On Tuesday night, Andy Pettitte held the Indians to one run over seven innings of work, and in doing so he raised his 2013 ERA to 1.20.
I'm fully aware that it's early, and using a mere pair of starts as a jumping off point is presumptuous. But I'm going to do it anyway!
Let's say Pettitte continues pitching at a high level (not this high, obviously, but high enough). At age 40, Pettitte would no doubt be doing something historically rare. But would he have legitimate designs on the greatest season ever by a pitcher age 40 or older? Let's lay out his challenge by taking a look at his exclusive peer group.
First, a starting pitcher age 40 or older who regularly answers the bell is self-evidently rare. In fact the indispensible Baseball-Reference play index turns up just 92 pitchers since 1901 who have logged a qualifying number of innings while making starts in at least 90 percent of their appearances in a given season. According to those criteria, here are the top 10 seasons of all-time, sorted by Wins Above Replacement (WAR) ...
|Greatest seasons by starting pitchers, age 40 or older|
|Pitcher, age, team, year||WAR||IP||ERA+||W-L, ERA|
|Cy Young, 41, Red Sox, 1908||9.6||299||193||21-11, 1.26|
|Randy Johnson, 40, Diamondbacks, 2004||8.5||245 2/3||176||16-14, 2.60|
|Roger Clemens, 42, Astros, 2005||7.8||211 1/3||226||13-8, 1.87|
|Phil Niekro, 40, Braves, 1979||7.6||342||119||21-20, 3.39|
|Randy Johnson, 41, Yankees, 2005||5.7||225 2/3||112||17-8, 3.79|
|Dennis Martinez, 41, Indians, 1995||5.7||187||152||12-5, 3.08|
|Warren Spahn, 41, Brewers, 1962||5.6||269 1/3||125||18-14, 3.04|
|Roger Clemens, 41, Astros, 2004||5.5||214 1/3||145||18-4, 2.98|
|Nolan Ryan, 40, Astros, 1987||5.4||211 2/3||142||8-16, 2.76|
|Nolan Ryan, 44, Rangers, 1991||5.2||173||140||12-6, 2.91|
|WAR: wins above replacement, ERA+: park- and league-adjusted ERA, scaled to 100|
No surprise to see hurlers like Johnson, Clemens and Ryan pop up multiple times. And is there anything as singularly characteristic and awesome as a Phil Niekro stat line (342 innings! 21-20!)?
As for Pettitte, his career high in WAR is 8.4, but that was back when he was a 25-year-old in 1997. So it's hard to imagine that he'll become, at age 40, a seven-win pitcher and crack the top four. On the other hand, Pettitte's going to be at something like 0.8 WAR after just two starts, so he's off to a fine start on making the above ledger. Also worth noting is that Pettitte has crafted his two gems against the Red Sox and Indians -- two teams that figure to have strong offenses this season. Pettitte's success thus far also comes on the heels of a partial 2012 season in which he notched an impressive ERA+ of 146 across 12 starts. As well, his velocity thus far is right in line with career norms.
It bears repeating that, yes, we're talking about a tiny sample size of just 15 innings on Pettitte's part. Still, recent history suggests that the veteran lefty is still capable of pitching like an ace. As such, it bears monitoring whether his 2013 season shapes up to be one of the best ever. On an age-adjusted basis, of course.