The WAR Against Age – The Pitchers
In my last article, I examined at what ages the forty greatest hitters* of all time, as measured by Wins Above Replacement (“WAR”), had their five best seasons to learn about aging patterns and how certain individual players fared. Here, I take a look at forty top pitchers and their best seasons. Because pitcher usage has changed dramatically over time, I eliminated all pitchers who played the bulk of their careers before World War II.
I don’t think that Walter Johnson’s typical workload of 350+ innings in his best seasons or Cy Young’s 400+ innings in his best seasons is particularly enlightening for purposes of today’s game because modern players are unlikely ever to pitch like that again. That is to say nothing of Old Hoss Radbourne’s 19.8 WAR season in 1884, in which he pitched 678 innings and went 59-12. (Considering his ERA-plus was 207 that year, and he pitched about 2/3 of his team’s innings, I think his WAR (he had 20.3 when you factor in hitting), although the highest single season number of all time, seems a bit low). In any event, after taking out the old-time pitchers, the top-40 post-World War II pitchers takes you down to number 67 of all time, Dave Stieb.
I plotted on the bar graph below the top 5 pitching seasons measured by WAR (I did not factor in WAR for hitting) for the 40 top-rated post-war pitchers (200 data points in all). For comparison sake, I have also included the chart for hitters from my last article, adjusted so that the pitchers and hitters are set out in the same scale.
Top 40 WAR (Post-World War II) Pitchers:
The first thing that jumps out from looking at these graphs is that pitchers seem to spread out their peak seasons far more than hitters. Although great hitters and pitchers start putting up peak seasons at age 20, the pitchers are far more likely to have a peak performance late in their careers. Just three hitters had one of their best seasons at age 38 or later (one was Barry Bonds at 39, one was Ted Williams who had his fifth best season and one was Cap Anson), and none at age 40, whereas the pitchers had 10 such seasons starting at 38 (5% of the sample) and four at 40 or 41, by which time all great hitters had tailed off. Similarly, the peak for pitchers is far less prominent than for hitters. For the hitters, 103 of the best seasons, more than half the sample, were between ages 26 and 31. For the pitchers, by contrast, at the same ages (which is also the six year span with the highest number of peak years) there are just 88 of the 200 seasons recorded. The median age for a pitcher’s top season was 29, a year later than for the hitters. Another interesting observation is that aggregately both the hitters (at 29 and 30) and pitchers (at 28 and 29) showed a decrease in peak years before spiking again. In my last article, I had chalked up this anomaly as merely a sample size issue, but now I wonder if there is something more at play. Perhaps players need an adjustment period to cope with diminishing physical skills.
The Individual Performances
One of the things that makes an exercise like this interesting is to look at the individuals who make up the sample and examine some of their performances. On the old side, it is not shocking that Phil Niekro and Ryan put up great age 40 seasons. John Smoltz, had the other age 40 season on the chart, which I found surprising. Warren Spahn’s age 41 season ends the chart. (Incidentally, at a baseball card show when I was 13, Spahn taught me how to throw a knuckleball. He claimed he threw one once in his career, popping up Ted Kluszewski. He also recounted how kids at Ebbets field threw sandwiches at the visiting pitchers in the bullpen, and he and his teammates would collect them and, occasionally, eat them).
Smoltz, for his part, was the pitcher with the biggest range among his top 5 seasons, producing them from ages 24 to 40. Other pitchers with a greater than ten year span for their best five seasons include Roger Clemens (23-34), Spahn (26-41), Bert Blyleven (20-33), Nolan Ryan (26-40), Steve Carlton (24-37), Mike Mussina (23-34), Rick Reuschel (24-36) (one of the most surprising things I saw was that Reuschel has the 30th highest WAR for pitchers all time, ensconced between Tom Glavine and Bob Feller, two no-doubt Hall of Famers (or future Hall of Famers)), Jim Bunning (25-35), Tommy John (25-36), Jerry Koosman (25-36), David Cone (25-36), Chuck Finley (26-37) and Frank Tanana (20-30).
