Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 18, 2005
BASEBALL: The Phenoms
There's been a lot of buzz lately, and justifiably so, about Felix Hernandez and the way he has thus far (through three starts) lived up to even the most extravagant hype. We will yet see how good Hernandez is really going to be in the short run, but barring injury I don't doubt he'll be good, and maybe great, possibly very soon. Aaron Gleeman pens a fine tribute to King Felix here, and Joe Sheehan provides some perspective here (subscription required, I think).
Sheehan studies the past track records of pitchers who made the majors as teens. It's a fine study, but I had a different angle I wanted to look at. What if Hernandez really does become an instant superstar - what does that mean for his long-term career prospects?
I decided to look at the greatest phenoms in the game's history since 1900 (before then, it was common to see very young pitchers atop the leaderboards). I pulled together a list of pitchers who were, or could plausibly be argued to be, one of the two best pitchers in their league in a season at age 22 or younger.
This turned out to be a fairly demanding test, but I did come up with 23 pitchers who fit the bill, including four who won the Cy Young Award at that age - Dwight Gooden, Vida Blue, Bret Saberhagen and Fernando Valenzuela (yes, I'm working with his reported age here). I may have missed someone who could arguably have qualified, but I don't think I missed anyone glaring. Based on the earliest season in which they qualified, here's the list:
19 Years Old
20 Years Old
21 Years Old
22 Years Old
As you can see, the list includes a phenomenally talented group of pitchers - but also a very high proportion of just the worst horror stories you can imagine. Nobody wants to see their favorite young pitcher compared to Fidrych, Score, Wood, or even Tanana. The list also includes a high proportion of extreme power pitchers, although there are a few glaring exceptions. The two guys who didn't strike people out even as young phenoms - Fidrych and Bunker - were effectively finished by age 23, while the guys who were merely above-average in the power department (Reulbach, Leonard, Dierker, James, Saberhagen, Krause, Ruth) were more of a mixed bag (Mathewson was a big strikeout guy in his first few years, at least by his time's standards).
Let's take a year-by-year look at how, on average, these guys fared. Keep an eye on the # column, which shows how many of the 23 pitchers in the sample actually pitched at that age. A few notes: I excluded the pitching numbers for Mark Prior for 2005, so he drops off the chart after age 23. I excluded Ruth and Wood for years when they were used almost exclusively as outfielders, so Ruth drops off after age 24 and Wood after age 27. And Feller was in the military ages 23-25:
I'm not sure the chart quite captures the horrific attrition rate for these guys, although you can see that barely half of them were still pitching at 30, an appalling figure (even if we throw out Ruth and Prior it's 13 of 21) for such a talented bunch. Even among the best of the group in terms of longetivity, Mathewson was finished by 34 and retired by 36, Drysdale was done at 32, Blyleven needed arm surgery at 31; even Walter Johnson had a sore arm at 32, although Johnson gradually recovered his effectiveness. Tanana was a shell of his former self after age 24, Valenzuela after age 26, Feller after 29. McDowell was done at 29, Wood at 25, James at 23, Krause at 22. Gooden tore his rotator cuff at 24. Saberhagen threw 200 innings for the last time at 25, Leonard at 29. Others declined more slowly, like Blue, Reulbach and Martinez.
The chart does suffer from some illusions. You can see the tremendous dropoff in strikeout rates, but (1) it would be more severe than that except that Fidrych and Bunker drag down the average for the younger years, and (2) the uptick at age 35 is mostly the result of Mathewson retiring, as Mathewson had been an extremely low-K pitcher throwing 300+ innings a year in his early 30s. Also, the small sample size goes haywire from 30 on: Johnson's staggering ERAs at age 30 and 31 have a large single-handed effect, and by age 38, only Johnson, Blyleven and Tanana were still pitching, and the first two had good years (their last). Finally, among those who survived into their 30s, a large number of them moved into much more hitter-friendly conditions: Blyleven, Blue and Tanana came out of the pitcher-happy 70s, Gooden and Saberhagen had to deal with the 90s, Johnson hit the lively ball era at 32. The "League ERA" from which the ERA+ is calculated (which bottoms out at 3.44 for the age-21 sample) jumps up from the 3.57-3.82 range to 4.01 at age 31, then to 4.32 and 4.40 at age 36-37. Thus, the ERA+ column may be more instructive.
The more complicated question is whether the gruesome health record (and other factors: Wood tripping on a baseball, Score getting drilled by a line drive, Gooden's and Blue's drug problems, McDowell's drinking, Feller going to war, Ruth's hitting prowess) was the result of overuse at a young age, or whether it's just been the case either that (1) guys who have this sort of gift at a young age are usually destined to burn out early as well or (2) no matter what age you start at, there's only so many good pitches in most guys' arms. That will be a tough one for the Mariners if Hernandez can scale the hieghts the way these others did. My own sense is that life has its own plans: you don't want to see Hernandez throw 270 innings a year, but if he can do the job of a front-of-the-rotation starter now, he should be asked to do it while he has that precious gift.