By In Stuff

The Brevity of Pitching Stardom

Justin Verlander just went on disabled list. It could be something minor — but such things for 30-something pitchers are rarely minor.

Here, by Baseball Reference WAR, were the five best pitchers in baseball in 2011 — we’re talking just four years ago:

1. Roy Halladay
2. Cliff Lee
3. Justin Verlander
4. CC Sabathia
5. Jered Weaver

— Halladay retired two years ago.

— Lee is on the 60-day disabled list and his career might be over.

— Verlander just went on the 15-day disabled list because of soreness in his right triceps; he is coming off a dreadful season where he led the American League in runs allowed.

— Sabathia led the league in runs allowed two years ago, made just eight starts last year and has been so bad this spring (five homers in 9 2/3 innings) that he recently told a reporter that he doesn’t “give a (bleep) what stock people put into it.”

— Weaver had some injury problems a couple of years ago but he did lead the American League in victories in 2014, even if most of his other numbers took dips.

Remember: These guys were the best in the game was just four years ago. It was after that season that Sabathia signed a huge extension. It was one year earlier, that Cliff Lee signed his five-year, $120 million deal. Verlander had one more fantastic season after 2011 and then signed for seven years, $180 million.

The point being: Any executive who puts any stock in pitchers staying great is just kidding him/herself. What do the Nationals expect to get out of Max Scherzer? And, even if what they expect seems utterly reasonable (two good seasons, a couple more average ones)… is it? No one knows?

Felix Hernandez is an anomaly – he has now been very good to excellent for eight straight years. Clayton Kershaw … here’s hoping he can keep this going for years to come. But the hard truth is that even the best pitchers, the seemingly invincible pitchers — Verlander, Halladay, Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, Johan Santana to name only a few recent Cy Young winners — will not only decline quickly they can disappear in a moment.

Understanding this only makes Hall of Fame marvels like Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson even more miraculous.

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48 Responses to The Brevity of Pitching Stardom

  1. Mark says:

    As always Joe enjoy the article. Your reference to Clemens and HOF tho is way premature since he will never get in.

  2. Mark says:

    Great piece, and a good reminder of why teams should always be INCREDIBLY wary of trading starting pitching, especially prospects.

    • Karl Weber says:

      Yes–although couldn’t one just as logically draw the conclusion that it’s incredibly risky to trade a good position player FOR a starting pitcher, given how unpredictable a pitcher’s future is?

  3. Ross Hansen says:

    Great column and the point is well taken. On Clemens-he had some help-otherwise he was done when the Red Sox let him go. The last 10 years were all fueled by PEDS imho.

    • dfj79 says:

      Clemens wasn’t “done” when the Red Sox let him go. His last year with them he led the AL in strikeouts (in total as well as on a per-inning basis) and was top-10 in ERA and innings pitched. Why do so many people talk as if he was some worthless, washed-up dud at that point? He’d had a couple down years by his standards, and PEDs may have helped him reclaim his Cy Young level performance, but he was still a much, much better pitcher than, say, Verlander and Sabathia are now.

      • MIKEN says:

        Yes a good contract push by Roger, …,. He had a 40-39 record those 4 years, and ERA was up. Twilight of his career was a reasonable conclusion at that point.

    • If all it takes is some PEDS, in your humble opinion, please explain why there aren’t hundreds more careers just like Clemens’ last ten years were?

  4. I think MLB is eventually heading to the point where all the pitchers will rarely throw more than 2 or 3 innings. Probably take 20-30 years but I think that’s where it will go.

  5. chlsmith says:

    Amazing how it can take these guys a decade to get to their best, and then it’s over so quickly. Better be lucky enough to cash in!

  6. Jeff A. says:

    This is the very reason I’m happy the Sox didn’t spend megabucks to outbid the Cubs for Lester.

    I actually am curious if we’ll start to see forward-thinking teams offering “insane” one year contracts to guys like Lester and Scherzer when they hit free agency. I mean, if you’re willing to shell out $20-$25 mil at the end of a 5, 6, or 7 year contract for a guy who will in all likelihood be a shell of his former self, why not pay $35-40 mil for one year where you are more likely to get a repeat of the Ace performance?

  7. Travis says:

    See this is why we should take another look at Mark Buehrle for the HOF. What he has done is truly remarkable. 14 straight seasons of 200+ IP with a cumulative ERA+ of 117. Play index is free through April 15 so somebody savvy with it can tell us who else has done that and I’m guessing the few who have done it are in the HOF. If he stays with it and gets to 4000 IP, he deserves serious consideration. If you’re think Jaime Moyer his ERA+ was 103 in 4074 with 50.4 war, Buerle 117 in 3084 with 58.2 war.

