For a Few Hardy Players, 40 is Just a Number

Bartolo Colon's age-44 season will be his 20th in the majors. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Bartolo Colon’s age-44 season will be his 20th in the majors. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

The Atlanta Braves made a splash this offseason by loading their rebuilding rotation with two ancient aces, 43-year-old Bartolo Colon and 42-year-old R.A. Dickey. They are the only starting pitchers in the major leagues over 40, but six other quadragenarians are under contract to play this year, and three other such free agents are seeking work.

So I started to wonder how over-40 players have performed in recent years, to see if it was any guide to what we might see in 2017. I looked at the past 30 years’ worth of players who were in their age-40 season and older. To be clear, a player’s age in a particular season is recorded as their age on midnight on June 30. Hence, because Bartolo Colon’s birthday is on May 24, this will be his age-44 season. Players get credit for playing the first three months of the year at age 39, so long as they turn 40 by June 30.

Judging by the recent past, it wouldn’t be surprising if a couple more 40-plus players find jobs this year: Over the past 30 years, an average of 12 players over the age of 40 have seen game action every season.

(Some of that is skewed by the steroid era; from 2003 to 2013, there were an average of 16 players over 40 each year. From 1987 to 2002, the average was 9.6 players; from 2014-2016, it was 7.3. But it wasn’t just ‘roids; the average from 1987-1996, 9.4 players a year, was almost the same as the average from 1997-2002, 10 players a year.)

Most years, pitchers make up the bulk of the over-40 crowd. The rest tend to be DH-types — corner outfielders, first basemen — and catchers, though every so often someone like Omar Vizquel manages to hang on far longer than anyone might have expected.

Strikingly, though, the presence of the DH appears hardly at all to have affected the relative numbers of older players in each league. In the past 30 years, 164 players over 40 played a year in the American League, 166 played a year in the NL, and 24 played part of the year in both leagues. When I used 100 plate appearance thresholds for position players, we’re left with 56 in the AL and 51 in the NL; among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched, exactly 63 were in the AL and 63 in the NL.

Other than Colon and Dickey, the other players who will be over 40 in 2017 are outfielders Ichiro Suzuki (43) and Carlos Beltran (40) and relievers Koji Uehara (42), Jason Grilli (40), Fernando Rodney (40) and, finally, Joe Nathan (42), hoping to complete a comeback to the majors after throwing total of 6.2 innings in the past two years.

Outfielder Reed Johnson (40) and reliever Joe Beimel (40) are hoping to make even more difficult comebacks, after not playing in the majors at all in 2016; both are free agents. A.J. Pierzynski (40) was until this week, though he is now slated to join FOX’s broadcast team full-time this season.

What Oldsters Did in 2016

In 2016, Uehara, Suzuki and Dickey were passably above replacement level. Suzuki collected 365 plate appearances for the Marlins, starting 62 games, frequently appearing as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch-hitter, and enjoying his best season in four years. (He had the second-most pinch hits in baseball.) Uehara was a good enough setup man for the Red Sox, and though a spike in his home run rate raised his ERA a full run above where it had been the previous year he still collected 18 holds and seven saves while blowing only two opportunities.

Dickey saw his home run rate and his ERA spike as well, and lost his spot in the rotation with a few weeks left to go in the season. But before that, he twirled 169.2 innings of slightly below-average ball (104 ERA-), dependably taking the ball every fifth day and posting his seventh straight season of at least 26 starts and at least 169 innings pitched. He’s managed that every year since his emergence with the Mets in 2010 as an effective knuckleballer. He was a modestly effective, innings-eating, fifth starter.

But only Beltran and Colon were more than just decent role players. They were fine starters. Colon did what he’s done every year since 2011: he threw hardly anything but high-80s fastballs in the strike zone, basically didn’t walk anybody, and had the third-highest WAR on the vaunted Mets pitching staff, as Steven Matz and Matt Harvey battled injuries. He made 33 starts, and he had the fifth-lowest K/9 in baseball along with the third-lowest BB/9.

Beltran bashed so many homers in the first four months of the season — 22, more than he’d hit in either of the previous two seasons — that he became a midseason trade candidate: The Rangers traded three prospects for him, including Dillon Tate, whom they had taken fourth overall in the 2015 draft. But that trade had a bit less than met the eye: the trade was consummated the day after the trade deadline, and Corinne Landrey called it “underwhelming for New York,” noting that Tate’s “stock has been steadily dropping since the start of his professional career.”

