Left-hander Randy Johnson was a late-bloomer and likely on his way to Cooperstown.
In sports, 30 is more than just a number. It’s a benchmark that usually signifies the prime or end of a player’s career.
For Major League Baseball, turning 30 years old marks the end of a player’s youth and the beginning of an imminent decline in production.
However, a select few throughout history have been able to defy the odds, blossoming into All-Star and Hall of Fame-worthy talent years and even decades later than their contemporaries.
This article will rank the top 10 late bloomers in the game’s history by taking a look at those who spiked in talent much later in their careers. These players either struggled or were mediocre through their youth, gaining recognition only after the age of 30.
Few pitchers in the history of baseball can say they played in four different decades. Jamie Moyer accomplished that feat, beginning his career with the Chicago Cubs in 1986 and pitching what was likely his final big league pitch last season for the Colorado Rockies.
At first, the game did not come naturally to the young southpaw. Moyer struggled through the first decade in the bigs, posting a winning record just once.
Finally at age 33, something clicked after he was traded mid-season from the Boston Red Sox to the Seattle Mariners. Moyer would pitch the next nine seasons for the Mariners, collecting 133 wins and 1,128 strikeouts. During that stretch, he posted a .600-plus winning percentage in all but one of those nine years.
After age 43, Moyer began to tail off a bit with high ERAs and low strikeout totals. But, in 2008 at age 45 he showed he still had a little left in the tank when he went 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA and 123 strikeouts for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Moyer’s 25 years in Major League Baseball have caused him to own the record for most home runs allowed in history, but his 269 wins reserve his spot as one of the greatest late bloomers of all time.
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s unlikely road to stardom was tumultuous, unprecedented and just plain impressive.
Before he even threw a major league pitch, the Texas Rangers decreased his signing bonus from $810,000 to $75,000 after team doctors found a ligament missing from his right elbow.
The Rangers would end up making the right decision. Dickey would come out of the gate struggling, tagged for nine runs in his first 12 major league innings in 2001. Through the next five years in the Rangers organization, Dickey compiled a 16-18 record with a horrendous 5.67 ERA.
The missing ligament in his pitching arm took a toll on his velocity, so he turned to the knuckleball later in his career in Texas.
After stints in Seattle and Minnesota, at age 33 Dickey found his way to New York, where he put together three marvelous seasons using nothing but a nasty knuckleball. During his three years for the Mets, he posted a 39-28 record with a 2.95 ERA, hurling eight complete games and picking up the 2012 National League Cy Young Award.
At age 38, it’s been a bit of a rocky start for Dickey in 2013, but he pitched six-inning, two-run ball in his last two outings.
Expect Dickey to improve this season’s numbers and continue his successful late career well into his 40s.
Curt Davis, a starting pitcher for the Dodgers, Cardinals, Phillies and Cubs in the ‘30s and ‘40s, put together a solid 13-year major league career…all after the age of 30.
From age 24 to 29, Davis spent his first six years in professional baseball in the minor leagues, five of which were for Double-A San Francisco.
It wasn’t until age 28 that he had his first standout season for the Seals, going 22-16 with a 2.24 ERA. Despite the success, he still didn’t get the call-up until 1934.
Davis was phenomenal in his first season in the bigs at age 30. That season in 1934, he posted a 19-17 record in what would be a career-high 31 starts, a 2.95 ERA and 99 strikeouts for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Other than a few injury-plagued seasons, Davis would put together an All-Star-worthy career which he ended with 158 wins and a 3.42 ERA.
On this list there are seven pitchers and three hitters, reinforcing the argument that it’s much harder to revive a career as a hitter than a pitcher. Jose Bautista did just that.
A 20th-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2000, Bautista was never considered a highly coveted prospect or even a guy who could start at a major league level. After putting together some above-average seasons in the minors, he was called up in 2004, spending his first major league seasons bouncing around from team to team.
From 2004 to 2009, Bautista strung together mediocre seasons for the Pirates and Blue Jays. In 2010, the 29-year-old completely revamped his swing with some timing mechanisms, one of which included a leg kick.
So, what was the product?
It was only 124 RBI and a league-leading 54 home runs. He instantly became one of the most feared right-handed hitters in the game and continues to be to this day.
In 2011 he led the American League in home runs once again, slugging 43 on top of a .302 average and 103 RBI.
This season, the Blue Jays’ bomber is hitting .256 with seven home runs and 20 RBI.
Before the age of 30 and before he put on a Colorado Rockies uniform, Bichette was an average outfielder.
He strung together a few seasons where he hit in the .200s with fifty or so RBI, but he never came close to being All-Star worthy. That all changed the day the Brewers traded him to the brand-new expansion team, the Colorado Rockies.
In Bichette’s first season in Colorado at age 29, he hit .310 with 21 homers and 89 RBI, undoubtedly his best season to that point.
