Just a couple weeks ago, I railed into the Phillies' signing of Jonathan Papelbon on the basis that hard-throwing, max-effort closers like Papelbon simply don't hold up well as they progress into their early-30's. However, seeing D-backs reliever J.J. Putz come up on the list (particularly as an example of someone who did collapse in their early-30's) brought up another question in my mind. Namely, for those special few relievers who manage to excel late in their careers, as Putz did in 2011 at age 34 after recovering from the brink of big-league banishment, what do the next few years portend? The D-backs have one more guaranteed year on Putz's contract with a team option for 2013, so what can the D-backs expect from their stud closer in the last year or two of his contract?
To figure this out, I ran a simple search of relief pitchers who have posted numbers similar to Putz's in 2011. Putz's 2011 campaign saw him work in 60 games, pitch 58 innings, and post a stellar 182 ERA+. Thus, the bounds I put for my Baseball-Reference search of relief pitchers in their age-34 season were a minimum of 50 games, all in relief, a minimum of 50 innings (to prevent specialists from showing up), and an ERA+ of 170 or higher. Also, to make sure we avoid cases of obvious reliever over-use, I've capped the innings pitched total at 75 - this might also be called "The Mike Stanton Constraint." The search results can be found at this link. After the break, we'll take a look at the 15 pitchers (other than Putz) that came up in the list and how they fared the following seasons. I limited the search to the Expansion Era (1961-Present) in the link, but, oddly enough, expanding that to the entire archives of B-R doesn't add even a single additional player to the search results.
The most prolific strikeout closer of all time is a walking argument for closer longevity if you're really looking for one, and his presence in this sample is no exception. Wagner's age-34 2006 season was vintage Wagner, with 70 appearances and 72.1 innings pitched, striking out 94 and walking just 21, good for an 11.7 K/9 and 4.48 K/BB. Those rates were good enough for Wagner to post a 2.24 ERA, good for a 196 ERA+. Wagner wasn't quite that good over the following two seasons, but nonetheless remained a phenomenal closer, appearing in 111 games and posting a 2.50 ERA, 172 ERA+, 132 strikeouts (10.3 K/9), and 32 walks (2.5 BB/9). If Putz can hold up in a fashion similar to Wagner in his age-35 and age-36 seasons, the remaining $11MM on his contract (including the team option for 2013) will be money well-spent.
Nathan had a stellar 2009 season at age 34, posting a 2.10 ERA in 68.2 innings for the Twins, good for a 210 ERA+. However, he was first reported to have a torn UCL in his throwing elbow on March 9, 2010, and underwent surgery later that month, missing the entire 2010 season. He came back perhaps a bit too quickly in 2011, and went back on the DL mid-season before having a solid end of the season, although Fangraphs' velocity charts show that he's still lost some of the zip on his fastball from prior to the surgery. However, the possibility that he'll recover his stuff led to a two-year $14.5MM contract from the Rangers this off-season. Nonetheless, if Putz were to follow in Nathan's post-34 footsteps, the D-backs would find themselves scrambling for answers in the ninth inning 2012.
Kiko Calero was impressive for the Marlins in 2009, working off a minor-league contract and completing 60 innings with a 1.95 ERA and 69:30 K:BB ratio, with his line buoyed by an unsustainable 1.4% HR/FB. However, even with regression of that HR/FB rate, Calero's 3.86 xFIP would have plenty of value, and his 2.29 tERA was straight-up spectacular. However, shoulder inflammation issues kept him from signing early that off-season, and he had to settle for a minor-league deal with the Mets that included an invitation to Spring Training... two weeks after Spring Training had already started. Calero didn't make the Mets, and didn't pitch in the big leagues in 2010. He didn't pitch anywhere in affiliated ball in 2011, and it seems that the game has left Calero behind.