Of course, it made sense that that’s all it took to acquire Beltran: after all, he was a 39-year-old two-month rental (he’ll turn 40 on April 24). Upon his arrival in Texas, his home-run-to-fly-ball rate dipped a bit and he hit just seven homers in 206 plate appearances, after collecting his previous 22 homers in just 387 plate appearances. Still, he proved in his 19th year in the Show that he could still swing a serious stick.

2017 Projections

So what’s likely to happen in 2017? Here are what some of the projections suggest. (All numbers are taken from FanGraphs. Where possible, I used FanGraphs Depth Chart projections, which “are a combination of ZiPS and Steamer projections with playing time allocated by” FanGraphs staff, except for Johnson, who didn’t get added to the depth charts because no one has signed him.)

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
2017 Projections, 40+ Players
Bartolo Colon Depth Charts 162  4.20  4.08  2.0
Koji Uehara Depth Charts  65  3.07  3.13  1.4
R.A. Dickey Depth Charts 162  4.38  4.50  1.4
Jason Grilli Depth Charts  65  3.81  3.92  0.6
Fernando Rodney Depth Charts  65  3.85  4.03  0.3
Joe Nathan Depth Charts  65  4.45  4.37  0.0
Joe Beimel Depth Charts  65  4.72  4.95 -0.5
Carlos Beltran Depth Charts 595 0.270 0.330  1.1
Ichiro Suzuki Depth Charts 253 0.262 0.288  0.0
Reed Johnson Steamer   1 0.255 0.293  0.0

Basically, the best old players from 2016 are expected to be the best old players in 2017. Interestingly, despite their age, Uehara and Dickey are actually expected to have something of a bounce-back year. So is Jason Grilli, who wasn’t very good last year, but was much better in 2015, and looks to be something like a league-average seventh-inning guy. Everyone else is expected to be just very slightly worse in 2017 than they were in 2016, which makes sense.

Fernando Rodney is a somewhat interesting case. He was terrible in 2015, a little better in 2016, and is basically expected to contribute more or less the same performance. But he’s actually a remarkable example of a player who didn’t truly come into his own until his mid-30s. For the first 10 years of his career, 2002 to 2011, he amassed a grand total of 2.1 WAR, a K/BB of 1.69, and a FIP- of 97. That’s a relief pitcher who is very barely above replacement level.

Then he turned 35 and arrived in Tampa Bay and had not merely the best year of his career, but one of the best years ever posted by a relief pitcher, ever. (One of the luckiest, too, but the one does not negate the other.) He set personal bests by appearing in 76 games and notching 48 saves, and all he did was twirl 74.2 innings while allowing a minuscule 43 hits, including two homers, and nine runs, five earned. His 0.60 ERA was the lowest by a relief pitcher since Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 in 1990. That was actually an astonishingly similar season, as Eck was also 35, and he went 73.1 innings and allowed 41 hits, including the same two homers and same nine runs, five earned.

Rodney never had another season quite that good — no shame there, neither did Eckersley — but he was pitching at a higher level than before, and 2013 and 2014 were the second- and third-best years of his career, respectively. Then he was awful in 2015 and experienced a partial bounce-back in 2016. So his projection for 2017 is not merely a prediction of a return to his 2016 performance level, it is a prediction that he will return to the pitcher that he was before 2012: a man who had a decent knack for striking men out, but who was not particularly good at anything else. But even that is enough to earn a man a middle-relief slot.

Grilli had a similar late-career renaissance in Pittsburgh, where he too had the best years of his life in 2012 and 2013, at ages 35 and 36, after a modest and frequently injury-plagued first decade in the majors. He wasn’t very good in 2014, but signed in Atlanta as a free agent in 2015 and returned to his lights-out form from Pittsburgh. Then he returned to the disabled list with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and he struggled through his recovery in 2016. But he finished the year strong, and looks to have reasonable momentum going into this season.

Joe Beimel’s comeback feels moderately likely, if only because of handedness. Nearly a decade ago, I coined an acronym that completely failed to catch on, “WHIL” — Well, He Is a Lefty — to explain why so many random 40-year old southpaw relievers seemed to stay in baseball forever.

Obviously, he faces an uphill battle because he didn’t pitch in the majors at all in 2016, and his 4.30 ERA in 14.2 innings with the Royals at Triple-A Omaha can’t have been all that confidence-inspiring. But he’s thrown 680 innings in the majors, has held lefties to a .715 OPS against, and appears to be able to breathe through his nostrils and exhale through his mouth while remaining left-handed. So I wouldn’t completely count out his chances at finding his way onto a roster.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I have the same optimism when it comes to Reed Johnson. That probably doesn’t require a tremendous amount of explanation, but he missed most of 2015 with injury and refused to go to the minors with the Nationals after spring training in 2016, so they cut him and he hasn’t played in organized baseball in a year. And since 2013, he’s had 361 plate appearances with a .622 OPS, so even if he could hit like he was still just 37, he wouldn’t exactly bring a lot to the table. That’s probably why Steamer hasn’t projected him to receive playing time.

