Madison Bumgarner Photo by Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports
Advanced metrics suggest Madison Bumgarner may be regressing. But the Diamondbacks are betting five years and $85 million on the belief the 30-year-old pitcher’s career is primed for a strong second act.
The D-Backs’ confidence in MadBum prompted my pea-brain to wonder about previous pitchers having great second acts. It turns out quite a notable names enjoyed success later in their career. So, I made a list.
Please note I chose pitchers with stories compelling to me. Your list would probably look different and that’s okay. This is an exercise in fun, not being right or wrong.
As you’ll see, my definition of “second act” isn’t necessarily age-related. Sometimes, injury or change of location marked a turning point for these distinguished players.
First up, a familiar name from Bumgarner’s home state.
Throughout his 22-year career, opponents accused Perry of throwing the spitball. Despite the suspicions and increased scrutiny from the league and umpires, his effectiveness as a thirty-something led to Cooperstown enshrinement.
Perry was superb in his twenties, but didn’t win a first Cy Young Award until he was 33-years-old. He’d receive the honor again at 39 and finished top-4 in balloting two other times. The North Carolina native also played in four All-Star games with his last appearance coming at age-40.
Now 81-years-old, Perry remains coy about throwing a spitter.
The first of three active pitchers on our list enjoyed a career-season at 25-years-old winning his only Cy Young Award with the Royals. Nevertheless, Greinke found a second gear in his thirties.
During his age-31 season in 2015, Greinke posted a 1.66 ERA. Since MLB lowered the mound in 1969, only two other pitchers have recorded lower marks – Dwight Gooden and Greg Maddux (twice). Neither were in their thirties at the time. He’s also earned six consecutive Gold Gloves.
Greinke has remained effective and available as he ages. Since 2015, the Florida native is one of just three pitchers to throw 1,000-plus innings. The others – Max Scherzer and teammate Justin Verlander.
In 13 seasons with the Red Sox, Clemens was a three-time Cy Young winner and MVP. But the former Texas Longhorn left via free agency in 1996 when his career appeared to be in decline. That’s when Act II began for Roger Rocket.
Clemens joined the Blue Jays the following season and immediately won two consecutive Cy Young Awards. He’d win another with the Yankees and a final plaque with Houston in 2004 – his age-41 season. A year later, his 1.87 ERA was best in the majors.
Thanks to his career renaissance, Clemens finished with seven Cy Young plaques and 354 wins. Not bad for a player appearing washed-up when he left the Sawx.
Tommy John’s second act happened after undergoing the groundbreaking elbow procedure bearing his name. Prior to the surgery, John was a successful 12-year veteran and All-Star spending time with the White Sox, Indians, and Dodgers.
When John finished pitching at 46-years-old, the former Indiana State Sycamore had finished top-four in Cy Young voting three times and was a three-time All-Star after TJ surgery.
Fun fact: John’s bWAR was virtually identical before and after his surgery:
Pre-surgery = 31.1
Post-surgery = 31.0
That’s good, right?
Smoltz following Tommy John is fitting since the Michigan native wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer without TJ surgery.
Prior to his elbow injury, Smoltz was an established star with the Braves – Cy Young awardee, NLCS MVP, four-time All-Star. He’d miss the 2000 campaign, but returned a year later in a new role – Atlanta’s closer.
Smoltz would go on to appear in four more midsummer classics and earn MVP votes in three consecutive seasons. In 2002, he saved a league-leading 55 games and finished third in Cy Young voting.
After four seasons of closing games, Smoltz returned to the Braves’ rotation in 2005 as a 38-year-old. Naturally, he was an All-Star.
Fun fact: In August 1987, the Tigers were in a heated pennant race, so they traded Smoltz (a minor leaguer) to the Braves for Doyle Alexander.
That’s bad, right?
Speaking of trades not aging well, Carlton’s second act followed one of the worst deals in Cardinals history. In 1972, the club dealt the future Hall of Famer to the Phillies for Rick Wise.
During seven seasons in St. Louis, Carlton was a three-time All-Star. But he’d win three Cy Young Awards in Philadelphia, including his first season with the team. The final plaque arrived when he was a 38-year-old.
Lefty also finished fifth in MVP voting three times, earned selection to seven All-Star games, and was a Gold Glover in the City of Brotherly Love.
