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Do Recent Retirees Have Anything Left?

Andy Pettitte is back. Sure, it’s a minor-league deal but everyone expects Pettitte to be in the Yankees starting rotation by May. The Pettitte news got me thinking about other pitchers who recently retired from baseball with gas left in the tank. Then I had a twitter discussion about Mike Mussina. And it all came together.

What if Mussina came out of retirement? And Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Greg Maddux? What if they all came out of retirement today, did the work to get in shape, and, together with Pettitte, offered themselves up as a package-deal starting rotation? Would that starting five be better than any one of the thirty current starting rotation in the majors?

Quite possibly.

Let’s start with Pettitte. He pitched as recently as 2010, when he was 38, making 2012 his age-40 season. In 2010, he threw 129 innings with a 3.28 ERA and a 3.85 FIP, good for 2.4 WAR. Even before his comeback announcement, Marcel had projected Pettitte for this season at 73 innings pitched, a 2.20 K/BB, and a 4.06  FIP. After news broke last Friday, Dan Szymborski updated his ZIPS projections for Pettitte: 125.1 innings, 4.45 ERA, and 1.5 WAR.

We don’t have ZIPS projections for Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina or Greg Maddux but Marcel did provide projections for Johnson and Martinez, who pitched as recently as 2009. For Johnson, who would be in his age-48 season in 2012, Marcel projected 52 innings with a 4.36 FIP. For Martinez, who would be in his age-40 season in 2012, 60 innings pitched and a 4.13 FIP.

ZIPS projections come from a secret Szymborski family recipe. I don’t pretend to know what’s in the special sauce sauce. But let’s take the Marcel numbers we do have for Johnson and Martinez, and the data we have for them, Maddux and Mussina from the last three seasons they pitched, and make some very, very conservative estimates about what they could do for a full season in 2012.

Randy Johson

Johnson’s the toughest to estimate because he’s the oldest and retired after suffering the first shoulder injury his career in 2009. In addition, Johnson pitched only one full season of his last three, tossing 184 innings in 2008, his last year with the Diamondbacks. He threw only 96 innings in 2009 and 56 innings in 2007. His fastball velocity dipped below 90 mph for the first time in 2009; with the shoulder injury (now healed) and advanced age, we couldn’t expect Johnson’s fastball to average  much above 86 mph this season. On the other hand, his slider and split-finger fastball had stayed remarkably consistent  through the years. And Johnson was still getting batters to swing and miss on more than ten percent of his pitches in 2009.

Conservative estimate for Johnson for 2012: 100 innings, 2.10 K/BB, 5.15 FIP.

Pedro Martinez

Martinez hasn’t officially retired yet. He said last December that he expected to embark on some sort of retirement tour this summer, to put closure on his sure-to-be Hall of Fame career. Martinez hasn’t pitched since Game 6 of the 2009 World Series, for the Phillies. He had joined the Phillies mid-season after a disappointing end to his four years with the Mets.

Martinez hasn’t pitched a full season since he threw 217 innings in 2005 for the Mets. After that, he pitched only 132.2 innings (2006), 28 innings (2007), 109 innings (2008) and 44 innings (2009), fighting through a hip injury, a calf injury and a torn rotator cuff that required surgery. But when he joined the Phillies in mid-2009, he’d regained velocity on his fastball and change-up, resulting in his best strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2002.

Conservative estimate for Martinez: 120 innings, 2.15 K/BB, 4.95 FIP.

Mike Mussina

It’s especially fun to think about Mussina coming back this year because he retired after the 2008 season at the very top of his game: 200.1 innings pitched, a 4.84 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a 3.32 FIP. It was his first — and only — season with 20 wins.

Sure, Mussina had lost a few miles per hour on his three main pitches (fastball, slider, curve ball), but not his effectiveness. His strikeout-to-walk ratio that final season was 4.84, more than 1.0 greater than his career average and his home run/9 innings pitched was .76, below his career average. Mussina would be in his age-43 season if he pitched in 2012.

Conservative estimate for Mussina: 140 innings pitched, 3.0 K/BB, 4.50 FIP.

Greg Maddux

Maddux was always about movement and location and never about velocity. His fastball hovered in the higher 80s for most of his career, dropping to 83-84 miles per hour his final four seasons (2005-2008). But he maintained a first-pitch strike percentage around 65 percent and continued to get lots of swinging strikes. His walk rate sat below five percent every season from 2003 on. In his final four seasons, his FIP averaged somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.75, well above his career bests in the 1990s but better than league-average every season but his last. Maddux would be pitching in his age-47 season in 2012.

Conservative estimate for Maddux: 150 innings, 2.75 K/BB, 4.75 FIP.

How would this starting five stack up against the thirty current rotations?

It’s hard to know, of course. But we do have ZIPS projections for the anticipated rotations and the Positional Power Rankings published in the last two weeks. Dave Cameron ranked the Padres as thirtieth out of thirty rotations, but they have such an advantage pitching in PETCO, I’m not prepared to say our out-of-retirement starting five would out perform the Padres rotation this season.

But the Pirates? It’s very close.

Looking at Dave’s Positional Power Ranking numbers for the Pirates, we see a rotation made up of eight starters with no one pitching more than 130 innings. The top five pitchers — Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Brad Lincoln, Kevin Correia, and Jeff Karstens — are expected to combine for 620 innings pitched.  We estimate the out-of-retirement rotation to pitch 635 innings.

Our middle-aged warriors could also outperform the Pirates top five starters in K/BB. By my conservative estimates, the out-of-retirement five would average 2.64 K/BB over the 635 innings. The Pirates top five are expected to average 2.07 K/BB over 620 innings.

Things don’t look so good when we get to FIP. Yes, I was conservative in estimating FIP for our forty-somethings, but those numbers are closely tied to how those pitchers performed in their last season. The older gang comes out with an average FIP of 4.75 as compared to 4.3 for the top Pirates’ hurlers.

So it’s close. Pretty darn close. We’ll never know how it might have turned out, but it’s fun to dream about.

Well, unless you’re a Pirates fan.