    • Travis says:

      As far as I can tell ERA+ isn’t apart of play index, but I’m a novice. Anyway he’s a better pitcher than Jack Morris was and Morris survived 15 years and inspired a thousand think pieces. Buehrle deserves at least that, especially if, like Morris, he brings home Canada a WS.

  8. Billy binkers says:

    Makes mike mussina look even more incredible. Singing for 100mm+ in his 30’s (over a decade ago nonetheless when salaries weren’t nearly this high) and it being a relative bargain (in two diff deals nonetheless)

  9. Tommy bahama says:

    Billy Binkers likes the word nonetheless.

  10. franklb says:

    Too many baseball writers, most of whom have never picked up a ball, a bat, or a glove in anger, undervalue longevity, and have undervalued it for a very long time. A baseball player who performs at a high level for a long period of time, and at an advanced (baseball) age still is able to hold down a starting job, gets called a “compiler” instead of a “Hall of Famer”. Granted, not all such players “compile” “Hall of Fame” stats, but when they do, give ’em their due.

    • DjangoZ says:


      More sportswriters need to touch sports equipment! No excuses!

    • BobDD says:

      So in Airplane (the movie) in that lineup at the seat of the panicky passenger, the guy carrying the bat should have been a sportswriter? I sure wouldn’t want a proctologist picking up a glove in anger, especially if he had any kind of longevity in mind.

    • casper says:

      On the contrary, it’s the writers who are first to give compilers their due. That’s because people don’t go to the ballpark to see compilers. Apart from the local fans, if he happens to have stayed with one team for a long time, the only reason they even know about compilers is because some writer wrote about how such and such a guy’s career numbers are getting up there. And then Joe Fan starts saying, Yeah he was pretty good too. By that time, though, Joe Fan is usually wishing they’d dump the old guy and get somebody young and good. And Jim GM is thinking, I’ve got a hole to plug and I can’t find anyone good to fill it, and at least this guy is reliable. It isn’t until the compiler has retired that people forget the mixed feelings they had about him during his career.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I would bet most baseball writers have picked up a ball, bat, or glove at least as much as you or I (unless you are a real ballplayer). I get very tired of people using this tired trope of “they never played the game” whenever there is an evaluation that they don’t like. IMO, there is a legitimate argument over whether longevity is more or less important than peak performance and it has nothing to do with whether someone has played baseball at a high level, once we get past the understanding that anyone capable of playing big-league baseball is a great player relative to most of the population..

  11. Look at the Giants rotation options which is littered with ex-Cy Young winners and near Cy Young winners. Bumgarner, Cain, Lincecum, Hudson, Peavy, Vogelsong. Cain missed a lot of last season & his health is a question this year. Hudson is 39, and really tailed off last year after a good start. Peavy is 34 and hasn’t been very good for a few years. Lincecum has struggled for a few years. Vogelsong is 37, and coming off 60 and 87 ERA+ seasons. Really, they did it with Madison Bumgarner & a sack of hammers last year. I think the Giants are in big trouble this year. Bumgarner might be awesome, but he is far more likely to be Steve Carlton in 1972 than Bob Gibson in 1968.

    • Mark says:

      bellweather22, are you kidding?
      If Bumbgarner pitches in 2015 like Carlton in 1972 it’s going to be a season for the ages!! (were you assuming Carlton’s 1972 was not a great season?)

      • Ed says:

        I’m pretty sure he meant Bumgarner would be a great pitcher on a bad team like Carlton in 1972 (Phillies only won 59 games) as opposed to great pitcher on a good team (Gibson’s Cardinal’s won 97 in 1968).

  12. Ryan says:

    I wish you’d added Mike Mussina one that last line. His consistency is one of the hallmarks of his HOF case. Mussina is unique in that he never had that one great year. He never had a 23-5 2.19 season in which he ran away with the Cy Young Award. He was just incredibly good for a long period of time.

  13. Coach Lee D says:

    The possible difference with Kershaw is that he signed his big contract when he was in his mid-20s. This should mean that the Dodgers should get his peak years, and not the decline years of the 30+ pitchers on Joe’s list.

  14. This is not unusual. Cy Young winners after five years, back in the days when men were MEN (or so we’re told):

    Don Newcombe 1956 — out of baseball.
    Warren Spahn 1957 — still a star.
    Bob Turley 1958 — in his last season, having won 18 games over those five years.
    Early Wynn 1959 — out of baseball.
    Vern Law 1960 — an outlier season in his fifth year (17 W, 2.15 ERA) after four years of ERAs of 4.40 of worse, followed by two similarly poor years and out.
    Whitey Ford 1961 — five quality years but he was done after that.
    Don Drysdale 1962 — still effective but at a lower level.
    Sandy Koufax 1963 — out of baseball.
    Dean Chance 1964 — essentially done.
    Sandy Koufax 1965 — out of baseball.
    Sandy Koufax 1966 — ditto.
    Mike McCormick 1967 NL — out of baseball.
    Jim Lonborg 1967 AL — still effective though at a lower level.
    Bob Gibson 1968 NL — still effective but at a much lower level.
    Denny McLain 1968 AL — out of baseball.
    Tom Seaver 1969 NL — still a star.
    Denny McLain 1969 AL tie — out of baseball.
    Mike Cuellar 1969 AL tie — still effective.
    Bob Gibson 1970 NL — no longer effective, retiring.
    Jim Perry 1970 AL — no longer effective, retiring.
    Ferguson Jenkins 1971 NL — still effective.
    Vida Blue 1971 AL — still effective but at a lower level.

