A common refrain this offseason has been that the New York Yankees — anchored by 38-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter, 43-year-old closer Mariano Rivera, and several other older-than-dirt stars — are so ancient that the team will crumble to dust by season's end. And they certainly won't be able to compete with the youth-rich teams whose players are just entering or are already in their prime. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
That sounds intuitive enough, particularly because most prognosticators believe the Washington Nationals, led by young phenoms Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, are the team to beat in 2013.
However, this presupposes that all players of a given age are equal. And it overlooks the incredible success New York has had in recent years with relatively older teams.
Last year, the Yankees trotted out by far the oldest lineup in baseball, with their positional players an average of 32.7 years old, according to Baseball Reference's BatAge stat, which weights age by the number of at bats players take. That was well above the league average of 28.5, and far higher than the 27.8 average age of the World Series–winning San Francisco Giants.
Still, the Yankees ranked at or near the top in virtually every offensive metric. They hit more home runs than anyone and trailed only Texas, by four, for the most runs scored over 162 games. In batting average, on base percentage, and slugging, they ranked seventh, second, and first, respectively.
Likewise, the Yankee's pitching staff last year was the oldest in baseball — they tied the Mets with an average pitcher age of 30.3, according to Baseball Reference — yet it still produced at a high level. As a whole, the staff posted a top-10 ERA+, a refined take on earned runs allowed that's adjusted to compensate for ballpark quirks.
And last season was no fluke. The Yankees often thrive with old teams.
The 2000 Yankees won the World Series with an older squad than last year's bunch, based on Baseball Reference's weighted age stat. Even the 2005 Yankees, the oldest team in baseball history according to a separate measure, won 95 games and made the playoffs.
What about New York's 1998 team, which won 114 games and is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time? It featured pitchers with an average age of 30.2, barely under last year's 30.3 average age.
Studies by the math whizzes at Baseball Prospectus and others have found that players generally peak around the ages of 27 to 29. After that comes a period of regression as players age and their skills fade. When it comes to regressions though, better players have more room to weather the decline as they age.
So yes, Derek Jeter is 38 — a decade beyond the point at which the typical player peaks. But he led the league in hits last year while batting .313. And Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees' 37-year-old starter, finished last season among the top 10 hurlers in the game in innings pitched and wins above replacement. Despite their ages, these guys are still among the best in the league at their respective positions.
Pre-season statistical projections, which take a more objective look at the expected production of specific players given their age and past performance, peg the Yankees as a solid playoff team in 2013. And if they get there, watch out: A recent study found that older teams tend to be better than younger ones in the postseason.
All of this is not to say that age won't pose a problem. It makes the season more unpredictable, as it means players are more liable to get injured or suffer a sizable statistical decline. With a thin depth chart, the Yankees have little maneuvering room should they need a quick fix to either of those potential pitfalls. That lack of depth, coupled with a lineup weakened by the offseason departures of key weapons Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, is what could ultimately do in the 2013 team, not merely age itself.