"You've missed the entire opera." "I only missed it by a few minutes." —A Night at the Opera
Tonight, the Yankees will be in Cleveland, and fans will see the rather irritating sight of one of the (justifiably) more popular Yankees of recent vintage, Nick Swisher, patrolling the right-field pasture under the watchful eyes and disconcertingly wide smile of the Indians' mascot Chief Wahoo. This will likely prompt a spate of chest-pounding articles and blog posts, bemoaning the Yankees letting Swish go, wondering why someone who gave the Yankees such consistent and excellent performances for four years is now in a place that his nominal replacement, Ichiro Suzuki, said he'd punch himself in the face if he ever said he wanted to go there. "Why didn't we keep Swish?" these folks will pontificate, as they stare at an outfield of Brett Gardner and a bunch of guys who are either well past it or never really had it.
This is not one of those blogs.
Look, I adore Nick Swisher. There are few things on this earth more compelling than watching someone who absolutely loves what he does for a living and takes such joy in his life. I love watching Swisher for the same reason that I enjoyed watching Luis Sojo—he's just having fun, and it's infectious. (As an added bonus, Swisher is an actual useful everyday baseball player, as opposed to Sojo, who always felt like he walked in from a neighborhood softball game by mistake, and often hit like he was in one.)
But there are several reasons why it's probably for the best that the Yankees did not sign Swisher to a long-term deal.
First off, Swisher turns 33 this season. For decades, owners have handed out free-agent contracts to players based on their best years and are shocked—shocked!—when they don't match the performance of their late 20s in their early-to-mid-30s.
It's easy to forget this, but the vast majority of baseball players are done by the time they reach Swisher's age. We don't notice it because they're, y'know, gone and stuff, but it's true. Bill James preached this two decades ago, and it's still true: free agent contracts handed to people in their 30s are owners buying into a declining market. The farther players get from their 30th birthday, the less useful they will become, as skills erode and injuries happen more often and take longer to recover from. (Exhibit A: Alex Rodriguez.)
In February of this year, Jonah Keri did a piece on Grantland on the 15 worst contracts in baseball. Most of them were given to players in their 30s who have—surprise!—declined. A-Rod topped the list, but he's not really the best comp, as he's a historically great player who had no injury history prior to signing his ridiculous contract.
Luckily, there's someone else in the Yankee outfield who is a much better cautionary tale about signing good-if-not-great outfielders to deals that take you into their mid-30s, and that's Vernon Wells. It's a contract that was already a laughingstock before the ink dried on the signatures. Wells only makes sense on the Yankees now because two other teams are bearing some of the financial burden of the backloaded contract and because he's only a part-time player once Curtis Granderson comes back. (One hopes, anyhow.) But mostly what Vernon Wells's contract did was cost the Angels a postseason berth in 2012, since his presence kept Mike Trout in the minors to start the year, and not having the drag effect of his .230/.279/.403 line while getting another month of Trout may well have made up the five-game gap between them and the A's.
But let's look at Swisher directly. Here are three of the best projection systems out there and how they forecast Swish in his age-33 season in Cleveland:
PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus): .247/.346/.430
ZIPS (Fangraphs): .251/.344/.425
CAIRO (Replacement Level Yankees Weblog): .262/.357/.456
Swisher's career line to date is .256/.361/.466, so even CAIRO's more-generous projection has him declining. And that doesn't look to get any better as time goes on. Players are generally much worse at age 36 than they were at age 33.
In addition to their PECOTA rankings, Baseball Prospectus in their annual volume provides three players who are similar. Swisher's comps are Reggie Smith, Trot Nixon, and Roger Maris. All fine players, valuable contributors to championship teams, but where were they at age 33?
Maris's last season was his age-33 year, as he hit an anemic .255/.307/.374 for the Cardinals, and he only managed five home runs in what was, admittedly, the year of the pitcher, 1968. His OPS+ was 105, a far cry from his glory days of 1959-1965 when his OPS+ always broke 120.
Nixon's last full season was his age-33 year—he had an abbreviated campaign at age 34 with the Mets, only getting into eleven games. At 33, he, like Swisher, played with the Indians, hitting .251/.342/.336, which is two-thirds similar to Swisher's projections above, but also way down from Trot's norm.
Smith—who is the least similar to Swisher of the three—had an excellent season at age 33, helping the 1978 Dodgers to the World Series with a .295/.382/.559, numbers higher than Swisher has ever managed (his career highs are a .288 BA in 2010, a .381 OBP in 2007, and a .511 SLG in 2010).
Tellingly, only Smith was still playing in his age-36 season, the age Swisher will be in the last year of his shiny four-year deal with the Indians, and even he was a part-timer/pinch-hitter at that point, getting only 44 plate appearances in 41 games in the strike-shortened 1981 season for the Dodgers.
Of course, comps aren't guarantees, and projections aren't predictions, much less guarantees. But pretty much the entirety of baseball history says that players in their 30s get worse with age. Yes, we're stuck with the desiccated remains of Suzuki and Wells for this year and next, but they're gone after 2014 (if not sooner). Three of the Yanks' top prospects are outfielders. It would be a shame if a multiyear contract to a declining Swisher got in the way of Tyler Austin or Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams the way Wells's did with Trout.
So yeah, I miss Swisher, I miss the way he saluted the Bleacher Creatures, I miss that huge smile, I miss the fun he brought to the game every day.
But let the Indians have his declining years. We got four of his best seasons. Branch Rickey famously said that it's always better to get rid of a player a year too soon than a year too late, and given that we're already stuck with the crumbling of A-Rod and Mark Teixeira, let's not lament the one that got away.