There’s just something about that age-35 season.
Since 1970, the lowest ERA for any starting pitcher between ages 32-34 belongs to Roy Halladay, at 2.53. He was better than some of the all-time greats, guys like Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and David Cone.
Last season was a struggle for Doc. He couldn't hold leads after April, eventually went on the DL for seven weeks and finished with his highest ERA (4.49) and walk rate (2.1 per nine innings) since 2004.
You’ve heard a lot this offseason that Halladay is at the point in his career where a reinvention is necessary. It isn’t a unique situation. Looking at the list of the top starters from 32-34, you find that half of them continued their dominance at age 35 and the other half began their descent.
Of the pitchers since 1970 with the top 30 ERAs from ages 32-34, four are active and two were knuckleballers. Eliminate them and you have 24 guys. Twelve of them remained in the top-30 in ERA from ages 35-36. That list is filled with hard-throwers like Johnson, Ryan and Bob Gibson -- pitchers who maintained their velocity with age.
The other 12 experienced precipitous drops.
Cone, for example, went from 3.17 from 32-34 to 3.50 from 35-36. His post-35 ERA was 4.48.
Mike Mussina went from 3.52 from 32-34 (a solid ERA during the steroid era) to 4.50 at 35-36.
Mike Scott went from 3.09 to 4.11 and quick retirement.
Recent Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven had a 3.24 ERA from 32-34, then a 4.40 ERA the next three years.
Then again, there is hope Halladay can be effective as time goes on. Maddux produced at 35 and 36 (2.88 ERA) before turning into a 4.00-ERA guy.
Seaver finished second in Cy Young voting at 36 before beginning his journey back to the middle.
Even an active pitcher like Tim Hudson, who had a 3.03 ERA from ages 32-34, only regressed to 3.40 at 35 and 36. Hudson is two years older than Halladay but has actually thrown five fewer innings.
We probably should have seen this coming with Halladay. If not for his superhero-like efforts in 2010 and 2011 we would have. But with superstars the drop-off is always difficult to predict and impossible to fathom when put up against recent success. Halladay allowed one or no earned runs 30 times in 65 starts from 2010-11. There were no physical reasons then to expect his ERA to increase by two full runs in 2012, or for there to be so many questions heading into his next two seasons.
Fast forward to March 2013 and you can’t talk Phillies for a minute without the conversation turning to “What are they going to get from Halladay?”
The performance of his peers suggests he can be a 3.40-ERA pitcher if the reinvention goes smoothly. Or he could be a guy in the mid-4.00s if it doesn’t.
At 3.40, you have one heck of a No. 3 starter. In the mid-4.00s, you have three back-end pitchers in the rotation after Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, and suddenly the Phillies’ huge starting pitching advantage on the rest of baseball turns into just an advantage.
To go far in 2013, the Phils need Halladay to age like Maddux and Hudson, not like Mussina and Cone.