Late Career All-Stars
Last weekend, the rosters for the All-Star game were announced. Like every year, the game’s best from each league will be pitted against each other in a friendly exhibition that (thankfully) won’t actually decide who gains home-field advantage in the World Series.
There’s never any shortage of intrigue regarding the players selected. Which players fans choose can give us insight to what those who love the game value. The players selected may earn contract bonuses, or they may earn newfound levels of notoriety if they’re a first-timer. The game itself, given its low-stakes, can occasionally be a dull affair, but the selection process rarely is.
Scanning this year’s selections, there are of course a number of new players. What sticks out on the National League side is the number of first-time starting selections for established players. Several players that have been in the league for years are being bestowed one of the game’s higher honors, a start in the Al-Star game, late in their careers.
Let’s take a look at some these older first-time starters. How did they get here? How is it that they’ve managed to achieve groundbreaking levels of success so late in the game?
Zack Cozart, SS, Cincinnati Reds
Cozart is 31 years old. He has never batted better than .258 in a full season. He’s never hit more than 16 home runs, and he’s never won a Gold Glove despite a strong defensive reputation. Nonetheless, he will start in his first All-Star game on July 11th.
Cozart ranks in the top-ten among NL position players with 3.0 WAR, already a career-high. His .320/.402/.553 line is unprecedented, compared to his .253/.300/.400 career averages. He’s been a shockingly outstanding hitter while playing good defense at a premium position, at a stage in his career when most players are starting to decline.
Among the biggest differences in Cozart’s game has been his plate discipline. He’s swinging at just 24% of pitches out of the zone per FanGraphs, well below his career norm of 29%. That, combined with his typically strong contact skills (he’s running a low 5.9% swinging strike rate), has given Cozart the best walk rate of his career at 12%.
Just by swinging at better pitches and getting on base more, Cozart would be able to boost his offensive game. But he’s also had tremendous success on balls in play. He’s posted a .356 BABIP and a .227 ISO this year, by far career highs. That may be a bit fluky, as his hard contact rate hasn’t budged much, but his 22% line drive rate is a career-high. Cozart’s basically turned himself into a patient, high-contact, line drive hitter, a stunning reversal for a player that ran a 56 wRC+ just three seasons ago.
Given his status as a free agent after this year, Cozart may have played his way out of Cincinnati and into a pennant race, should the Reds choose to flip him at the deadline. Regardless, it’s incredible that Cozart’s been able to reinvent himself at the plate after a career of struggles offensively. At age-31, Cozart has turned himself into an All-Star starting shortstop, and it’s been entirely deserved.
Daniel Murphy, 2B, Washington Nationals
This isn’t Murphy’s first All-Star game, as he made the game once with the Mets, as well as last year with the Nats, when he finished second in NL MVP voting. Murphy’s breakout was 2016, so his first All-Star starting nod won’t contribute much to his overall stardom. But it’s still worth reckoning with how’s he managed to establish this new level of play later in his career.
Murphy has been one of the better poster-boys for the so-called fly ball revolution. The theory behind the revolution goes that balls in the air, especially well-struck ones, do the most damage, so swinging hard and aiming for the skies is the way to go. Murphy has embodied that strategy.
Last year with Nationals, Murphy posted just a 36% groundball rate. This year, that’s down to 34%. Nearly every ball Murphy strikes is in the air, and his hard contact rate with the Nats has been an excellent 37%. That means Murphy has been spraying the field with hard hit liners and fly balls.
Consequently, Murphy’s slugging has risen from .422 with the Mets to .588 with the Nationals. His OPS+ in Washington is 153. He legitimately profiles as one of the best left-handed hitters in the league, after years of merely decent hitting in Queens. Now that he’s on his second year of this kind of play, 2016 feels less like a possible aberration and more like a sign that Murphy has morphed into something new and entirely unexpected. Now, starting the All-Star game should be icing on the cake.
Ryan Zimmerman, 1B, Washington Nationals
Zimmerman is a little different than our first two first-time starters. He accumulated 33 career WAR prior to this season. He signed a huge contract as a homegrown star in Washington. He was the face of the Nationals before Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper came along. What’s most shocking about his first All-Star start is how far he had to fall before climbing back to the top.
Last season, Zimmerman may have been the worst player in the game. He appeared in 115 games, and managed to record 1.1 wins below replacement. His OPS+ declined for the fourth year in a row, all the way down to 68. That level of ineffectiveness, combined with age and injury, looked likely to submarine his career entirely.
Instead, Zimmerman’s .330/.373/.610 line is among the best in the game. He’s used an odd combination to get there. Per FanGraphs, he’s swinging at 46% of pitches, the highest rate since his rookie year, and he’s recording an outstanding 41% hard contact rate, a career-best. That can explain his sudden increase in power, but Zimmerman’s managed this while bumping his contact rate up from 77% last year to an above average 80% this year. Zimmerman’s managed to get more aggressive at the plate and hit the ball harder, all while putting the ball in play more, a curious but effective route to success.
At age-32 and coming off a miserable season, it looked like the Nationals might just have to eat the $48 million due to Zimmerman across 2017-2019. They’ll be happy they didn’t. With key players like Adam Eaton and Trea Turner getting injured, Zimmerman’s bat has been and should continue to be vital to a potent Nationals’ lineup. Not bad for a player whose career looked to be hanging on by a thread a few months ago.
This all serves to show that development and decline in baseball aren’t linear. Some players improve in their mid-20’s, peak around age-29, and then decline in their early-to-mid 30s, but most don’t. Some reach the majors as near-finished products, while some take years, or even decades, to find what works best for them. Some top prospects produce right away, while others need a change of scenery or a new coach to hit their groove. These three are just the latest examples of players whose development tracks have been atypical, of players who have shown themselves capable of redefining their careers at later years, to the point that they’ve managed a surprise start at the All-Star game.