Al Reyes had a journeyman's career until hitting his 30s, posting solid results with the Dodgers, Pirates, and Yankees, but in limited big-league action, as he bounced between the big-leagues and the minors. He finally got an extended shot at a big-league gig in 2005 with the Cardinals at age-34, and turned in a 2.15 ERA in 62.2 innings of work, posting a 67:20 K:BB ratio, notching three saves for St. Louis. However, just as the Cardinals had thought they'd found a hidden gem on the minor-league scrap-heap, Reyes tore up his elbow before the Cardinals' playoff run began, missing the playoffs and requiring Tommy John Surgery. He joined Tampa Bay to rehab in 2006 and as the Rays' closer in 2007, but posted just a 4.90 ERA with Tampa Bay in that '07 campaign, working just 22.2 innings in '08 with Tampa Bay before leaving the game.
Farr had a solid career as a multi-inning reliever and occasional emergency starter, spending most of his early years with Kansas City, posting a 3.05 ERA and 135 ERA+ in 511 IP over 289 games for the Royals from 1985-1990. He then signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees, and his first year in the Bronx, 1991, was a smashing success. As a 34-year-old, Farr posted a 2.19 ERA in 60 games out of the 'pen, with a 191 ERA+ in 70 innings of work. Farr replicated his success and then some in 1992 as a 35-year-old, with a 1.56 ERA in 50 appearances, posting a 255 ERA+ but working just 52 innings. Unfortunately, Farr's success abruptly ended after that season, as his control collapsed and he posted a 4.78 ERA over the next two seasons in 75.1 combined innings of work, never to be seen in the big-leagues again. Still, Farr had a darn good age-35 campaign, which is good news as far as the guaranteed portion of Putz's contract is concerned.
As we covered in the Jonathan Papelbon post, Francisco Cordero is probably a wizard. In fact, I'll be referring to him as "The Warlock" for the rest of this post. In 2009, at age 34, The Warlock saw his K/9 rate nosedive from 10.0 the previous year to just 7.8 in '09, while seeing a minimal reduction in walk rate. However, The Warlock also used his undoubtedly-demonic powers to cause his HR/FB to drop to a mere 3.0%, keeping his FIP at a low 3.10 figure, and seeing his ERA dive even lower - to a staggering 2.16, the third-best total of his career. His peripherals caught up to him in 2010, as he posted a 3.84 ERA in 72.2 innings in the back of the Reds' bullpen, looking like he would be nothing more than a seventh- or eighth-inning guy from that point on.
Of course, The Warlock cares not for silly appearances, and he went through another absurd transformation in 2011, keeping a hold on the closer's role and posting a 2.45 ERA in 69.2 innings for Cincinnati as a pitch-to-contact ground ball specialist. His K/9 dove again, to a mere 5.43, but he lowered his BB/9 to 2.48 and raised his GB% to 50.0% to help compensate. Of course, he also needed to employ a career-low .214 BABIP and career-high 82.3% LOB%, but this is simple work for The Warlock. His 2.45 ERA was over a run-and-a-half lower than his 4.02 FIP, and he basically became Cincy's equivalent of 2011 Micah Owings. It's hard to do find a way to use this data to project Putz's 2012 and 2013 seasons, but it is worth noting that The Warlock held his peripherals from his age-34 season into his age-35 season before seeing them collapse at age-36. Other than simply being incredibly fascinating, it seems that his trend in basic peripherals is the best conclusion we'll be able to derive from the latter parts of The Warlock's career.
Myers had a phenomenal career spanning 14 seasons in the big-leagues, appearing in 728 games - 716 out of the bullpen - with a 3.19 ERA in his career, good for a 123 ERA+. His best season of all came in 1997 at 34 years old with the Baltimore Orioles, when he rode a remarkably-low HR/FB rate to a 1.51 ERA in 59.2 innings of work over 61 appearances, leading the league with 45 saves and placing fourth in both Cy Young and MVP voting (::groan::). His true talent level that year wasn't nearly as good as his ERA would indicate, but his success was not completely illusory, as his 2.55 K/BB ratio was solid, and he struck out nearly a batter per inning. However, Myers left for Toronto in free agency, and promptly collapsed. He limped to a 4.46 ERA in 42.1 innings with the Blue Jays before being put on revocable waivers after the trade deadline. In a rather infamous case of unexpected waiver claim consequences, the San Diego Padres - under GM Kevin Towers, coincidentally enough - claimed Myers, hoping to block him from being dealt to the Atlanta Braves, who San Diego was competing against for the NL Wild Card that year, and expecting the Jays to pull him back. The Jays simply let Myers go instead, and saddled the Padres with the remainder of Myers' $12MM contract that went through the 2000 season. Myers would throw just 14.1 innings for San Diego in '98, putting up a miserable 6.28 ERA before succumbing to a torn rotator cuff, which kept him from ever pitching again in the big leagues.
