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Strasburg contract a danger for Nationals: Beware the Cliff Year

It's becoming increasingly rare to find pitchers who age well in baseball, which makes Stephen Strasburg's huge contract extension with the Nationals eye-opening.

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Big news item: The Nationals are betting $175 million that the rebuilt elbow of Stephen Strasburg, a pitcher with risky mechanics, will hold up for 13 years post-surgery as he ages to 35 years old.

Much smaller news item (apparently, especially in Washington): Last week was a very, very bad one for erstwhile great pitchers who are barely into their 30s.

Wednesday: Felix Hernandez, 30, allowed eight runs in four innings with a 90.5-mph fastball, down two mph from last year and four from five years ago. He has obtained one swing and miss on 117 fastballs over his past three games (though he did get an uptick in velocity Monday).

Thursday: Matt Cain, 31, gave up eight runs in four innings, pushing his ERA to 7.84. John Danks, 31, with a 4.92 ERA the past five years, was cut by the White Sox.

Friday: Tim Lincecum, 31, who didn’t touch 92 with any of his 1,323 pitches last year and has a 4.68 ERA over the past four years, held an open tryout to see if anybody wanted him. Yovani Gallardo, 30, remained shut down, three weeks after Baltimore put him on the disabled list with a bum shoulder. Max Scherzer, 31, gave up four homers and seven runs in a game for the first time in his career, swelling his ERA to 4.60 this year and 4.06 over his past 24 starts.

Saturday: David Price, 30, gave up six runs in less than five innings, bloating his ERA to 6.75. His four-seam fastball averaged 92.9 mph, down two mph from last year and down three from five years ago. He threw 37 fastballs and managed only one swing and miss.

By the end of the 2013 season, Lincecum, Hernandez, Price, Scherzer and Justin Verlander (who had just turned 30 and was the oldest of the bunch) had already won a combined six Cy Young Awards. Now all of them are fighting a fear among pitchers that is second in anxiety only to injury: the Cliff Year. What is a Cliff Year? It’s the time when a pitcher’s premier stuff falls off, never to be seen again.

As teams keep doling out huge sums of money to pitchers as they age (Zack Greinke is signed through 38, Scherzer and Verlander through 37, Jon Lester and Price through 36, Johnny Cueto through 35), evidence keeps mounting that today’s best pitchers are wearing down early. Cy today, bye tomorrow.

MORE MLB: What teams could Tim Lincecum help most?

To see if that theory held up, I ran a test to see how many pitchers age 32 or older threw 200 innings last year with an adjusted ERA of at least 110; in effect, I went looking for durable guys who aren’t that old and are a little better than average. Then we can compare last year’s group of 32-plus pitchers with those from 1998, the first season with 30 teams. Here you go:

2015: 1
1998: 14

In fact, you can take all the durable, decent 32-plus pitchers from the past four years put together (13) and still not have as many as we had in 1998.

This needed further study. Just when are these Cliff Years occurring? What can we now expect from a pitcher in his 30s who has been worked hard in his 20s?

To find these answers, I took the previous 20 seasons (1996–2015) and in that window found the pitchers who threw the most innings in their 20s. The six most-worked young starters were Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez, Jon Garland and Matt Cain. Their respective Cliff Years: 29, 32, 34, 33, 31, 28.

Let’s get a bigger sample: What happened to the 50 most-worked starters in their 20s over the past 20 seasons? If we throw out the 11 active pitchers who have yet to reach their Cliff Year, we’re left with the aging pattern of 39 modern pitchers to study, 29 of who are retired. This is what the data tell us:

• The Cliff Year occurs on average at age 30.97—precisely the window where you find the shaky pitchers from last week mentioned above.

• The career of a workhorse in his 20s is finished at an average age of 34.7.

• About 60% of young workhorses are worse than average in their 30s (adjusted ERA below 100).

Bottom line: If you sign a pitcher like Strasburg, who turns 28 in July, to a long-term contract, odds are that he will hit his Cliff Year at age 31, be a below-average pitcher in his 30s and retire at 35.

We’re not even factoring in Tommy John surgery. For pitchers who get a second such surgery, the revision occurs on average 4.97 years after the first. Strasburg underwent his surgery at age 22, in 2010. The Nationals will give him a $1 million bonus every season in which he throws 180 innings. Strasburg has reached that threshold only twice in his career, which ranks him behind 28 other active pitchers at the same age.

My theory on this early-aging pattern is that the nature of starting pitching has changed. Pitchers are throwing harder at an earlier age. As the premium on velocity rises, pitchers throw more pitches near maximum effort than ever before. It’s the equivalent of revving your tachometer to redline every time you drive, even when going into town for a gallon of milk. Radar guns are at the ready beginning with the first start of spring training. How many worthless spring training stories do we have to read about “concern” about Johnny Powerpitcher’s velocity in a two-inning start in the middle of a weekday afternoon in the first week of March? Pitchers must always be “on.”

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And though you might not believe it because pitchers have dominated the past decade, hitting keeps getting better (as you would expect as training, nutrition, technology and information improve). So it takes more “stuff” to get through a game. The tariff on the pitcher’s body has been raised, and thanks to more stringent drug testing, it’s more difficult to recover from a Cliff Year. That’s why many executives in today’s game believe the science of rest and recovery is where you can carve out a proprietary edge.

It’s not unusual to see former star pitchers begin to struggle around age 30 and 31 because of wear. Hernandez, for instance, threw the most innings before 30 than any pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela (Cliff Year: 27). Since 2009, when he became a regular starter, Price has thrown more pitches (postseason included) than every pitcher except Hernandez and Kershaw.

SI VAULT: Stephen Strasburg is already a national treasure (06.21.10)

It is most unusual to see Cubs pitchers Jake Arrieta (30), Lester (32), Jason Hammel (33) and John Lackey (37) all showing no signs of a Cliff Year. All have an above-average adjusted ERA. Only twice in the last 65 years (and never under drug testing with penalties) has a team boasted four above-average qualified pitchers in their 30s: the 1984 Pirates and the 2003 Yankees. It’s just one more reason why the Cubs are having an outrageously fluky good year.

Finally, here’s one visual to illustrate how quickly pitchers are aging out of their prime. Imagine you gathered all the starting pitchers at the 2011 All-Star Game in Arizona. Then you asked only those pitchers in their 20s to gather for a group portrait—13 pitchers among the best young arms in the game. In the photo would be Michael Pineda, 22; Kershaw, 23; Jair Jurrjens, 25; Hernandez, 25; Price, 25; Cain, 26; Ricky Romero, 26; Lincecum, 27; Cole Hamels, 27; Lester, 27; Jered Weaver, 28; Verlander, 28; and James Shields, 29.

Now imagine it’s the All-Star Game in San Diego this year. You want a five-year reunion picture. You might have there only three or four of the 13 young stars still worthy of All-Star honors: Kershaw, Hamels, Hernandez and Lester. The careers of the rest have fallen off of a cliff.