If one were to consider all Major League pitchers between 1876 and 2013 and organize that group in descending order of career victories through their age-39 season, that list would begin with (who else?) Cy Young and his 436 wins. Dropping considerably, one would find four pitchers -- all claiming a tie for 167th on the list - with 171 victories: 19th century hurler Ed Morris, knuckleballer Eddie Rommel, 1984 National League Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe and the only active player among the quartet, Bartolo Colon.
Using that same consideration set but organizing the list by most wins in an age-40 season would again place Young at the top (this time tied with four others with 21 victories) but would also feature a significantly smaller gap between the Hall of Fame right-hander and Colon, who -- with his 18 victories in 2013 -- sits right behind Young and his fellow 21-game winners. In other words, Colon -- in his 16th season and the owner of a 32-40 record with a 99 ERA+ from 2006-12 -- had himself an historic "you don't see that every day" 2013 campaign.
Colon's season -- one that saw him collect 18 wins and six losses in 30 starts, compile three shutouts (tied for the Major League lead) and accumulate 117 strikeouts against 29 walks in 190 1/3 innings -- was, in addition to those exceptional counting numbers, quite alluring when it came various rate stats: a 2.65 ERA (141 ERA+), a 1.166 WHIP and a 4.03 K:BB ratio. In almost every case, Colon's numbers for a pitcher in an age-40 season are distinguished.
• As mentioned, Colon's 18 wins are the sixth most since 1876, behind the five pitchers who won exactly 21 -- Young, Pete Alexander, Warren Spahn, Phil Niekro and Jamie Moyer.
• Colon's three shutouts are tied for the fifth most, with Eddie Plank and Dennis Martinez also having three in their respective age-40 seasons. Young had six in his, while Babe Adams, Spahn and Early Wynn each had four. Among these pitchers, Spahn, Wynn and Colon led their league.
• Colon's 117 strikeouts ties him with Greg Maddux for the 17th most, while his 29 walks are the fourth fewest among any age-40 season pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Adams, David Wells and Danny Darwin issued fewer bases on balls.
• Colon's 2.65 ERA is the sixth lowest, while his 141 ERA+ is tied -- with Johnny Niggeling's mark -- for the fourth best. In ERA, he looks up at Young, Niggeling, Plank, Alexander and Randy Johnson. In ERA+, he is topped by Johnson, Alexander and Nolan Ryan.
• Colon's 1.166 WHIP is the eighth lowest among qualifiers in their age-40 season (the aforementioned Johnson, Young, Alexander, Darwin, Ryan, Spahn and Plank best him). His 4.03 K:BB ratio stands as the fourth best, behind the marks produced by Johnson, Wells and John Smoltz.
Still got it
Pitchers with a WAR of at least 5.0 in their age-40 season
Beyond the collision of the past with the present, Colon's presence on the 2013 Athletics -- the 96-win, American League West champion Athletics -- introduces a similar wow factor, one spiced by some fun little nuggets. For one, outside of Colon -- who celebrated his 40th birthday on May 24 -- Oakland had four other pitchers reach double digits in victories, with the oldest among that quartet pitching in his age-26 season. And so, while the 2013 Athletics became the 42nd team since 1876 to have at least four pitchers in their age-26 or younger seasons collect 10 or more wins, none of those four came close to Colon when it came to value: his WAR more than doubled that of the staff's No. 2 pitcher (this is the case for both Baseball Reference's WAR and Fangraph's value; for the duration, Baseball Reference's WAR numbers are the ones being utilized).
Like the other statistics that have already been used to celebrate his performance in 2013, Colon's 5.1 WAR for a pitcher in an age-40 season also places him in some privileged company. Only seven other pitchers get to claim at least a 5.0, forming an eight-man list populated by five Hall of Famers, including one -- Alexander -- whose age-40 season not only tops Colon's in terms of WAR, but maintains that advantage in wins and ERA+ as well.
Getting back to the original formation of names in this piece (from 1876-2013, most career wins for pitchers through an age-39 season), Alexander (327 victories) comes in eighth, behind Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Kid Nichols, Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe and John Clarkson. Of these eight, Alexander had gotten his MLB career off to the latest start, both in terms of age (his freshman year came in his age-24 season) and calendar (he debuted in 1911). When he made that debut in 1911 (and fashioned a truly startling first season, leading the NL with 28 wins, 31 complete games, seven shutouts, 367 innings and 6.99 hits per nine), Young, Mathewson and Johnson were all still pitching in the Majors; 16 years later, Johnson was pitching in his final season, but it was Alexander -- producing the last of his nine 20-win seasons -- who left the lasting impression.
After his World Series heroics of the previous autumn (when he beat the Yankees with complete-game efforts in the second and sixth contests and then famously "saved" Game 7 of the '26 Fall Classic), Alexander's 1927 saw him continue to dip his right arm into fountain of youth waters. He finished in the top five in the NL in wins, ERA, winning percentage, complete games and shutouts, added titles in WHIP and BB/9 to his exemplary resume, and in some categories, reached age-related heights (or plumbed depths) attained by only Young before, and no one after. For all pitchers to win as many as 20 games in an age-40 or older season, Alexander's ERA is third lowest (behind Young's 1.26 in 1908 and his 1.99 in 1907) and his ERA+ is bettered only by Young's 193 for 1908. It was one last exceptional season for one of the very best pitchers to ever hurl baseballs in a Major League contest.
For the 2014 season, Colon is swapping coasts and leagues, having signed a two-year deal with the Mets. Moving to the NL, maintaining residence in a home ballpark that favors pitchers: these variables should be of benefit to Colon. But at his age, there is really no telling whether or not he can keep the momentum of his late-career renaissance and perhaps challenge for one of the truly special 40-and-over careers in baseball history. But with Colon's 2013 season, he's off to a nice start.