On the young side of the spectrum, the eight age 20-21 seasons on the chart belong to six pitchers, Blyleven, Feller, Don Drysdale, Dennis Eckersley, Tanana and Bret Saberhagen. Blyleven, 13th all time in pitchers’ WAR (making it very hard to deny his Hall of Fame credentials, but Rich speaks far more eloquently on that subject than I do), turned in four of his top-5 season at 20, 22, 23 and 24 (with his fourth best season at 33). Perhaps his underwhelming won-lost records for those early years (16-15, 20-17, 17-17, 15-10, respectively), coupled with a long career thereafter of being very good has caused him to be underrated in the popular (sportswriters’?)
Feller, another young peak performer, suffers no such lack of recognition among baseball’s cognoscenti, and for good reason. Rapid Robert’s best five seasons were at 20, 21, 22, 27 and 28. Of course, he missed all of his age 23-25 seasons, and most of his age 26 season, to World War II, creating an equally compelling “what might have been” discussion as the one for Ted Williams. Another “what might have been” could easily be created for Frank Tanana, who put up four of his top 5 seasons between 20 and 23, including three 7+ WAR seasons from 21-23. To put that in perspective, among the last ten Cy Young award winners (Lincecum twice, Peavy, Webb, Carpenter, Grienke, Lee, Santana, Sabathia, and Colon) they have just four 7+ WAR seasons aggregately in their careers (Grienke, Lee and Santana twice). Had Tanana not blown out his arm, he may have been among the all time greats. That he was able to reinvent himself into an effective junk-baller is a credit to him.
On the other end of the spectrum, late peaking pitchers include knuckleballer Phil Niekro (his top five were between age 35 and 40), fireballer Randy Johnson (31, 33, 35, 37 and 38), spitballer Gaylord Perry (between 30 and 35) and sinker baller Kevin Brown (31-35). Smoltz had three of his best seasons at 38-40, but his other two top seasons were at 24 and 29.
Brown was also one of the models of consistency with a definitive peak, putting up his best five seasons in a row. Robin Roberts (23-27) was also on that list. Greg Maddux (26-31), Sandy Koufax (25-30) and Hal Newhouser (23-28) each put up their best six seasons in a row.
When viewed aggregately, pitchers, like hitters, apparently age in predictable ways, with peak years likely to take place between 26 and 31. On deeper inspection, however, it is clear that pitchers are less predictable. A 37 or 38 year old pitcher, or even older, has a reasonable possibility of turning in a personal peak year, whereas a hitter is not likely to do so. Indeed, each of the five oldest peak years for hitters have extenuating circumstances (Bonds (37 and 39) because of presumed steroid use, Williams (38) because service in World War II almost certainly cost him a top season when he was younger, and Cap Anson (37 and 38) because he played in the equivalent of baseball’s pre-historic times, where talent was almost certainly not as uniformly recognized and spread out among the leagues. If those players’ late career seasons are discounted, no top hitter would have had a peak season after 36. By contrast, the top 40 post-war pitchers put up 15 (7.5%) of their top seasons at 37 or older. Nor is it clear that a single type of pitcher is destined for late-career success, as pitchers such as Phil Niekro, Spahn, Randy Johnson, Carlton, Ryan, Smoltz, Koosman, Cone, John, Finley and Reuschel each put up one of their best five seasons at 36 or older.
If anything, the late success of pitchers seems to show what baseball fans already understand, that pitching effectiveness is not the result of merely being able to throw hard (no doubt each of these pitchers could throw harder when they were younger). Rather, factors such as an improved or learned pitch, better control, or even better discipline and thought processes on the mound no doubt contributed to many pitchers’ late career resurgences. Another conclusion that should be apparent is that next year’s prized free agent, Cliff Lee, who will be entering his age 32 season, is not nearly as assured of regressing from his incredible current peak as a 32 year-old hitter would be. No doubt, many GM’s are willing to bet that he can produce excellent seasons in his mid-30’s, just as some
* Note that I intentionally omitted Albert Pujols from that analysis, as it is by no means clear that he may not still have one of his five best seasons in the remainder of his career. In posting that article, the footnote on that subject apparently became embedded.
Doug Baumstein is an attorney and Mets fan living in New York.