Aug
28

Buyer Beware……….in 2015

By

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.

Categories : Guest Columns, Pitching

32 Comments»

  1. “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.”

    Quit babying pitchers! Bob Gibson once threw 267 pitches in a game and his last pitch was 127 MPH!!!1!11!onehundredeleven!

    /McCarver’d
    /MSM’d
    /Ryan’d

  2. gxpanos says:

    If I ever saw Felix on the street I’d kick him in the shins for signing that extension.

    I’d congratulate him for making sure his kids’ kids are set and all that, but, damn, think about what he would have gotten from the Yanks as a 25-y-o FA…

  3. Samuel says:

    Most pitchers are never the same after the age of 30-32, except for the very best. Maddux was good, but not great after age 32. Pedro the same.

    Even the non-HOFers are the same way. It’s not pitch counts or innings limits that will “save” pitchers into their 30′s. Their reduced productivity is a natural progression of age, as these guys don’t keep themselves in shape like they did when they were in their 20′s.

    Over time, that leads to reduced velocity, and worse location. The one reason why pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery throw harder when they return to the mound is that they have conditioned their bodies, especially their core, much more than before.

    They are not allowed to use their arm for anything, and much of the rehab is leg work and cardio.

    So if most pitchers in baseball history are not as effective after ages 30-32, wouldn’t it be prudent for teams to use their best pitchers much more often in their 20′s, when they are more dominant.

    Give me a Robin Roberts any day, who dominated the NL from ages 21-29 during the 1950′s, but was pretty much done by age 31-32.

    And as an organization, if you can not develop another couple of really good pitchers in the seven to 10 years before those pitchers are “finished,” then you should get into another business.

    If Felix is a free agent at age 29 and the Yankees are interested, offer no more than a 3 year deal. And if he doesn’t like it, then don’t sign him.

    Of you might have another AJ Burnett on your hands.

  4. Tank Foster says:

    Samuel covered one of my points–you need to look at these data compared to data for all pitchers. Maybe MOST pitchers are done by age 32.

    As for the workload thing….it’s sort of a logical fallacy to say that it’s better to restric their workloads so the career lasts longer. Yeah, they may have longer careers, but if they’re only pitching 70% of the innings, in the end it’s a wash. Right?

    What difference does it make if you pitch a 2400-inning career over 10 years or 20? A 20 year career sounds better, but the pitcher is having a bigger impact when he pitches more innings.

  5. King says:

    Another poor season in 2011 and Seattle will clean house and build back using the Tampa Bay model but with one that they can hold onto there players in the end.

    Ichiro, IMO is going to be the same old Ichiro for the next few years but if there not winning then what’s the point? They will trade him to a contender to give him a chance at ring before he retires and that’s when the floodgates open.

    So if 2011 is a poor one, I expect them trade away there talent and start from scratch as there Golden Goose in Ichiro will be gone if traded or be retired by the time they are consistently good again.

    The question will be what to do with King Felix? Do you keep him as he’s a young ACE on team that will be terrible for several years or do you deal him to speed up the process of rebuilding by trading him for Jesus Montero type prospects?

    I think come the trade deadline next year or the following off-season he’s dealt if they are once again terrible.

    • JohnnyC says:

      But they do have that Smoak-type bat at first base. There’s always that, thank god.

    • JobaWockeeZ says:

      They’re not dealing him unless they get like 3 Jesus Montero’s with defense that can stick. They’re farm is good and Felix is younger than Hughes so it’s not a situation where Felix would decline before the prospects develop.

  6. nsalem says:

    Sudden Sam McDowell’s early career demise can also be attributed to alcohol abuse. McDowell finished off his career with the Yankee’s in 1973 or 1974 and there are several interesting paragraphs about him
    Sparky Lyle’s Bronx Zoo. Was thinking about his career this morning
    in relation to AJ Burnett insofar. The relationship being that both of them were regarded in their times as having close to “the best stuff in
    baseball” and the similarity that they were both basically .500 pitchers
    and like AJ, McDowell left people wondering how someone with such talent could produce such mediocre results. In defense of McDowell, he never got the opportunity to play on a team with the talent level of the Yankees.

