The Old Boys Club
How old is old? In baseball, that question gets harder to answer every year. Clearly, Julio Franco is old, having turned 48 yesterday. He remains the oldest player in baseball, and four years the senior of any other player. There are managers in baseball – including Ozzie Guillen, Eric Wedge, and John Gibbons – who are younger than Franco.
Fueled by a morning diet of a dozen egg whites, Franco is continuing on his quest to play to the age of 50. He may be alone on that journey, but there are still plenty of old guys to go around no matter how you slice it. Based on their 2006 birthdays, entering the season there were 120 players 35 and older, including 22 players who topped 40.
At the head of the class were the veteran pitchers, who made up fifteen of the 40+ cohort. On average, the six full-season starters in the group have cost $8.25 million and delivered 26 starts with 157 IP, 11-9 records and a K:BB ratio of 2.36:1. Collectively, they’ve delivered league-average ERAs (4.48 versus the MLB average of 4.53). Carrying all six would cost a team $49.5 million, of which $16 million is for Randy Johnson and $9 million for Greg Maddux (the average cost of the other four is a much more palatable $6.1 million).
Their durability is impressive: four have topped 160 innings pitched and are on-pace for 200+ (Glavine may fall short after missing a week or two to tend to his shoulder with, as mentioned earlier, a rigorous treatment program of baby aspirin).
The two oldest starters – 44-year-old Roger Clemens and 43-year-old David Wells – are not on the above list. Clemens was not eligible to sign with the Astros until the end of May, and re-joined the team on June 22nd, activating a $12.6 million salary payout for the remainder of the season.
Since returning from injury at the end of July, Wells has delivered five starts of generally improving quality and duration (his ERA over the past four starts is 2.67). But with only 40 innings pitched, he illustrates one of the two biggest risks of relying on the old boys club: injury. The Red Sox managed the risk sensibly, providing Wells with a base contract of $2.5 million, and bonuses based on time played ($200,000 per start for starts 11-20; $300,000 each for starts 21-30). The Johnson contract, which runs through 2007, includes no such safeguard.
Other pitchers have been felled by skill deterioration. Of the seven relievers on the list, four are now out of the league: Fassero was designated for assignment in May, Mulholland placed on waivers in June, Remlinger designated for assignment that same month and Hammond cleared waivers in July. That leaves Jose Mesa, Roberto Hernandez, Mike Timlin and Chris Hammond as senior members of the league’s bullpens. To be polite, their performance has been mixed: the four have averaged 44 innings pitched with an ERA of 4.06.
Is 40 old? By baseball standards, the answer is still “Yes,” although it seems the number of 40-year-old starting pitchers is growing. Slated to join the club next year are John Smoltz, Tim Wakefield, Curt Schilling, and Woody Williams.
There are no 38-year-old starters left in the majors, however, only one 37-year-old (the Yankees’ Mike Mussina), and one who’s 36 (Philadelphia’s Jon Lieber). Thirty-five year-olds Paul Byrd, Steve Trachsel and Miguel Batista seem unlikely candidates to pitch five more years.
That gap should remind us that the current crop of aging pitching stars is truly exceptional, and not the new norm.
Coming soon: The Old Boys Club II: Tracking Down the Batters.