    I could go on but let’s add it up to this point:

    22 Cy Young winners
    2 still pitching at a Cy Young level (Spahn, Seaver)
    4 still effective (Ford, Cuellar, Jenkins, Blue)
    4 still effective but at a lower level (Law, Drysdale, Lonborg, Gibson 1968)
    4 essentially done (Turley, Chance, Gibson 1970, Perry)
    8 out of baseball.

    So more than half of these guys were essentially done or actually done after five years, and 72% were no longer effective at the same level they’d been at. (And two of those who were still as effective as before — Ford and Cuellar — had had their last strong season in the fifth year.) Only two were still Cy Young worthy — under 10%.

    I’d say what we’re seeing here is pretty much the sad story of pitching effectiveness since they started handing out Cy Youngs, and probably for a long time before that.

    • Paul says:

      That’s great historical perspective. The human arm has never been designed for long term success at the MLB level. Those that succeed long term have always been the outliers.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      A lot of the guys you selected won the Cy Young when they were in their 30s so you wouldn’t expect them to have a lot more effective years in them anyway. Others had off-field issues that shortened their careers. Koufax is a unique situation because of his specific arm condition; Whitey Ford retired at 36; perhaps he would have won a Cy Young earlier in his career if Stengel had used him differently. Lonborg wrecked his knee in a skiing accident the winter after he won the Cy Young and was never the same. Newcombe had logged a lot of innings with the Dodgers and, before that, in the Negro Leagues. Gibson was 34, I believe, when he won. As you noted, Seaver was still a star but he won the award at 25. Denny McLain ran into a lot of problems not necessarily related to baseball. Vida Blue had issues with drugs.

  15. Ken Garner says:

    Repetitive motion injuries — too many pros today are leaving innings in travel ball. We’re going to see fewer and fewer pitchers dominate a decade; two or three stellar years is about all we can expect followed by varying degrees of decline ….

    • Platinum says:

      Maybe. But haven’t people been saying that for the past four or five decades (at least)? And yet we still had Clemens and Johnson and Maddux and Pedro and Glavine and Schilling and Mussina and Smoltz and Hudson and Sabathia and…

  16. Mike Schilling says:

    Lincecum won two Cy Youngs in a row, followed by 2 very good years, followed by three years of being the worst starter in baseball. Unless a miracle occurs, he was washed up at 27.

  17. It’s funny that Verlander made a comment recently about how he doesn’t believe that pitchers should be coddled, that if you expect a pitcher to go out and throw 200+ innings a year he will go out and do it. A few days later Verlander goes on the DL. You have to wonder what thoughts were swirling in his head when he was having that conversation with the reporter.

    The other part of the interview was equally interesting. He said that working pitchers hard at a young age tends to weed out the injury prone guys in the minors, so that the pitchers who do make it to the Big Leagues have already shown durability. If a guys arm is brittle, you might as well find out sooner than later.

  18. KHAZAD says:

    If the point of this article is not to sign pitchers to big contracts for the later years of their career, it is a valid one.

    But calling Felix Hernandez an anomaly compared to these 5 pitchers because he has had 8 straight plus seasons is doing them a disservice.

    Roy Halladay averaged 220 innings a year with a 148 ERA+ over a decade. He averaged those 220 innings despite missing nearly a full year (from the middle of ’04 to the middle of ’05) with an injury and averaged 17 wins per year as well despite missing that year.

    Justin Verlander averaged 220 innings and a128 ERA+ over the 8 years before last season. If you had written this article then, you might have mentioned him along with Felix as your anomaly.

    Sabathia averaged 214 innings with a 125 ERA+ over a 12 year span.

    Cliff Lee has probably had a few more ups and downs, but still managed 204 innings and a 124 ERA+ over a nine year span before last season.

    Weaver has less innings per year (188, in part because his first season was a partial one) and might well be considered at least a half step below the other guys, but now has 9 straight years of above average pitching with a 124 ERA+.

    Felix is a great pitcher, and has a chance to outdo these guys because he started so young, but right now he has 9 seasons as a full time starter with 220 innings and a 129 ERA+. That kind of puts him around the same level as the other guys (and a step below Halladay, who was truly great for a decade). Let’s see where he is 4 or 5 years from now before we call him the anomaly.

