The predictably unpredictable career of Jamie Moyerby Chris Jaffe
June 14, 2010
Sometimes my timing stinks. This is one of those times.
Last Friday afternoon I finished the rough draft of a column on Jamie Moyer that began by noting how incredible it is that a 47-year-old could be 6-5 with a 3.98 ERA so deep in the season. Then I made some comments about his overall career before concluding that as nice and heartwarming as his season was, he was incredibly unlikely to keep his performance up, because his 2010 performance was entirely dependent on a BABIP that was more than 50 points lower than his career marker.
In all, I thought it went well and liked the odds of my prediction at the end to come true. It turns out my prediction was a little too good. A couple hours after I finished the article, Boston bombed Moyer. Heck, that's an understatement. In the 1,800-plus starting pitching performances of 2010, only one achieved a lower Game Score than Moyer's -1 on Thursday night. His ERA shot up from under 4.00 to over 5.00.
Suddenly, my insightful prediction was yesterday's news and several of the comments I made in the article didn't make much sense. But hey, how was I supposed to know one start this deep in the season would so greviously affect his numbers?
Frankly, it's rather fitting that Jamie Moyer's most recent start should completely upset my plans. His entire career has been one weird exercise in confounding any and all reason. Just look at this year. After pitching dreadfully last year, Moyer not only got off to a credible start in 2010, but became the oldest pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout - a two-hitter at that. That game, the 615th start in his career, resulted in a game score of 88, the highest of his entire career.
That's amazing for two reasons: 1) how many pitchers set a new game score record for themselves in their 615th start? And 2) how many pitchers last 615 starts and never top a game score of 90? Sure a mark of 90 ishard to achieve, but most guys who last that long do it. That one game highlighted how incredible Moyer has been over the course of his entire career and also the limits of how incredible he is in any single game.
Sure looks like the pitch will go faster than 73 MPH, doesn't it?
The obligatory portion of the column about how old Jamie Moyer is
It's all too easy and frankly a cliché to note how old Moyer is, but I can't help doing it a little bit because of one factoid I recently unearthed. In his MLB debut performance against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 16, 1986, Moyer faced off against Steve Carlton. Steve Carlton currently collects social security.
Carlton's career began in 1965 and 45 years later Moyer's is still going strong in 2010. As far as I can tell, 45 years is the longest stretch between the start and finish of careers between two hurlers who faced off against each other. Runner-up: on Sept. 7, 1911, Cy Young lost 1-0 to Pete Alexander. There's a 40-year gap between Young's 1890s debut and Alexander's 1930 finale, not even close to the Carlton-Moyer 45.
The next best I can find is Nolan Ryan facing off against Jim Bunning and Larry Jackson, who both debuted 38 years before Ryan finished. I likely missed a bunch of other competitors, but it's almost impossible to top the 45-year marker set by the Moyer-Carlton showdown.
Being a quality pitcher well past the age of 40 doesn't make Moyer unique. Others have done so, but the others usually fall into a few categories. First are those throwing a specialty pitch like the knuckleball, such as Phil Nierko or (back in the day) the spitball, like Jack Quinn. That ain't Moyer.
The second category of well-aged pitchers are those who were dominant in their prime. Think Nolan Ryan. Moyer? He made one All-Star team in his career, and that came at age 40. He was pretty good, but never dominant.
Actually, that's perhaps overstating things quite a bit for Moyer. This was a man who spent much of his 20s just scraping by. Hell, he spent his entire age 29 season in the minors. Prior to turning 33, he was 59-76 with a below average ERA.
At least Moyer is left-handed. They tend to last a bit longer, as starting pitchers such as David Wells and Tommy John can attest. Frankly, those guys were considered better in their prime than Moyer. Most lesser lefty lights that survive as long as Moyer have do it in the bullpen, unlike our man Moyer.
As an added bonus, Moyer has outlasted almost all the names above. Those guys were all good into their mid-40s, but Moyer is 47 this year. He's only the fourth person to throw more 10 innings at that age, and only the second starting pitcher (behind Phil Niekro).
In fact, Moyer is in some ways the least likely pitcher to last so long in MLB. Back in his New & Improved Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James noted that the single most reliable way to tell if a young arm was likely to have a lengthy career was his strikeout rate. He notes that practically every long-lasting pitcher since WWII generally struck out batters at a clip superior to the overall league rate when they were young and pre-declining.
