Is Raúl Ibañez the new Junior Griffey?

Otto Greule Jr

News Item: Saturday, Raúl Ibañez hit his 29th home run of this season. Why is this news? Because Ibañez is now tied with Ted Williams for the all-time record for home runs by a 41-year-old major leaguer. I don't care how you slice it -- and don't worry, we'll do some slicing in a moment -- this is an impressive feat. Impressive enough that it's worth seeing, especially if you haven't already ...

Oh, and that was also Ibañez's 300th career clout.

In related news, today a) Lookout Landing's Scott Weber opined that the Mariners shouldn't consider Ibañez a big part of their future, and b) The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker turned one relatively innocuous sentence from Weber's column into a long essay about the difference between Ken Griffey and Raúl Ibañez and why there's no reason to doubt Ibañez's considerable talents. Here's Baker's tweet in semi-response to Weber:

I don't really want to get in the middle of this fight. I like Mr. Baker, and I like Messrs. Landing. So let me focus for the moment on Ibañez's accomplishment. Leaving aside the home runs specifically, would you care to guess how many 41-year-old players in major-league history have posted an OPS+ of at least 100 (league average) with at least 400 plate appearances?

Nine. Ever. Six Hall of Famers plus Barry Bonds, Darrell Evans, and Raúl Ibañez. Just for fun, here's the whole list (plus a bonus Hall of Famer):

Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age
1 Barry Bonds 156 493 2006 41
2 Stan Musial 137 505 1962 41
3 Carlton Fisk 136 419 1989 41
4 Raul Ibanez 129 477 2013 41
5 Honus Wagner 127 625 1915 41
6 Luke Appling 111 594 1948 41
7 Dave Winfield 105 594 1993 41
8 Darrell Evans 105 522 1988 41
9 Sam Rice 100 460 1931 41
10 Hank Aaron 95 543 1975 41

Now, I should mention how few 41-year-old players have even earned 400 plate appearances. In addition to these 10, there are only 10 more ... including Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Craig Biggio, Edgar Martinez, Rickey Henderson, and Nap Lajoie. Generally speaking, you don't get this much playing time at 41 unless you're an outstanding player ... and even then, you don't fare particularly well. For Ibañez, this really has been a season for the ages.

Really, it's been a career for the ages. Ibañez didn't become an outstanding hitter until his middle 30s, then sort of muddled along for a few years ... and now, however improbably, here he is again, hitting like crazy.

Weber's point is that Ibañez might still be a pretty good hitter next season, even at 42, but should be restricted to part-time duties, essentially as a Designated Hitter against right-handed pitchers. Because he's terrible in the outfield, and historically hasn't done well against left-handed pitchers. Baker agrees about the outfield part, but cites Ibañez's strong numbers against lefties this season.

Well, Baker's probably wrong about that last part. It's highly unlikely that Ibañez, at 41, has suddenly learned to hit southpaws, and his 137 plate appearances this season shouldn't change anyone's mind.

But what's happened to other good 41-year-old hitters?

At 42, Barry Bonds was still devastating.

At 42, Stan Musial was league-average in limited action.

At 42, Carlton Fisk was league-average.

At 42, Honus Wagner played less often but still hit well.

At 42, Luke Appling actually upped his OPS+ to 125.

At 42, Dave Winfield played half as often and was worse than league-average.

At 42, Darrell Evans played half as often and was worse than league-average.

At 42, Sam Rice played less often but hit better.

Oh, I just realized that Ted Williams isn't in that table because he didn't quite reach 400 plate appearances in his Age-41, 29-homer season. Williams quit after that season, though. So among our eight examples, there's not much encouraging news. Four of them hit worse than the year before, and nearly all of them played significantly less often, whether because of injuries or ineffectiveness or both. And it's also worth noting (again) that these guys were all Hall of Fame-quality players. Ibañez is not, which would seem to hurt his projection at least a little.

If the Mariners want to bring Ibañez back, I totally get it. But it's a foolish move unless they stack the deck entirely in his favor, by limiting him to DH'ing and pinch-hitting duties against right-handed pitchers, as the Indians did with Jason Giambi this season (not that that worked out so well). And it's a foolish move if they have a much younger and just-as-talented hitter on the roster who won't be losing plate appearances to Ibañez.

Veteran leadership's great. But it's hard to argue that veteran leadership is worth a roster spot. Especially in light of the Mariners' 88 losses (so far) this season. If Ibañez can't hit, he shouldn't be around. And he won't hit next year unless everything goes just right. Do you trust the Mariners to make everything go just right?

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