Many centuries ago, the Greek and Roman Empires experienced a period that could be called their Golden Age, followed by an Age of Decline.

Similarly, quality baseball players each their Golden Age, followed by an Age of Decline.  Sometimes the decline is gentle and gradual, sometimes precipitous and severe.  When deciding to keep, trade for, or sign aging players, which slope of Decline might ensue is often a crapshoot.

On Friday, I looked at the declines of selected hitters. 
Today, let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane as to aging pitchers – what concerns should a GM like Mr. Alderson have when walking through the produce aisle looking at ripe pitching fruit? 

If only every pitcher remained highly successful as they aged, the way greats Steve Carlton, Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan (remember him?) and Greg Maddux did, it would make a GM’s job a whole lot easier. 
Even an old guy like Bartolo Colon defied the odds greatly, giving the Mets 3 fine seasons in 2014-16, after which the Mets had the good sense to thank him for his service, but part ways.

Pitching wear-and-tear and age, though, seem to result in very significant decline very quickly in many, many cases. 

Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez are two Mets’ poster boys of precipitous decline.
Johan was a tremendous lefty with Minnesota from ages 23 thru 27.  At age 28, he had a very good season, with a 3.33 ERA, but not quite as good as the 3 prior season, in which his ERA was about 2.75.  Not to worry, at least at the start, he was outstanding in his first Mets season under a long multi-year contract, going 16-7, 2.53, but his K rate from mid 9’s to 7.9 per 9 innings.  He then added 2 more solid (but not great) years, not as effective as in his great Minnesota days. 

Then, at age 32, the Mets lefty's shoulder fell apart, and he returned at 33 in 2012, after missing all of 2011, and was a poor 6-9, 4.85 in just 117 IP.  Three quality years, one bad one, and a whole lot of $$ spent on years he did not pitch. 

Had the Santana contract been for 3 years, it would have been great.  The fact that it was for $137.5 million over 6 years made it a pretty bad one.

Pedro Martinez was – what can one say? - supremely unreal with the Expos and Red Sox from age 25 through age 31, with  his ERA averaging in the low 2’s and Chris Sale-level strikeout rates – Koufax level stuff.  Good enough to get Pedro quickly into the Hall of Fame in 2015.

At age 32, in his final Red Sox season, there was slippage: he was 16-9, but with a much higher 3.90 ERA and barely more than a K per inning. 

At age 33 as a Met, after signing a then very expensive 4 year, $54 million deal with them, his ERA in 2005 was 2.82 and he was far the above average major league pitcher.  From age 34 until his retirement at 37, though, significant injury-related decline set in, and while he was a decent 22-16 in that period, his ERA was over 4.00.  His signing gave them credibility, but his overall Mets record of 32-23 was very costly at $54 million.

Mets’ all time great Tom Seaver was, for lack of a better word, TERRIFIC from his debut in 1967 at age 22 through his age 36 season.  But even the great Seaver found age a difficult adversary in his last 5 seasons from age 37 through 41, in which he went just 52-62 with a still fine 3.75 ERA – still fine but well over a run more per game than in his first 15 seasons.  Considering his age, he did decline gracefully those last 5 years – in fact, he did so terrifically.

One pitcher who declined precipitously after the Mets got him was failed signing Shaun Marcum, who went 1-10 in his single Mets season. And, of course, Matt Harvey showed that decline can come at any time and be severe.

Relievers? The standard bearer of a reliever who just never declined was Mariano Rivera. After a difficult rookie starting season at the advanced age of 25, he was switched to the pen and for the next 19 years, all he did was pitch to an ERA of around 2.00, a WHIP of under 1.00, and saved an astonishing 652 games.  Best…reliever…ever.

The Mets tried to mimic Mariano by acquiring K Rod, Francisco Rodriguez, who in 4 pre-Mets years, ages 23 through 26, he saved a mind-blowing 194 games, including 62 in 2008, just before Mets got him. 