Worrell spent several underwhelming years as a long reliever/swingman type in his 20's before sticking as a short relief guy with Oakland at age 31. He broke out in earnest with the Cubs in 2000 as a 32-year-old after finding his command, working 62 innings with a 2.47 ERA for the North Siders after being released early in the year after a short and unsuccessful stint with the Orioles. After a trade to the Giants, Worrell kept up his successful ways, including a stellar 2002 age-34 campaign in which he worked 72 innings with a 2.25 ERA, good for a 173 ERA+, though this was largely due to low HR/FB and BABIP rates. However, his age-35 campaign in 2003 was similarly successful, as Worrell significantly improved his ground ball percentage, K/9, and BB/9, posting a 2.87 ERA and 147 ERA+ in 78.1 innings of work. After that point, though, Worrell saw his home run rate spike over the rest of his career, and was mostly a middling middle reliever, albeit a capable one, until his complete collapse in 2006.
Heh. On one hand, I don't think anybody is confusing J.J. Putz with Eck, but on the other hand, it 1989 - Eckersley's age-34 season - was nowhere remotely close to the twilight of his career. Sure, it was great and all, as Eckersley worked 57.2 innings out of the A's bullpen with a 1.56 ERA - good for a 239 ERA+. But just check out his age-35 campaign in 1990, undoubtedly the best of his career as a closer (sorry, saves lovers, his MVP/Cy Young season was far inferior):
63 G, 73.1 IP, 48 Saves, 0.61 ERA, 610 ERA+, 73:4 K:BB, five earned runs allowed.
Yeah. Fun fact: Eckersley's 1990 season is still the only season in baseball history in which a pitcher threw more than 70 innings with an ERA+ over 600. Or over 550. Or over 500. Or over 450. The next highest is 441, by Atlanta's Chris Hammond in 2002. If Putz holds up as well as Eckersley did - remember, Putz was a late convert from the rotation as well - Arizona will be sitting pretty over the next two years. Remember, though: that's a Hall of Fame "if."
After bombing as a starter for the Mets, Isringhausen was dealt to the A's - for a reliever, I might add - and promptly became one of the league's best closers (oh, the irony). Isringhausen spent two-and-a-half years with the A's and accumulated 75 saves in Oakland with a 3.04 ERA and 149 ERA+ before moving to St. Louis as a free agent. Isringhausen had six mostly dominant campaigns with the Cardinals from 2002-2007, the last of which came at, coincidentally enough, age 34. In that '07 campaign, Isringhausen worked 65.1 innings for St. Louis, posting a 54:28 K:BB ratio and 2.48 ERA, good for a 267 ERA+. His strikeout rate had slipped since his hay-day, but he was still an effective reliever and worthwhile closer. That ended quickly in 2008, as Isringhausen bounced between the closer's spot and a middle relief role while posting a 5.70 ERA while seeing his walk, home run, and hit rates all spike. Isringhausen's arm was crumbling, with lingering elbow tendinitis and a torn tendon causing his departure from the Cardinals. He latched on with the Rays, but needed Tommy John Surgery just eight innings into his return from the Disabled List. After a mediocre stint with the Mets in '11, Isringhausen's career may be coming to a close.