Maddux’s second act also began in a new city. He left the Cubs as the reigning Cy Young winner and signed with the Braves. The right-hander won the award his first three seasons in Atlanta and finished top-5 on three other ballots.
Being highly effective and available were cornerstones to Maddux’s epic 11-season run as a Brave. The Professor’s 342 starts during his thirties (1996-2005) were the most logged during that decade; his 3.7-percent walk rate was the best in baseball.
With Atlanta, Maddux also won four ERA titles, appeared in six All-Star games, and earned 10 Gold Gloves. He’d return to the Cubs for two seasons before finishing his 23-year career with brief stints as a Padre and Dodger.
Scherzer was already a Cy Young winner and All-Star when left the Tigers via free agency in 2014. As with Maddux, the best was yet to come for the former Missouri Tiger.
Since joining the Nationals, Scherzer has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. He’s won the NL version of the Cy Young twice and finished top-3 in two other years. Moreover, he’s led the league in strikeouts three times and accrued the most bWAR by a pitcher since 2015.
Most importantly, Scherzer helped propel Washington to their first World Series championship this year.
Through his age-29 season, Verlander appeared destined for the Hall of Fame – Rookie of the Year, Cy Young winner, and MVP. Unfortunately, signs of regression appeared when he turned 30.
Verlander’s ERA crept upward and his availability declined in his early thirties; a point many pitchers begin to fade. However, the former Old Dominion Monarch experienced a career rebirth.
As a 33-year-old in 2016, Verlander finished second in Cy Young voting. A year later, Detroit dealt the right-hander to Houston where he immediately helped the Astros win their first World Series.
In 2018, Verlander was Cy Young runner-up once again. This year, he won his long overdue second award edging out former rotation-mate Gerrit Cole. The odds of the Virginian earning a Cooperstown plaque are better than ever.
Through his first-half of his career (ages 25-33), Rivera was a superb reliever – five All-Star games, a pair of third place Cy Young finishes, and MVP consideration in five seasons. Then, he decided to defy Father Time for a while.
During his age 34-41 seasons, Rivera accrued 27.3 bWAR – easily the best of any full-time reliever with Joe Nathan (18.4) a distant second. Amazingly, only 13 starters bettered the Panamanian. He’d also be a Cy Young runner-up two more times.
Rivera’s strong second act during a precedent-setting 19-year career earned him the first unanimous selection into the Hall of Fame this year.
Johnson was a recognized star when the Mariners traded him to the Astros in July 1998. With Seattle, he tossed a no-hitter, won a Cy Young and was runner-up twice. That said; the Big Unit became a Hall of Famer after his Emerald City stint.
With the Diamondbacks, Johnson won four consecutive Cy Young Awards and was MVP of Arizona’s lone World Series victory in 2001. Three years later, the former USC Trojan tossed a perfect game as a 40-year-old making him the oldest player in MLB history to achieve the feat.
By his thirtieth birthday, Ryan was a two-time Cy Young Award runner-up and four-time strikeout leader. However, the hard-throwing righty kept going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny.
In his thirties (1977-86), Ryan ranked tenth in bWAR. During his age-34 season, he led the majors with a 1.66 ERA and a .188 opponent AVG. Remarkably, the Texan faced 605 hitters and surrendered just two home runs.
The Ryan Express didn’t lose steam entering its fourth decade. During his age 40-44 seasons, Ryan delivered 21.1 bWAR – seventh best during this span. Moreover, the former twelfth rounder won another ERA title, led the league in strikeouts four times, and finished fifth in Cy Young voting as a 42-year-old.
In a way, Ryan had second and third acts.
Fun Fact: Only four pitchers have thrown a no-hitter as a forty-something. Nolan Ryan is the only person to do so twice.
Bumgarner isn’t the only veteran pitcher hoping to improve next season. Former Mariners ace Félix Hernández, who’s been regressing for several years, wants to prove he can still provide value.
Now a free agent, the 33-year-old Hernández is seeking an opportunity to have his second act. As we’ve discussed previously, history doesn’t favor King Félix. But who cares?
Perhaps MadBum and Félix won’t rebound. But rooting for them to succeed is more fun than being a curmudgeon about their future during the offseason.
Wouldn’t you agree?