At the Baseball-Reference Stat of the Day blog, site founder Sean Foreman presents a list of the pitchers with the best careers between ages 25 and 28 in the last 50 years — not coincidentally, the same ages at which Johan Santana has inarguably been the best pitcher in baseball.these past four seasons.
He then adds: "You can look at the [list] and decide if you would have been happy with these pitchers for ages 29-34."
Would we have? And are the answers instructive for the present situation? Let’s tackle the Top 10.
Ranked by ERA+
- Pedro Martinez, 1997-2000, 219 ERA+, 122 starts, 905 IP, 77-25, 1,153 K, 2.16 ERA
- Greg Maddux, 1991-94, 162 ERA+, 133 starts, 1,000 IP, 71-38, 750 K, 2.41 ERA
- Ron Guidry, 1976-79, 156 ERA+, 90 starts, 737 IP, 59-18, 637 K, 2.47 ERA
- Roger Clemens, 1988-91, 156 ERA+, 136 starts, 1,017 IP, 74-39, 971 K, 2.67 ERA
- Johan Santana, 2004-07, 156 ERA+, 134 starts, 912 IP, 70-32, 983 K, 2.89 ERA
- Juan Marichal, 1963-66, 152 ERA+, 146 starts, 1,193 IP, 93-35, 916 K, 2.31 ERA
- Jose Rijo, 1990-93, 152 ERA+, 128 starts, 870 IP, 58-33, 722 K, 2.56 ERA
- Tom Seaver, 1970-73, 151 ERA+, 142 starts, 1,129 IP, 78-44, 1,072 K, 2.38 ERA
- Roy Halladay, 2002-05, 147 ERA+, 110 starts, 780 IP, 61-26, 575 K, 3.16 ERA
- Sandy Koufax, 1961-64, 146 ERA+, 129 starts, 974 IP, 76-30, 1,014 K, 2.40 ERA
Just in case you haven’t been wowed lately by the awesomeness that was Pedro Martinez in those years. His real ERA is lower than any other pitcher on the list, including Marichal’s and Koufax’s, despite their pitching in caverns in pitchers’ eras. His strikeouts also lead the list despite pitching about 200 fewer innings than Marichal and 150 fewer innings than Seaver. Incredible.
At first blush, Jose Rijo is the only flop on the list. Halladay is coming off an off-year, and the jury’s obviously still out on him. Everyone else is or will be in the Hall of Fame, with Santana still too young to call.
Before we get to the stats we all want to see — how each of these pitchers did the succeeding six years, here are the Top 10 pitchers from age 29-34. I expect we’ll see some overlap.
- Greg Maddux, 1995-2000, 169 ERA+, 198 starts, 1,407 IP, 109-44, 1,060 K, 2.57 ERA
- Randy Johnson, 1993-98, 156 ERA+, 158 starts, 1,160 IP, 94-31, 1,511 K, 2.95 ERA
- Pedro Martinez, 2001-06, 151 ERA+, 164 starts, 1,069 IP, 81-36, 1,180 K, 2.99 ERA
- Roger Clemens, 1992-97, 150 ERA+, 176 starts, 1,256 IP, 79-57, 1,217 K, 3.14 ERA
- Bob Gibson, 1965-70, 146 ERA+, 198 starts, 1,667 IP, 119-60, 1,453 K, 2.44 ERA
- Kevin Brown, 1994-99, 145 ERA+, 186 starts, 1,322 IP, 86-53, 1,082 K, 2.94 ERA
- David Cone, 1992-97, 144 ERA+, 161 starts, 1,172 IP, 81-45, 1,068 K, 3.10 ERA
- Curt Schilling, 1996-2001, 136 ERA+, 184 starts, 1,354 IP, 89-59, 1,414 K, 3.26 ERA
- Tom Glavine, 1995-2000, 137 ERA+, 201 starts, 1,378 IP, 100-50, 907 K, 3.17 ERA
- Jim Palmer, 1975-80, 131 ERA+, 210 starts, 1,633 IP, 112-63, 859 K, 2.77 ERA
Better strength training and conditioning has clearly caused an increase in pitchers throwing successfully in their early 30s — eight of the 10 best spans between ages 29 and 34 are since 1990. I set the cutoff at 1,000 innings; John Smoltz, at 922 IP because of his relief work, would have been eighth on this list, knocking out Palmer and making it nine of 10 in the past 17 years.
Right away, we can see that Greg Maddux not only followed up his amazing four years in the early ’90s with six more amazing years to close out the decade, but he actually improved as he got older. Pedro also appears in both lists, thanks to great showings in 2002 and 2003 and very good years in 2004 and 2005. The numbers belie injuries in 2001 and 2006, however. The Rocket, of course, is here. But those three are it. None of the other seven from the previous list are on this one.
So how did the first group fare in the subsequent six years?
