Derrek Lee might have been the most disappointing Cub last season. Finally healthy, we expected big things from him, and he came out of the gate like gangbusters. Then all his power disappeared, and he sort of scuffled through the rest of the season, putting up an ok season, but not what we’d all hoped. He’s not having a good spring training, and although spring training doesn’t really mean anything, it’s not encouraging to see, either.
So what are the odds Lee bounces back? Well, pretty good. I took a look at the career paths of Lee’s similar players through age 32 on Baseball Reference. His most similar player is Kent Hrbek. Like Lee, he had a down year at age 32, but at age 33 he bounced back a little, putting up a 120 OPS+. Of course, the season after that, his age 34 season, he wasn’t very good at all, and he retired a few days before the 1994 baseball strike began.
Lee’s next most-similar player is Paul Konerko. Since Konerko is still playing and is Lee’s age, he can’t really help us predict how Lee will age. Next up is Will Clark. Clark also had a down year in his age 32 season, putting up a 101 OPS+. His next two seasons were 128 and 126. After that is Raul Mondesi, for whom his age 32 season was actually a bounce-back before two terrible seasons that ended with him out of baseball at age 35.
Here are the top four most-similar players to Lee, not counting Konerko, in terms of OPS as they aged:
There’s a fair bit of variation there. Everyone seems to have had a down year at 32 except for Mondesi. Hrbek and Mondesi retired at 34. Clark and Palmeiro went on to have longer careers, and were very productive, although we know Palmeiro had help Lee may not.
I went a little further and took the ten most-similar players, leaving out Konerko and also Carlos Lee, who is also on Lee’s list and is also 32 and still playing. I averaged their WAR per season from 30-35, and compared that to Lee. For Mondesi and Hrbek, I treated the seasons where they weren’t playing as 0-WAR seasons. Here’s what that graph looks like:
I didn’t weight this by how similar players were to Lee – if I had, the dropoff at 34 would look even worse, because Mondesi and Hrbek are more similar to Lee than Palmeiro or Fred McGriff. But there’s reason for some optimism. The graph also leaves off Gil Hodges, because Rally’s WAR database doesn’t have WAR for all of his seasons in this range.
The chart gives some reason for optimism, though. Going into his 33-year-old season, Lee could fall off the cliff, but his similar players have enjoyed a little bit of a bounce at that age, and on average haven’t been terrible as 34-year-olds either. I would like Lee to finish out his Cubs career as a little more than “not terrible,” but I’ll take what I can get.