After his performance over the weekend, Jeremy Guthrie is looking like a different pitcher than he has been in the past. He is 34 years old, and the idea of a career year at that age seems a little out of line with expectations, but according to what I looked at not as rare as you might think for a pitcher.
Jeremy established himself as a better than average starter beginning in 2007 at 28 years old. Every year since then he has been a little above or a little below average without ever standing out. Last year in Colorado he has his first really bad stretch, but he came to Kansas City and looked fantastic so that at the end of the year he had gotten back to slightly below average:
As you can see, this year has been different. It is not all that likely that he will end up being 74% better than average for all of 2013 since that number is being skewed by his fantastic start on on Saturday. Still, he was doing really well in the 5 prior starts as well. The main difference for him this year has been a little better K rate, a career high ground ball rate, and some luck through low BABIP and high strand rate. Even with the luck though, he has a career best xFIP and SIERA so far at 4.09 and 4.23, so even the metrics that try to strip out luck are showing a possibility that he is going to be better this year than he has in the past. What if Guthrie has a career year? I went and looked what that might look like, and what it might mean for the rest of his contract with the Royals.
The bar I set was a bit lower than that sparkling 174 ERA+ up there since I don’t think Guthrie can keep that up, so I looked for starting pitchers who put up 140 or more after the age of 30 for the first time. There are quite a few players over the past 50 years who are in this group. First I will talk about a chunk of the guys from a while ago, and then a look at two more recent players.
The first bunch includes Bob Purkey, Bob Veale, Dick Donovan, Elmer Dessens, Gil Heredia, Mike Morgan, Mike Scott, Rick Reed, Tom Candiotti, Vern Law, and Woody Williams. If you wanted to hear that Guthrie could morph into an ace at this point of his career, I am going to have to disappoint you. The guys who figure it out later and become dominant, think Cliff Lee or Randy Johnson, tend to have big breakouts in their late 20s. This group should not make you uncomfortable about Guthrie’s prospects going forward though. Most of them had 1 to 4 more decent years as a starter after their career year with a couple of them hanging around usefully until their early 40s. Only Vern Law fell off a cliff. He had a great year at 35 and then two bad years before
hanging it up. If Guthrie can be really good for one year, and then give the Royals two more years as an average starting pitcher, then the contract given to him will have been well worth it.
Two more contemporary players really stuck out to me. The first is Ryan Dempster. His path is unlike all of the others due to his time in the bullpen. He went back into the starting rotation at 31 and had a phenomenal year, and has been a consistently good starter since with only one down year in 2011. A half decade of solid starting pitching. The other guy is Ted Lilly. Lilly came up a little younger than Guthrie, but didn’t really establish himself until his late 20s like Jeremy. Then at 33 Lilly had a really nice year for the Cubs. His next two seasons he was slightly above then slightly below average. At 36 he was off to another good start last year before his arm gave out. He tried to come back this year, but his two starts so far have not been promising.
All of this has made me hopeful for Guthrie’s time in KC. There is no reason he can’t put together three solid seasons based on history, and we are only going to pay him $25 million for those years. Typically you have to overspend in the free agent market, but in this case the Royals may have made a very valuable acquisition without needing to. Of course, the early season returns from Guthrie could also be a mirage, but I really like how he has looked.