Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

How Much of a Concern is AJ Burnett’s Age?

Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote an article this past week on the age related risks in signing A.J. Burnett. For my money Travis is the best local writer covering the Pirates. He made a lot of great points about concerns over velocity loss and age regression on older pitchers. I do think, however, that Travis may have missed the mark a little when he mentioned the limited number of pitchers that have defied their age by posting seasons with a 3.0+ WAR at age 37 or older.
Travis pointed out that between 2008-2013 only Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Randy Johnson have posted an fWAR of 3.0 or greater after turning age 37. Those 6 pitchers combined to do it only 8 times. But does that make them any less likely to have good seasons than any pitcher over the age of 30? The data doesn’t support it. I went to Fangraphs.com and looked at starting pitchers from 2008-2013 that threw at least 20 innings in a season as a starter. I figured 20 innings is a good number to weed out relievers that made just a spot start or two. I looked at two age ranges: 30-36 and 37+. Here is what I found:

Age Range 3+ WAR Seasons Total Seasons % of 3+ WAR Seasons
30-36 62 331 18.7%
37+ 8 45 17.8%

That is a very small difference. It appears the biggest obstacle to putting together a solid season for starting pitchers over the age of 37 is actually getting to their age 37 season. Burnett has already won that battle. There doesn’t appear to be much reason to believe he is any less likely to do well at age 37 than he was when the Pirates traded for him at age 35.
Was the $13 million the Pirates committed to paying Burnett when they traded for him any less riskier than the money they’d have to pay him to pitch one more season? All pitchers over 30 are on borrowed time. The arm only has so many bullets in the chamber. Eventually they run out. Older pitchers do not respond to the treatment and rehab as well as younger pitchers. They are also less willing to go through the rigors of a long rehab. So when older pitchers break down it is usually the end. But predicting when that end will come is impossible. The vast majority of pitchers that reach free agency are over the age of 30. Does A.J. pose significantly greater risks than younger 30-something free agents such as Ervin Santana, Dan Haren, Edinson Volquez, Matt Garza, Jason Vargas, Josh Johnson, Scott Kazmir, Jason Hammel, etc? Personally, I don’t think so.

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