Chewing the Fat and Spitting out the Facts

Conventional Wisdom 1 - Maurice Samuel "Mo" Vaughn underachieved for the New York Mets in 2002. Fact 1 - Vaughn's On-base and Slugging averages compared to the league average remained on par with those he achieved with the Anaheim Angels in 2000 and 2001. Conventional Wisdom 2 - Vaughn's weight was the cause of such a poor 2001 and now that he is in shape, he should have a monster 2003.

Fact 2 - Mo Vaughn is now 35 years old.

Throughout his short time as a Met, two things have dominated talk about Mo Vaughn; he is overweight, and he is not producing like he should. Is he overweight? Or rather, was he overweight in 2002? Yes, but wasn't he also overweight when he won the MVP for the Red Sox in 1995? Yes, he was. Did he under perform as a Met? That question requires some thought.

Before undertaking a study requiring thought, as most of us would rather procrastinate such a task, here is a question. Will Vaughn's change in weight change the way he plays baseball? Will it change his hitting?

OK, so it was two questions. The most obvious answer to the first question is, Vaughn should be quicker, more agile, and faster on the base paths. Well that's nice and all, but Vaughn plays first base, a position where you don't exactly have to be Keith Hernandez to play. In little league, the coach puts his best lefty fielder at first; in the show they throw the fat guy who can hit there, and Vaughn was always the fat guy who could hit. Extra quickness and agility at first base would probably make the difference of one or two outs for the Mets of the course of the season. If Vaughn suddenly becomes as fast as he was when he was 27 he might steal 11 bases again, but remember in 11 seasons, he has stolen only 30 bases, but been caught 18 times. It is not worth it for him to try to steal any bases.

Will his hitting be effected? Bat speed is the most important thing to generate power when hitting. It is optimistic to think that less weight on the arms would allow for a quicker swing, and while that may be true, the arms are not the major factor when swinging the bat. The arms are much closer to the pivot point (being the body) than the bat itself is when swinging, so that the torque needed to move the bat is far greater than that need to move the arms, making the lighter arm = quicker swing argument less effective. All the same we won't know until the season starts.

What can be determined, though, is whether Vaughn's 2002 season was sub par for him. Vaughn was a great hitter with the Red Sox. With the Angels he was a good hitter, and the same can be said of his season with the Mets. Oddly enough it is a pretty clear dividing line between his time of greatness and his time of "goodness." In 1998, Vaughn played for the Red Sox, his OPS (on base plus slugging) was .993, second best of his career, and 55 percent better than the league average, best in his career. Upon joining the Angels in 1999, his OPS dropped to .866, only 18 percent above the league average. In 2000 his OPS was .863: 15 percent above average. He two seasons with the Angel were practically the same except for the 22 more game he played in 2000. Then after missing a season due to injury, he posted a .805 OPS in 139 games for the Mets. However, playing in the NL, in Shea Stadium, with the league scoring less runs on average in 2002, an OPS of .805 is good for 16 percent above average, meaning that he hit the exact same for the Mets as he did for the Angels.

So if a hitter has the same performance for two seasons, misses a season, and then comes back with the exact same performance, is he underachieving? In some books he's overachieving, because he has aged, and is coming off a big injury. So what real promise is there that Mo Vaughn will do any better in 2003? He is a season older, but he is also another year removed from injury. Putting that bicep injury behind him is truly a good sign, and losing weight is just a good idea in general, if nothing else, it will make his career last longer, but is there any real evidence that Vaughn will be any better this season?

Through the age of 34, the most similar batters (thanks to Baseball-reference.com) are:

1. Willie Stargell
2. Ted Kluszewski
3. Tino Martinez
4. Gil Hidges
5. Kent Hrbek
6. Fred McGriff
7. Willie McCovey
8. Frank Howard
9. Lee May
10. Cecil Fielder

Fielder is a good example because of the issue of size. However, 1998 was his last season. Fielder was 34.

Lee May had his last good season at 33, and then started missing big hunks of time at 36. He played till he was 39.

Howard's last season as a start was 34, but was effective till he retired at age 36.

The last time Willie McCovey played over 141 games in a season, he was 32. He retired at 42, but after the age of 33, he was inconsistent from year to year. He had two great years at age 35 and 36, but played only in 130 and 128 games in those seasons.

Fred McGriff is now 39 and is making a strong case for the Hall of Fame. He has yet to slow down.

Kent Hrbek's demise started at age 32, and he retired when he was 34.

Gil Hodges played until age 39, but his last good year came when he was 35. In 1958 the Dodgers spent their first season in Los Angeles, and Hodges had a poor season. Then in 1959, at age 35, Hodges bounced back for an excellent season. It was his last good season, but perhaps he just needed to get used to LA.

Tino Martinez is also now 35 and in his second year with an NL club after being in the AL for his career. It should be interesting to compare his progress to Vaughn's midseason.

Ted Kluszewski was a part time player by age 32.

However it is Willie Stargell who is the hope for Mets' fans. Stargell was still a great hitter until he was 40. He did however play less and less as he entered his mid-late 30s. He never played more than 126 games after he turned 35.

So what can be expected of Vaughn? An optimistic view says he will repeat his 2002 performance, but not miss as many games, while a pessimistic view has him missing 50-60 games due to a number of injuries with a drop in his production. It is impossible to say, but with his age and history, it is unfounded to think much else will come from Mo Vaughn this season.



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