    • JobaWockeeZ says:

      W/L doesn’t tell us anything really. McDowell pitched much better than Burnett. I mean he pitched 300 innings one year with an ERA of 2.92

      Aj doesn’t come close despite similar W/L records.

      • nsalem says:

        AJ ERA plus 108 McDowell ERA plus 125
        AJ K/BB 2.18 McDowell K/BB 1.87
        AJ WHIP 1.31 McDowell WHIP 1.30
        Isn’t that fairly similar?

        McDowell struck out more but his control was much worse than
        Burnett’s. I have seen them both pitch many times and they both
        shared the common trait of imploding the instant one thing went wrong and had the inability to regain control. This flaw is what separated them from great pitchers. The reason they were both .500 pitchers was they often pitched “well enough to lose”
        Burnett is often (ie last night) wild in the strike zone, while Sam was simply wild. In some cases (such as Felix 2010)
        I agree that W/L is fairly meaningless, but in the cases of McDowell and Burnett I feel they are quite meaningful.

        • AJ ERA plus 108 McDowell ERA plus 125
          Isn’t that fairly similar?

          No, it’s not. That’s like saying that CC Sabathia (career 122 ERA+) and Bronson Arroyo (career 108 ERA+) are similar.

          • nsalem says:

            So what your saying is that McDowell, Arroyo and Burnett are all superior pitchers to Catfish Hunter (career 105+).
            Let’s put these three in the Hall Of Fame because according to you Hunter’s superior won/lost record is meaningless. Guess you’d rather have McDowell than Hunter in a big game situation also.

            • poster on another computer who happens to be a deuce bag says:

              Catfish Hunter, oer the course of his entire career, apparently wasn’t too far above average. He’s in the HOD because (and I’m guesing here) he had some truly dominating seasons Mcdowell didn’t have.

              Win-loss is meaningless.

              • nsalem says:

                Yes Hunter had many dominating seasons,because he won a lot of games. He knew how to get outs when a game and a season were on the line. This is opposed to guys like Burnett, Arroyo and McDowell who are quite average in those situations (you see it every time Burnett pitches, it’s a crapshoot at best.) These three guys are average pitchers and there won/lost record reflects it. Hunter who had almost nothing left in 1978 was able to hold the Dodgers to 7 hits and 2 runs in seven inning to clinch the World Series. What difference does it make having a great
                K/BB ratio or a great era+ if you can’t get outs in a big spot. Maybe in your fantasy leagues its a big deal, but in the real world
                the ability to put a team away by getting outs in the right spot (therefore getting the W) is indeed maningful.

                • poster on another computer who happens to be a deuce bag says:

                  I’m sorry to sound like this, but frankly I think that’s bullshit.

                  Lots of wins is not equal to a dominating season. Getting outs in a big spot does not mean you are allowed to be mediocre the rest of your career and get away with it.

                  • nsalem says:

                    There is nothing mediocre about Catfish Hunter. He was a key part of winning 5 World Championships. I doubt you are aware of this and just how great(especially the first nine years of his career) he was. Please take the time to examine Hunter’s body of work and hopefully you will realize how totally clueless and ignorant you really are.

                    • poster on another computer who happens to be a deuce bag says:

                      You just gave me his ERA+, and it’s mediocre

                      Andy Pettite was a key part of five WS too. He’s not dominant.

                      I’ll look up the numbers, but my gut feeling is that Catfish got into the HOf because he was really dominant for a few seasons, because his ERA+ really isn’t great.

                      That, or voters fucked up and Catfish didn’t deserve it.

