Old(er) Man Franco

I wrote a column (“Old Man Franco”) a little over a year ago wondering whether or not Julio Franco could become the best 45-year-old hitter in baseball history. As you might guess, the competition for that title was pretty limited. In fact, only two players in baseball history — Cap Anson and Pete Rose — had over 100 plate appearances in their age-45 season before Franco came along.

Franco was hitting .286/.412/.393 in limited playing time when I wrote the column, so it looked like it would be a bit of a struggle to keep pace with Anson, who batted .285/.379/.361 as the first baseman/manager for the 1897 Cubs and, perhaps most importantly, racked up 497 plate appearances. As it turned out, Franco ended up with a lot more playing time at first base for the Braves last year than I imagined, and in doing so blew Anson (and Rose) out of the water.

               G      AB      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+    RC
Franco       125     320     361     .309     .378     .441     112     53
Anson        114     424     497     .285     .379     .361      92     57
Rose          72     237     272     .219     .316     .270      61     19

Franco ended up having an excellent season at the plate, hitting .309/.378/.441 in 361 plate appearances to become the first 45-year-old in the sport’s history to be an above-average hitter. His OPS+ (which adjusts for offensive environment) was 22% better than Anson’s and nearly twice as good as Rose’s, and while he didn’t beat Anson in Runs Created, he came close — Franco created four fewer runs than Anson in 136 fewer plate appearances.

As amazing as what Franco did last season as a 45-year-old is — and I think it is something that deserved a lot more attention than it got — what’s even more amazing is that he appears to be doing it all over again as a 46-year-old. While both Anson and Rose hung up their spikes following their age-45 seasons, Franco re-signed with the Braves and continues to platoon at first base with Adam LaRoche (whose father, Dave LaRoche, retired after Franco’s rookie season, 1983).

Franco is off to a bit of a slow start this season, hitting just .268/.305/.357 through his first 23 games, but the beauty of being 46 years old is that it doesn’t much matter whether or not you hit well. Simply hitting — .225 or .325, it doesn’t matter — is enough to send you right to the top of the list. Why? Because no 46-year-old hitter in baseball history has gone to the plate as many as even 100 times in a season. In fact, Franco’s 59 plate appearances so far this year are already an all-time record.

The previous age-46 record holder was Charlie Hough, who came to the plate 38 times as a starting pitcher for the second-year Florida Marlins in 1994. Hough and his knuckleball had their worst season on the mound, going 5-9 with a 5.15 ERA in 21 starts, before calling it quits after 25 big-league seasons. Hough also hit just .121/.147/.121 at the plate, but that was actually enough to put him among the top five all-time for offensive contributions by a 46-year-old.

Franco could finish the year in an 0-for-50 slump and still coast into the top spot among 46-year-old hitters. That’s not exactly something to brag about, at least not if you also plan to include the names of your competition, but it’s still pretty cool. With Franco on his way to capturing the “best hitter” title for both age 45 and 46, I though it might be interesting to look at who holds that title for the others ages, too.

It’s a difficult title to hand out when talking about an age that has more than a handful of candidates, so picking one offensive metric to base everything on is nothing more than a quick-and-dirty way to do things. With that disclaimer in mind, I’ve chosen Runs Created Above Average for our purposes. RCAA adjusts for leagues and ballparks while telling you how many runs a player was better (or worse) than a league-average hitter.

AGE   PLAYER              RCAA      AGE   PLAYER                RCAA
17    Jimmie Foxx            4      30    Ted Williams           112
18    Whitey Lockman        11      31    Babe Ruth              132
19    Mel Ott               29      32    Babe Ruth              138
20    Mel Ott               75      33    Lou Gehrig             120
21    Joe Jackson          105      34    Mark McGwire           118
22    Ted Williams         144      35    Babe Ruth              122
23    Ted Williams         122      36    Barry Bonds            169
24    Lou Gehrig           136      37    Barry Bonds            161
25    Babe Ruth            156      38    Barry Bonds            115
26    Babe Ruth            166      39    Barry Bonds            152
27    Lou Gehrig           121      40    Willie Mays             47
28    Babe Ruth            157      41    Ted Williams            53
29    Babe Ruth            138      42    Cap Anson               26
                                    43    Tony Perez              12
                                    44    Cap Anson                8
                                    45    Julio Franco             6

At the end of this season Franco will join Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Cap Anson as the only players in major-league history to lead their age in RCAA more than once. Normally I’d say being in such elite company is something Franco could tell his grandkids about when they grow up, but in this case they’re probably old enough to read about it for themselves.

A few more interesting Franco-is-old notes (some of which are recycled from last year’s column) …

  • Players who were still playing during Franco’s first season in the majors include Willie Stargell, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Bill Lee, Luis Tiant, Joe Rudi, and Mark Belanger.
  • Dontrelle Willis was born about two weeks after Franco made his major-league debut. Jose Reyes, Joe Mauer, and Miguel Cabrera had not even been conceived yet when Franco played his first major-league game.
  • Franco made his debut with the 1982 Phillies. Some of his teammates on that team include Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Sparky Lyle, and Tug McGraw. Also on that team was Gary Matthews, whose son Gary Matthews Jr. has played over 600 games in the majors. Mike Krukow, who is currently an announcer for the San Francisco Giants, was Philadelphia’s starting pitcher in Franco’s first game.
  • The Yankees have a television channel called the YES Network. They use multiple color commentators, but three of their main guys are Ken Singleton, Jim Kaat, and Bobby Murcer. All three were still playing when Franco began his major-league career. A fourth YES Network announcer, Paul O’Neill, didn’t get his first starting job in the big leagues until Franco was in his sixth season.
  • A total of 84 people have been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame since Franco played his first big-league game. The two players the baseball writers voted into the Hall the year Franco debuted were Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.
  • Franco finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1983. Ron Kittle won the award and Mike Boddicker finished third. Kittle’s final season was 1991, while Boddicker was finished after 1993.
  • Finally, here’s a story from the December 10, 1982 edition of the New York Times:

    HONOLULU, Dec. 9 — After three days of mostly frustrating talks, trading activity picked up today at the winter meetings. The Cleveland Indians sent Von Hayes, an outfielder with a promising future, to the Philadelphia Phillies for five players, including Manny Trillo, an established second baseman who is 31 years old.

    Besides Trillo, one of the best second basemen in the National League, the Indians received George Vukovich, an outfielder who hit .272 in 123 games last season; Julio Franco, a 21-year-old minor leaguer whom the Indians expect to be their starting shortstop, and two other minor leaguers, Jay Baller, a 6-foot-6-inch pitcher, and Jerry Willard, a catcher.

    A little less than a month after that trade was a made, a boy named Aaron Jay Gleeman was born in an Edina, Minnesota hospital. Yes, that’s how old Julio Franco is.

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