Past Performances

Last year, David Ortiz had an extraordinary year at the age of 40, producing 4.4 WAR in his swan song in the league, but that’s nothing new. There have always been excellent over-40 players, at least a few every year. While the number of over-40 players in baseball spiked to previously unseen heights in the mid-2000s, much as all other offensive numbers were spiking, and likely for much the same reasons, there have always been players who have done sensational work in their fifth decade of life.

Here are the best over-40 seasons in the past 30 years (over 4.0 WAR):

4+ WAR Seasons, 40+ Players, 1987-2016
Darrell Evans 1987 40 609 34 99 4.6
Carlton Fisk 1990 42 521 18 65 5.0
David Ortiz 2016 40 626 38 127 4.4 All-Star
Nolan Ryan 1987 40 211.67 2.76 2.47 6.4
Nolan Ryan 1989 42 239.33 3.20 2.51 7.0 All-Star
Nolan Ryan 1990 43 204.0 3.44 2.87 5.2
Nolan Ryan 1991 44 173.0 2.91 2.75 4.9
Randy Johnson 2004 40 245.67 2.60 2.30 9.6 All-Star
Randy Johnson 2005 41 225.67 3.79 3.78 4.1
Roger Clemens 2003 40 211.67 3.91 3.60 4.5 All-Star
Roger Clemens 2004 41 214.33 2.98 3.11 5.7 All-Star, Cy Young
Roger Clemens 2005 42 211.33 1.87 2.87 6.0 All-Star
Greg Maddux 2006 40 210.0 4.20 3.80 4.3
John Smoltz 2007 40 205.67 3.11 3.21 5.5 All-Star

Nolan Ryan finished fifth in the Cy Young vote in both 1987 and 1989, at the ages of 40 and 42. A few years earlier (and just before the period I studied), Phil Niekro finished fifth in the Cy Young vote in 1984 at the sprightly age of 43. Ryan is famous for his longevity, as is Carlton Fisk, and both are in the Hall of Fame because they were extraordinary in their 20s and 30s as well. So are Maddux, Smoltz and Randy Johnson.

In fact, the only eligible players listed above who are not in the Hall of Fame are Roger Clemens — whom voters have snubbed but who is otherwise likely the greatest right-handed pitcher since World War II — and the perennially underrated Darrell Evans. It’s worth taking a moment to remember Evans, because people don’t talk about him much any more, but he’s one of the better players not in the Hall of Fame.

Bill James has famously called him “the most underrated player in baseball history.” He’s the very prototype of a sabermetric darling: relatively unappreciated in his own time due to his career .248 batting average, he received only two All-Star appearances but drew tons of walks, had very good power, played a solid third base, and finished his career with 61.1 WAR, 18th of all time at the hot corner, just head of Hall of Famers Frank “Home Run” Baker and Tony Perez, and just behind a few could-be Hall of Famers in Buddy Bell, Edgar Martinez (who played 564 games at third), and Graig Nettles.

It’s actually sort of remarkable that only three hitters in the last 30 years have produced a 4-WAR season after their 40th birthday, and it’s especially remarkable that it didn’t happen at all during the Steroid Era — only during the neo-deadball ’80s and then again during the mini-offensive renaissance of the mid-2010s.

But the main thing to remember is: age is nothing but a number, and great young players often remain great as they get older. Beltran will make his way to Cooperstown soon, and Colon and Dickey are both former Cy Young Award winners. Ichiro is a former MVP and another future Hall-of-Famer. It would not be surprising to see them continue to play respectable ball in 2017.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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Jason A Linden
6 years ago

Bronson Arroyo has been named to the Reds rotation. So add another name to the list.

Joe Pancake
6 years ago
Reply to  Jason A Linden

Arroyo was never great, but he was once remarkable reliable. For nine straight seasons (2005-2013), he made between 32 and 35 starts.

Joe Pancake
6 years ago

“His 0.60 ERA was the lowest by a relief pitcher since Dennis Eckersley‘s 0.61 in 1990. ”

Yes, this is an immediate corollary of the fact that his 0.60 ERA was the lowest *ever* by a relief pitcher at the time. (Zach Britton has a remarkable 0.54 ERA last year.)

