Out of all the retired pitchers in MLB history, there are 2,191 who logged at least 400 innings through age 34.
Of that group, 317 fared so poorly that they had a career WAR value of less than 1.0 WAR through age 34.
With such a poor performance in a reasonably long trial, it’s no surprise that just 21 of them pitched in the majors from age 35 onward. Most of them were finished before they turned 30.
And of those 21 who did pitch at age 35 or older, only one ever had a season worth at least 3.0 WAR.
His name was Ed Heusser, nicknamed The Wild Elk of the Wasatch, and his big year was 1944. His MLB career had foundered ever since a promising start with the ’35 Cardinals. But the deprivations of wartime gave him one last shot in the majors, and he seized it: At the age of 35, Heusser led the NL with a 2.38 ERA and 147 ERA+ in his very first qualifying season, good for 3.8 WAR.
Heusser followed up with solid seasons in 1945-46, averaging 195 IP and a 103 ERA+, but the poor caliber of his Reds left him with just an 18-30 record for those years. He lost his last eight decisions in ’46, and that December he was traded to Brooklyn for Augie Galan, the aging on-base machine.
Heusser would never pitch for Brooklyn. He spent 1947 with their top farm club in Montreal, going 19-3 with a 2.73 ERA, ranking 2nd in wins and 5th in ERA as the 3rd-oldest pitcher in the International League. But he didn’t make the big club the next spring and was exposed to waivers. Claimed by the sad-sack Phillies, he wound up his pro career with 74 unimpressive innings of long relief.
But thanks to those three good years with Cincinnati, finished with 7.7 career WAR, giving him the top spot in this group in both career and single-season WAR, each by a hefty margin. By this particular measure, Ed Heusser was the greatest “never-was” pitcher to suddenly find big-league success at an age that made him eligible for the presidency.
And then, along came R.A. Dickey.
Through age 34, Dickey’s career and stats had quite a bit in common with Heusser’s. Each had debuted at 26 and pitched between 430 and 443 innings in the majors, with three different teams. Each had 22 wins, one shutout, a losing record, and a subpar ERA in just over 140 games. Each had ridden a lot of bush-league buses. And neither one figured to be in a big-league rotation as his age-35 season opened.
In ’43, Cincinnati had boasted the most stable rotation in baseball: Four made at least 33 starts and three won at least 15 games; no other team had more than two in either category. But the next year, injury and military service claimed three of the four. Given a spot start in the second week, Heusser blanked the Pirates, and soon joined the rotation. His ERA was under 2 until late July, and he finished at 2.38 to edge teammate Bucky Walters for the NL crown.
Dickey signed with the Mets in 2009, after they’d gone 70-92, with no starter topping 184 IP and just one besting a 92 ERA+. He began the year in AAA, but after 8 starts (2.23 ERA, 8 walks in 61 IP), Dickey made his Mets debut on May 19, 2010, and held Washington to 2 runs over 6 innings in a no-decision. He won his next six starts, becoming the first Met SP in 20 years to win his first six decisions. And the beat went on. On August 13, he tossed a CG one-hitter to best Cole Hamels, 1-0, with his mound rival busting up the no-hitter in the 6th. Dickey finished that year 7th in the NL with a 2.84 ERA in 174 IP, and his 3.4 WAR let him into the exclusive club founded by Ed Heusser in 1944.
In the next two years, Dickey rated 3.1 and 5.6 WAR. The latter mark set the season record for the Heusser Club, and gave Dickey 12.3 career pitching WAR to pass Heusser (8.4) for that leadership.
Whether Dickey was the pitcher most deserving of the NL Cy Young Award that he won in a landslide is arguable, and I won’t take up that argument here. But as great a story as Dickey was, you couldn’t say the voters were blinded by either sentiment or wins. He led the league outright in innings, strikeouts, batters faced, complete games, shutouts, quality starts and QS%. He ranked 2nd in ERA, and 3rd in ERA+, WHIP, SO/BB and WAR (B-R version). Awards aside, it was just a brilliant year — and utterly unprecedented from the standpoint of all previous pitchers who were in Dickey’s boat through age 34.
Meanwhile, the Heusser Club gained another member in 2012: Fernando Rodney, whose previous nine seasons had netted just 0.7 WAR, topped all relievers with 3.7 WAR at age 35, and placed 5th in the AL CYA voting.
Still, I wouldn’t bet on that club growing any bigger in my lifetime. Besides Heusser, only one other pitcher out of the original 317 reached even 2.0 WAR in a season from age 35 onward (the immortal Boom-Boom Beck, another wartime retread who notched 2.1 WAR in 1945), and just two others had any seasons worth at least 1.0 WAR (Russ Springer in 2007-08 and Mark Leiter in ’98).
So, for the sake of Mets fans and everyone who appreciates a tale of baseball redemption, here’s hoping that the saga of Robert Allen Dickey has enough legs to climb a few more mountains. We may not see his like again.