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
Wally Bunker
20 Years Old
Bob Feller
Don Drysdale
Fernando Valenzuela
Dwight Gooden
21 Years Old
Harry Krause
Babe Ruth
Mark Fidrych
Vida Blue
Bret Saberhagen
22 Years Old
Christy Mathewson
Ed Reulbach
Walter Johnson
Smoky Joe Wood
Bill James
Dutch Leonard
Herb Score
Sam McDowell
Larry Dierker
Bert Blyleven
Frank Tanana
Ramon Martinez
Mark Prior
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:

Age # W L IP ERA ERA+ K/9
17 2 3 2 36 3.17 154 10.27
18 5 3 3 66 3.43 116 7.57
19 14 7 6 119 3.23 119 6.61
20 17 12 9 185 2.59 138 6.40
21 21 14 10 211 2.54 135 6.33
22 23 18 10 250 2.45 149 6.96
23 22 15 9 209 2.75 130 6.56
24 20 13 9 197 2.84 136 6.07
25 18 16 9 223 2.69 134 6.07
26 17 13 10 203 2.88 123 6.08
27 18 14 10 216 2.79 131 6.11
28 16 14 11 219 3.05 121 5.61
29 16 12 10 194 3.52 105 5.59
30 13 12 9 182 2.75 139 5.31
31 12 11 9 175 2.97 135 5.11
32 13 11 8 158 3.62 112 4.62
33 12 9 7 148 3.74 105 4.62
34 9 10 9 171 3.79 107 4.72
35 9 11 8 166 3.68 110 5.43
36 6 11 9 175 3.82 113 5.61
37 5 9 8 145 4.16 106 4.81
38 3 15 11 229 3.52 114 4.54
39 3 7 10 148 4.80 83 4.72
40 0 0 0 0
41 1 8 12 133 4.74 84 4.74

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.

8 thoughts on “The Phenoms”

  1. The Sox had one ill-fated season in Tanana’s transition phase. He did go 120-121 after the age of 30 (as opposed to 120-115 before it) playing largely for mediocre teams. Granted he was never the flame throwing great hurler of his youth but he did pitch to 39, win 240 games and make between $12-$15 million dollars. Could be worse.

  2. Speaking fo which, Sports Guy’s Page 2 article right now on the Summer of Doc… awesome.

  3. What are you comparing their attrition rate to?
    What if you took a group of players who were the best pitchers in their league from age 25-28. How would their combined year-by-year chart look?

  4. What is the premise? And the conclusion?
    I think all Ps have a horrific attrition rate. Of this group of 23 I think the group collectively remains well above league average into their mid 30s.
    Thought provoking but just a beginning….Bill

  5. I agree with President McKinley — you have to compare it with the general attrition rate of pitchers, which is pretty much in line, maybe even a little higher than the rate on this table. I think I recall an article touching on this recently on Baseball Prospectus, but I haven’t been able to find it.

Comments are closed.