FanPost

New studies show that Fernando Rodney is old, even for a relief pitcher

Don't consider this as a rebuttal, but as an addendum. As an opportunity to get a wider view on a topic and see several angles of a 37-side die.

It's been a small point of contention that new Seattle Mariner Fernando Rodney isn't young. He's so not young that he's old. But is he too old? Not just for being an athlete, or for being a baseball player, or to date my sister, but is he too old to be a relief pitcher?

There are examples of 37-year-old relief pitchers being successful. One such player was successful from 37 to 43 without missing much of a step at all, and still retiring on top. But is there more than one such example? And what do these examples tell us about being an older-than-average reliever compared to what we know about Fernando's career and repertoire?

I do not believe that saves or wins are useful measurements of pitcher ability or talent in the slightest. In the slightest.

It did make me curious to see how age correlated to success as a relief pitcher, if at all, and what common traits those 37+ RPs had. I went to Fangraphs to gather data of every relief pitcher over the last six seasons and specifically wanted to look at those that finished in the top 30 (30 teams, average of one player per team, which I find more useful than being in the "closer" role) of WAR.

It's quick and dirty, but it's slower and cleaner than wins and saves.

2013

Average age of top 30 RP by WAR: 29.33

Over 36: Koji Uehara (38), Joe Nathan (38), Mariano Rivera (43)

2012

Average age of top 30 RP by WAR: 29.33

Over 36: Nathan (37), Octavio Dotel (38), Rafael Betancourt (37)

2011

Average age of top 30 RP by WAR: 29.26

Over 36: Darren Oliver (40), Rivera (41)

2010

Average age of top 30 RP by WAR: 30.3

Over 36: Billy Wagner (38), Rivera (40), Oliver (39), Takashi Saito (40)

2009

Average age of top 30 RP by WAR: 30.3

Over 36: Rivera (39), Trevor Hoffman (41), Oliver (38)

2008

Average age of top 30 RP by WAR: 28.36

Over 36: Rivera (38), Oliver (37)

The NINE Over-36 pitchers since 2008 to finish top 30 among fWAR among relievers:

Mariano Rivera: The greatest relief pitcher of all-time or the most dominating pitcher of all-time? Both?

Koji Uehara: Late-start Japanese import.

Joe Nathan: Position player turned pitcher, nearly quit when Giants asked him to make transition. Was starting pitcher over first two years in majors, spent all of 2001 in minors, most of 2002, didn't become full-time reliever in majors until 2003 at age 28. Posted ERA of 2.04 from 2003-2009 with Giants and Twins as one of top relief pitchers in the game, including four All-Star appearances and two top-five finishes in the Cy Young race.

Tommy John forced him to miss all of 2010, made return in 2011 and pitched okay. Returned to form in 2012-13 with Texas Rangers. Arguably a Hall of Fame talent as far as relievers go. (Which might not be that far.)

Octavio Dotel: Veteran sometimes-good reliever that has pitched for 13 teams, started off career as starter, finished 14th in WAR among relievers in 2012 at age 38 after posting 3.57 ERA with Tigers, 62/12 K/BB ratio. Missed almost all of 2013.

Rafael Betancourt: Major league career didn't begin until he was 28. Underrated yet somewhat inconsistent, but posted career 3.15 ERA from 2003 to 2012, when Betancourt finished 19th in WAR among relievers.

Darren Oliver: Spent 1996 to 2003 as a full-time starting pitcher, made full transition to bullpen in 2006 when he was already 35. Has posted 2.95 ERA over 508.2 innings since then, with Mets, Angels, Rangers, and Blue Jays.

Billy Wagner: With Nathan and Rivera, one of the top relief pitchers of the last 25 years. Was effective until retirement in 2010 at age 38. (Struck out 104 batters in 69.1 innings with 1.43 ERA and still opted to retire.)

Takashi Saito: Japanese import. Effective from 2006-2011, covering age 36-41.

Trevor Hoffman: Career 2.87 ERA over 18 seasons. Second all-time in career saves may get him into Hall.

Summary:

Out of nine pitchers (again, this is nine pitchers over a six season period, out of how many relievers? 30 teams, possibly 10+ relief pitchers on average for every team each season, even with overlap you could be talking 500-600+ pitchers? And an average of 2.83 over-36 pitchers per year finish in the top 30 of WAR in the last six seasons)... out of those nine pitchers:

Two, three, or possibly four of them are going to the Hall of Fame. (Rivera, Hoffman, Nathan, Wagner.)

Two of them are Japanese imports that probably would have had excellent full careers had they not started in their mid-30s.

One of them was an effective starter for the better part of a decade and then one of the best relievers over the last eight years. And then two of them were very good, sometimes great, relief pitchers.

Where does Fernando Rodney fit into these categories, if he does fit at all? How much do pitchers show decline (or do they) in their mid-30s?

From 36 to 37, 2008-2013

Chan Ho Park, 2009-2010

With Phillies in 2009, Park posted 4.43 ERA in 83.1 innings, with 73 K, 33 BB, 1.4 WAR, 3.49 FIP

Played with both Yankees and Pirates in 2010, combining for 4.66 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 52/19 in 63.2 innings and 0.0 WAR. Retired.

Didn't move into bullpen until age 35 and still made 12 starts over the next two years.

