In the previous installments, we’ve tackled position players who played a lot of games before age 26 and not as many after that (see the first link for the full methodology). It’s a minority group of players when they’re on offense, but today’s look at pitchers is not so small.
For position players, I used only the criterion of games played before 26; pitchers, however, get two lists: by innings pitched (i.e., starters) and by games played (generally relievers). Any player who would be on both lists (old-time starters, mainly) appear only on the innings list, and thus the games played list captures only those under 1322.2 innings pitched, since that figure is No. 30 on the innings list. Some starters are on the reliever list for the next few years, but they’ll be off fairly soon.
Rather than listing just the top 10 on both lists, I’ve listed every pitcher in the top 30 who is over the 50 percent threshold. I did this partly because we’re covering only one position and so have more space, but also to highlight how different young pitching is from young hitting. Of the 60 original pitchers, just over half (31) played the majority of their games before 26, and several others fell just shy, including Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter. Among position players, only shortstop has even 10 such players.
For consistency across the articles, stats run to April 25 of this year. I rounded the innings to make the table an easier read.
Starting Pitcher (IP)
Most Innings Pitched Before 26: Walter Johnson, 2070
30th Place: Robin Roberts, 1322.2
Active Players Soon on the List: Only if Dusty Baker gets a hold of Felix Hernandez. The active leader for innings is Jeremy Bonderman, but he’ll still get only around 1,100 innings at most, which would be around 75th place historically.
Player To 26 26+ Perc. Actual Normal Joe Wood 1418 18 99% 1908-1922 1914-1930 Jim Shaw 1324 277 83% 1913-1921 1918-1934 Denny McLain 1502 384 80% 1963-1972 1968-1984 Larry Dierker 1624 710 70% 1964-1977 1971-1987 Pete Donohue 1444 427 68% 1921-1932 1925-1941 Van Mungo 1344 769 64% 1931-1945 1935-1951 Dick Ellsworth 1344 812 62% 1958-1971 1964-1980 Earl Hamilton 1366 977 58% 1912-1924 1916-1932 Joe Coleman 1416 1153 55% 1965-1979 1971-1987 Dwight Gooden 1524 1277 54% 1984-2000 1989-2005 Hal Newhouser 1609 1384 54% 1939-1955 1945-1961 Fernando Valenzuela 1555 1375 53% 1980-1997 1985-2001 Bret Saberhagen 1329 1234 52% 1984-2001 1988-2004 Chief Bender 1549 1468 51% 1903-1925 1908-1924
This list surprised me in two ways: first, for the group of fairly recent pitchers on the list, and second, for how not all of these guys have a lone injury on which they can hang their troubles. Saberhagen went from fully durable to chronically injured pretty much at 26, and Gooden’s loss of pure stuff could be just as much blamed on his high innings total—11th in the modern era—as on his life problems. In this age of sports medicine, we tend to put earlier concerns of “sore arm” or “dead arm” in the category of “injuries they couldn’t diagnose way back when,” but for certain players there may be something to it.
Some pitchers just can’t handle the mileage. One is reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The One Hoss Shay”, in which a wagon was built to have no weak points (since the weak point is always the first to go) and succeeded so well that, when it did fall apart, every piece fell apart simultaneously. Yet its imminent destruction was plain to see:
First of November, the Earthquake-day,
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn’t be, for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn’t a chance for one to start….
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!
After it falls apart as a unit and the wagon is in a heap, Holmes narrates:
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.
Think of some of the last few pitchers to log 1,000 innings before their age-26 season—Steve Avery, Ismael Valdez, Dontrelle Willis—and Holmes’s description sounds pretty apt. You don’t really know exactly what fell apart, but there’s the heap all the same.
Of course, a lot of young players took a big load and survived quite nicely. In his youth, Frank Tanana pitched as much asJoe Coleman did, but Tanana hung around forever. The same goes with Dennis Eckersley, though his later innings total is kept down by his transition to reliever.
The really fascinating one, though, is Bert Blyleven. Bert is third all-time in the modern era with 1,909 innings pitched before his age-26 season (269 innings above fourth-place George Mullin). In fact, Blyleven would make the top 30 even if you included 19th-century pitchers; only he, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson can say that. Yet Blyleven also is third among the modern top 30 for innings pitched after 26, trailing Johnson and Robin Roberts. It wasn’t all Dierkers or Colemans or Valenzuelas; for every one of them, there was a Don Sutton or Gaylord Perry or Steve Carlton.
What this means for protecting pitchers or determining who can handle the load and who can’t, I don’t know. Exactly half of the top 20 for innings pitched all-time pitched in the 1980s, but only three of them were ridden hard enough to make the innings top 30 (Johnson/Mathewson/Blyleven again). In other words, even though several pitchers had a “head start” on a long career, only three fulfilled it, whereas players brought up a little bit later stayed around longer. As with the position players, young pitchers flash so much potential that we expect them to keep at it for the next 20 years, overlooking pitcher attrition rates for the weight of expectations. It’s probably not so odd that the list above is so long, but when the pitcher has accomplished a bunch early, it’s far more vexing when they go downhill.