That doesn't describe Moyer at all. He's topped the league K-rate exactly once in his 24 seasons in the majors. To be fair, it happened when he was young - his first full season in 1987 - but that's it. He wasn't usually far behind it when he was in his 20s, but he was continually behind it.
Moyer doesn't even fit into the normal exceptions James noted of pitchers who lasted a long time despite low K-rates. When discussing 1980s/90s finesse pitcher Jimmy Key, James writes:
Key is not an exception to the rule that low-strikeout pitchers never last; rather, Key defines the limits of the rule. Key was a lefty, he was very smart, he got a lot of ground balls, and he had wonderful control - like Tommy John and Tom Glavine. These type of pitchers define exactly how many strikeouts you absolutely have to have to win consistently in the major leagues. If you're left-handed and you do everything well, you can win consistently even if your strikeout rate is a little below the league norm.
That partially describes Moyer. He's an intelligent southpaw with good control. But instead of being a groundball king he's about to set the career record for homers allowed. You're supposed to have everything else going for you to overcome a low K-rate, not some of the things. Oh yeah, and even with Key, James noted that he fanned batters at a greater rate than the league at least three times, including two of his first three seasons.
Moyer just defied gravity. He's come within a 0.5K/9IP only once since the heyday of George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. Meanwhile, he's been more than 1.0K/9IP below league average 10 times. Yet those are the same years he's had his peak. He keeps going on, despite being older than Bo Jackson, Oddibe McDowell (remember him?), Jerry Rice, Manute Bol, Jodie Foster, or many of The Bad News Bears.
Since turning 30, Moyer has won 230 games, fourth most. It's worth noting that 12 of the 14 guys who won 200 after turning 30 won over 300 in their careers.
He's the last player left born during the Kennedy presidency. That isn't too unexpected. What is unexpected is that he may very well outlast all those born under LBJ. There are only four left, and all are having terrible seasons so far: pitchers Tim Wakefield and Trevor Hoffman and hitters Omar Vizquel and Matt Stairs. It's possible all four will be gone next year, meaning the last Kennedy kid has an outside chance to outside all the LBJ babies.
It's quite rare for the last man born under one president to outlast the succeeding administration's spawn. If you're curious, here's the list of last ballplayers going president-by-president (and only including guys who were real ballplayers, not gimmick appearances by the Minnie Minosos of the world, or emergency appearances by coaches):
End Player President born under ???? Jaime Moyer John Kennedy 2007 Julio Franco Dwight Eisenhower 1995 Dave Winfield Harry Truman 1989 Tommy John Franklin Roosevelt 1974 Don McMahon Herbert Hoover 1970 AL Worthington Calvin Coolidge 1972 Hoyt Wilhelm Warren Harding 1963 Stan Musial Woodrow Wilson 1954 Connie Marrero William Taft 1953 Satchel Paige Theodore Roosevelt 1946 Ted Lyons William McKinley 1939 Jimmy Dykes Grover Cleveland 1935 Rabbit Maranville Benjamin Harrison 1933 Red Faber Grover Cleveland 1933 Jack Quinn Chester Arthur 1921 Dode Paskert James Garfield 1920 George McBride Rutherford Hayes 1918 Bobby Wallace Ulysses Grant 1911 Cy Young Andrew Johnson 1906 Deacon McGuire Abraham Lincoln 1903 Chief Zimmer James Buchanan 1897 Roger Connor Franklin Pierce 1897 Cap Anson Millard Fillmore 1890 Candy Nelson Zachary Taylor 1890 Deacon White James Polk 1886 Joe Start John Tyler 1878 Jake Knowdell Martin Van Buren 1877 Dickey Pearce Andrew Jackson
A few notes: there were no ballplayers during William Henry Harrison's ill-fated month in the Oval Office. It's a judgment call trying to figure out when Deacon McGuire's "real" career came to an end. He actually lasted until 1912, but as a coach making emergency starts. His 1912 game came about solely because the Tigers players struck to protest a suspension of team star Ty Cobb. I like that Satchel Paige wins out even without including his 1965 appearance.
Rabbit Maranville's last game was one day after fellow Benjamin Harrison baby Sad Sam Jones. If Moyer outlasts the LBJers, that'll probably be how he does it.