After spending most of his career as a solid starting pitcher, including an arguably ace-level campaign with the Reds in 1992, Swindell finished his career with a successful transition to relief work, holding down a job well into his 30's. The lowest ERA and highest ERA+ figures of his career actually came in his age-34 1999 season, his first year as a reliever for the D-backs. Swindell, who had a long career mostly on the basis of superb control, walked just 2.9 batters per nine innings while striking out 7.1, posting a 2.51 ERA and 185 ERA+ in 64.2 innings of relief work. He didn't quite meet that lofty standard from a pure performance perspective in the following couple of seasons, but he did see his K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 all improve in 2000, his age-35 season, posting a respectable 3.20 ERA for the D-backs. His age-36 season was less stellar, with just a 4.53 ERA in 53.2 innings, while Swindell's 2002 campaign, with a 6.27 ERA in 33 innings, was forgettable - and his last in the major leagues.
Otsuka, part of the infamous trade that netted San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and right-handed pitcher Chris Young from the Rangers, had a solid campaign in Texas in 2006 as a 34-year-old. The right-hander posted a superb 4.27 K/BB on the strength of a minuscule 1.7 BB/9 rate - not altogether like the BB/9 Putz posted in 2011 - and a 7.1 K/9 that was just enough to keep men off the bases. Otsuka's '06 campaign ended with a 2.11 ERA in 59.2 innings for Texas, good for a 220 ERA+. However, 2007 was an injury-shortened year for Otsuka, who worked just 32.1 innings - albeit effective innings, with a 2.51 ERA - for Texas. Shoulder tightness cropped up, and Otsuka never took a major league mound again after undergoing elbow surgery in January of 2008.
If you want a non-Billy Wagner example of someone capable of pitching effectively until they day they walk away from the game, Henke might be your guy. Awesomely-nicknamed "The Terminator," Henke struggled in 1984, his first full season in the major leagues with Texas, but blossomed after being chosen by Toronto as a free agent compensation pick (oh, how times have changed). Henke spent eight years with the Blue Jays, posting a combined 2.48 ERA and 168 ERA+ in 562 innings spanning 446 appearances. His aggregate peripheral rates in that span: 10.3 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, and 0.8 HR/9. The dude was a stud. The last of those years, 1992, was Henke's age-34 campaign, in which his K/9 dipped rather drastically to just 7.4 and his K/BB was a so-so 2.09, but nonetheless saw him produce a 2.26 ERA in 55.2 innings of work for Toronto. Perhaps thinking the end could be nigh for Henke, the Jays let him walk in free agency, but Henke still had three solid campaigns left in him. Over two years back in Texas and one year in St. Louis, Henke posted a 2.75 ERA and 158 ERA+ in 166.2 innings of work, with a 9.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, and 0.8 HR/9. Henke hung up his cleats not because of a major injury, but of his own accord after a 1995 campaign in which he recorded the best full-season ERA+ of his career - 231 in 54.1 innings with St. Louis.
MacDougal's age-34 campaign and the performances that followed it are pretty hard to analyze. The reason for this is rather simple: MacDougal just finished his age-34 campaign. On the surface, MacDougal was excellent for the Dodgers in 2011, with a 2.05 ERA in 57 innings of relief. However, MacDougal's mediocre 1.41 K/BB ratio shows that MacDougal's campaign was mostly smoke-and-mirrors, whereas Putz has strong peripherals that make projecting success in 2012 far easier. There are a good number of instances of immediate collapse on this list of relievers with quality performances at age-34, but it needs to be kept in mind that several of these relievers are like MacDougal in the sense that their success was rather illusory to begin with. With a 2.54 FIP in 2011, Putz's 2011 success was not.
Hasegawa had a few solid years as a capable seventh- or eighth-inning man, but nobody could have ever predicted that he would be anything approaching an effective closer. Regardless of how solid his ground ball rate may have been - 50% is good but not breath-taking - with a 3.9 K/9 and 1.78 K/BB in his age-34 2003 campaign, Shigetoshi Hasegawa had no business making an All-Star Team and finishing the year with a 1.48 ERA. Somehow, though, that's exactly what he did, managing to keep his BABIP at a paltry .250 and stranding 93.2% of the baserunners he allowed that season. His 292 ERA+ was more than enough to get him on this list, but regression was a-comin' like a freight train, and it obliterated Hasegawa as he crumbled to a 5.16 ERA in 2004. After another mediocre campaign in '05, he was never seen in the big-leagues again.
