David N. Townsend
Baseball Journal

January 12, 2001
27 and Counting

I hope if the Kansas City Royals trade Johnny Damon before this season, that they get pretty good compensation back, since they'll be handing some other team the 2001 American League MVP (assuming he stays in the A.L.).  Then again, maybe they won't be too crucified for doing so, since they'll still retain two more of the top 5 MVP candidates, anyway.

Why am I saying this?  Well, it's my way of bringing up a favorite topic, which is neither original nor obscure, but still worth exploring anew here at the beginning of the new baseball century.  The topic is this:  Historically, a significant proportion of  baseball players, both hitters and pitchers, arrive at their their career peak level of ability and performance at the age of 27.  And, this peak performance often arrives in the form of a fairly dramatic leap forward from previously demonstrated career standards.

Now, the moment I assert this, I have to acknowledge all the caveats and exceptions.   Of course many players have had peak years at other ages, have achieved career highlights either younger or older, and the actual peak age range for most players is more like 26-28, rather than 27 precisely.  And the career trends of a lot of the better players don't actually follow a simple bell curve, up and down.  Many players in recent years have had double-peak careers, with a first peak at about 27 years old, followed by a minor decline, then a second, frequently higher peak, at around 31 or 32.   I believe that much of this can be attributed to the offensive explosion across baseball in the past 5+ years, which makes it appear that individual hitters have gotten better, although if you compared them to league averages, I bet it would more often show a more smooth decline.  In any event, the Rule of 27 applies quite consistently, particularly if you control for other factors, such as injuries, the 1994-95 strike, or being traded to (or away from) Colorado. 

Here are several examples of current veteran players and their career patterns, to illustrate this phenomenon:

Jay Bell:  Averaged around .260, slugged under .400 in 3 part-time and 3 full-time seasons through age 26 (1992).  In 1993, at age 27, broke through to hit .310, .392 OBP, .437 slugging.  Failed to reach those levels again until 1999 (age 33), when he leaped from .432 to .557 in slugging average, from 20 HR to 38 HR.

Juan Gonzalez:  Although he initially starred at age 22-23, leading the league in HR, his best statistical year was 1996 (age 27), when he had career highs in homers and slugging.  (Admittedly, his 1998 season was almost a carbon copy of '96.)

Andres Gallaraga:  His biggest years have come in his mid-thirties, but these were (a) during the era of offensive explosion, and (b) while he played in Colorado.   When he was with Montreal, he had his breakthrough year at age 27, in 1988, leading the league in doubles and total bases, increasing his slugging average from .459 to .540.   He didn't surpass those numbers until 1993, his first year with the Rockies.

Bernie Williams:  He's been a very consistent hitter for the past 6 years, but although his best overall numbers were at age 30 in 1998, he made his greatest one-year improvement from 1995 to 1996, precisely at age 27.  In particular, his home runs went up from 18 to 29, RBIs from 82 to 102, slugging from .487 to .535.

Rickey Henderson:  Over an astonishingly consistent 22-year career, he's had several peaks.  He was 27 during the 1986 season, and while it may not have been his very best, he did reach career highs in home runs (28), total bases (285), and RBI (74), while scoring the second-most runs (130) of his career.

Todd Hundley:  He turned 27 in May 1996, a year that saw him hit 41 home runs with 116 RBI, after previous career-bests of 16 and 53.  Injuries have kept him from challenging those peaks again, to date.

Gary Sheffield:  Another 27-year-old in 1996, he hit 43 homers, had 120 RBI, and a .465 OBP that year, when he had not exceeded 33 homers before.  He didn't approach those numbers again until last year, when he more or less equaled them at age 31.

Chuck Knoblauch:  Although it was in 1994, the strike year, when he was on pace to break the record for most doubles (he turned 26 that year), his best two seasons overall were 1995-96.  With a birthday in July, he was 27 for half of each year, when he batted over .330, had an OBP over .420, and slugged over .480 for the only times of his career.

Tim Salmon:   Has yet to relive his performance of 1995, when he turned 27, and hit .330 with a .429 OBP and .594 slugging average, all career highs, and improvements of 50-60 points in each category over his two preceeding seasons.

Barry Larkin:  In four full seasons before turning 27 in 1991, Larkin had never hit more than 12 home runs.  That year, he hit 20, reaching a career-best .506 slugging average.

