Anabolic steroids and all their PED friends do more than just bulk guys up so they can jack more dingers. They reduce the bounce-back time needed after exhaustion or injury. That's especially useful for older players, whose bodies wear down more easily and take longer to recover. It's important to remember that as we consider how much the Cardinals should pay for a long-term contract for Jason Heyward.
The first six years of a player's career are controlled by his team (including arbitration). Even very good players - including newly anointed Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant - typically don't reach the Bigs until age 23 or 24. That means that when players reach free agency, you are basically buying into their 30s. This year's free agent class is no different, with almost all of the top free agents right on the cusp of the big Three-Oh.
And then there's 26-year-old Jason Heyward.
What's the big deal about age, and why am I making allusions to PEDs? The reason is that the PED era massively skewed our expectations for players in their 30s, and I believe many fans and pundits are still looking at free agents through those glasses.
Here's a simple table to illustrate my point. Jason Heyward was a 6.0 WAR player last year. Let's see how many player seasons at or above 6.0 WAR have been put up by players at age 30 or beyond, in three eras:
That's a massive spike, and while my endpoints are a bit arbitrary, they also roughly frame what we would call the PED era. In that period from 1995-2005, 12 of the top 20 seasons were put up by guys who have either admitted to or tested positive for PEDs: Bonds, McGwire, Giambi and Caminiti. Two more seasons came from guys who are often suggested to have been juicers.
For as much as people talk about how skewed the home run numbers became during the PED era, what might have been knocked most out-of-whack is our perception of what level of production we can realistically expect from players over the age of 30.
Yes, there are variations in aging curves, late bloomers, sustained peaks and all that. But as a nearly universal rule, players in their 30s are in decline, sometimes a precipitous one. For something like 10 years, we saw not just the 30-and-40-something Barry Bonds's and Manny Ramirez's, we saw an entire generation of players able to sustain production well into their 30s in a way that aging curves and historical data tells us is not normal.
Jason Heyward has not developed - or at least sustained - the kind of power many wished from him. While there was a lot of talk last spring about a change in approach that might spark a breakout, that didn't really manifest. Jason Heyward is almost certainly already at his peak. This is who he is.
I think he's pretty damn good. Some fans and pundits seem to like him a little less, or at least wish he was a different kind of player (read: one who mashes dingers). But whatever your opinion of the player he is now, what is indisputable is that he is more likely - much more likely - than anyone else in the free agent market to sustain his value for many years into the future, possibly even the full length of what would be an 8 or 10 year deal.