April 16, 2014

19 to 21…Aging Knuckleballers and Knucklehead Comments‏

November 1, 2012 by · 5 Comments 

One of the problems with the communications explosion engendered by the Internet is that it gives seemingly every Tom, Dick and Harry, and every blogger under the sun, a public forum, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.

This embodiment of the old saying, “don’t believe everything you read,” was underscored earlier in the week when a writer for MLB Trade Rumors (no names will be mentioned, to protect the guilty, although this site is one worth bookmarking) noted the Mets picking up R.A. Dickey’s option with a well-nigh incredible statement. No, he didn’t say that the Mets had actually made a good personnel move (although they did), thus going against a trend that has lasted for something like five years. What he wrote was…

“Some have speculated that Dickey could be in line for an Oliver Perez-type extension, which would be for three years at about $36MM. However, the Mets reportedly don’t have anything that lucrative in mind. At the age of 38, Dickey’s situation is a complicated one as knuckleballers historically haven’t fared well beyond 40.”

Oh really? Knuckleballers don’t do well past 40? Compared to whom? All other pitchers? Shortstops? Gymnasts maybe? Sprinters? Teen idol pop stars? Let’s discuss this a little bit, using the ultimate guide to pitchers, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.” Published in 2004, it is still considered the Bible on moundsmen of the past. In his article on knuckleball pitchers in the book, Rob Neyer references a 1991 Sporting News article on the breed, and comments that, at that time, Tom Candiotti was 33 years old, “young, of course, for a knuckleballer.” He also concludes his article speculating about the future of a minor league knuckleballer named Charlie Zink, “don’t be surprised if he ends up pitching for 20 years in the major leagues.” As it was, Zink ended up pitching in one game for the Red Sox in 2008, and lasting in the minors to 2011, but that’s not the point. What is the point is, why would Neyer, as knowledgeable a baseball historian to walk to Earth, make two comments like these? Maybe it’s because knuckleballers last seemingly forever?

That’s the simple answer, and it can be backed up by the list of the Best Knuckleballs of all time, which appears with Neyer’s article. That list includes…

Hoyt Wilhelm
Phil Niekro
Wilbur Wood
Eddie Rommel
Charlie Hough
Tom Candiotti
Dutch Leonard
Tim Wakefield
Joe Niekro
Eddie Fisher
Eddie Cicotte

These 11 knuckleballers, if you average the ages at which they threw their final major league pitches, lasted until they were 42 years old. Seven of them lasted in the majors past their 40th birthday, in most cases, way past their 40th birthday. In case you’re interested, there were exactly four pitchers above the age of four who appeared in National League games in 2012 (the AL figures aren’t on baseball-reference.com), the incredible Jamie Moyer, Takashi Saito, Miguel Batista and Jose Contreras.

Hoyt Wilhelm pitched until he was two weeks short of his 50th birthday. He went 54-47 with a 2.18 ERA and 129 saves after he turned 40. He’s in the Hall of Fame.

Phil Niekro joined Wilhelm in the Hall after going 121-103 with a 3.84 ERA, 62 complete games and 11 shutouts after 40. He was 48 and-a-half when he threw his last pitch. Brother Joe lasted until he was 43 and-a-half and won 28 games after 40 with a 4.66 ERA, five complete games and a shutout.

It is true that four of these knuckleballers didn’t last to 40, however, there are back stories to all of them. Wood had his career ended two months before he turned 37 by a line drive to his knee, otherwise, he might have lasted forever. Rommel was done in the majors at 35, but dominated in the minors at 37, going 6-2 with a 2.17 ERA. However, in an era when older pitchers were pretty scarce, he wasn’t going back to the majors, so he retired to become an umpire. Fisher was still pretty effective at 37, going 8-8 in 32 games, half as a starter and half in relief. He still retired to go into singing and marry Debbie Reynolds. Cicotte, who Neyer says invented the knuckleball, was 21-10 in 303 innings at the age of 36, and was then kicked out of baseball for being one of the Black Sox. No telling how long he might have kept winning 20 a year, particularly if the Sox had stayed together.

