: May 29, 2007
No, that’s not even half Jamie Moyer’s age, it’s Baseball...Then and Now
May 29, 2007
Old pitchers never die, they just throw fadeaways. Or maybe knuckleballs. Or spitballs. Or change-ups. Or even, once and a while, a 95 MPH fast ball. Whatever they throw, there’s no doubt that this is the Age of Old Pitchers. And that was before Roger Clemens decided to make his 44th comeback at the age of (nearly) 45. For the record, when Clemens officially returns to the Yankees in the next week or so, he will become the oldest active pitcher in the majors, at the age of 44 years and 10 months, just barely three months older than Jamie Moyer and nine months older than David Wells. Although three, 44-year old pitchers in the majors has actually happened before – in 1983 when quadranarians Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Jim Kaat were all active – Clemens, Moyer and Wells are hardly the only old pitchers still plying their trade in the bigs. For instance, Randy Johnson (43 – he won’t turn 44 until the last month of the season, making it four, 44 year olds), Roberto Hernandez (42), Greg Maddux (41), Jose “Joe Table” Mesa (41), Tom Glavine (41), Orlando Hernandez (at least 41), Mike Timlin (41), Tim Wakefield (40), Curt Schilling (40) and John Smoltz (40) have all passed 40. (And that doesn’t count the now-retired Terry Mulholland and Jeff Fassero, who both pitched last year at the age of 43.) Even if, to paraphrase Johnson, Clemens comes back as Old Roger instead of Roger of Old, that’s some list. Five future Hall of Famers (Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Glavine, Schilling), a Hall candidate (Smoltz), a couple of 200-game winners (Moyer and Wells), and two relievers (Hernandez and Mesa) who have split 646 saves almost evenly between them. Just what’s going on here?
Actually, there have been physical flukes pitching throughout baseball history, starting with Cy Young. There have been no less than two dozen pitchers, including Young in 1911, who were able to pitch at least a dozen major league innings at the age of Clemens, Moyer and Wells -- 44. (That doesn’t include two pitchers who were out of the majors at 44, but came back to pitch due to World War II at an even more mature age – Ted Lyons and Hod Lisenbee -- nor does it include “novelty” appearances by Clark Griffith, Nick Altrock, etc.) And a lot of them were great pitchers, but a lot of them weren’t, too. That almost half of the current crop of 40+ pitchers will make the Hall of Fame someday, to say nothing of more than 600 wins among Moyer, Wells and Wakefield and even more saves between Hernandez and Mesa, makes a statement… there are now millions of reasons for good pitchers to keep in shape to pitch in the majors (Wells being an exception) well past what was traditionally seen as baseball’s retirement age of 40. Not even taking into account Clemens’ absurd contract; Johnson, Schilling, Smoltz (who just signed an extension), Glavine and Maddux are all in the eight-figure yearly salary neighborhood.
As it turns out, Moyer’s a bargain at half of that -- especially since the Phillies get a virtual second pitching coach in the deal. Old number 50… the first genuine Pennsylvania Dutchman to pitch in Philly since Carl Scheib with the Athletics (the Dutch typically tend more towards catchers and poor-hitting first basemen and outfielders)… Moyer has, to date in 2007, outpitched both the more ballyhooed Johnson and Wells. In fact, it would not come as a tremendous shock if Moyer ended the 2007 season with more wins than Clemens (who won seven in his last half season in Houston.) Here are the stats to date of 2007’s three, 44 year-olds…
W-L IP H W K ERA ERA+
Moyer 5-3 65 59 20 38 4.18 101
Johnson 2-2 36 34 7 47 4.54 96
Wells 2-2 52 61 13 29 4.85 80
Even if you haven’t caught Moyer’s act, you probably know that he works his magic with a fastball that barely gets above 80 MPH, a brain that’s as least the equal of Maddux’, and an assortment of sliders and change-ups that move more than Bobo Newsom. One descriptive term for this kind of pitcher is “finesse.” And while it may be tempting to assume that all 44 year old pitchers have had to resort to finesse to get by, everyone knows that’s not true… Clemens and Johnson being living proof of that. Let’s look at the 24, 44-year old pitchers in chronological order, starting with Young, and see how they did at age 44…
