Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

How old is “too old” for pitchers in the minor leagues?


Cameron Selik dominated in Hagerstown before his Promotion, but was he "too old" for the level? Photo

When looking at minor league teams and trying to assess talent, the notion of age and experience becomes important.  Quite simply, an older more experienced player will have the advantage over younger counterparts.  Even if the relative skill levels are the same, with age and with professional playing experience comes baseball wisdom that gives the older player the advantage.

So, when looking at prospects at various levels one has to take into account the players age, their number of years of professional experience, and their injury history along with performance to properly judge a player.

So the question really is, “How old is ‘too old’ for a player at a particular level.

I have always used a rule-of-thumb measurement advocated by John Sickels at for looking at player ages (I cannot find the original Sickels posting but have seen it attributed to him in several forums).  That rule-of-thumb is as follows:

  • AAA: Typical Age range is 23-24.  Age 25 depends.  26+ is old
  • AA: 22-23.  24 depends.  25+ is old
  • High-A: 20-22.  23 depends.  24+ is old
  • Low-A: 19-21.  22 depends.  23+ is old
  • Short-A: 19-20.  21/22 for draft year guys only.  22+ is old
  • GCL: 17-19.  20 for draft year guys only.  21+ is old

But does this scale make sense, especially for pitchers?  Lets consider two draft scenarios (note; we’re specifically NOT taking into account any injuries for the purposes of this “ideal case” argument, at least not yet):

1. You draft a high schooler at age 18.  Even if he signs quickly you’re probably not going to get a lot out of him his 18-yr old season because he’s already pitched a number of innings for his HS team.  So his probable progression as a prospect should be:

  • Age 18/Draft year: a few innings in the Rookie League
  • Age 19: Rookie League if he’s a normal with an eye towards moving up to short-A if he succeeds.
  • Age 20: Low-A
  • Age 21: High-A
  • Age 22: AA
  • Age 23: AAA

That’s 5 full pro seasons, by which time the former HSer is 23, should have traversed the entirety of the minor league system, is aged 23 and is just reaching rule-5 eligibility.  In fact, this progression is probably exactly how the rule5 rules were arrived at.

2. You draft a college junior at age 21.  Again, even if he signs quickly he’s finishing off a long college season so you don’t want to kill him, but this is exactly why the short season leagues exist.  So his normal progression would be:

  • Age 21/Draft year: Short-A or possibly Rookie League
  • Age 22: Low-A
  • Age 23: High-A
  • Age 24: AA
  • Age 25: AAA

At which point he’s got 4 pro seasons and is also just reaching rule5 eligibilty.

HOWEVER; note that Sickel’s “rule of thumb” rules essentially rules any college draftee who is following a normal progression through the minors in the “depends” status.  To say nothing of a prospect who may suffer a major injury that costs them a season.  Plus, I don’t think a player can really be considered “too old” at age 22 in his first full season of pro ball in low-A, even if he’s going against a bunch of former HSers who are 2 years younger but playing in their third pro seasons.

So, perhaps the rule of thumb isn’t exactly correct.  Lets dig deeper and look at the actual rosters of minor league teams.

Here is a statistical analysis of age levels of every pitcher on the roster of the International, Eastern, Carolina and South Atlantic league (where the AAA, AA, High-A and Low-A affiliates of the Nationals play).  I took the rosters as they stood on 5/4/11 and calculated the average age, captured youngest and oldest, then grabbed the 25th, 50th (median) and 75% quartile age of the population.

2011 Statistics (Pitchers only) International Eastern Carolina South Atlantic
Level AAA AA High-A Low-A
average–> 27.24 25.30 23.51 22.41
youngest–> 20.27 19.96 19.96 18.88
25th Quartile –> 25.22 24.11 22.33 21.56
50th Quartile (median) –> 26.61 25.05 23.50 22.52
75th Quartile –> 28.47 26.32 24.45 23.33
oldest–> 36.87 31.81 28.46 28.70
% on the 40-man roster –> 32.64% 12.65% 0.89% 0.53%

Caveats to this data: it isn’t the entirety of the Minor leagues.  But for the International, Eastern and South Atlantic league it represents a sizeable portion of those leagues (14, 12 and 14 of the 30 teams at that level).  The Carolina league only has 8 of 30 high-A teams and may not be entirely representative of the high-A population.  A task for a rainy day.  Also, these are age-analysis of Pitchers only.  I did not take into account any rehab stints, but these older major leaguers will just skew the average age, and won’t affect he quartile ages that much.

Now, based on this analysis of this data, i’ll now say that anyone in the 0-25th quartile to be “really young” for that level, 25th-50th to be “young” for the level, 50th-75th to be “old” for the level, and 75th-100th quartile to be “really old” for that level.  Based on these new bench marks, here’s the new rule of thumbs:

AAA AA High-A Low-A
Really Young 25.22 or younger 24.11 or  younger 22.33 or younger 21.56 or younger
Young 25.22 – 26.61 24.11 – 25.05 22.33 – 23.50 21.56 – 22.52
Old 26.61 – 28.47 25.05 – 26.32 23.5 – 24.45 22.52 – 23.33
Really Old 28.47 or older 26.32 or older 24.45 or older 23.33 or older

Ironically, this list doesn’t look a whole lot different than Sickel’s rules of thumb. Perhaps he wasn’t that far off to begin with.

I’ll follow-up this post with a quick age-analysis of the starters in our system, to give context to their status and accomplishments.  To answer the first question about Cameron Selik, at age 23.7 he was “really old” for Low-A, and right now falls slightly into the “old” category for low-A.  So, while he was pitching fantastically in Hagerstown he also was one of the oldest pitchers in that league (161 out of 187 ranking).