                    • nsalem says:

                      His first 4 years were very good and he was pitching for a very bad team. His next five years were truly dominant. His ERA+ was not that great because he gave up a lot of home runs. Most of them were solo. For the last eight years of his career he was on great teams and often pitched with large leads. He pitched to contact, the home runs were a result of that. Checkout Robin Roberts another Hall of Famer he gave up
                      even more HRs but consistently won on near last place teams. Both pitchers were inning eaters who had a tremendous amount of complete games. Please take a good look at the numbers and form your own opinion. If you believe he is mediocre fine, it’s your opinion. To just look at his era+ number and say he is not deserving is what i object to.

          • Slugger27 says:

            should ERA+ really be the what we use to judge, though? i’m not sure how its calculated, but i know papelbon has both a higher ERA+ and lower WHIP than our own mariano rivera

            //just sayin’d

  7. OldYanksFan says:

    How many of those guys had TJ surgery or other major surgery during their careers?

    • nsalem says:

      I don’t think Hunter ever had arm surgery but he did have diabetes. He was never the same after the 1975 season when he pitched about 330 innings and had 30 or so complete games. After that he was constantly plagued by “arm strain” and I think a bad back. His manager was Billy Martin
      who also was accused of ruining the promising careers of Mike Norirs and
      Rick Langford of the 1980 A’s through similar overuse. Pitchers may be babied now, but the roots of this practice can be traced to the overuse and abuse of an earlier time.

      • Samuel says:

        Rick Langford was 28 years old in 1980 and was never going to have a promising career.

        Norris was 25 years old that year. He was not any good before the 1980 season and was good after the 1980 season in 1981 and decent in 1982.

        He’s lucky Martin allowed him to pitch all those games that season so he can say he was a 20 game winner and came in 2nd in the Cy Young voting.

        Otherwise his career would have been nearly crappy every season he ever pitched in the majors.

  8. gargoyle says:

    Not really concerned about 2015 right now. More interested in finding someone other than CC who can give this team a decent start down the stretch.

  9. MikeD says:

    Buyer beware is always good advice, especially when it comes to pitchers with a lot of mileage on their arms. With that said, let’s recognize that many of these pitchers accumulated these stats under different conditions than today, in most cases suffering a high degree of pitcher abuse. Each case needs to be reviewed individually.

    For example, I’m old enough to have seen Catfish Hunter pitch when he was at his peak. I was a kid, but yup, I saw him. Unfortunately, his peak ended shortly thereafter as the Yankees basically destroyed the guy’s arm, led by Billy Martin who rode Hunter hard down the stretch after Martin took over in mid-season. Catfish was always a good innings eater, but after signing with the Yankees, it appeared the team figured it would be okay if they turned his right arm into roast-beef meat to maximize their dollar investment. Quite a stupid decision since they did just the opposite. They got one great year, followed by a mediocre one then a collapse.

    Catfish was already coming off a season in which he pitched 318 innings, while completing 23 games in 1974. In ’75, his first with the Yanks, he pitched 328 innings while completing 30 games, thus becoming the first pitcher in a generation since Bob Feller in 1946 to accomplish the 300/30+ feat. Is it any surprise that neither Hunter nor Feller were the same after that?

    Feller did better in the following seasons than Hunger, most likely because he could survive losing three or four miles off his fastball, dropping from probably 96-99 to 92-95. Hunter, however, was never a power pitcher, throwing in the low 90s, winning as a classic four-pitch pitcher who would go deep into the games with great control and movement. After 1975, his velocity dropped significantly to the mid to upper 80s. That’s a tough road, as Javy Vazquez can tell us all.

    So if King Felix is a free agent at 29, I wouldn’t be too concerned, unless he suffers an abuse level we haven’t seen in many a year. The Mariner’s have managed him well so far.

  10. Tank Foster says:

    I honestly think the length of games effects the durability of pitches. Length, in time, not pitch counts.

    I’m not saying pitch counts don’t matter; they do, they matter more than anything else.

    But…how do you explain how someone like Catfish could pitch 300 innings in two consecutive years? Or, more appropriately, how do you explain how workloads in innings and pitches were so much larger in as recently as the 1970s, compared to today?