W-L SV IP H W K ERA ERA+
Cy Young 7-9 0 126 137 28 55 3.78 97
Babe Adams 2-3 3 37 51 8 7 6.14 64
Jack Quinn 18-7 0 211 239 34 43 2.90 138
Red Faber 3-4 0 86 92 28 18 3.44 123
Dazzy Vance 3-2 2 51 55 16 28 4.41 90
Fred Johnson 3-7 3 69 91 27 24 5.61 89
Satchel Paige 3-4 5 62 67 29 48 4.79 92
Bobo Newsom 4-4 3 60 54 32 27 3.88 100
Dutch Leonard 2-3 8 63 72 34 32
Diomedes Olivo 0-5 0 13 16 9 9
Warren Spahn 7-16 0 198 210 56 90
Hoyt Wilhelm 8-3 12 89 58 34 76
Don McMahon 0-0 0 12 13 2 5
Phil Niekro 11-10 0 202 212 105 128
Gaylord Perry 7-14 0 186 214 49 82
Jim Kaat 0-0 0 35 48 10 19
Tommy John 13-6 0 188 212 47 63
Nolan Ryan 12-6 0 173 102 72 203
Charlie Hough 7-12 0 176 160 66 76
Jesse Orosco 0-1 0 16 17 7 21
Roger Clemens 7-6 0 113 89 29 102
Jamie Moyer 5-3 0 65 59 20 38
Randy Johnson 2-2 0 36 34 7 47
David Wells 2-2 0 52 61 13 29 4.85 80
To make the first distinction in the list – Adams, Vance, Johnson, Paige, Newsom, Leonard, Olivo, Wilhelm, McMahon, Kaat and Orosco were primarily or exclusively relief pitchers, although only Hall of Famer Wilhelm (check out those stats), McMahon and Orosco had spent the majority of their careers in the bullpen. The rest, in effect, made up an old folks home in relief in their declining years.
Second, as noted, some of these guys were great pitchers, but some weren’t. Young, Faber, Vance, Paige, Spahn, Wilhelm, Niekro, Perry and Ryan are in the Hall (although Faber’s election was a mistake), and Clemens and Johnson are locks to join them some day. In addition, good Hall cases can (and have) been made for Kaat and John. On the other hand, Adams, Quinn, Leonard, Newsom, McMahon and Hough were good pitchers who lasted a long time, Orosco an extreme specialist who took advantage of being left-handed, and Johnson and Olivo were flukes.
So how did they do it? The 24 pitchers listed pretty much fall into one of four categories… fastball, finesse/control, knuckleball and spitball. The first group tend to be physical marvels who can still bring it at an advanced age. The second group tend to be left-handed tricksters (teach your kids to throw lefty at a young age). Numbers three and four throw a maddening specialty pitch that’s easy on the arm.
When you think of fastball pitchers, you think of Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and the like, although perhaps it’s better to call them power pitchers. Although these three titans are all extreme cases, they are not the only power pitchers to last until their 44th birthdays. Cy Young got his nickname because of the damage his fastball did to backstops. (It looked like a cyclone hit them.) A great control pitcher as well, he added a spitter, a screwball (AKA a fadeaway) and various other curves later in his career. But, he made his name as a fastballer. So too did Adams, Vance, Olivo (who was a 41 year old rookie in 1960 and who still got in a few games in 1963), Newsom and McMahon.
Finesse pitchers pretty well have to be control pitchers… controlling both the speed and location of their pitchers. Recall that it was Warren Spahn who said that hitting was timing, and that pitching was upsetting that timing. Well, Spahnie threw just about everything you could imagine up until he was 44, including a fadeaway, to upset timing. Moyer continues in this great tradition of the crafty left-hander, as does Wells, and as did Tommy John and Jim Kaat. Although Jesse Orosco started out as a hard thrower, by the time he reached his athletic dotage, he too was more of a lefty finesse/control pitcher. Then there was the only right-hander in this group -- Satchel Paige. As a younger man in the Negro Leagues, Paige was known for his uncanny control of a fastball that otherwise would have had strong men quaking (or dying) in their spikes. However, by the time the Color Line fell, Paige had long since thrown out his arm on the dusty diamonds of America. As a reliever for the 1951 St. Louis Browns, Paige threw just about every type of pitch there was (including a knuckleball) from just about every arm angle there was. So, by that point in his career, he had become the ultimate finesse pitcher, just like he had been the ultimate fastball pitcher some 15 years before.
