The Anti-Koufaxes

This Sunday, Jamie Moyer became the 46th pitcher in Major League history to win 250 games. Barring injury, he should pass Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Carl Hubbell, and Red Faber at some point this year. The most remarkable thing about Moyer's career total, however, is not the names he's approaching, but how he got there. At age 30, Moyer and his mid-80s fastball were nearly out of the game. He had to that point accumulated a mere 34 career wins. The crafty lefty was coveted more for his mind than his arm and was reportedly offered minor league coaching jobs from teams that thought his career as a pitcher was done. Baltimore decided to take a chance on Moyer sticking around a few years more, and since then, he hasn't looked back. At age 30, he won 12 games and also posted career bests in ERA, WHIP, H/9, BB/9, and K:BB ratio. From that point on, he has gone on to win 216 games, meaning over 86% of his career victories have come since turning 30. Furthermore, he's had 86 victories since turning 40, more than twice the total he posted in his 20s and over a third of his career total.

Not surprisingly, Moyer's feats in his later years put him in pretty elite company. He's 7th all time in wins after turning 30 and 3rd in wins after turning 40. Here's the list of pitchers ahead of him in each:

Wins after 30.................
Wins after 40
Cy Young (316)

Phil Niekro (121)
Phil Niekro (287)

Jack Quinn (104)
Warren Spahn (277)

Jamie Moyer (86)
Gaylord Perry (240)

Randy Johnson (235)

Early Wynn (217)

Jamie Moyer (216)

Moyer will probably pass Wynn for 6th on the wins after turning 30 list this season.

As you can see, he's in pretty good company. He'll be only the second on either list, joining Jack Quinn, not to make the Hall of Fame. Can any of these pitchers match Moyer's obscurity up until 30, though?

ost of them turned up the jets to some degree after their typical primes. Spahn, Perry, and Wynn all collected between 72 and 76% of their victories after age 30. Spahn got a famously late start to his career after giving up 3 years to the War effort along with many of his peers, starting only 16 games at 25 before becoming a full-timer at 26. This certainly cut off of his win totals, but he became dominant in a hurry, winning 21 games 3 times in his 4 full seasons in his 20s. Perry wasn't his multiple Cy Young self in his 20s, but he was and All Star and a 20 game winner at 27 and had a 3.06 ERA, 12% better than the League average over his career to that point, through 1968. Wynn was a bit below average in both W% and ERA throughout his 20s, though he was a regular contributor to the Senators' rotation and even got MVP votes after going 18-12 with a 2.91 ERA as a 23 year old.

Johnson struggled with control and crappy teams throughout his 20s, but he was already showing flashes of the dominant pitcher he would become. He twice led the league in strikeouts in his 20s (he also led the league in walks three times, a feat that, unlike the former, he would never repeat after turning 30) and made 2 All Star teams. Through his 20's, he was 12 games over .500, had a 108 ERA+, and had struck out more than a batter an inning throwing sliders harder than Moyer threw his fastball.

Jack Quinn was a good but largely insignificant pitcher through his younger years. He racked up the after 40 wins by pitching until he was 50.

Cy Young and his nearly 200 wins by age 30 politely excuse themselves from this discussion.

Phil Niekro, however, matches every bit of Moyer's pre-30 struggle and post-30 success. Even with a semi-breakout in his late-20s (he led the league in ERA in 1967 after starting the year in the bullpen), he had only 31 wins when he turned 30. Moyer's percentages of his career wins after 30 and 40 (86% and 34% respectively) easily surpass most of his rivals here, but fall short of Niekro's marks of 90% and 38%.

Moyer spent his age 29 season pitching for the Toledo Mudhens after signing a minor league deal with the Tigers. He found a new hope of returning to the Majors that year, telling the Associated Press in an interview during the 1992 season, "I think a lot of guys are waiting for expansion. It definitely creates jobs." (1). In 1993, he signed a minor league deal to compete for the fifth starter job for the Orioles, who had just lost 1992 callup and pitching prospect Richie Lewis to the Marlins in the expansion draft. As noted above, Moyer made the team and took off from there.

Niekro never faced that kind of near-attrition, but he was toiling in Atlanta's bullpen into his late-20s. He began the 1967 season having just turned 28 and with only 1 career start to his name. By mid-June, the knuckleballer had finally won a shot at the rotation and didn't let the opportunity slip. He went 10-7 with 10 complete games and a sub-2 ERA in 20 starts that year. Still, he was set to return to at least part-time bullpen duty in 1968. A local paper noted both the surprise of his '67 success and the plan to return to bullpen duty in '68 in a Feb. 1968 article:

Phil Niekro will prove an even bigger surprise in 1968 than he was in 1967 if he can handle the double duty assignment planned for him by manager Luman Harris of the Atlanta Braves.

Niekro, who led the National League with a 1.87 earned run average last season, is being groomed for duty as both a starter and a reliever in an effort to stabalize the Braves' chaotic pitching situation. (2)

The plan never went into motion for Niekro, as he quickly proved himself too valuable to remove from the rotation. That year, he started 34 games (which led the team) and made only 3 relief appearances. He did not show the results that would turn him into a HOFer until his 30s, but finally, at 29, he had earned a regular starting role, and he would only get better from there.

Moyer and Niekro are two-of-a-kind in Major League history. Both soft-tossers enjoyed fairly obscure careers through their 20s only to turn in some of the best post-30 and post-40 careers the game has ever seen. No one else can match both their pre-30 irrelevance and their post-30 significance. Moyer is an extremely long shot to join Niekro in the HOF, but he's shown few signs of slowing down into his mid-40s (he even signed a multi-year deal with the Phillies this offseason), and his consistency and longevity in his later years have put him among the game's elite.

1-July 21, 1992 St. Petersburg Times, AP story

2-Feb. 27, 1968, Rome News-Tribune, story by Fred Down


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.