Written by Todd Boss

May 6th, 2011 at 12:06 pm

10 Responses to 'How old is “too old” for pitchers in the minor leagues?'

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  1. Well Todd looks like you’ve might be looking askance at Rizzo’s stewardship; his approach and management in developing pitchers?

    Looking at the ages of the pitchers who appear to be ready for the majors:

    AAA Yuniesky Maya is 29 will be 30 on August 28th.
    AAA Craig Stammen is 27
    AAA Bradley Meyers is 25 he’ll be 26 in September.

    AAA Ross Detwiler is 24
    AAA Tom Milone is 23

    AAA Cole Kimball is 26 and he will be 27 in August.
    AAA Adam Carr is 27


    6 May 11 at 12:45 pm

  2. Nice data mining. Using your representative case of Cameron Selik, he was a 2010 draftee. So his progression is ahead of the Sickels model, having spent less than a year at both short-season VT & low-A Hagerstown prior to his recent promotion to high-A Potomac.


    6 May 11 at 12:52 pm

  3. Well, wait for the next post for the answer. In short, Maya/Stammen don’t quite count b/c they’re not really “prospects” any more. As you’ll see, Meyers is “young” for AAA, meaning he’s younger than the median age. So that’s good. Detwiler and Milone are very young for AAA, which is a great sign that we’re developing and moving up pitchers fast. More in the full analysis.

    Todd Boss

    6 May 11 at 1:56 pm

  4. With his promotion, Selik is now pretty much in the right place. Sickels’ model basically doesn’t account for college seniors to be drafted and taken seriously as prospects, since they’re 22 at draft time, 23 during first pro year. You’re right; a college senior playing his first pro season at low-A is really not “old” for the level. Sickels’ model also doesn’t take into account arms who lose a season to injury ..

    Todd Boss

    6 May 11 at 1:57 pm

  5. We’ve had this discussion before; I think any talk of age appropriate levels is for HITTERS ONLY. It’s well documented that a hitters best years are 27 & 28. There’s lots of evidence to back this up.

    For pitchers, there is no age guide, sometimes it takes years for the grip to be perfected, for the injury to be fully recovered from, for the brain to catch up to the arm.
    I remember the Angels won a World Series with two pitchers who had spent 7 & 9 years in the minors before seeing even a whiff of the majors.
    About 10 years ago the Marlins had a pitcher who made his major league debut at 37!

    Mark L

    7 May 11 at 9:08 am

  6. We have Mark; that’s why i did the research. Just for you 🙂

    Seriously. I do agree with you to a certain extent that it takes pitchers a bit longer to make it happen sometimes. And injuries can certainly delay a pitcher’s development a year-year and a half.

    But I think the age still provides some context in certain cases. For example, our buddy Garrett Mock can’t put it together at the MLB level, but apparently has lights out stuff. If you put him in the rookie league he’d look like the next coming of Roger Clemens. Perhaps this is an extreme example, but it lends credence to my point. I was actually surprised by the little age-analysis I did; i was sure that Sickel’s rules of thumb were low. Turns out they were pretty close.

    Plus, while i’m sure there’s guys out there who take forever to put it together, a team just can’t keep these mid-20s guys languishing in the low minors anymore. Onwards and upwards right? You produce or you’re out. We draft 15-20 arms every year and they’ve gotta go somewhere. I’m sure this means we let good arms fall through the cracks, but i’d rather see the younger guys get their chances.

    Todd Boss

    8 May 11 at 10:16 am

  7. […] up on a previous post discussing the “age appropriateness” of pitchers in the minor leagues, I thought it would be interesting to look at the pitching […]

  8. The analysis of age data for minor-league players requires an additional caveat. The majority of minor-league players are not considered to be prospects. Teams keep a “taxi squad” of players in AAA who are excellent AAA players, but poor major league players. These guys are here to be called up in case of injuries. In addition, at AAA and most other levels, there are guys who are considered “organizational filler.” These players are necessary so that every club will have enough minor-league players to field minor-league teams at the appropriate levels for their real prospects.

    The taxi squad and organizational filler are almost universally older than the prospects. “Taxi squad” guys have typically already been called up to the major leagues at some point, and they failed to produce enough to be major league regulars. The “organizational filler” players don’t have the talent of the prospects, so to provide a proper challenge for prospects, they use players with more minor-league experience. So a player who is not “young” or “very young” according to your age statistics is probably not a real prospect.

    Gideon Clarke

    26 Jul 13 at 12:20 pm

  9. Totally agree; I think I did put that particular caveat into at least the AAA writeup of the 2013 version of this post. However even given that caveat, by using the “median” instead of the “average” you can overcome this particular caveat to pass judgement on players generally.

    I also would like to point out, at least for the Nationals organization, this important fact: the Nats draft a very high percentage of college players. If you look at the Draft Tracker XLS maintained by SpringfieldFan, you can see this for yourself. In 2013 the team drafted 31 of 39 players out of Jucos or 4-year colleges, and 25 of the 27 players who actually signed were college players. As a result, all these college (older) players have to play somewhere and most of them end up in either Short-A or the Gulf Coast Rookie League. A 21yr or 22yr old in the Rookie League is automatically going to end up being “Old” or “Very Old” for the level, something you immediately have to take into consideration when judging their results.

    Keith Law harps on this all the time. He cannot stand it when (especially) a high-end college prospect is started in the GCL or low-A.

    Todd Boss

    26 Jul 13 at 12:38 pm

  10. […] did a deep dive on this back in 2011, trying to compare the rules of thumb advertised by expert minor league evaluator John […]

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