He was mostly very good, but clearly not as great, during his 3 ½ Mets seasons (2009-11), with substantially fewer saves.  He did rebound in 2014-16 with Milwaukee, where at the ages of 32-34, he averaged a very fine 42 saves a season. He could not, however, find the fountain of Mariano Rivera youth at age 35 in 2017 with the Tigers, where he went 2-5, 7.86 in 28 outings. 

A few more?  Goose Gossage was great until age 33, but from 34-42, he missed one of those 9 seasons and was solid, but not as Goose-tacular, as he had been earlier on.  In this day and age, if he turned free agent after his last truly fine season at age 33, he would have been vastly overpaid, no doubt, for the declining years that were just around the corner.

Dick Radatz joined the Red Sox pen at age 25 in 1962 and was a pre-Gossage beast  for 3 very heavily worked seasons (230 games, 414 innings, 487 Ks, ERA just above 2.00), but the workload caught up to the 6'6" 230 mound behemoth at age 28, as his ERA slid to 3.90.
Radatz pitched poorly and sparingly over the next 4 years, missing 1968 altogether, and was finished at age 32.  He is a poster boy of the dangers of a multi-year contract based on 3 consecutive awesome seasons, even to a guy in his mid-20s.

And, of course, let’s not forget the quick crumbling of one Bobby Parnell.  From closer to retread in the blink of an eye.

A few available pitchers out there right now could look mighty good as a possible trade or free agent acquisition, but where are their future career decline points, and will those declines be gentle or precipitous?  Anything more than a 2 year contract for a guy over 30, to me, is hugely risky.

Often, historically, player fall-offs (both pitchers and hitters) have been quite precipitous.

So while most of us want Sandy to go big and bold, the risks there are severe and potentially very painful.

Caveat Emptor, as they used to say in the long-gone Roman Empire.  Let the buyer beware.


Mack Ade said...

I love posts like this, especially in a slow, off season.

I try to turn at least 50% of my Mack's Apple wordage into generic baseball stuff. Tom is better than me at researching the history of this game.

Good stuff.

Tom Brennan said...

Thanks, Mack. Jacks Mets writers are never in an Age of Decline (wait, where did I leave my walker? Oh, yeah, in Milwaukee)

Reese Kaplan said...

So what you're saying is that long term hitting deals are perilous but long term pitching deals simply foolish?

Somewhere there's an agent screaming bloody murder.

How about Max Scherzer? He's earning his outlandish salary. Ditto Clayton Kershaw.

Viper said...

Lets hope you won't be including Matz, Wheeler and Harvey next year to this story.

Tom Brennan said...

Max is a 7 year deal - so far, so good, but he turns 34 in midseason, and Roy Halladay started to short out around that age. Santanta was good for 3 years, too. We'll see how Mad Max does in 2018. Some guys, like a Carlton, simply defy the age odds. Which will Max be?

Kershaw is still young - only 29 - and 4 years thru his 7 year deal, but he did have back issues last year. Still, at his age of 25 back when he was extended for 7 years, I'd have done the same. So far, more than half way in his deal, so great.

Mike Freire said...

That's a awesome photo, Mack!

Nice article, Tom........I think you and I agree that "second generation contracts" don't usually pan out. At best, the player will match the value of the contract, since teams are paying for what a player has done, as opposed to what they will do in the future.

Kershaw and Sherzer are both excellent pitchers and they represent the exception to the rule, IMO. However, even those two have had some injury issues that will likely continue as they age.

In short, long term deals are a crap shoot.

Tom Brennan said...

Especially for pitchers, Mike. Crap...Shoot is right

bill metsiac said...

There's an excellent article in today's NY Post on the subject of megadeals. I recommend it and will try to figure out how to post it here.

bill metsiac said...

Figured it out(I think):

Read the bottom half of this article and you'll see why I don't like them, especially for players over 30 (including Longoria).


bill metsiac said...

Figured it out:

Read the bottom half of this article and you'll see why I don't like them, especially for players over 30 (including Longoria).


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