Quite naturally, full-time knuckleballers are strongly represented on the 44 List. As anyone who has recently seen Tim Wakefield apparently tossing darts (as opposed to blue darters) from the Fenway mound can tell you, the knuckler doesn’t take a lot of arm strength. The two most famous (and best) practitioners of this arcane art happen to be Hall of Famers who lasted in the bigs until they were 49 and 48 years old… Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro. But let’s not forget knuckleballers Dutch Leonard and Charlie Hough as well. Further, although he didn’t pitch in the majors at the age of 44, Ted Lyons was a 45 year old who made good use of the knuckleball in his final season of 1946.
It is also a common bit of baseball wisdom that the spitball is easy on the arm, and the careers of Red Faber, Jack Quinn and Gaylord Perry seem to bear that out. Faber threw more than 4000 innings for the White Sox over a 20-year career, pitching his final game two weeks after his 45th birthday. Sometimes referred to as “The Ancient Spitballer,” Quinn broke into the majors in 1909 and lasted until July 7, 1933, two days after his 50th birthday, when he was pitching in relief for his eighth team (Cincinnati). This after having led the National League in saves for Brooklyn in 1932. And that was four years after he set the record for wins by a 44 year old with the Athletics. Perry, who learned the surreptitious spitball in 1964 when he realized he was a power pitcher without quite enough power, rode a wave of saliva, oil, K-Y jelly, sweat and just about anything else you can name to 314 wins in 5350 innings.
That leaves the mystery man of this essay – Fred “Cactus” Johnson. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him, the definitive source on pitchers and their pitches, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers” (the source for most of the information above) doesn’t list him. BaseballLibrary.com doesn’t have a bio for him. In fact, nobody seems to know much about him except Dan Holmes on his DanHolmes.com website. The web manager for the Hall of Fame and a Ty Cobb biographer, Holmes is one of the few baseball historian/marathoners around, and may be the only definitive source on Cactus Johnson, who was most certainly not otherwise a Hall of Famer. Indeed, after two less-than-remarkable seasons with the Giants in 1922/23 (2-2 in five games) at the age of 28/29, he disappeared into the minors, where he eventually won 252 games. He was pitching for Toledo in 1938 when the Browns, utterly desperate for pitching help, purchased the contract of the now 44-year old righthander. He wasn’t great, going 3-7 with three saves and a 5.61 ERA, but, on a team with a 5.80 ERA, the one-eyed man is king… or something like that.
After throwing 14 innings for the Browns in 1939, he went back to the minors, where he pitched on until he was 47 years old. What kind of pitcher was he? Holmes knows…
“Jimmie Foxx said of this right-hander: `He doesn’t seem to have a thing, but it’s tough to get a hit off him. He's the most puzzling pitcher I ever faced.’
“Throughout his career he would allow his share of hits, but displayed remarkable control. His philosophy was to let the batters get themselves out.
“…using a variety of breaking pitches from several different arm angles. His freakish deliveries baffled batters. Johnson's favorite, and most famous pitch, was the `butterfly ball.’ The butterfly ball was most likely a slow slider. A photo of his grip for the butterfly ball makes it look very much like a slider grip. Given that Johnson was known to throw the ball with little velocity, it's safe to assume it was a slow, dipping, slider, which tailed away from left-handers and in on righties.”
In other words, he was a finesse pitcher. And anyone who could puzzle Jimmie Foxx (who was on his way to a 50-home run season) at the age of 44 deserves his accolades. Well done, all of you old geezers!
-- John Shiffert