After a pair of consecutive one-hit shutouts, becoming a best-selling author, and very nearly being selected as the NL's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, Mets' ace R.A. Dickey is having the time of his life in 2012. And despite receiving a veritable beat-down in Atlanta last Saturday afternoon, Dickey's ERA+ is still a sparkling 141 on the season per Baseball-Reference. What is especially remarkable about all this is that Dickey is having the best season of his career at age 37.
To get an idea of how rare it is for a pitcher to peak so late in his career I've queried the Lahman database for a list of pitchers who achieved their best ERA+ performance in their age-37 season or later (min 150IP).
PEAK ERA+ SEASONS, AGE >= 37
Of the pitchers that managed an ERA+ of at least 130, Roger Clemens' eerie display of super-human ability at age 42 is clearly the best of the group as well as the most recent. Throwing over 200 innings with an ERA so far below the league average at 42 years of age seems nearly inconceivable, but it most certainly happened and it really wasn't that long ago. One could certainly write well over 1000 words devoted to this feat alone, but that's one slippery slope I'm not interested in this morning.
Randy Johnson is the proud owner of the second highest post-37 peak with a stratospheric 197 ERA+ in 2002. Johnson's career was famously revamped once he entered his thirties and kept accelerating until his age-38 season with the Diamondbacks. (Although, in Johnson's case, it depends on which park factors you use to define his peak ERA+ season, as his 1997 and 1995 seasons were equally impressive). And it's worth noting that in the very next year in 2003 the timeless finesse of the anti-Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer, also reached its apogee just as Moyer was rolling over the proverbial hill at age 40.
Just below the Rocket and the Big Unit in terms of the height of their peak is Dazzy Vance, who joins the club by virtue of one the more bizarre career trajectories in baseball's history. Dazzy labored in the minors for nearly a decade until finally given an opportunity to pitch in his age-32 season with the then Brooklyn Robins. Vance broke-out two seasons later at the age of 35, leading the league in ERA, strikeouts, and K/BB and ultimately winning himself an MVP award. But his 1928 season that shows up here was even more outstanding and helped to ensure his fate as one of the very few cases of a late-blooming Hall of Famer.
'Sunday' Teddy Lyons was also a Hall of Famer, one who had a long and prestigious career which refused to fizzle out as Teddy aged. Teddy's success came despite a lifetime BB-rate (6.3%) that was slightly higher than his K-rate (6.0%), a feat I imagine will never again be achieved. His ERA+ of 172 in his age-38 season was his peak, but he also managed an equally sterling 171 ERA+ just a few years afterwards in his final season as a full-time pitcher.
Eddie Plank was also inducted into the Hall as a finesse pitcher from the dead ball era known for his sweeping curveballs and an uncanny ability to disrupt the timing of opposing hitters. His talents reached their zenith in 1915 just before Plank's 40th birthday.
Ray Prim, on the other hand, was a minor-league lifer that finally got his moment in the sun during the depletion of Major League Baseball's talent pool amidst World War II. Prim was quick to seize his opportunity, leading the league in ERA, WHIP, K/BB, and walk rate that 1945 season.
Nolan Ryan's appearance on this list may not surprise anyone, but perhaps that his peak was only a 142 ERA+ should. His ERA+ of 195 in 1981 with Houston, for the record, falls just short of the arbitrary 150 inning qualification marker at 149.0 IP.
And if you were concerned that members of The Fraternity would fail to show up in a list almost custom-designed to honor them, then fear not: Johnny Niggeling and Joe Niekro were both Knuckleballers whose craft only improved with age and peaked with a 141 and 135 ERA+ respectively, both very late into their careers.
Joe's brother and fellow knuckleballer Phil Niekro did not make the list having had his peak ERA season at the more appropriate age of 28. But Phil did show up as one of the top 4 pitchers to have achieved their best FIP+ performance in their age-37 season or later:
PEAK FIP+ SEASONS, AGE >= 37
I should note that there have been plenty other fantastic age 37+ pitching seasons-- most notably John Smoltz as recently as 2007, Kevin Brown in 2003, and even El Presidente Dennis Martinez in '92 and '95. But it's important to consider that those pitchers were just as successful in the early days of their career as well as later on. Whereas Dickey is one of the few pitchers in MLB history who did not see a single season where he topped 150 IP until he was 35. Prior to 2010, that had not happened in over half a century:
FIRST SEASON WITH 150 IP, AGE >= 35
Dickey's 2010 was one of the more successful examples of a late-bloomer's season, and he's the only one from the last half-century to boot. Moreover, most of these pitchers only saw their first 150 IP season because the world was at war and most of the talent in baseball had enlisted or been drafted. Joe Beggs, Bob Logan, Ed Heusser, Dick Barret, Wally Hebert, and the aforementioned Ray Prim were all either middle-inning swingmen or quad-A types before the war, who were finally given a chance to shine after Uncle Sam had come calling.
Connie Marrero was a Cuban-born right-hander who pitched in the Cuban leagues for nearly his entire career until finally making the jump across the gulf to the majors at 38. And Johnny Lindell, interestingly, was a position player for most of his professional career until he too learned to throw a knuckleball which was apparently effective enough to earn himself 199 innings for two separate clubs during the course of the 1953 season.
It's rare to have a talent like Dickey develop so late into his career, but it's even more unusual that once given the opportunity he has performed at such an elite level. And while it remains to be seen if he will continue to hold on to his excellent 141 ERA+ through the second half of the season, it's still a good bet we are witnessing a rare and special season for Robert Allen Dickey in 2012.
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