John Lackey represented one of the most unique free agent cases in a 2015 class rife with starting pitching talent.
Lackey posted the kind of numbers he had not been able to reach since he was a member of the Angels, and did it at age 36. His 2.77 ERA, 3.57 FIP and 143 ERA+ each represented his best showing since his age 28 season in 2007 — a year in which he finished third in the American League Cy Young vote.
The Cubs are betting Lackey has enough in the tank in his age 37 and 38 seasons to justify handing a two-year deal worth $32 million.
Baseball-reference.com lists 10 pitchers most similar to Lackey through age 36, of which only four pitched in their age 37 and age 38 seasons. That includes Hall of Famer Jesse Haines, who pitched to a 3.73/3.58/107 ERA+ in those seasons. However, judging a player’s performance in 39 games (27 starts) from 1931-32 doesn’t feel right. Indeed, this exercise isn’t designed to show you how Lackey will definitely pitch because similar pitchers did X, Y, and Z when they were 37 and 38, but it’s certainly interesting.
Dennis Martinez (No. 5 on the list) is the most notable name here and if the Cubs get something similar to what he did at ages 37 and 38, they will have found a tremendous value. Martinez didn’t stop at 38, though, as he pitched through his age 44 season, which included a four-year run from age 39-42 in which he posted bWAR numbers of 2.9, 4.6, 5.7 and 1.5
Martinez was an All-Star for the Montreal Expos in his age 37 and 38 seasons 1991-92. In 1991, his 2.39 ERA, nine complete games and five shutouts led the National League. He also finished fifth in the Cy Young race.
In those two years, Martinez made 63 starts and posted 15 complete games en route to going 30-22 with a 2.43 ERA/3.13 FIP/147 ERA+, logging 448.1 innings and a 10.5 bWAR (5.8 in 1991, 4.7 in 1992).
Good luck matching those numbers.
Former Cub Rick Sutcliffe shows up as No. 7 on this particular list. His age 37 and 38 seasons were his last in The Show, pitching for the Orioles and Cardinals. His 5.97 ERA/5.48 FIP/73 ERA+ in 45 games (42 starts) was the last fans saw of the three-time All-Star who was the 1979 NL Rookie of the Year and 1984 Cy Young winner.
Mike Flanagan is this list’s No. 4 most similar to Lackey. Like Sutcliffe, he was a former Cy Young winner (1979) whose age 37 and 38 seasons were full of struggle. He posted a 4.08 ERA/4.04 FIP/91 ERA+ in only 35 starts over those two seasons — 30 of which came in 1989 at age 37.
Scott Sanderson (No. 5 most similar) struggled in those seasons, appearing in 25 games (21 starts) and throwing a total of 131.1 innings with the White Sox (1994) and Angels (1995). He posted a 4.80 ERA/5.25 FIP/98 ERA+ in those games. He accumulated an 0.8 bWAR in those years, which came three years after he posted a 4-WAR season with the 1991 Yankees. He was an All-Star that year, but never again.
Sanderson spent his prime years with the Cubs, posting a 3.81 ERA/3.61 FIP/105 ERA+ and an average 2.03 bWAR in 161 appearances (116 starts) in his age 27-32 seasons from 1984-89.
John Burkett (No. 2 most similar) fits the mold of an aging, yet, crafty veteran the Cubs hope they are getting. He made 59 starts in his age 37 and 38 seasons, posting a 4.85 ERA/4.31 FIP/95 ERA+ in 354.2 innings of work. Burkett accumulated 2.5 bWAR (1.0, 1.5) in his two seasons. The year before signing with the Red Sox, Burkett posted an All-Star campaign with the Braves that featured a 4.8 bWAR season.
It’s not as if older pitchers can’t be valuable, but age/performance curves are real. The next two years could be dicey or could go off without a hitch. Only time will tell.