The Rockies slugger would bat above .300 for the next five seasons. In four of those seasons he recorded 100-plus RBI. Bichette also fell a few votes short to Barry Larkin in the 1995 MVP voting.
Bichette became a legend in Coors Field, posting a .316 average, 201 home runs and 826 RBI in the Rockies pinstripes.
He finally decided to throw in the towel at age 37 after his numbers and health took a sharp decline.
Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan was not the dominant closer we know him to be right out of the gate. In fact, it took him a few ugly seasons as a starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants to realize his true potential as a closer.
In Nathan’s first two years in the bigs as a starter, he combined for a 4.70 ERA with just 115 strikeouts.
It wasn’t until age 29 that the Minnesota Twins decided to take a chance on Nathan in the closer’s role. It paid off.
In his first season as a Twin, Nathan recorded 44 saves and an impressive ERA of 1.62. Into his 30s, Nathan established himself as one of the most dominant and feared closers in the game, alongside names like Goose Gossage, Jason Isringhausen and John Wetteland.
Now pitching for Texas at age 38, Nathan is a perfect 12-for-12 on the season for saving games.
Outfielder Lefty O’Doul began his career a failed pitcher…and then proceeded to put up some of the most inhuman batting averages in Major League Baseball history.
O’Doul spent his minor league career bouncing back and forth between pitcher and position player, both rather unsuccessfully.
The New York Yankees gave him a shot as a 22-year-old rookie in 1919, but he failed to make any noise over the next five years. After a stint in Boston and with the New York Giants, O’Doul found his way to Philadelphia at age 32.
I’m not sure if it was the weather, the water or even the newly developed Philly Cheesesteak, but something clicked. In 1929, O’Doul batted .398, leading the league in hits at 254 and on-base percentage at a .465 clip. He finished second in MVP voting only behind the Cubs’ Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby.
For the next three years, O’Doul transformed into one of the most consistent contact hitters in the game, batting .383 in 1930, .336 in 1931 and a league-leading .368 in 1932.
O’Doul retired at age 37 as a career .349 hitter.
Hoyt Wilhelm spent his youth playing for five different minor league teams all over the country.
He also spent some time serving the army in World War II in the European Theatre, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. His military service and Purple Heart earned him the nickname “Ol’ Sarge” on the diamond.
It wasn’t until age 29 that Wilhelm finally saw the major leagues. In just his first season alone, Wilhelm would build a reputation as one of the most successful relief pitchers the game would ever see. During that 1952 season as a reliever, he recorded a 15-3 record with 108 strikeouts and a league-leading 2.43 ERA.
For the next two decades, Wilhelm pitched for nine different teams. His numbers were remarkable and included a streak of five straight seasons when his ERA did not crest two.
He ended his career at age 49 with 143 wins in relief and an ERA of 2.52. Wilhelm was elected to the Hall of Fame as its first relief pitcher.
Randy Johnson is a five-time Cy Young Award winner, threw a perfect game at age 40 and is likely headed to Cooperstown. However, the “Big Unit” wasn’t always one of the game’s most feared left-handed pitchers.
Until about age 29, Johnson was simply mediocre. His rookie season in 1989, he posted a 7-13 record with a 4.82 ERA, providing the Montreal Expos and, after being traded to Seattle, the Mariners with little backing at the end of the rotation.
For the next three seasons, Johnson would float around a .500 record with an ERA in the high threes. The numbers weren’t bad, but it was nothing Cy Young-worthy.
Then, in 1993, that all changed. Johnson went 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA and led the league in strikeouts with 308. He finished second in Cy Young voting only to Jack McDowell.
After that season, Johnson would lead the league in strikeouts just another seven times, collecting hardware and perennial All-Star selections along the way. In 2002 at age 38, Johnson would defy all odds and lead the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts, taking home the National League Triple Crown.
The “Unit” certainly improved with age but finally hung up the cleats at age 45 after collecting 303 career wins.
Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance, who ended his career with 197 wins, did not record a victory before the age of 31. How’s that for a stat?
Vance was barely relevant before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1922 at age 31. That season, he posted an 18-12 record with a 3.70 ERA and a league-leading 134 strikeouts. In fact, Vance would lead the league in strikeouts each of the next six seasons.
In 1924, the Dodgers ace led all of baseball with 28 wins and a 2.16 ERA and 262 strikeouts, winning him the Triple Crown and MVP. The season was one for the ages and solidified his spot in Cooperstown.
Vance spent 12 years in Brooklyn, where he was known for having the fastest heater in the game. He spent the latter half of his career in St. Louis and Cincinnati, eventually being traded back to Brooklyn in what would be his final season.
He ended his career with 197 wins, a 3.24 ERA and 2,045 strikeouts.
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