Older pitchers add a new spin to the game
Three of baseball's top hurlers are still throwing smoke even though they're near 40.
Now pitching: graybeards. Armed with guts, guile, and plenty of smoke on their fastballs, three of the top four finishers in last week's Cy Young award voting for baseball's top pitchers are blowing away hitters at a time when most their age have simply faded away.
Roger Clemens, who took the National League award at age 42, became the oldest pitcher to win a Cy Young when he claimed it for a record seventh time this month. The NL runner-up was Randy Johnson, a five-time winner. At 41, he's no pup, either.
In the American League, 25-year-old hurler Johan Santana helped the younger generation avoid a shutout, but many believe he would have been eclipsed by second-place finisher Curt Schilling, 38 - the winningest pitcher in Major League Baseball - if postseason results were factored in.
Experts say the sterling performances by the three pitchers aren't surprising, since each is known for rigorous training regimens and exhaustive study of opponents.
"All three of these guys are strikeout artists," says Tommy Lasorda, former manager and current vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "I can't remember a time when this many [older pitchers] were having good years and still depending on fastballs and strikeouts. You very seldom see that happening."
Johnson, who pitched for the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks last season, led all big-league pitchers with 290 strikeouts. Clemens ranked seventh, with 218, and Schilling's total of 203 was ninth.
Lasorda and others who follow the game closely say all three should continue to pitch at a high level next season.
While the trio of pitching stars still relies on hard pitches registering 90 m.p.h. and above, each has also adjusted to make those power pitches all the more devastating.
"I think what you see out of these three guys is the formulation everybody tries to get to," says Jeff Brantley, an ESPN analyst who pitched in the major leagues for 14 seasons. "You not only have the one great pitch that made you who you are, you've also developed pitches around it."
Johnson, for example, was known for high, hard fastballs, which, after two strikes, he would supplement with a slider in the dirt. Mr. Brantley says such an arsenal is more throwing than pitching and, over time, all but impossible to sustain.
In recent years, Johnson has begun to use the slider to set up the fastball, while also varying speeds to a much greater degree. Johnson, who pitched a perfect game against Atlanta last season, has also developed much better control over where his pitches will go, enhancing his effectiveness.
"So what happens is you're pitching smarter and you're staying around longer in each game, which means you've given yourself a better chance to win," Brantley says. "If you can get to the setup man and the closer, you've got a much better shot than if you leave in the fifth inning and the 10th or 11th guy on the staff goes in."
He sees similar astute adjustments for Schilling and Clemens. Schilling struggled for years to develop a better curveball, but Brantley says Schilling has overcome that frustration by using his split-finger fastball in the manner of a change-up, again setting up the traditional fastball in better fashion. Clemens developed a cut fastball - four or five m.p.h. slower than his hard pitch - and increased the variety of pitch locations, making hitters more likely to be crossed up on both high and low pitches.
Beyond those factors, analysts point to the differences in pitching rotations in the modern game. A four-man rotation - starters taking the mound every fourth day - was standard as late as the 1970s. Today the norm is a five-man rotation, with no relief appearances between starts.
"The fact that players are looking after themselves better certainly helps," says Allan Simpson, editor at Baseball America. "Particularly with each of these guys. And having an extra day off between starts makes a difference, too."
Pitchers have, here and there, had standout seasons in their later years, but not with the combination of so many at once and all with potent power games. Nolan Ryan threw his sixth and seventh no- hitters in 1990 and 1991 (at ages 43 and 44, respectively), but, while effective, he didn't dominate on a consistent basis during those years.
Baseball does seem better-suited for late-career heroics than other team sports. Beyond Schilling, Clemens, and Johnson, the best everyday position player is 42-year-old Barry Bonds, a six-time MVP who may garner his seventh most valuable trophy this month. Bonds captured his second batting title in 2004 and walloped 45 home runs to bring his total to 703, putting him within reach of career leaders Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).
Finding older stellar players in professional football and basketball proves difficult.
Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, and Vinny Testaverde, for example, all have had distinguished careers, but none ranks anywhere near the NFL's best this season.
The "old man" among NBA stars is Shaquille O'Neal, who is all of 32.