Mariano Rivera and Father Time: Comebacks After 40

Mariano Rivera turned 43 last November. There was wide speculation that he would retire at the end of the 2012 season, until his 2012 season ended with an untimely season-ending injury, and Rivera decided to try to make a comeback so that his last season could occur on his terms.

But even though Mariano Rivera’s career is full of unprecedented moments, that does not mean that it will be trivial for him to come up with another. Baseball has been played in America for the better part of two centuries, and unprecedented things are generally unprecedented for a reason: they are extraordinarily unlikely. So how many players have been able to play effectively after losing a full season in their 40s?

I asked Jeff Zimmerman to run a search on that very question. (I know that Mo didn’t lose a full season, as he did manage to throw 8 1/3 innings before going down with the injury. Still, this list may give a sense of what he’s up against.)

In big league history, there have been 22 pitchers who have missed a year in their 40s and then appeared in a game, and only nine of them pitched more than 30 innings. Six of the 22 made their brief comebacks in 1944-45, when the league’s talent was diluted by World War II, and only one of those players managed to pitch more than 30 innings.

Here are those pitchers. The nine who made “successful” comebacks are in bold and italics.

Clark Griffith 6 IP in 1909 (age 39), 1 game (0 IP) in 1912 (age 42), 1 IP in 1913 (age 43), 1 IP in 1914 (age 44)
Kaiser Wilhelm 243 2/3 IP in 1914 (age 40), 1 IP in 1915 (age 41), 8 IP in 1921 (age 47)
Nick Altrock 3 IP in 1915 (age 38), 24 IP in 1918 (age 41), 1 game (0 IP) in 1919 (age 42), 2 IP in 1924 (age 47)
Bill Donovan skipped 1 year, 6 IP in 1918 (age 41)
Chief Bender skipped 7 years, 1 IP in 1925 (age 41)
Fred Johnson skipped 14 years, 69 IP in 1938 (age 44)
Lou Polli skipped 11 years, 35 2/3 IP in 1944 (age 42)
Pete Appleton skipped 2 years, 23 2/3 IP in 1945 (age 41)
Guy Bush skipped 6 years, 4 1/3 IP in 1945 (age 43)
Paul Schreiber skipped 21 years, 4 1/3 IP in 1945 (age 42)
Clay Touchstone skipped 15 years, 10 IP in 1945 (age 42)
Hod Lisenbee skipped 8 years, 80 1/3 innings in 1945 (age 46)
Ted Lyons skipped 3 years, 42 2/3 IP in 1946 (age 45)
Bucky Walters skipped 1 year, 4 IP and 2 PA in 1950 (age 41)
Al Benton skipped 1 year, 37 2/3 IP in 1952 (age 41)
Bobo Newsom skipped 3 years, 60 1/3 IP in 1952 (age 44), 38 2/3 IP in 1953 (age 45)
Dizzy Trout skipped 4 years, 1/3 IP in 1957 (age 42)
Satchel Paige skipped 1 year, 62 IP in 1951 (age 44), 138 IP in 1952 (age 45), 117 1/3 IP in 1953 (age 46), 3 IP in 1965 (age 58)
Diomedes Olivo 9 2/3 IP in 1960 (age 41), 84 1/3 IP in 1962 (age 43), 13 1/3 IP in 1963 (age 44)
Bert Blyleven skipped 1 year, 133 IP in 1992 (age 41)
John Franco skipped 1 year, 34 1/3 IP in 2003 (age 42), 46 IP in 2004 (age 43), 15 IP in 2005 (age 44)
Jamie Moyer skipped 1 year, 53 2/3 IP in 2012 (age 49)

John Franco may be the single best comparison on the entire table, a rubber-armed closer who underwent Tommy John surgery when he was 42 but returned to the Mets bullpen in 2003. In fairness, Armando Benitez had taken the closer role from Franco midway through the 1999 season, so Franco was no longer the Mets’ primary closer. But he was an ageless reliever, like Mo.

Franco appeared to be effective in 2003, throwing 34 1/3 innings with a 2.65 ERA, but his strikeouts fell by half, and his 5.22 FIP was almost twice his ERA. In 2004, he pitched 46 innings with a 5.28 ERA; in 2005, 15 innings with a 7.20 ERA, and that was it.

Jamie Moyer, the oldest player ever to undergo Tommy John surgery, is another recent memory. Moyer was basically replacement-level in 2009 and 2010, before his surgery, with a 5.04 FIP; and he was basically replacement-level in 53 2/3 innings in 2012, after his comeback, with a 5.54 FIP.