  19. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    I’m totally cherry-picking here, but I thought this was interesting. In 1973, the golden age of pitcher “overuse”, the top 5 pitchers by rWAR were: 1) Seaver; 2) Blyleven; 3) Hiller; 4) Perry; and 5) Ryan. Every one of them was effective in 1978 or later (Hiller, of course, being the first to burn out). The surrounding years (1972 and 1974) aren’t as clean, but you still get a fair representation of guys who hung on for long careers (some of the above, plus Niekro, Jenkins, Kaat, and Sutton).

    Not sure what that means. Probably nothing. It could mean that many of the budding Pedros and Lincecums of the era were allowed to blow their arms out before they even reached their potential. Or it could be that the link between overuse and injury is a bit more elusive than we imagine. I seem to remember Bill James writing something about this, but I can’t recall what his take was…

    • And yet the Cy Young winner in the NL that year, Ron Bryant, was out of baseball after 1975, and the AL winner, Jim Palmer, had his last Cy Young level season in 1978 and then dropped to a still effective but definitely lower level (his last sub-4.00 ERA was in 1978). Mike Marshall (1974 NL Cy) had only one passable year after 1979; Catfish Hunter (1974 AL Cy) was at a much lower level by 1979.

      Steve Carlton (NL 1972) was still Cy worthy in 1977 but Wilbur Wood was in decline and was out of baseball after 1978.

      The guys you mention were indeed great, but they were outliers, even among pitchers who were at their level. We remember them because they were great for a long time, and forget the guys who were just as great, but didn’t last. Which is Joe’s point.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        As I said, I was cherry-picking, and I do understand Joe’s point, but it’s still hard to think of a truly great pitcher from that era who burned out after only 3-4 good years. Catfish, I guess, though he was overrated. Randy Jones? Frank Tanana? (Ron Bryant was never great, nor did he win the ’73 CYA; Seaver did.)

        But where were the Lincecums and Peavys and Verlanders of that era? Maybe they were overused and broke down in the minors.

        Again, I don’t want to make too much of this, but shouldn’t we have seen *more* of those kinds of pitchers back when starters routinely completed games and logged 250+ innings per season?

        • You’re right about Bryant — can’t imagine where I got that from.


          Sparky Lyle 1977 AL CY: Threw 137 innings that year and never approached that number again before retiring after 1982.

          Mike Flanagan 1979 AL CY: Threw 250+ innings 1978-80 but only approached it twice after that in a long career of mediocrity after 1980.

          Steve Stone 1980 AL CY: pitched between 110 and 212 innings for ten years and then pitched 250 and won 25 games. He pitched 15 games in 1981 and retired.

          Fernando Valenzuela 1981 NL CY: Threw over 250 innings (except in the strike year) for his first seven seasons and never approached it thereafter, even though he made 29-33 starts in some seasons.

          Pete Vuckovich 1982 AL CY: was a 30+ start, about 230 inning pitcher until 1982, then made only 31 starts in the next four years and was gone.

          John Denny 1983 NL CY: Threw 200+ innings early in his career at St. Louis but by 1983 had not done so for four years. Then threw 242 innings at age 31, had a decent 1984 despite injuries, and was far less effective in the two years after that before retiring.

          Of course, Cy Youngs are often handed out for weird reasons, but the point remains: we remember the Seavers and Carltons because they DID last forever, and forget those who hit the peaks and then didn’t.

  20. james says:

    You can also do the same thing for hitters. Look at the WAR leaders for hitter in 2011. Kemp Braun Votto were the leaders in the NL that year. All had down years last year. None more than 2 wins. Now pitchers do tend to get hurt more than hitters, but baseball careers are short.

  21. Marc Schneider says:

    A lot of pitchers blew out before they really reached stardom. Look at Jim Bouton; he was an outstanding pitcher in 1963-64, winning 39 games and then blew out his arm. People only remember him for the book , obviously, but he was a hell of a pitcher. I’m sure just as many guys threw out their arms in the old days; one difference is that, today, teams have a lot more invested in them so they can’t just discard them and we keep reading about them. Plus, with TJ surgery, a lot of guys come back; in days of yore, they just disappeared.

  22. Zack Keeling says:

    Mark Fidrych – RIP

  23. It’s amazing to me how often Hallady is forgotten about, when he was one of if no the best pitcher of the 2000s. I guess it can be chalked up to the lack of media exposure in Toronto and his quiet nature. It is foreboding though, when these 30+ year old pitcher’s see their velocity dip and the injuries start to pile up. Careers can end swiftly. Felix is going to be a very interesting case to watch, as his consistent dominance on a subpar team has been astounding, but how much longer he can keep it up remains to be seen. Regardless, it’s been a wonderful career.

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