- Martinez, 2001-06, 151 ERA+, 164 starts, 1,069 IP, 81-36, 1,180 K, 2.99 ERA
- Maddux, 1995-2000, 169 ERA+, 198 starts, 1,407 IP, 109-44, 1,060 K, 2.57 ERA
- Guidry, 1980-85, 108 ERA+, 175 starts, 1,274 IP, 95-49, 858 K, 3.58 ERA
- Clemens,1992-97, 150 ERA+, 176 starts, 1,256 IP, 79-57, 1,217 K, 3.14 ERA
- Santana, 2008-13, to be determined
- Marichal, 1967-72, 118 ERA+, 194 starts, 1,515 IP, 97-67, 943 K, 2.91 ERA
- Rijo, 1994-95, 123 ERA+, 40 starts, 241 IP, 14-10, 233 K, 3.39 ERA
- Seaver, 1974-79, 129 ERA+, 203 starts, 1,523 IP, 100-57, 1,232 K, 2.77 ERA
- Halladay, 2006-07, 131 ERA+, 63 starts, 445 IP, 32-12, 271 K, 3.46 ERA
- Koufax, 1965-66, 173 ERA+, 82 starts, 659 IP, 53-17, 699 K, 1.89 ERA
A wide range of results, representing arguably the best- and worst-case scenarios adequately.
Maddux, as we mentioned, actually improved on what was already one of the best four-year stretches in the modern game. He won the Cy Young at age 29, his fourth consecutive, then finished second at age 31 and third at age 34. He didn’t win fewer than 15 games in any of the six seasons, and won at least 18 the other five times. He led the league in ERA twice, shutouts three times and K/BB ratio three times. He also led his team to the playoffs all six years, and to the World Series three times, winning it once.
Likewise, Clemens’ overall numbers barely declined at all, though he did suffer some injuries in the mid 1990s that helped fool Dan Duquette, among others, into thinking his career was fading. He won the Cy at age 34, and although his wins dropped during this period, and his age 30 season was disappointing (104 ERA+), he flanked it with seasons in which his ERA+ was 175 or better. In the context of Clemens’ amazing career, this is actually his worst stretch — a stretch in which he led the league in ERA twice, wins once, WHIP twice, strikeouts twice, shutouts twice and ERA+ three times.
On the one hand, Pedro Martinez’s numbers were terrific — when he was healthy. He won 20 games and was robbed of the Cy Young at age 30, posted a 210 ERA+ and finished third in the voting at age 31. He threw 217 innings, winning 16 games and leading his team to a World Series crown at age 32. He led the league in ERA twice, WHIP three times, K/9 twice, strikeouts once, K/BB twice and ERA+ twice. But.
In three of the six years, Martinez also missed significant time to injury — half of 2001, in which he otherwise posted stellar numbers once again, much of 2006, the first time in his career his ERA+ dropped below 100, and most of 2007, as shoulder surgery derailed his season. Likewise, his 2004 was hampered by ineffectiveness in the late innings. It was by far his worst season as a member of the Red Sox, and his worst ERA+ since 1996.
Seaver was healthy and effective, just not as effective. Even so, he won the Cy Young at age 30 and finished third at age 32. His age 29 year was actually the worst of the six (112 ERA+) and he didn’t finish below 120 the next five years. He won 22 games at age 30, 21 at age 32. He led the league in shutouts and strikeouts twice, but otherwise didn’t appear at the top of as many leaderboards as Clemens or Maddux did.
Both players seem to be the middle ground — significant contributions that are probably worth the outlay, but not quite what was promised by the four preceding years.
Somewhere between this level and the next is Juan Marichal, who didn’t burn out or break down, but he didn’t exactly dominate either — not like he did previously, and not like one would have expected given the era. Here, too, is Ron Guidry, who pitched, and pitched well, but was no longer the cream of the crop.
Ah, the flameouts. What would be a disaster for any team signing Santana to a six-year deal?
How about Sandy Koufax? A Cy Young winner in each of the first two of the six years in question, then his career is over with an elbow injury. Well, it’s not entirely instructive, is it? Santana’s not going to be starting 82 games over the next two seasons — or completing 54 of them. Probably not going to be averaging 330 innings either, I’d imagine.
Jose Rijo? A surprise entrant on the list, Rijo was better than he’s probably given credit for (he did win the 1990 World Series MVP) — but only for the four years in question, and he certainly was no Johan Santana. He didn’t post the raw numbers Santana did and didn’t dominate the league like Santana has. Also, he was injury-plagued throughout his career. Nevertheless, he was All-Star at age 29, posting a respectable 3.06 ERA in an injury-shortened campaign, but that was it. Elbow problems shut him down in 1995, and though he returned as a reliever in 2001, that’s past our timetable.
It looks like, historically, the chances are good that Johan Santana will be worth the money for whatever team the Twins decide to trade him to (if they decide to trade him, but we all know about that). No pitcher who’s been as good as he has over the past four years has simply flamed out on their own without injuries helping them along. And Santana doesn’t have a history of injury problems and hasn’t been especially overworked (just 50th in Pitcher Abuse Points last season). Of course, one never knows when it comes to pitchers and injuries, but Santana at least is a safer bet than others with more history or workload.
Conclusion: When your bottom comps in a study like this are Juan Marichal and Ron Guidry, you’re probably going to be OK.
[I also checked, for fun, to see what other pitchers came closest to Santana's 130 ERA+/235Ks at age 28. Five pitchers were between 125 and 135 ERA+ with at least 230 Ks. The closest was Bob Gibson, 127/245. The big difference is that was 1964, the year before Gibson broke out. Santana's, as we have heard ad nauseum, was an off year. None of the other three pitchers -- Bob Veale, Mark Langston and Gaylord Perry -- are very instructive. Langston and Veale only had a coupl good seasons each, and not surprisingly peaked at age 28, while Perry, like Gibson, was on the verge at that age.]