Ichiro and the Most Incredible Ageless Wonders in Baseball

Zachary Petersel@@ZPeterselFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2012

Ichiro and the Most Incredible Ageless Wonders in Baseball

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    There have been many tremendous accomplishments throughout the history of baseball, but this list is about the incredible few who have defied the age barrier. 

    For 99.999 percent of baseball players, when they age, their skills decline. However, for these select few, age never slowed them down. In fact, some of the players on this list got better with age, and were able to maintain their success until their retirement.

    Some did it with intense training regimens, others with an impeccable passion for the game, but every single one of them stared down the decline that age normally represents and simply kept on going. 

    With that, here is my list of the most incredible ageless wonders in baseball history. 

RHP Satchel Paige

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    The story behind Satchel Paige is more about what could have been, rather than what he actually accomplished throughout a career in the major leagues.

    Paige first debuted with the Cleveland Indians at age 41 after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. Paige was outstanding from the get-go, finishing his first season with a 6-1 record and a 2.48 ERA.

    Paige pitched well until he was 46, but he saved his biggest dramatics for last, returning for one final appearance 12 years later, as a 58-year-old for the Kansas City Athletics with three scoreless innings.

    However, the reason Paige is on here is because he was so good for so long, before he debuted in the major leagues. Joe DiMaggio said Paige was the best he ever faced; Bob Feller said Paige was the best he ever saw.

    He was so dominant from his early days in the Negro Leagues to his final days as a 58-year-old in the major leagues that he is known as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, despite only starting 26 games in the major leagues.

SP Jamie Moyer

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    There are so many amazing things about Jamie Moyer that I do not know where to begin.

    Coming back from Tommy John surgery at age 49 with a 2.77 ERA and 11 strikeouts this spring? Winning double-digit games in three different decades—four decades if he can last this season with the Rockies?

    Four different decades!

    After watching Moyer pitch for a couple of seasons against the Mets, I found the most remarkable thing about his success was that he was so good without a “plus” pitch. According to fangraphs.com, Moyer’s average fastball in 2010 was 80.9 MPH.

    He was able to win double-digit games every year from 1997-2009 except for 2004, at ages 34-46 mind you, because of his ability to keep hitters off-balance, despite not having anything to overpower the hitter. 

    Sitting at 267 wins, how great of a story would it be to see Moyer win his 300th game as a 50-year-old? I can’t help but root for him and great success in Colorado.

UTIL Julio Franco

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    Julio Franco may not be the oldest position player to have played in the majors, but he certainly is the oldest one to play regularly.

    Franco began his professional career in 1978 with the Phillies. Almost 30 years later, Franco was still contributing regularly for the 2006 New York Mets, playing in 95 games for a team that made it to Game 7 of the NLCS that season as a 47-year-old. When he signed with the Mets at the beginning of that season, Franco was more than four years older than any other player in the league, but still managed to sign a 2-year deal; that was the kind of shape he was in.

    Even though Franco did not have the same level of success that others on this list accumulated, his ability to play for so long and appear in so many games late in his career is equally astounding.

    His secret? Try 20 egg whites for breakfast.

RHP Phil Niekro

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    Bobby Mercer once said, "Trying to hit him is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks."

    In Phil Niekro’s first full season as a starting pitcher in 1967, he pitched in over 200 innings and had a 1.87 ERA. In 18 of the 19 following seasons, he pitched over 200 innings and won 10-plus games.

    Because of his knuckleball, Niekro was able to pitch with success in spite of the heavy workload, winning 16 games as a 46-year-old. 

    In today’s game, we have Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, but to put things in perspective, his last great season came as a 42-year-old and he only won 11 games. Niekro, on the other hand, won 16 games as a 46-year old.

    The idea that Niekro’s first full season came as a 26-year-old and he played for the next 22 seasons is a tribute to his incredible longevity. 

RHP Hoyt Wilhelm

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    To finish up the knuckleball section of this article, I give you Hoyt Wilhelm.

    Much like Niekro, Wilhelm made his debut at a very late age, starting with the New York Giants as a 29-year-old. However, akin to Mr. Niekro, Wilhelm used the knuckleball to elongate his career and pitch for over 20 years until the age of 49.

    Wilhelm went 15-3 with a 2.43 ERA in his first season as a 29-year-old, but his age never slowed him down. He made the All-Star team when he was 47, throwing 82 innings with a 3.40 ERA, finishing 37 games as one of baseball’s first “closers.” 