Rafael Betancourt, 2011-2012

With Rockies in 2011, posted 2.89 ERA in 62.1 innings, 73/8, 1.8 WAR, 2.53 FIP

In 2012 at age 37, posted 2.81 ERA in 57.2 innings, 57/12, 1.4 WAR, 3.09 FIP

In 2013 at age 38, posted 4.08 ERA in 28.2 innings, 27/11, 0.5 WAR, 3.22 FIP

Betancourt's career ERA going into his age 36 season was 3.22 with 527/121 ratio over 497.2 innings.

Koji Uehara, 2011-2012

Started major league career at age 34. Career ERA of 2.42, FIP of 2.61, xFIP of 2.85, total of 8.8 WAR in six seasons.

From age 35 to 36, 2008-2013

Betancourt, 2010-2011

See above.

Hisanori Takahashi, 2010-2011

Entered major leagues at age 35, made 53 appearances and 12 starts with 3.61 ERA with New York Mets. Posted 3.44 ERA in 68 innings, 52/25 K/BB ratio in 2011 with Angels. Posted 5.54 ERA in 2012, pitched 3 innings in 2013.

JJ Putz, 2012-2013

At age 35, posted 2.82 ERA, 2.38 FIP, 1.6 WAR

At age 36, posted 2.36 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 0.1 WAR

Jason Grilli, 2012-2013

Famously went from being a "mediocre" middle reliever from 2000-2009 before missing all of 2010 with a quad injury. Caught on with Pirates in 2011 at age 34 and has been dominant ever since. Biggest difference in repertoire may be dropping 2-3 MPH on slider, but otherwise just an enigma that's posted 2.6 WAR over last two seasons. Posted 2.4 WAR over first eight full seasons.

Matt Thornton, 2012-2013

The lefty never closed for the White Sox, but posted 3.21 ERA from 2006-2011 with 412 K in 370 innings. Posted 3.46 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 3.47 xFIP in 2012 at age 35. FIP and xFIP were highest they had been since 2007. Posted 3.74 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 4.13 xFIP in 2013 at age 36.

Fernando Rodney, 2012-2013

Rodney himself lands on this list, having enjoyed a career season in 2012 at age 35. Over first nine seasons, posted 4.29 ERA with 393/233 K/BB ratio in 430 innings. In 2011 with Angels, posted 4.50 ERA, 4.71 FIP, 5.09 xFIP and -0.4 WAR.

In 2012 with Rays, posted 0.60 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 2.67 xFIP and 2.3 WAR. Had never posted higher than 0.6 WAR in any season prior.

In 2013 with Rays, posted 3.38 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 3.11 xFIP and 1.3 WAR. Still second-best season of career and possibly suggests a Grilli-like change in effectiveness than single-season flash-in-the-pan. Rodney's average speed on his fastball from 2005 to 2007 ranged from 93.4 - 93.9 but over last two seasons has been 96.1-96.5.

Is Rodney special?

The truth is that Fernando Rodney already is a special player, because he's signing major league contracts as he enters his age 37 season. That's rare and there's a reason that it is so rare. In order to get contracts at this stage in your career, when you'll cost millions more than some 23-year-old upstart, you can't just be good. A lot of relief pitchers are good.

You have to be great.

Take a look again at that list above of over-36 pitchers to finish top 30 in WAR, and don't ask yourself what names you see. Ask yourself about the names that you don't see.

Brad Lidge's career was basically over after his age-33 season.

Kerry Wood's at 34.

K-Rod turned 32 barely more than a month ago. Carlos Marmol turns 32 in October.

Hung-Chih Kuo flamed out at 29. Bobby Jenks flamed out at 30. Jon Broxton doesn't turn 30 until June. Brian Wilson's last full season (for now) was at age 29, meaning that he's making his comeback at 32. David Aardsma saved 69 games for the Mariners at age 27-28 and has record zero saves in all other seasons combined.

For Jon Papelbon to join the over-36 club, he still needs to wait another five seasons and still hope that he's effective.

These are the "old pitchers" of relief in the major leagues. Guys that haven't hit their mid-30s yet. Why do we perceive them as "old"? Because for relief pitchers, for major league players, for athletes, that's exactly what they are. Guys like Darren Oliver and Mariano Rivera and Fernando Rodney aren't old.

They're ancient.

Rodney received a two-year, $14 million contract from the Mariners, which is rather phenomenal for any 37-year-old in baseball. It means that Seattle viewed him as being worthy of $7 million a year and probably did so for two reasons:

- They wanted to upgrade the back of their bullpen and relieve Danny Farquhar from closer duties, despite him having a solid 2013 campaign. They didn't want to gamble on a rookie or second-year player performing at an adequate level.

- The Mariners probably had more money to spend than most teams, had more money to give a player like Rodney, and more of a reason to insure their 2014 season after committing so much money to Robinson Cano. If Rodney makes them two wins better, perhaps Jack Z saw that as the potential two wins to keep his job.

But unlike most pitchers to remain in the big leagues until their age 37 season, Rodney is not elite. He's pitched in 11 major league seasons. He's not a former starter, he's not a Japanese import, he's not a potential Hall of Famer, and he's not even in the same class as Betancourt or Dotel. Over 11 seasons, he's had an ERA under 4.00 just four times.

Out of those 11 seasons, he had one season where he posted an ERA of 0.60, which is just, mind-boggling. Not just for Rodney and his career ERA of 3.70, but for anybody. But the player they signed is likely good not great. The fact that he's 37 makes him rare, but not necessarily in a good way or a bad way.

It just is.

The 2014 Seattle Mariners: Just is.

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