The rest of the group, like Wilhelm and the two Niekros, went on forever. Hough pitched until he was 46 and a bad hip put him out. He won 67 games after the age of 40 with a 4.06 ERA and 29 complete games. Candiotti was indeed young for a knuckleballer in 1991, he lasted until he was 42 and won 15 games after he turned 40, and he really wasn’t that good a pitcher. Leonard, an All-Star at the age of 42, lasted until he was 44 and-a-half, pitching five years for bad Cubs teams and still going 26-28 with a 3.60 ERA, 28 saves and 10 complete games. And, of course, Wakefield threw his last pitch last year for the Red Sox at the age of 45. In his five seasons in Boston after the age of 40, he went 49-46 with a 4.76 ERA and four complete games.

Not included in the Best Knuckleballs list were Freddie Fitzsimmons and Jesse Haines. They lasted until 42 (Fitzsimmons) and 44 (Haines) and won 29 games between them after 40. And, of course, everyone’s favorite knuckleballer, Jim Bouton, made it back to the majors at 39 and-a-half, and pitched semi-pro ball into his 60s.

So, yes, the Mets were smart to pick up Dickey’s option, and no, knuckleballers DO fare well beyond 40. In fact, as Neyer would tell you, that’s what they’re known for, at least outside of the knucklehead blogger fraternity.

“19 to 21,” like baseball, will be back soon for another season, to discuss such vital matters as…

Is Zach Greinke really worth all that money?
Will Santana change his evil ways? (That’s Johan, not Carlos)
Who’s on third in the Hall of Fame?

These stories, and more, in the 2013 “19 to 21,” starting as soon as the first dumb free agent signing (why wait until the new year… let’s get started.) For 2013, “19 to 21″ will go for $25 for 25 issues. Send your checks, made payable to “John Shiffert” to:

John Shiffert
Clayton State University
2000 Clayton State Blvd.
Morrow, GA 30260

Comments

5 Responses to “19 to 21…Aging Knuckleballers and Knucklehead Comments‏”
  1. ghostofwadelefler says:

    “Fisher was still pretty effective at 37, going 8-8 in 32 games, half as a starter and half in relief. He still retired to go into singing and marry Debbie Reynolds.”

    The knuckleball pitcher and the singer who married Debbie Reynolds (and, later, Liz Taylor and Connie Stevens) are two different men.

  2. John Shiffert says:

    @ghostofwadelefler – Gee, and here I thought no one would notice my sticking that joke in the column.

  3. Cliff Blau says:

    “Knuckleballers don’t do well past 40? Compared to whom?”

    Compared to themselves before 40. Taking the 10 pitchers from Neyer’s list (leaving out Cicotte), they collectively pitched 24,577.3 innings through their age-39 season and only 6,245.7 afterwards. Taking a simple average, their ERA+ was 115.5 through age 39, and 105.3 afterwards (which ignores that 3 of them didn’t pitch a single inning after 39). Six of the seven who kept pitching had a lower ERA+ from 40 on. Overall, comparing them to replacement level, I estimate they were 5 times as effective before 40 as before.

  4. John Shiffert says:

    I think you’d find that every other pitcher (who didn’t juice) on the face of the Earth has that sort of disparity between their age 40+ seasons, and their age 40- seasons, except that the vast majority of major league pitchers never get to an age 40 season, that’s why there were only four of them in the NL last year. I’m sure a comprehensive study (which I don’t have the time for) would show that knuckleballers do better after 40 than any other type of pitcher.

  5. Cliff Blau says:

    I agree that virtually all pitchers decline sharply by age 40, including knuckleballers, which is why it would be foolish for the Mets, who don’t have money to waste, to give Dickey a big money, long-term contract.

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