Top 5: Really Old Starting Pitchers

If you follow baseball at all, you know that Randy Johnson, all 40 years of him, threw a perfect game the other day. People have been waxing eloquent about the Unit’s dominance, and it’s true — he’s amazing.

Just last year, it looked like Randy was actually human. Injuries limited him to 114 innings, and his ERA was a disappointing 4.26. Worse, his strikeout rate, which had been over 10 K’s per 9 innings every year since the first Bush administration, fell to 9.87. (Of course, 9.87 K/9 is still an incredible total, but it was a 15% drop from Johnson’s 2002 mark.)

Now, it’s like 2003 never happened. Randy Johnson is pitching exactly like he did in 2002, his career year. His strikeout rate is back up over 11, and he’s got a 2.43 ERA. Just as importantly, he’s on track to log over 240 innings this year.

“I am getting older and less than 100 percent, and a lot of people would be inclined to say, ‘He’s not going be to the pitcher he was,’” the Big Unit recently said. “Anybody who knows me knows I’ll give everything I can to be the same pitcher I’ve been since I’ve been here.”

No kidding.

Is Randy Johnson the best old pitcher in baseball? With numbers like his, you’d think so, but he’s got some competition. The competition’s name is Roger, and he lives in Houston. (Actually — here comes a tangent — his middle name is Roger; his first name is William.)

You know the story. Roger Clemens went 17-9 in his farewell season with the Yankees last year, and then rode off into the sunset of retirement. But Roger is from the Houston area, and when good buddy Andy Pettitte signed with the ‘Stros, the Rocket gave retirement a second thought.

Now, he’s anchoring the Astros rotation and has yet to lose a National League game — Clemens is 7-0 with a major-league best 1.72 ERA. We all knew he was still good, but this? This is as good as Clemens has ever pitched. At the very least, he hasn’t pitched like this since the late ’90s, when he was with the Blue Jays (remember those days?).

It’s pretty clear that Clemens and Johnson rank 1-2 (or 2-1) among elderly moundsmen. And while nobody else is in the running for #1, a number of other aged hurlers are at the top of their games.

The column’s called “Top 5″, and this is my list so far (minimum age of 38):

1. Randy Johnson
2. Roger Clemens

Next up is Clemens’ Old Guy replacement on the Yankees — Kevin Brown. Brown had his own version of Randy Johnson’s 2003 struggles back in ’02, and last year he bounced back to post a 2.39 ERA in 211 innings. Like Clemens, K-Brow can’t seem to lose a game. He’s 5-0, and his 3.13 ERA is tops among Yankee starters. Interestingly, that 5-0 start is the best for a Yankee since … Roger Clemens.

There’s a big difference between Brown and the first two guys, though: Johnson (11.6 K/9) and Clemens (10.7 K/9) are strikeout machines, but Brown’s rate of 5.2 K/9 is decidedly sub par. Also, Brown’s DIPS ERA of 3.94 isn’t anything special (Johnson’s DIPS is an ML-best 2.53, and Clemens’ 2.83 mark is third in baseball).

Back in March, I called Tom Glavine “a fifth starter making ace money.” And when I said that, the numbers completely backed me up. Glavine was coming off what looked like a collapse year — a 9-14 record, a 4.52 ERA in a pitcher’s park, and a lousy 82-66 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 183 innings. Glavine struggled to strike out four batters per 9 innings, and I predicted doom for the lefty.

So far, Glavine has made me eat my words. He’s 5-2 with a 2.45 ERA that ranks among the top 10 in the National League. I’m not ready to hand him the Comeback Player of the Year award, though. That strikeout rate has gone up ever-so-slightly, but it’s still a very low 4.6 per 9 innings. And Glavine’s DIPS ERA is a decent-but-not-all-that-great 3.75. So I’ll be stubborn and stick by my prediction that Glavine will finish the year as nothing more than a back-of-the-rotation starter. Though so far, he’s been real good.

Finding a pitcher for the #5 spot is a little tougher, as none of the usual suspects are doing all that great. The obvious guy, Greg Maddux, has faded into mediocrity. He’s got a 4.37 ERA and a DIPS mark of 4.86, and in 57 innings, Maddux has allowed 11 home runs (he’s on pace for 46 this year).

Jamie Moyer has apparently hit a wall (4.63 ERA, though he pitched well last night), and Al Leiter’s gaudy 2.52 ERA masks the fact that he’s been largely ineffective (24-18 K-BB, 4.82 DIPS ERA). David Wells’ strikeout rate is under three, which is just Dead Ball Era-ish, and he’s also been significantly worse than his 3.78 ERA.

Thankfully, there’s one man left: Kenny Rogers. The 39-year-old Ranger is off to a strong start, with a 6-2 record and a 3.37 ERA. He doesn’t strike a lot of people out, but then, he never has.

The list, then, of 2004′s top five really old pitchers:

1. Randy Johnson (40)
2. Roger Clemens (41)
3. Kevin Brown (39)
4. Tom Glavine (38)
5. Kenny Rogers (39)

Baseball has its share of quality old hurlers, and Johnson and Clemens are as good as anyone their age has ever been. After watching Clemens strike out 11 of his Marlins on the way to a victory last week, Florida manager Jack McKeon said, “The way he pitched against us, he could probably pitch until he’s 50.” At first, that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration. But you know, he might not be far off.

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