Thinking About Jamie Moyer at 49
Jamie Moyer is old enough to have helped prompt the Chicago Cubs to trade Dennis Eckersley to the Oakland A’s in the spring of 1987, when Moyer was a rising prospect displacing Eckersley as a starter, and to have been traded along with Rafael Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers for Mitch Williams before the 1989 season. In June 1986, he and Iowa Cub teammate Greg Maddux were acclaimed as “two young pitchers with sweet futures”: Maddux retired in 2008 after 23 years in the majors; Moyer left the Cubs 24 years ago.
I could go on giving illustrations of Moyer’s age and experience endlessly; he’s in the class of Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and very few others who were regular and effective starters at age 45 and beyond. The man whose arrival in Seattle during the 1996 season was heralded with the headline “Journeyman Lefty Moyer Gives M’s Cheap Veteran” had spent a full decade shuffling about the majors and minors. In that time he registered a 66-77 record, and his 7-1 record for the Red Sox in 1996 didn’t stop them from dealing him to the Mariners in one of Boston’s worst trades of the ’90s. But over the much more noteworthy second half of his career Moyer has consistently delivered quality and, at times, premium-class pitching.
Leaving aside his age, Jamie Moyer can be acclaimed simply as one of the best pitchers of his time. His 187-109 record from 1996 to 2008 translated to a .632 winning percentage and included 13-3, 20-6, 17-5, 21-7, and 16-7 seasons. That showing rivals the performance of Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling, and other luminaries. And his .692 winning percentage from 1996 to 2003 was without peer. But he doesn’t even approach the strikeouts (only once getting to 150 in a year) or shutouts (only 10 in his career), let alone the no-hitters, of a Roy Halladay, Nolan Ryan, or Randy Johnson. Instead, he’s the reliable six or seven good innings starter who quietly goes about 15-10 and chalks up 200 innings each season.
Moyer has never had the personality or mound presence of a staff ace, and his tendency to pitch to contact doesn’t make the casual fan’s eyes pop out or win praise from sabermetricians. As he himself says, “You need your defense to make a lot of plays behind you. It ain’t too often you win a one-run game or a 1-0 game with my style of pitching.” Instead, Moyer uses a diligent conditioning regime and constant study of hitters’ tendencies to (he hopes) bewilder them into an array of grounders and fly outs and come away with 5-3 and 7-4 wins.
When Seattle traded Jamie Moyer to the Phillies late in 2006, it was a sort of overdue tombstone for the Mariners’ glory years of 1995 to 2001. Moyer had had a miserable 2004 season, in which his 44 homers allowed were a prime example of the fast decline of an old Seattle team. He left behind a 6-12 record and 4.39 ERA for the 2006 Mariners when he got to Philadelphia. There, Moyer obtained a World Series ring, one other playoff appearance, 56 wins, and a nationwide level of fame and appreciation that simply wasn’t available in Seattle.
Now, Moyer’s returned to the majors at 49 (and a third), slotted as the Rockies’ second starter after coming back from Tommy John surgery and a year away from baseball (is he the first player to do so after hitting 45?). He’s too old to look young, but he looks much more like a 40-year-old than someone nearly 50: Moyer doesn’t fit the mold of John, Phil Niekro, Randy Johnson, and Don Sutton, pitchers whose faces fully revealed the wear and tear of 20-plus big league years as they climbed toward 300 wins. That’s probably a reflection of his enthusiasm for the game and life in general. After his Tommy John surgery, Moyer said: “I look forward to the challenge of making a comeback for the 2012 season. I love this game and I still believe I can be a successful pitcher in the big leagues.”
Still, even before that first arm surgery in his career, whenever Moyer got hit hard it was a potential sign that the warranty for his junkballing repertoire had finally expired, and the end can come very quickly for any player who’s past 40. It’s obviously possible that, once the season starts, age and the lingering effect of the surgery will leave him unable to throw with the control he’s used to get to 267 wins over 24 seasons. And the Rockies hardly appear likely to provide Moyer the stage for garnering more postseason glory. Nonetheless, after the 2009 season, when news emerged of Moyer lying in the hospital with a blood infection that followed surgery to repair three torn muscles in his groin and lower abdomen (he had three surgeries during that offseason), who could have expected he’d come back to deliver several outstanding games that highlighted the Phillies’ 2010 season?
If nothing else, Moyer’s age marks him as the guidepost for a host of columnists, announcers, former players, and 30-something bloggers who can mark him as the last player from the mid-’80s who’s still out there, serving as a source of inspiration, regret, plain nostalgia, and meditation on sports and the aging process. That’s perhaps become his primary value in the game of baseball, not the wins, losses, and innings he’ll deliver for the Rockies in 2012.