Top starting pitchers and their ages


Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

What should you look for in drafting starting pitchers? It’s such a fragile position, especially in 2014 when for a while, we could barely take a breath without seeing another pitcher going under the knife for a season-ending Tommy John surgery. Actually, let’s hold that thought for a second.

In really any sport, we know much things are dependent on age. So, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look at who the top starting pitchers on ESPN’s Player Rater are in 2014 (Through September 14) and 2013.

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The first thing that really jumps out at me is that the average age of 2014’s Top-30 is more than a year higher than 2013’s. A quick explanation for that is simply that 12 of 2014’s Top-30 were also in the Top-30 in 2013 and unless any of those guys are younger now than they were last year, that’s going to skew 2014 a little older.

But 2013’s oldest two top pitchers — Cliff Lee and Bartolo Colon — were not repeats, and Colon’s 2013 age is seven years older than any of 2014’s top guys. Then you notice four guys in 2014’s Top-30 that were younger than any of 2014’s Top-30 are now, and only Julio Teheran repeated his performance. Actually, that leads us to a pretty good rule.

Rule No. 1: Be careful with the young, hot names from the year before

Just look at some of those 2013 youngsters: Jose Fernandez, Patrick Corbin, Matt Harvey, A.J. Griffin. All are currently recovering from Tommy John Surgery.

Granted, this year is a little different, as you don’t have the really young players and of the youngest three — Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, and Madison Bumgarner — all except possibly Wood have substantial Major League experience and (hopefully) have built up some arm strength.

Of course, young pitchers aren’t the only ones that are susceptible to injuries. Really, anyone is, but on the other end of the scale, we see the older pitchers. Which takes us to another rule.

Rule No. 2: There’s a fine line between “proven veteran” and “old”.

I’m guessing plenty of high draft picks were used on Fernandez. Personally, I didn’t do that, but I did use a good chunk of my auction budget on Cliff Lee. Entering the year, he was a guy that was seen as pretty low risk, even though he plays on a bad team in a good hitter’s park.

Now? Hard to tell.

I won’t say that guys like Jered Weaver, Adam Wainwright, James Shields, and Hisashi Iwakuma will be 2015’s version of Lee, but I’m certainly not reaching for them on draft day.

When we consider Rule No. 1 and No. 2, simple logic takes us here.

Rule No. 3: 26-30 seems to be the happy zone

Plenty of the top starting pitchers — Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, David Price  just to name a few — fall into this window, but this is also where I’d look when trying to find the sleepers, like Tyson Ross and Collin McHugh have been this year.

It really makes the most sense there. The young guys, even if they’re not an injury risk, just don’t have a lot of experience.

So, even if they were a highly touted minor leaguer that called up late and finished the year strong, there’s a chance that they did so against a handful of teams that had never seen them before. Things change when they start to face these teams for a second and third time.

By the time they get into the mid-late 20’s, they have had time to adjust to the adjustments that were made on them, but they’re not at a point where you worry about them being over the hill.

Starting pitchers are always a risk. Even Kershaw missed a month of the season. But whether you’re looking at cornerstone pitchers, or sleepers to round your team out, the 26-30 window is where you should be looking. Give other pitchers a look, but realize that their age alone adds to their risk factor.