Fernando Rodney and the surprising effectiveness of old closers

Leon Halip

Jack Z may have overpaid for the M's new reliever, but it's not delusional to have faith in a Rodney revival.

Editor's note: Please welcome Seth Kolloen, who currently writes for Seattle Weekly and has contributed to Deadspin, Grantland, and The Stranger.

He'll be 37 on March 18. There's no doubt Fernando Rodney is old for an athlete. He would be ancient for a gymnast, elderly for a cornerback, and over-the-hill for a shortstop. But for a closer? You'd be surprised.

Knowing what you know about when baseball players hit their prime, you would expect the best seasons by pitchers to have been recorded by those in their mid-to-late 20s. And for starting pitchers, you'd be right. In the past ten years, MLB starting pitchers have recorded 98 seasons of 17 wins or more. And youngbloods—pitchers aged 26-28—recorded 41% of them.

17-win-seasons

Setting aside the question of what this means for the future of 27-year-old Felix Hernandez and the $76 million he'll get for his age 30-32 seasons—actually, let’s put that question in a locked box, stash it in a dark room, then blow the room up and mail the ashes to Mars—let’s look at the same distribution, over the same timespan, for 37+ save seasons by relief pitchers.

37-save-seasons

Of those 108 seasons, players aged 26-28 recorded just 19%. The age-challenged fare exquisitely in comparison—closers aged 38 recorded more 37+ save years than closers aged 25!

(Yes, yes, I know, wins and saves are meaningless on an individual basis when divorced from team performance. However, taken collectively, big win or save years can serve as shorthand for "good season." That is how I am using them here. No one’s trying to take away Felix’s Cy Young.)

Do I consider this proof that experience makes you a better closer? No, because I don’t want to end up on Fire Joe Morgan. Obviously, this could just as easily prove that managers are more likely to reserve the closer role for veterans because they’ve "been there before" or whatever.

Having said that, here’s a little story. Before the 2007 season, the Seahawks signed 35-year-old tight end Marcus Pollard to a one-year contract. Then-coach Mike Holmgren predicted that Pollard would catch 45 passes that year. It was the work of a few seconds to find that only two 35-year-old TEs in history had ever caught that many passes.

What happened? Pollard caught just 28 passes, missed two games with an injury, and in the Seahawks’ playoff loss against Green Bay, dropped two key passes and lost a fumble. Mike Sando, the best Seahawks writer around, called poor tight end play the team’s biggest problem.

If you’re skeptical of Fernando Rodney, or of 37-year-olds, or of Jack Zduriencik free-agent signings, I don’t blame you. But whereas previous Jack Z experiments have been predictable flops, the possibility of getting a stellar season out of a closer in his mid-30s is actually a realistic one.

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