Bert Blyleven had rotator cuff surgery in 1991, and his surface numbers in 1992 were a lot worse than his components. He threw 133 innings of 4.74 ERA/4.16 FIP ball, almost an exact mirror of his 1990 performance of 134 innings with a 5.24 ERA/3.95 FIP. (Those weren’t good numbers, as it was still the neo-deadball era; his FIP- was 103 in both years, slightly worse than league average.) He retired after that.

Diomedes Olivo and Satchel Paige spent a whole career in another league before spending a few of their golden years twirling in the majors. Olivo was a Dominican League legend; according to the Baseball-Reference Bullpen, he later became “undersecretary in charge of sports for the Dominican Republic.” Olivo wasn’t injured in 1961, he just dominated the International League, winning the Pitcher of the Year award. (Three years earlier, that award went to Tommy Lasorda. Three years later, Mel Stottlemyre won it.) I frankly don’t know why the Pirates refused to call him up; they finished 6th that year, a year after winning the World Series.

Paige, of course, should need no introduction, but it is a small measure of his talent that he has a career ERA of 3.29 (81 ERA-) in 476 innings despite debuting at the age of 41 on Larry Doby’ s Indians. His missed season did not come due to injury, either. The Indians released him after the 1949 season, and he returned to the Negro Leagues in 1950. He returned to the majors in 1951, and pitched poorly that year but quite well in 1952-53.

Bobo Newsom was generally called “well-traveled” toward the end of his career; one newspaper noted that he was “traded 27 times in 27 years.” He pitched 709 innings in the minors in 1949-1951, the three years he went between stints in the majors. He didn’t have much left, but he ate innings. (Judging by his photos, that wasn’t all he ate.)

Jesse Orosco, the most game-appearingest pitcher in baseball history, didn’t make the list, but he is also a reasonable comparison for Rivera. He blew out his elbow just six games (and 2 1/3 innings) into the 2000 season, when he was 43. He returned to pitch 16 innings in 2001, 27 in 2002, and 34 in 2003 before he retired, pitching mostly though not exclusively to lefties. (221 PA vs. lefties, 133 vs. righties.) His 2001 and 2002 were reasonably effective, with a 3.35 ERA and 4.44 FIP over those 43 innings. But his 2003 was horrible, as he posted a 7.68 ERA, and that was that.

Among hitters, there were a lot more guys who came back for a few plate appearances here and there, but almost all of those guys were before World War II, and some were player-managers who inserted themselves into a game about once a year. Of 45 hitters who skipped a year in their 40s and then came back to play a game, only four returned for a meaningful number of postwar at-bats: Al Simmons, Jack Saltzgaver, Rick Ferrell, Bert Campaneris, Julio Franco, and Tim Raines. None is a particularly good comparison.

Rick Ferrell got his final at-bats in 1947, after having retired in 1946 to coach. Campaneris spent 1982 in the Mexican League; Franco spent his time off in Japan, Korea, and Mexico. And Tim Raines didn’t play in 2000 because he had actually retired, too; Rany Jazayerli wrote a piece about his Hall of Fame candidacy that March. He hit a fluky .303/.413/.449 in 109 comeback PAs in 2001, but fell back to earth with a .191/.351/.258 in 114 PAs in 2002. After that, Rock hung up his cleats for good.

Needless to say, Mariano Rivera is unique in baseball history. It may seem pointless to try to compare him to other quadragenarian players, considering that there was no one like him when he was in his 20s or 30s. He’s the greatest reliever in baseball history, and arguably the greatest postseason player in baseball history, and so forth and so on.

The point of this exercise is, maybe, a simple one: players get old, and very few are effective in their 40s, and very very very few are able to keep being effective after being away from the major leagues for a full year. It’s possible that Mariano Rivera has more in common with Satchel Paige’s preternatural arm strength than he has with a mortal human like John Franco or Jesse Orosco.

If he does manage to pull off a successful final year, that will be cause for great celebration. But if he does not, then there will be no shame in that. It is, after all, unprecedented.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

27 Responses to “Mariano Rivera and Father Time: Comebacks After 40”

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  1. Frank says:

    Quadragenarian. Great word! Makes me wish I was turning 40 kinda…

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  2. The Original Aboriginee says:

    Satchel Paige is ridiculous.

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    • He “debuted” two days after his 42nd birthday, according to many sources, although the Indians’ owner at the time, Bill Veeck, believed him to be 48 and we’ll probably never know for sure.

      Totally unique.

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  3. Darien says:

    The wild DARIEN uses NITPICK!

    “Al Simmons, Jack Saltzgaver, Rick Ferrell, Bert Campaneris, Julio Franco, and Tim Raines” may be slightly more than four people.

