Determining the value of an older pitcher

Is it a wise decision to sign an older pitcher? Rob Neyer spoke with a few GMs to get their insight on the matter.

Originally Published: August 28, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Randy Johnson. Greg Maddux. Tom Glavine. Jamie Moyer.

What do all these pitchers have in common? They've all pitched brilliantly this season ... and they're all pitching brilliantly despite having been born in the mid-1960s (or, in Moyer's case, even earlier than that). Oh, and here's the kicker ... three of them -- Maddux, Glavine, and Moyer -- become free agents after this season (unless they're signed to contract extensions in the meantime). It's also possible that Roger Clemens will be on the market, and Johnson's current deal expires after the 2003 season.

You have to statistically draw a trend line, see where that's headed, and assume that it will continue in the same direction. Your biggest fear is that there's a cliff, whether because of injury or lack of performance.
Billy Beane, A's GM, on signing an older free-agent pitcher

Maddux and Glavine will not, of course, have any problems securing a long-term contract on lucrative terms. And someone's sure to take a flyer on Moyer, though it's unlikely that he'll be presented with a four-year contract. But when considering signing one of these geriatric hurlers, what should a general manager consider? This question has never been more relevant, because never before have so many outstanding old pitchers been available to the highest bidder.

Billy Beane is perhaps the last general manager on the planet who would even consider signing a superstar free-agent pitcher in his late 30s, because 1) the A's won't need a top-of-the-rotation starter in the foreseeable future, and 2) even if they did need one, they couldn't afford to just go out and buy one. Hypothetically, though, Beane looks at the notion with the same analytical eye with which he sees almost everything else.

"You have to assume that their years will not be as good as the year before," Beane says. "And you have to assume they will spend some time on the DL. If you're willing to run that risk, or if you don't have any choices ... But you have to know what you're getting. And you're getting a guy who probably won't be as good as he was the year before, and has a 50-percent chance of getting hurt. You have to be, not just a GM, but an actuary."

An actuary?

"Yeah," added Beane. "You have to statistically draw a trend line, see where that's headed, and assume that it will continue in the same direction. Your biggest fear is that there's a cliff, whether because of injury or lack of performance."

In Milwaukee, general manager Dean Taylor has a hard time even imagining signing a 37-year-old pitcher for big bucks.

"Well, that's a hard question to answer, because one thing we're trying to do is get younger. But if I were sitting in another general manager's chair in another city, I think I'd have to consider not only recent health, but also the long-term health history of the pitcher. Because as we all know, most pitchers are more susceptible to injury than position players."

Does the type of pitcher bear on the equation? Two of the best lefties in the National League -- actually, the two best lefties, Johnson and Glavine -- are in their late 30s, but as pitchers they're complete opposites. Does that make a difference?

Taylor doesn't think so.

"First off," he says, "whoever you're looking at would have to fit into your staff. You talk to your scouts, you talk to your manager, you talk to all your people involved in making the decisions. But if a finesse pitcher can win at Age X, and a power pitcher can win at Age X, is there anything to say either can't win at Age X + 1?"

So, assuming that one sees a good fit, what else do you look for? How do you know which pitcher is worth the risk, and which isn't?

"It probably depends more on the genetics of the pitcher, which, again, goes back to their health history," Taylor says. "I've had doctors tell me that every arm has so many pitches in it, until it either has a surgery or begins to wear out. And if you believe that theory, every pitcher is going to regress. But I don't think there's a magic age, because every pitcher is different in terms of their genetic makeup and health history."

They're all different, and they're all a risk, because we haven't reached the point where we can look at a pitcher's arm and know just how many pitches are left in it. But while Beane is mindful of the risks involved with older pitchers, he's mindful of something else, too: "There are certain guys that transcend the norm, players with special talents who stretch that window."

But all of the future Hall of Famer pitchers who might be available this winter have special talents, and thus have already stretched that window. The tricky part is figuring out how which of them will continue to stretch that window ... and for how long.

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