July 28, 2021

Thinking About Jamie Moyer at 48

December 2, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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. 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 their 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 ten 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.

Having said all this in praise of the man, the last two seasons, and several serious injuries that kept him out of the 2009 and 2010 playoffs, have apparently ended his status as that reliable 200-inning quality starter. The question is: Is it time to refer to Moyer’s career in the past tense, and give up the notion that he’ll be around in 2012? I watched him talk on MLB Network Tuesday night, one day ahead of his Tommy John surgery yesterday. He’s too old to look young, but he looks much more like a 40-year-old than someone near 50: Moyer doesn’t fit the mold of John, Phil Niekro, Randy Johnson, and Don Sutton, pitchers whose faces and bodies fully revealed the wear and tear of 20-plus big league years as they climbed toward 300 wins.

On Tuesday Moyer did not even mention the possibility that his Tommy John surgery will terminate his career, despite the prospect of rehabbing throughout 2011 to emerge as, at best, a fifth starter in 2012, at age 49. Still, Moyer did not sound like someone denying his age or too naive to recognize that his body can’t meet the demands baseball puts on a pitcher. He simply looked and sounded like someone still energized enough by the game and his own goals to at least make the full effort at recovery. And 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 last offseason), who could have expected he’d come back to deliver the several outstanding games that highlighted the Phillies’ 2010 season?

On the other hand, whenever Moyer gets hit hard you see it as a sign that the warranty for his junkballing repertoire has finally expired, and the end can come very quickly for any player who’s past 40, let alone facing his first arm surgery. Williams jibed with Moyer during the MLB Network appearance about him drawing a pension and a salary from baseball at the same time. It wasn’t really a joke: Moyer’s age marks him as the last 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 delivered for the Phillies and might deliver for some team in 2012.

A few final remarks from Moyer himself. Back in 2008, he hinted at the possibility of pitching until he’s 50: “It’s not something I’m ruling out.” But Moyer isn’t taking anything like that for granted. In 2008 he also said: “The thing I’ve learned in this game is nobody’s going to feel sorry for you, no matter how well you’re doing, or how poorly you’re doing … it’s a very difficult game to play.” And yesterday Moyer said of recovering from his latest surgery: “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.”

Arne Christensen runs Misc. Baseball, a blog gathering eclectic items from baseball history, and 1995 Mariners.

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