History's best over-40 aces

Can Roger Clemens continue to dominate at age 41? Others have including another hard-throwing Texan.

Originally Published: May 11, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Maybe Roger Clemens hasn't been the best pitcher in the major leagues this season. He sure looks like the best, though. After six starts, Clemens is 6-0 with a 2.11 ERA, and none of the three pitchers with lower ERAs has managed more than two wins.

Clemens
Clemens

Surprising? You bet. Yes, Clemens is a future Hall of Famer and certainly one of the greatest pitchers in living memory. But the Rocket is 41 years old, and you can almost literally count on one hand the number of 40+ starters who have pitched brilliantly for an entire season. Don't believe me? Here are the five pitchers who've enjoyed the biggest seasons after turning 40 (with age figured as of July 1):

1. Cy Young, 1908 (21-11, 1.26 ERA)

Certainly the greatest season by a pitcher on the far side of 40, and all the more impressive because Young turned 41 just before the season began. This was the Dead Ball Era, of course, but Young's 1.26 ERA was the lowest of his long and brilliant career, and 95 percent better than the league average after adjusting for his home ballpark. Young also pitched well when he was 40 (21-15, 2.99 in 1907) and 42 (19-15, 2.26 in '08) before finally falling apart in 1910.

2. Pete Alexander, 1927 (21-10, 2.52)

Coming off his famous performance against the Yankees in the '26 World Series, 40-year-old Grover Cleveland Alexander put together his best season in a long time. A six-time National League strikeout king, by 1927 Alexander was a different sort of pitcher, and in 268 innings he struck out only 48 hitters (not that it hurt him much). Ol' Pete followed up with a solid 1928 campaign, going 16-9 with a 3.36 ERA.

Tom Seaver
Tom Seaver's last winning season was 1985.

3. Tom Seaver, 1985 (16-11, 3.17)

Seaver pitched brilliantly for the Reds in 1981, going 14-2 in the strike-shortened season. But he slumped badly in '82 (5-13, 5.50) and didn't look like a Hall of Famer in '83 during his return to the Mets or in '84 after joining the White Sox. But in '85, when he was 40, Seaver went 16-11 with a 3.17 ERA.

4. Warren Spahn, 1963 (23-7, 2.60)

Spahn rivals Cy Young for the title of best over-40 pitcher. He was 42 in 1963 and capped an amazing three-season run during which he won 62 games and posted an ERA 24 percent better than the league average in each of those three seasons (yes, among other things Spahn was amazingly consistent).

5. Nolan Ryan, 1989 (16-10, 2.30)

After Spahn's 1963 season, Ryan's 1989 probably ranks as the best season by a 42-year-old pitcher in major league history. What truly distinguished Ryan's season was the strikeouts. All 301 of them. Most old pitchers, even the great old pitchers, see their strikeouts drop as their careers wind down. Seaver, for example, struck out only 134 batters in 238 innings in 1985. But at 42, Ryan was as dominant as ever. He also pitched well at 43, 44, and 45, but physical problems forced him to work fewer and fewer innings each season. And in 1993, not long before turning 47, Ryan suffered a career-ending injury.

Clemens has often been compared to Ryan; they're both power pitchers, they're both Texans, and both became fanatical about conditioning later in their careers. Could Clemens, like Ryan, still be pitching effectively when he's 45? There's no obvious reason to think he couldn't.

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One thing you might have noticed: All five of the pitchers listed above are in the Hall of Fame. One thing you might have been wondering: Where are the knuckleball pitchers? Don't they typically age better than other sorts? Well, none of them quite cracked the Top 5 list, though Charlie Hough (1988) and Phil Niekro (1984 and 1979) just missed. My favorite, though, is Ted Lyons' 1942 season, when he was 41. Though Lyons isn't often remembered as a knuckleballer, he threw the pitch throughout his career, and by the early '40s he relied on it. In '42 Lyons started 20 games -- 14 of them on Sunday afternoons -- and completed all 20 of them, in the process going 14-6 with a 2.10 ERA.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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