Felix Hernandez recently became the 3rd youngest player since 1950 to reach 1000 career strikeouts. While the offseason extension he signed may have put a damper on the King Felix to NY dreams, he still will hit free agency at the age of 29. Next time around don’t expect much of a team friendly deal though, and the Yankees will certainly be in the mix barring a disaster for Felix on the way.
What are the odds of this disaster? As a young guy with a ton of pitches already on his arm, is he more predisposed to injury or burning out too soon? I decided to take a look at other pitchers who reached 1000 strikeouts before their age 26 season. Since 1950, 11 pitchers have done this. Let’s take a look at who they are and how they performed until they were 25 and how they performed from 29 (when Felix will likely become a FA) to 35.
Future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven is 1st on the list. While he was still a very good pitcher, he saw decreases in his K/9 rate (to 6.7) and K/BB rate (to 2.79). Also, his ERA+ dropped from a stellar 132 to a decent 118. His best years certainly came before hitting 29 but he was very productive into his mid 30’s.
Everyone is aware of Dwight Gooden’s problems and his career certainly peaked early, but if his early workload was a factor(likely), it was only one of many. Doc certainly battled his demons throughout the years. Ages 29-35 were not pretty for Doc, with a 6.1 K/9, 1.44 K/BB and a 96 ERA+. He was done at the age of 35.
Sam McDowell’s last good year as a major league pitcher came at the age of 28 (after a league leading 305 innings at 27). He was done at 32. From 29-32 he was bad, with a 6.9 K/9, 1.23 K/BB and 87 ERA+. After a very solid start to his career, McDowell was out of the game at an age where Randy Johnson had just 104 wins.
Fernandomania is next. Even though he came along later than most of the guys on this group, Valenzuela still came up in an era where pitch counts were mostly ignored. While he also battled some conditioning issues, I think the workload certainly caught up to Fernando. After a stunning start to his career, Fernando’s last good season came at 25 and was less than mediocre after the age of 29. From 29-35 Fernando had a 4.8 K/9 ratio, 1.38 K/BB ratio and 91 ERA+. He retired at 36.
While Don Drysdale is in the Hall of Fame, his late career was not great and he retired at 32. From 29-32 his K/9 ratio was 5.8 with a strong 3.17 BB/9 ratio and about a league average ERA+ of 105. Leading the league in starts for 4 straight years from 25-28 (eclipsing 300 innings every year) certainly couldn’t have helped him in his twilight. He basically did nothing after the age of 28 that bolstered his Hall of Fame chances other than compile a few more wins.
Frank Tanana was a great young left handed fireballer (I’ve heard Jon Lester as a good comp.) who was one of the best pitchers in baseball before he hurt his arm. He came back and reinvented himself as a soft tosser. While he was pretty successful afterwards, he never again approached his early career success. From 29-35 he had ratios of 5.9 K/9, 2.12 K/BB and a 107 ERA+.
Denny McLain had some Gooden like off the field issues, but was out of baseball at 28 primarily due to serious arm problems. At ages 24 and 25 he threw 661 innings combined and threw just 384.1 the rest of his career. He appeared to be on his way to the Hall of Fame (114-57 thru 25) but clearly never came close. He never even reached his age 29 season, but from 26-28 he struck out just 4.3 batters per 9 with a 1.46 K/BB ratio and a 73 ERA+. The workload certainly got to McLain soon after he was old enough to rent a car.
Larry Dierker’s career got started at 17 (and think of how impressive what Jesus Montero is doing in AAA at the age of 20). Shockingly enough (or not shocking at all), Dierker was done at 30. At 29 and 30 Dierker had a 4.7 K/9, 1.34 K/BB and an 87 ERA+. Good thing he threw those 305 innings at the age of 22 though.
Former A and Yankee Catfish Hunter is up next, and while he stuck around long enough to be enshrined in Cooperstown (his worthiness is another discussion) Catfish’s career also ended early and his career as a great pitcher ended as soon as he hit 30. He actually wasn’t a great pitcher from 19-25 but racked up a ton of innings getting him plenty of strikeouts. His best years came from 25-29 but was about average after that. From 29-33 he struck out 4.5 batters per 9, had a 1.84 K/BB ratio and a 103 ERA+ that includes his 144 ERA+ at 29.
Last on the list is Joe Coleman who was done at 32 and threw just 378 innings after 29. He had a 4.9 K/9 and a 1.25 K/BB to go along with a 101 ERA+. At 18 he threw 93 innings between the minors and majors. At 19 it was 208. Too bad Tom Verducci wasn’t around to save the day.
I didn’t know what I was going to encounter when I started this post, but maybe Nolan Ryan should take a look. A lot of these guys burned out early and it would be interesting to see what they could have accomplished with today’s workloads and pitching programs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of these guys were out of the game so early, and none of them could match their early successes. While I don’t think too much can be culled from these comparisons I think it’s interesting nonetheless. Clearly Felix has been groomed differently as a big money bonus baby whose every move and pitch has been tracked since he signed. Still, there is no guarantee he will be healthy down the road, and some believe you only have so many bullets in an arm before its shot. I hope Felix is sitting there as a big free agent at 29 because that will mean continued health and success for him. If he ends up on the Yankees down the road, lets just hope he breaks the mold of the list of guys above.