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  4. Brian says:

    Rivera looks almost the same as he did as a rookie, most players (and people) get thicker by the end of their career. You can see the difference with Jeter, not so much with Rivera. He’s got good genes.

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  5. TKDC says:

    Rivera has a combination of three things that should be noted:

    1. He was elite in his latest season (2011) – one of the very best relievers in baseball.

    2. Somewhat related, he is one of the greatest players in baseball history and doubtlessly the greatest and best closer in history. Most of the very best are able to hang on a little longer.

    3. His injury was not related to pitching – not to underrate his injury as a factor, but considering modern medicine and almost a full year off, how much different is this than an alternate situation in which Rivera just decided to stop playing baseball for a year and then came back?

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    • David says:

      I suppose my only response to #3 is that he is still a year older. If he had pitched last year, would he have been an effective pitcher this year?
      Which would give him greater odds of being effective in 2013: pitching normally in 2012, or taking 2012 off, without any injury, just resting.
      And then how much worse was recovering from his injury than simply taking a year off for rest.

      Just as a note, I am inclined to believe that Mo could have his career average season, within 5-10% variance, indefinitely, until the end of time.

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  6. Bab says:

    When is a season-ending injury not season-ending. And when would such an event not be untimely?

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  7. Jim says:

    Better idea: How about Fangraphs recognizes that fWAR vastly underrates Rivera by ignoring his career .262 BABIP in 1219.2 IP?

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  8. YanksFanInBeantown says:

    Are any of those players comparable to Mariano Rivera?


    Well, good to know, then.

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  9. eric.garcia says:

    Critical take-away: there was a professional baseball player named Kaiser Wilhelm who declined after 1914 and failed at a comeback in 1921.

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  10. awy says:

    when you only have a handful of ‘comps’ it’s pretty meh to draw any comps, especially from a guy like franco who isn’t even in the same ballpark as rivera. look at rivera’s pitch f/x for changes would be far more informative

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    • Gandalf says:

      Same ballpark? Both aged human beings.

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      • awy says:

        point is that rivera is unique enough to make an already small sample essentially anecdotal.

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        • Gandalf says:

          He’s not so unique that oxygen isn’t slowly poisoning him, unless of course he is, in which case I apologize.

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    • Pitch F/X can’t be used for historical comparisons because it’s such a new technology. Historical comparisons are useful because we have somewhere around 140 years of recorded professional baseball history, and most things that could ever happen have already happened. The n is really, really big. That doesn’t mean that new things can’t happen — unprecedented things happen all the time — but the probability of Mo coming back and staying effective is still low, because the probability of anyone coming back and staying effective at the age of 43 is low.

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      • awy says:

        i know it’s impossible to compare mo’s pitchfx to say franco’s. but you can compare mo pitches this year to mo’s pitches from past seasons and get an idea of how those pitches can do. it’s more interesting than trying to figure out the correlation between this particular comp set and rivera.

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  11. Jason H says:

    The thing with Mo is that his peak has lasted from 1996-2011 as far as we know. Every other player in history, probably, has had some decline by this stage in their careers. It might make more sense to compare Mo to relievers in the peak of the careers coming back from a year off due to a non-pitching-related absence.

    …but honestly, no comp will make much sense. Mariano Rivera should not be possible. One pitch, one speed, one location (he has increasing used two locations, to be fair) should not be possible. The guy is completely unique in the history of baseball.

    When I’m at The Stadium, I always hope for close games, even if it means the Yankees give up a few late runs to make it close. There is nothing like hearing the ominous opening of “Enter Sandman” and seeing the doors open, only to appear this skinny, mild, casual guy loping towards the mound like it’s nothing. Then, usually about 10 pitches later its all over and he shakes the catchers hand casual as ever. Perhaps a slight sheepish grin as if to say “but I told them what I was going to throw…”.

    Mo is definitely the single player who’s career I feel most lucky to have witnessed. And I’m happy to get another year. I fully expect Mo to be the same as ever, because, with a baseball, Mo only seems to ever do amazing things.

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  12. swfcdan says:

    Don’t like the Yankees but by god am I cheering for Mo this year.

    Would be incredible if he does still perform well, and tbh knowing Mo you are kinda expecting it. Even if his cutter drops to 87/88mph, its still gonna be tough to hit.

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  13. Joe says:

    Mariano’s injury wasn’t to his elbow, or arm, or shoulder, or anything else, I think that is a significant detail here.

    It should be much easier for a 43 year old to maintain effectiveness as a pitcher coming off of ACL surgery than Tommy John surgery, or some other arm injury.

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