Compare Dwight Gooden with Sandy Koufax, for example. Koufax’s career lasted from ages 19 to 30 but didn’t get going until Koufax was 25. After six years of dominance, injuries forced him out of the game. Gooden’s career until 30 is sort of the inverse of Koufax’s: When Gooden came up at 19, he was thoroughly sensational from Day One, picking up a Cy Young at 20. His problems with substances and injuries caught up to him pretty soon, and he spent his age-30 season out with injury. Overall, Gooden’s win-loss record was 157-85, remarkably similar to Koufax’s 165-87, but what’s the perception of both pitchers? Take away Gooden’s youth and you have a league-average pitcher; take away Koufax’s youth and you have an unstoppable legend. It’s weird how much a career path can alter the lasting images of a player, but so it goes.
Relief Pitcher (Games)
Most Games Before 26: Mitch Williams, by 35 games over Francisco Rodriguez, who in turn is 33 games over third-place Chad Cordero. Featuring Chad Cordero as Waldo Woo…
30th Place: Willie Hernandez and Gary Ross, 225
Active Players Soon on the List: Huston Street, Matt Capps and Jonathan Broxton should make the top 30 this year, and they’re only in their age-24 season, so they have another year to add to it. At present, this list is pretty easy to make—become a setup guy or closer at 22 and keep your job—so a bunch of unknowns in the minors or even in college could be shaking up this list soon.
Player To 26 26+ Perc. Actual Normal Billy McCool 292 0 100% 1964-1970 1969-1985 Chad Cordero 299 5 98% 2003- 2006-2022 Francisco Rodriguez 332 12 97% 2002- 2006-2022 Lance McCullers 281 25 92% 1985-1992 1988-2004 Don Gullett 236 30 89% 1970-1978 1975-1991 Carl Scheib 235 32 88% 1943-1954 1951-1967 Ralph Branca 259 63 80% 1944-1956 1950-1966 Gary Ross 225 58 80% 1968-1977 1972-1988 Byung-Hyun Kim 299 76 76% 1999-2007 2003-2019 Art Houtteman 228 97 70% 1945-1957 1952-1968 Tom Hall 240 118 67% 1968-1977 1972-1988 Mitch Williams 367 252 59% 1986-1997 1989-2005 Neil Allen 248 186 57% 1979-1989 1982-1998 Felix Heredia 291 220 57% 1996-2005 1999-2015 Dennys Reyes 253 217 54% 1997- 2001-2017 Mike McCormick 253 231 52% 1956-1971 1963-1979 Chuck Stobbs 239 220 52% 1947-1961 1954-1970
Recent work on pitcher abuse has helped preserve starters, but we know comparatively little about reliever workloads. Mitch Williams was test case No. One, and he didn’t hold up that well, turning from rubber-armed to jelly-armed very quickly. K-Rod and Mr. Cordero (C-Cor?) are the next ones, and Cordero’s injuries aren’t helping the case for frequent use of young relievers. The whole idea of the college closer going almost straight to the majors (Cordero, Huston Street, and a bunch of others who haven’t worked out yet) is changing this list quite a lot, and how they hold up beyond their first big free-agent contract might change both bullpen usage and drafting strategy.
Relievers differ from starters in many ways, but two things stand out to me: permanent availability, and a resulting increase in warm-up pitches. A manager might have his relievers slotted for different situations, but if that situation comes up suddenly (surprise lefty-on-lefty), then it doesn’t matter if your lefty pitched the day before; in he goes. With every reliever change, however, comes a bunch of warm-up pitches in the bullpen, and so even if your situational reliever throws only about two pitches in-game to get a groundball or whatever, he has actually thrown far more pitches than that. Put another way, every appearance or potential appearance in a game, be it starting or relieving, has warm-up pitches as a sunk cost. And the more costs you’ve sunk into your relievers, the less value you’re going to get back. This is particularly true if the relievers warm up but don’t get in the game; those might not show up in the box score, but they show up in the arm, and the more the scarier. If Williams hadn’t been so unusual to begin with, maybe his sudden collapse would have been attributed to his extreme workload.
As with the starters, there are several relievers who held up fine under a young workload: Lindy McDaniel, Goose Gossage, Mike Jackson, Julian Tavarez. Even more than starters, though, they seem to be in the minority. There are plenty of relievers in the top 30 who, like Drysdale and Hunter for the starters, barely missed the 50 percent mark: Terry Forster, Scott Radinsky, Gregg Olson and Tom Niedenfuer. Over the next decade, we should understand better whether current bullpen handling steers young relievers more toward Mike Jackson or toward Mitch Williams.
One of the common threads of my articles is assessing our psychological perception of baseball and stats. The spotlight can direct our focus to an odd assortment of things, but if we step back and put people into their proper categories, we wind up with a different perception from the standard narrative. It’s somewhat the same phenomenon as when a team is hot and when it isn’t: We like to extrapolate from each point and assume status quo. We love our heroes to be young so that we can project the Hall of Fame onto them, and then we’re surprised when they don’t make it. We remember players based on when they were popular, not necessarily when they were at their best.
I hope with these articles that, regardless of whether you’re interested in my specific methodology or point, you the reader will check to see how much of your perception of baseball, past or present, is based on the events themselves and how much is based on the way in which the standard media nudge us to certain conclusions.
References & Resources
Sean Forman’s database.