Perhaps inspired by teammate Mariano Rivera‘s vow to come back in 2013 after suffering an injury, Andy Pettitte is apparently considering a 2013 return in the wake of his injury-limited innings this season. Pettitte’s numbers this year (3.22 ERA, 3.41 FIP, albeit in a small, sub-60 inning sample so far) would be good for any pitcher. They are even more amazing considering that Pettitte turned 40 in June and did not pitch in 2011. Few pitchers have done what Pettitte is considering doing, let alone left-handed starters. Rather than doing a detailed (and premature) analysis of Pettitte’s 2013 outlook, it might be interesting to see how some 40-year-old southpaws have done in the past when coming back for their age 41 seasons.
To generate the list, I simply looked at left-handed-throwing starting pitcher seasons that qualified them for the ERA title since integration (1947) in their age 40 or 41 seasons (and pitched in both). This is not necessarily a perfectly-generated population for projecting Andy Pettitte, but it should provide something worth checking out. Unsurprisingly, there are only nine pitchers on this list.
In reverse chronological order:
Tom Glavine, 2006-2007. Glavine had a great career, but his age-40 season in 2006 (3.82 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 2.6 fWAR) was the last time he was much good. In 2007 his strikeout rate (never very impressive to begin with) dropped to four per nine innings. While he managed 200 innings, his numbers were that of a back-end starter (4.45 ERA, 4.86 FIP, 1.3 WAR).
Kenny Rogers, 2006-2007. Media favorite Kenny Rogers’ peripherals, particularly in the latter stages of his career, actually bear a striking resemblance to Glavine’s. In both 2005 (with the Rangers) and 2006 (with the Tigers), The Gambler managed to outperform his FIP, combining good control and a low BABIP to overcome his sub-five per nine strikeout rate while keeping his ERA under four. In his age-41 2007, things did not go as well, as his control deserted him. This may have been related to the injuries that limited him to just 63 innings that year, but that is one of the risks of age. Rogers did pitch 173 innings in 2008, but was pretty awful (5.70 ERA, 5.22 FIP).
Randy Johnson, 2004-2005. It is sort of crazy to use the Big Unit as a comparison for Andy Pettitte, or any other pitcher for that matter, but it’s worth briefly talking about him anyway. At age 40, Johnson should have won the NL Cy Young with one of the best seasons by a pitcher in recent memory (2.60 ERA, 2.30 FIP, 9.9 WAR). He had stud reliever style strikeout and walk numbers (10.62 and 1.161 per nine innings, respectively) while working in Arizona’s big-time hitter’s park. He ended up on the Yankees for the 2005 season, and while I do not think his New York tenure is remembered all that fondly, his first year there was good, if not dominant (3.79 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 4.6 WAR). .
David Wells, 2003-2004. You know, when I think of a crafty southpaws, I really do not picture a guy who does not appear to have “treadmill” or “salad” in his vocabulary. But David Wells really embodied the notion, at least statistically. In both his age 40 and 41 seasons, he had a K/9 rate under give, but his walk rate was under one. Wells’ career walk rate per nine innings is under two. Wells wore out his welcome with the Yankees for the last time after the 2003 World Series. While moving to the National League and the Padres’ pitcher’s haven probably helped him a fair bit, he was still a good pitcher at 41 (3.49 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 2.7 WAR, 195 innings).
Jamie Moyer, 2003-2004. I am not sure if it surprising or weird or whatever that Jamie Moyer and David Wells are the same age, but there you have it. While my personal vote for ideal crafty lefty goes to Wells (in large part for comedic reasons), either Moyer or Glavine is probably the modern pitcher most think of in relation to that phrase. Moyer was still good at 40 (3.27 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 3.6 WAR), but at 41 things fell apart due to a serious case of gopher-itis. Despite his walk, strikeout, and BABIP numbers all being about the same, his ERA and FIP both went over give and he was pretty much a replacement-level pitcher. Despite all of that, Moyer did come back and pitched effectively for the Mariners and Phillies through 2008.
Steve Carlton, 1985-1986. Carlton probably is the best pitcher on this list after Randy Johnson. However, 40 was The Cliff for Carlton — he had an injury-riddled season and managed only 92 innings. He did somehow manage an above-average ERA despite walking more hitters than he struck out. But it was the harbinger of the end. Carlton was terrible for in 1986, having just a 5.10 ERA and 4.73 FIP in 176 innings for three different teams.
Jerry Koosman, 1983-1984. Something I learned today: Jerry Koosman got the game ball after pitching the decisive Game Five for the Miracle Mets of 1969. By the time he was 40, Koosman had become pretty crafty. he actually had a down year that might have looked like The Cliff in his age-40 season in 1983 (4.77 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 1.8 WAR). However, he bounced back with an excellent age-41 season upon moving to Philadelphia (3.25 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 5.1 WAR).
Tommy John, 1983-1984. Seems like I have heard this name an awful lot lately. I never realized just how insanely crafty John was, especially in his later years. In 1983, he had so-so ERA of 4.33 and a FIP of 3.96, yet managed 3.3 WAR because he pitched 234 innings. Yeah, he had excellent control (1.88 BB/9), but check out that strikeout rate: 2.49 per nine innings. The Twins are desperately trying to obtain John’s DNA as I type this. Hey, it worked for him. But he didn’t have much of a margin for error. The 2.78 BB/9 John put up in 1984 at 41 would be great for many pitchers, but it does not really work with a strikeout rate barely over two. He did manage 181 innings, though.
Warren Spahn, 1961-1962. Spahn was good at both 40 and 41 despite striking out less than four per nine innings in both seasons. He also walked very few, but Spahn’s main contribution as he entered his fifth decades was durability. He pitched more than 260 innings and was worth about four wins in each of those seasons. Yes, it was a different time with respect to handling pitcher workloads (Spahn did not lead the league in either season in innings pitched, and in 1961 did not even lead his own team), but it is still amazing (at least to me) that he was pitching that much at 40 and 41. Spahn was also good at 42.
So what does all of this about Andy Pettitte? By itself, I am not sure. While Pettitte has displayed good control in 2012 and 2010 (as he has most of his career), he does not really fit the mold of low-K, low-walk, older pitchers like Glavine, Wells, John, Rogers, the later Koosman, or Spahn. Randy Johnson is not a good match for other reasons. While Pettitte has had a nice career, it is obviously not on the level of Carlton’s. However, by the time Carlton was 40, he was basically done as an effective pitcher.
Perhaps all of that is irrelevant. We are not trying to do an overall aging curve for 40-year-old left-handed pitchers here, which would suffer from obvious sample size and selection bias issues. There is also the issue of Pettitte sitting out 2011 and having injury-shortened seasons in both 2010 and 2012 — beyond the health issues that only get worse with age, they also shrink an already small sample that might be making his true talent seem better than it is (the injury halo). However, one can see that, in general, by the time these pitchers made it to 40, they were almost all at least useful at 41. So history, to a limited extent, is on Pettitte’s side.