CL Mariano Rivera

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    From one of the first closers of all time, to the greatest who ever lived, I give you Mariano Rivera.

    My favorite story about Mariano is that he discovered his famous cutter on accident. Using perhaps the most effective pitch in baseball’s long and storied history, Rivera has had unmatched success from the moment he became a reliever.

    As the setup man for the 1996 Yankees, Rivera threw 107 innings, had a 2.09 ERA and struck out 130 batters, finishing third in the Cy Young race. Let me repeat that: A setup man, in his first season as a relief pitcher (so he had no name value), finished third in the Cy Young race.

    That was only the beginning. 

    Since his incredible 1996 season, Rivera has only had one season where his ERA was above three, and that was in 2007, when he finished with a 3.15 ERA. Over his last nine seasons, from ages 33 to 41, Rivera has a cumulative 1.86 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 632 innings. Then, when you include his 0.70 ERA in 141 playoff innings, you begin to understand why people consider him one of the best pitchers of all time.

    The best part about Mo is that the hitters know the cutter is coming, but they still cannot hit it. Rivera may call it a career after this season, but his success can be put up against anyone who has ever played the game.

RF Ichiro

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    Ahh, the man with one name.

    In 2001, a 27-year-old Japanese sensation made his debut as the Opening Day right fielder for the Seattle Mariners.

    11 years later, the man we now know as Ichiro is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, who, before 2011, never had a season without 200 hits or a batting average below .303.

    If his MVP award in his first season was not enough of a giveaway in regards to his talent, Ichiro made 10 consecutive All-Star teams, won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves and finished in the top 23 of the MVP race every year but one from 2001-2011.

    Despite entering 2012 at the age of 38, the idea that he is slowing down is flawed. People look to last season and say that he is not the same player he once was, which may be true, but he still had 184 hits, a number eclipsed by only 14 other players.

    This offseason, Ichiro declared himself to be in great shape. If his words were not enough, let his 4-for-5 debut in Japan this week tell you he is not going away any time soon. 

RHP Nolan Ryan

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    As Jamie Moyer and just about every person in major league baseball will tell you, a pitcher’s "stuff" declines with age.

    Apparently, Nolan Ryan never took part in that discussion.

    Ryan led the league in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons from 1987-1990, averaging 258 Ks each season and topping out at 301 in 1989. The fact that Ryan led the league in strikeouts should not surprise anyone, but the idea that a pitcher ages 40 to 43 could strike out the most hitters in the league?

    That sums up the career of the "Ryan Express."

    Ryan went on to throw his seventh and final no-hitter at age 44 and retired after 1993, as a 46-year-old. Not bad for a guy who debuted with the Mets in 1966, some 27 years earlier.

C Carlton Fisk

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    There have been some great catchers in baseball history, but no catcher had a sustained period of greatness like Carlton Fisk.

    In his first full season as a 24-year-old, Fisk won the Rookie of the Year award and placed fourth in the MVP voting. 20 years later, Fisk was still catching every day as a 43-year-old. He played in 134 games that season and hit 18 home runs with 74 runs batted in—good enough to make yet another All-Star game.

    It is hard enough for a regular position player to have a 20-plus-year career, but for a catcher, especially someone who played as often as Fisk did, his longevity is even more incredible. 

SP Warren Spahn

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    No matter how old Warren Spahn got, he kept cranking out 20-win seasons.

    From 1947-1963, Spahn averaged 20 wins a year, had 21 complete games and a 2.96 ERA. He never slowed down because of his age, going 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA as a 42-year-old, appearing in his 14th All-Star Game in that 16-year span.

    Much like Wilhelm and Niekro on this list, even though Spahn started his big league career late (at age 26), Spahn had an outstanding career, winning 363 games, which puts him sixth on the all-time list. 

UTIL Cap Anson

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    For the final player on this list, we go way back to when Doc Brown was a blacksmith in the third and final Back to the Future film. 

    Cap Anson played in the big leagues for 27 years. He hit over .300 for 24 of them and as a 42-year-old, he hit .388. Anson played from 1871-1897 from the time he was 19 until he was 45.

    It was a different era of baseball, without awards or even the World Series, but after hitting .285 in 497 at-bats as a 45-year-old in his final season, his statistics are undeniable.