurred after 30, and how frequently players who were productive up to that point are unable to overcome them.

As I noted, the stakes on gambling with older players are even higher in the NFL because of the shortened playing careers, the increased chance of catastrophic and career ending injury, especially for older players, and the extremely limited season (16 games, versus 162 in baseball and 82 in the NBA) in which the players have a chance to make an impact.  Here's a nice breakdown of terrible NFL contracts, along with a useful methodology for assessing, from one of my favorite publications, Grantland.  For my money, the category for most of the aging players is "Falling in love with a player they shouldn't have".

Sports management is rapidly moving towards a more metric based kind of system – this is one metric that should be embraced with more regularity.

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