In the nearly 65 years since Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, 931 players have managed at least 295 plate appearances in their age-31 season, an average of 14.3 a year. Of those 931 players, 916 managed to post a better OPS+ than the 56 that Juan Uribe put up during his nightmarish 2011 debut season in Los Angeles.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the worse news: only two players in major league history who ever had an age-31 season as poor as Uribe’s or worse ever rebounded to be even a league-average offensive ballplayer again, and you’re not going to like who one of them is. It’s a list that’s littered with catchers and shortstops who could never hit in the first place, like Larry Cox, Kurt Manwaring, Dal Maxvill, and Willy Miranda, and who certainly never turned it around as they continued to age.
The two players who did manage to rebound from such a poor age-31 season both have Dodger connections, but neither inspire a great deal of hope. Mike Devereaux came up with the Dodgers before being dealt to the Orioles in March of 1989, where he enjoyed some success as the Baltimore center fielder for most of the next six seasons. In 1994, he ended his first stint with the O’s by hitting just .203/.256/.332 (48 OPS+) in his age-31 season; the next year, he managed a 108 OPS+ while splitting time between the White Sox and the Braves. It was the last decent year he’d ever have, as he put up just a 62 OPS+ between 1996-98 with the Orioles, Rangers, and Dodgers, and his career ended when he was released by Los Angeles in May of 1998.
The other player who managed something of a bounce-back barely qualifies for the list, because his big comeback was a precisely league-average 100 OPS+, but I particularly don’t enjoy talking about him because he’s my least favorite member of the 2012 Dodgers: Adam Kennedy. After seven mostly productive years in Anaheim, Kennedy joined the Cardinals in 2007, putting up what should have been a career-ending .219/.282/.290 (50 OPS+) line. He was a bit better for St. Louis in 2008, then surprisingly good for Oakland in 2009 (100 OPS+) before being bad in Washington in 2010, worse in Seattle in 2011, and lord knows what in Los Angeles in 2012.
So what does that mean for Uribe? Maybe nothing. Maybe something. It’s fair to say that our study is somewhat arbitrary – age-31 on its face isn’t necessarily all that different from 30 or 32, and 295 PA was chosen only because that’s what Uribe had – and Uribe did have to fight through injuries all season after putting up two decent years in San Francisco. On the other hand, this is a guy who was atrocious for nearly all of his age 25-28 years with the White Sox, and his body type doesn’t exactly lend a lot of confidence that his injury woes were a fluke. (In the BP injury database, he has an impressive fifteen entries for “soreness”, “tightness”, or “stiffness”, dating back to 2004.) In addition, none of the top projection systems like PECOTA (.241/.293/.385), ZIPS (.249/.300/.401), or Bill James (.240/.298/.394) have a whole lot of optimism for Uribe in 2012, and I also haven’t seen a whole lot of analysts who can offer up anything more positive than, “well, he can’t be that bad again, right?”
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Uribe simply has to be better, because there just aren’t a whole lot of alternatives if he’s not. Kennedy? Jerry Hairston? If Uribe can’t buck history and his own mediocre past, the Dodgers are left with only two 36-year-olds behind him, unless you’re the world’s biggest Russ Mitchell fan – and considering he was just DFA’d and went unclaimed, it doesn’t seem anyone really considers him a big leaguer.
Uribe was perhaps the biggest Dodger disappointment last year, and it might be fair to say that he’s the biggest Dodger question mark for 2012, potentially only behind James Loney. He still has $16m coming to him over the next two years, plus another $1m deferred to 2014, so between that and the lack of third base options, he’s going to get every chance to succeed. To be honest, the bar for success for him isn’t that high, because you expect so little from a guy with a .298 OBP over 11 seasons. He’s not a good hitter, and he’ll never be one. But if he can just get back to his usual ways of decent power (16 or more homers six times) and solid defense, that’s at least something the Dodgers can work with.
If not? Well, contract or not, a repeat of his 2011 could have him on the bench by July and out of town by October, dooming us to 400 plate appearances from Kennedy. Juan Uribe, eternal conundrum.