Ken Griffey, Jr.:  Junior was already a star at age 20 in1990, and he hit consistently well every year except 1995, when he got hurt.  So what happened in 1997, when Griffey was 27?  How does 56 HR, 147 RBI, and 125 Runs sound?   They're all the best numbers of his career to date. (Although he was only inches off them the following year: 56-146-120.  Comparing Griffey's 1997 and 1998 stats is like seeing double.)

Tony Gwynn:  What has been the peak for the man who's hit over .300 for 18 consecutive seasons, with eight batting titles?  Arguably, there have been two or three main peaks: the first indeed came at age 27, in 1987, when he hit .370, with 301 total bases and 119 runs scored.  Those stood as his best career numbers until 1994, age 34, when he hit .394 in the strike-shortened season.  His 1997 season might be called a third peak, when at age 37 he hit .372, and reached career-best HR, TB, and RBI totals.

Mike Piazza:  Achieved every one of his career highs at age 28, in 1997.   Okay, so he was a year late.

Barry Bonds:  When you win four MVPs (and nearly a fifth), your career is basically one long peak.  Interestingly, Bonds broke the 27 rule by having his breakthrough season at age 25-26 in 1990, when his BA and OBP each leaped by over 50 points, and his slugging by over 100 points, while stealing 52 bases; then his single best career numbers came in at age 28-29 in 1993, his first year with San francisco, when he was .336-46-123-129.  At age 27, across the 1991-92 seasons, all he did was lead the league in OBP twice and slugging once.  Last year, he went out at age 35 and beat his previous bests in homers,  and slugging.  He's sort of a permanent 27-year-old.

I'm sure you get the point.  As I said, there are plenty of other exceptions, some more divergent than others.  Frank Thomas's best year came at age 26.  Mark McGwire's highest peaks were his rookie year, age 23, and the Mt. Everest of 1998, at age 34; he was 27 the year he hit .201.  But the general pattern is really very strong.

What's it mean for 2001?  So the real reason for revisiting this issue is to look ahead to the upcoming 2001 season, to see how this phenomenon might play out with this year's crop of 27-year-olds.  I was surprised to see just how many already-good players will be that age this season.  If many of these guys are on the verge of their best seasons, we could be in for a hell of a year, especially in the American League.

The poster boy for this study is Todd Helton.  He turned 27 last year, and skyrocketed from good numbers in 1999 (.320-35-113-114), to ridiculous numbers in 2000, even by Colorado standards (.372-42-147-138).  I'm assuming that's his peak, although he'll still be 27 for more than half of next season.

The candidates to join the parade constitute a positively scary array of stars and near-stars.  The 2001 class of 27-year-olds include (with stats from their career-best season to date):

Bobby Abreau (.335-20-93-118)
Edgardo Alfonso (.324-25-94-109)
Tony Batista (.263-41-114-96)
Jose Cruz, Jr. (.242-31-76-91)
Johnny Damon (.327-16-88-136)
Jermaine Dye (.321-33-118-107)
Darin Erstad (.355-25-100-121)
Nomar Garciaparra (.323-35-122-111)
Derek Jeter (.349-24-102-134)
Jason Kendall (.327-12-75-95)
Mike Lowell (.270-22-91-73)
Magglio Ordonez (.315-32-126-102)
Mark Quinn (.294-20-78-76)
Shannon Stewart (.319-21-69-107)
Mike Sweeney (.333-29-144-105)
Dmitri Young (.303-18-88-68)

I began this piece talking about Johnny Damon and the Royals.  The reason I pick Damon as the likely MVP from among this esteemed group is simply that he seems to have the greatest upside, and the improvements he showed in 2000 portend the kind of quantum breakthrough that we've seen in so many other stars in the past at this age.   Certainly many of the others -- Garciaparra, Erstad, Jeter, Ordonez, etc. -- could make a similar leap forward, but they would seem to have already approached their peak abilities, and are more likely to move up by smaller margins.  What makes the Kansas City situation so interesting is that they have no less than four players on this list: Damon, Dye, Quinn, and Sweeney.  Each had his best season to date last year, at age 26.  If they keep all four, and they all achieve yet higher peaks in 2001, the Royals might be a serious pennant contender even without a pitching staff.

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