With that, we've worked our way through the list of relievers who have excelled at the age of 34. Let's see what the results tell us:
Smoke-and-mirrors at age-34 (3): The Warlock*, Mike MacDougal, Shigetoshi Hasegawa
Arm blowouts during/immediately after age-34 season (3): Joe Nathan, Kiko Calero, Alberto Reyes.
Able to pitch, yet ineffective after age-34 season (2): Randy Myers, Jason Isringhausen.
Effective for one more season (age-35) (4): Steve Farr, Tim Worrell, Greg Swindell, Akinori Otsuka.
Effective for two or more seasons (age-36+) (3 - 4?): Billy Wagner, The Warlock*, Dennis Eckersley, Tom Henke.
* I'll let you decide where The Warlock belongs - after all, he technically posted solid results in his age-35 and age-36 seasons; for what it's worth, I think he resides among the smoke-and-mirrors, and will treat him so for the rest of this post.
Clearly, it doesn't get any easier to remain effective from this point on. Putz certainly faces an uphill battle to remain an effective closer even for 2012 - keep in mind that Nathan's and Calero's injuries didn't crop up in earnest until around the time of Spring Training - much less for 2013 should the D-backs be interested in picking up his option. Even ignoring the fact that Putz sported a .247 BABIP last year that is destined to see some regression, I think it's safe to be worried about Putz suddenly losing a significant amount of effectiveness in the next year. Of the 12 relievers who passed the "smoke-and-mirrors" test, about 42% of them either didn't pitch in the big-leagues at all or completely stunk up the joint in their age-35 seasons. Of those 12 relievers, just three of them were effective through their age-36 campaigns - two of them are locks for the Hall of Fame, and the other has an awfully strong case.
Further, we should face the facts as far as Putz's health is concerned: things aren't awfully encouraging. He's spent so much time placed on the Disabled List since 2007 that he has a toothbrush and a couple changes of clothes over at the Disabled Lists's apartment just for convenience. His back was a fairly constant cause for concern last year as early as Spring Training, and the D-backs handled Putz with kid gloves, using David Hernandez as Putz's personal workload lightener. Putz worked on consecutive days just 19 last year - a pretty low number for a closer on a team with 94 wins - and worked on three consecutive days just twice. Additionally, it's not as if Putz's back issues are his only injury troubles. When someone can make a 1,200-word blog post entitled "The Elbow History of [Your Closer's Name]" almost exclusively out of quotes and excerpts from club officials and the aforementioned closer regarding the closer's elbow injuries, you probably want a backup plan for your closer.
However, I'm certainly not saying that Putz can't be effective in 2012 for the D-backs. After all, the D-backs are well aware of how they need to handle Putz, and Putz is well aware of the type of condition his body needs to be in in order for him to be effective. Particularly encouraging, in my opinion, is how Putz was able to regulate himself last year during Spring Training, knowing he has only so many bullets to fire in a single season and how much pre-season work he needs to be ready for big-league action. The team and Putz both realize that he'll probably need a 15-day DL stint sometime at mid-season to give his body a rest, and the team and Putz both know that having a reliable stable of set-up men - i.e. Hernandez, Bryan Shaw, the Twin OOGY's, and possibly Takashi Saito (::fingers crossed::) - is a good idea. I think it's completely reasonable to expect that Putz could provide somewhere around 50 effective innings of relief for the D-backs in 2012, down a touch from the 58 he provided in 2011. If he can provide those innings at a vintage J.J. Putz level of effectiveness, he'll be more than worth his $4.5MM salary (and a possible buyout of the 2013 option of the club finds itself growing wary of Putz's health). Anything above that is icing on the cake.