    I don’t think pitchers last any longer or stay any healthier in general today than they did then. Pitchers are probably better conditioned athletes overall today than back then.

    For one, pitchers don’t train to throw alot of pitches. It’s actually the opposite, since we think heavy pitch counts, especially in the teens and early 20s, cause long term damage.

    Anyway, I’m getting off track. But among the things that stress muscle is not only the amount of repetitions of something, but the time period during which the reps occur.

    Watch a ballgame from the 1970s and notice how much faster everything goes. Pitcher gets ball, gets sign, winds up, and pitches. Today, it is much slower. Probably in the 1970s, a starting pitcher was on the mound about the same amount of time as they are today, but were able to finish more innings and throw probably more pitches in that time.

    I wonder if time on the mound is also important in some way. Every pitch causes fatigue and breaks down muscle. Maybe the longer you spread the pitches out, the more cumulative damage is caused.

    I don’t know….just wondering.

    • MikeD says:

      It’s possible it’s yet another contributing factor, although I don’t think it’s the main one.

      The top pitchers today certainly could throw as many innings if they played under the same conditions as existed back in the 70s. I could easily see a Halladay- or a Sabathia-type pitcher cranking out 280-300 innings in their peak seasons. Felix Hernandez, too. In fact, King Felix has a much better chance to be effective well into his 30s because he hopefully won’t endure the in-game pitcher abuse of past generations. A pitcher today who pitches into the seventh and eighth innings may in fact be facing roughly as many hitters as pitchers did a couple decades back who pitched nine innings. It’s a more offensive-minded game today, with tighter strike zones, perhaps altered baseballs designed more for offense, more hitters’ counts, smaller parks, thinner-handled bats, weight training, body armor allowing hitters to get better plate coverage, and catchers sitting further allowing for more aggressive swings. Throw in the DH in the AL, and you get the idea that a seven-inning appearance might be as stressful (or maybe more) than a nine-inning game decades back.

      Overall, though, there seems to be a developing belief that innings is not the number-one problem as much as the abuse within individual games. Many believe MLB could actually move back to a four-man rotation (or a modified four man) while also increasing the average number of pitches per game from roughly 100 to 110, as long as teams continue to eliminate the really high-pitch-count games that seems to cause the most damage. (I can see individual teams inching up the average pitch count more easily than a return to the four-man rotation since that would have to be done baseball wide.)

      Getting back to Hunter, the problem may not have been the 300 innings (although it’s a sign), but the fact he finished 30 games, including a number of them he never ever should have been allowed to complete. (In one game he had an 11-2 lead in the ninth, yet Martin sent him back out and let six straight runners get on base before yanking him.) We all know that not all games are created equal, and even in a winning effort a pitcher will labor more in some starts than in others. Hunter at his best was efficient, so I’m sure he had a number of “easy” 100/110-pitch games , yet in others he was no doubt pushed up into the 130-140 range. As the season progressed and the Yankees fell further behind, they didn’t ratchet Hunter back at all. They put the pedal to the metal. Starting in August after Martin’s arrival, Hunter completed ten straight games, and twelve of thirteen, including a ten-inning complete game in the final start of the season in a totally pointless game. (Way to put an exclamation mark on the abuse!) In his final 35 starts, only once did he fail to pitch into at least the eighth inning, slacking off in one game with a seven-inning effort that ended his ten-consecutive complete games. (I guess even Martin was alarmed, and figured the two inning rest would be enough to carry Hunter to the end of the season.)

      Hunter was abused, although no one really knew it at the time. There’s a balance between the five-man, 100-pitch count games of today and the arm-shredding practices of the past. Getting back to King Felix, I think he’ll be fine, outside of the fact that pitching is an unnatural act!

  11. The Noodle says:

    Too many innings at younger ages will more likely than not result in a shortened career. See http://www.mlbexpertanalysis.com/blog/?p=212

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