That said, I can't imagine any scenario in which the 1962-born Moyer to be the last 1960s-born MLBer left. Mariano Rivera and Arthur Rhodes, both born in 1969, are still going strong.
Moyer's best (only?) comparable
It's almost impossible to find a good comp for Moyer's stranger career arc: a well-regarded prospect who fizzled, worked his way out of the majors for a brief spell, came back, and ended up a pretty successful pitcher for a surreally long time only to retire with career counting stats that normally only Hall of Famers attain. I've looked, and while I might've missed someone, there's only one other guy I've come across who serves as a good comp for Moyer's career path. As it happens, it's the other guy who won more than 200 games after turning 30 but didn't win 300 for his career: Jack Quinn.
Quinn's career followed the same general trajectory as Moyer's. He got his start as a secondary pitcher with the New York Yankees back when they were the Highlanders. He jumped to the Federal League, where he had his career's greatest heights (a 26-win season in 1914) and low (a disastrous 22-loss 1915 campaign). After that dismal 1915 season, he was banished to the minors for a time, only to return as World War I ended. Then he stuck around forever, pitching pretty well on a regular basis, and lasting until 1933.
Quinn had a more colorful career than Moyer. Aside from being a four-decade player and almost certainly the last Federal Leaguer in the majors, at the end of his career he became MLB's first full-time reliever. At the time of his retirement, Quinn was 49 years and 36 days old, still the record for oldest real ballplayer. Quinn also started one of the most famous games in history. Lastly, Quinn is easily the greatest player born in the long-defunct Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
That said, at least Quinn's career length could be explained by his favorite pitch, the spitter. Among his other fun facts, Quinn was one of the last legal throwers of the spitball.
Past, present, and future
Moyer's trek isn't quite as trailblazing as that of Quinn, but it certainly has been unlikely. Two months onto a big league roster, Moyer flirted with a no-hitter against the Expos, lasting until the seventh without allowing a hit, and finished the day with a complete game two-hit shutout. I suppose that makes Moyer the only pitcher to throw complete game two-hits shutouts twice. In between, he only did it one other time.
His early career is standard if unspectacular, but his 1987 campaign contains one of my favorite bizarre-stats. He went 12-15, a bad record but respectable, despite an ERA+ of 83. That happens, but usually because of great run support. Here's where it gets fun, though: Moyer's run support stunk in 1987. The Palmer/Gillette Baseball Encyclopedia contains a stat called SUP, which quantifies run support and is set up like ERA+ (centered at 100, higher equals better, lower worse). Moyer's 1987 SUP was 79.
So he sucked, and his run support sucked, yet he nearly went .500. Weird.
One could easily dump on the Cubs for letting Moyer slip through their fingers, but as was the case with Jack Quinn years ago, the Cubs are hardly alone in missing out on Moyer. The Rangers cut him. Ditto St. Louis. And the Cubs (again). And the Tigers. Really, the entirety of MLB let him go, which explains why he spent all of 1992 in the minors.
The big difference between pre-1992 Moyer and since then is his control. Up to then, he averaged 3.6BB/9IP. Since then, his worst single season is 3.1BB/9IP, and overall he's way down at 2.3BB/IP.
That said, this should be the end of the line for Moyer. He's better than the 81.00 ERA he posted in his last start, but he's not nearly as good as his previous sub-4.00 ERA indicated. Bill James, in the same article quoted above, noted that it's damn difficult in this day and age for a pitcher to get by with less than a K per every two innings. Whatever his faults, Moyer has consistently stayed at or just above the 4.5K/9IP mark - until this year.
Moyer's numbers were respectable prior to a few days ago because until recently his BABIP was .234, more than 50 points below his career mark. While his recent drubbing was extreme, it was still an overall corrective. Heck, his current BABIP of .257 is almost 30 points below his career mark. Don't be too surprised if the season ends with an ERA+ below its current 83.
Moyer might rally a little and return next year, but he won't threaten Quinn's oldest-player record. If you want to see Moyer pitch, here's a word to the wise: Buy tickets sooner rather than later. That said, make sure you get to the park early, just in case he gets knocked out quickly again.
References and Resources
The Bill James New Historical Abstract obviously came in handy for this article.
So did The Palmer/Gilette ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia.
Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index also helped with finding out who won the most games after turning 30, or what are the worst game scores of 2010 so far.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.