Also of note, Barry Bonds had one of the greatest offensive seasons ever in 2004 (11.9 WAR total; 1.422 OPS!) the year he turned 40. He missed the official 40 cutoff by a few weeks, as his birthday is July 24.

6 years ago

With bWAR of 70 coming 2017, a career OPS of .845, and a very good but not great OPS+ of 121, no sure that Beltran will be making his way to Cooperstown “soon” if ever. His OPS+ is lower than Reggie Smith, Dwight Evans and Dave Parker; his Gray Ink (77 vs 144 HoF avg) and his black ink (1 vs 27 HoF avg) may also leave him a bit short.

Some of his most similar batters are in the Hall (Dawson, Kaline, Billy Williams) but several others (Luis Gonzalez, Dave Parker, Dwight Evans) are on the outside looking in.

Barney Coolio
6 years ago

Players over 40 is one of the things I nerdily keep track of. I remember in 2007 the Mets had 4 guys over 40 in the starting lineup, P Tom Glavine, LF Moises Alou, C Sandy Alomar Jr., and 3b Jeff Conine.

I wonder if any player has ever been the youngest player in the league, and then the oldest. Nolan Ryan was the second youngest in 1966, and then the oldest for his final four seasons. Four!

I also remember the 2006 Giants had 3 outfielders in their 40’s: Barry Bonds, Steve Finley, and Moises Alou who turned 40 in early July. They also had 39 year old SS Omar Vizquel.

With the decrease in players reaching their 40’s, I think HOF voters might have to adjust their standards.

Pat's Bat
6 years ago

Over 4 WAR is an interesting cutoff, leaving off the best late career player of all time: Barry Bonds. Exactly 4.0 WAR as a 41 year old in 2006.

Michael Bacon
6 years ago

I do not understand this: “But it wasn’t just ‘roids; the average from 1987-1996, 9.4 players a year, was almost the same as the average from 1997-2002, 10 players a year.”

Jose Canseco has said (written?) the steroid era began in the “late 80’s.” Could that be the reason the two periods are so similar? To answer that question one would have to look at the number of 35+ players in MLB during those time periods. It is difficult to completely define when the Ragin’ Roid era began because if you look at the average runs scored in MLB things changed dramatically in 1993 when Colorado joined the NL. It is remarkable just how close were the average runs scored from 1969 to 1992. The average soared from 3.88 in 1992 to 4.49 in 1993 in the NL (because of the DH in 1973 the AL cannot be compared to anything prior, or after, the Dreaded Hitter era). From 1969 to 1992 in the NL, the only real Baseball still played, the low was 3.88 in 1988 and 1992, to 4.22 in 1979, excepting 1970 (4.52, with HR’s going up nine points from the previous year); 1977 (4.40, with HR’s rising by a remarkable TWENTY SEVEN points, from 0.57 in 1976 to 0.84 in ’77); and 1987, the year the chicks REALLY began to love the “long balls,” when the average runs went from 4.18 in ’86 to 4.52 in ’87 (HR’s went from 0.79 in ’86 to 0.94 in ’87). It is obvious that SOMETHING caused the spike in long balls those years even if the Sabermetric community cannot explain exactly WHAT.

1987 is a TERRIBLE year to begin ANY study, because it is an OUTLIER. From 1978 until 1986 the low was 3.99 in 1978, with the high being the 4.22 posted the very next year, 1979, excepting the truncated 1981 season, which shows an average of 3.91. From 1971 until 1976 the average runs scored was from 3.91 (’71 & ’72) to 4.15 (’73 &’74), which shows a remarkable consistency.

I read somewhere about Marlon Byrd having been one of the players involved with the use of ‘roids. Marlon played for Georgia Tech, so my thought was, “Say it ain’t so, Marlon.” I checked his stats on B-Ref, finding that, indeed, Marlon was a “late bloomer.” From the time he began his career in 2002 at the age of 24 he posted a OPS+ of 97. Then at age 35 he posted a 138 OPS+. From age 35 to the end of his career in 2016 his OPS+ was 114. Some have taken this to mean Marlon was “on the juice.”

The most similar player to Marlon was Al Smith, who came up with Cleveland in 1953 at 25, playing until 1964, retiring at 36. From 1953 to 1956 his OPS+ was 122. Then he swooned from 1957 to 1959 with an OPS+ of only 97. Then in 1960, at age 32, he put together another four year stretch in which his OPS+ was, remarkably enough, 122! Although he played in 1964, he had obviously lost it. If you look at their career numbers without knowing which one played in the Ragin’ Roid era it would be extremely impossible to chose between the two.

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