Nelson Cruz and the 10 Best Seasons from Old Guys in MLB History

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 21, 2020

Nelson Cruz and the 10 Best Seasons from Old Guys in MLB History

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Relative to his age, Nelson Cruz is having a season for the ages.

    Though a 60-game sprint obviously isn't the same as a 162-game marathon, it's still impressive to see the Minnesota Twins slugger with a .314/.403/.623 batting line and 16 home runs through Sunday. Those are rare numbers for 2020—and rarer still for a guy in his age-39 season.

    Which got us to thinking: What are some other great "old guy" seasons from Major League Baseball history?

    Since we're doing this to honor Cruz, we set the seasonal age bar at 39 or older. Otherwise, we simply went looking for stat lines that leapt off the page for one reason or another.

    If you'll follow us this way, there are 10 (well, technically 15) seasons that we'd like to talk about. We'll start with five for hitters and end with five for pitchers.

Nelson Cruz, 2020

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Age: 39

    Key Stats: 50 G, 201 PA, 55 H, 22 BB, 16 HR, .314 AVG, .403 OBP, .623 SLG, 178 OPS+

    In the context of what he had done across the six previous seasons, it's not that surprising that Cruz has dominated in 2020.

    Between 2014 and 2019, an average season for Cruz included a 149 OPS+ (i.e., an OPS 49 percent better than league average) and 41 home runs. Even despite being limited to 120 games by injuries last year, he hit exactly 41 homers in his first season with the Twins.

    And yet it's anything but ordinary that Cruz, who turned 40 on July 1, has found yet another level of dominance this year. Before him, only three guys his age or older had ever posted an OPS+ as high as 178 in at least 200 plate appearances in a season: Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Jim Thome. 

    Or, two actual Hall of Famers and one guy with credentials worthy of his own Hall of Fame. If Cruz can keep playing at his current level for another year or two, he might just have Cooperstown creds of his own.

Barry Bonds, 2004

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    MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/Associated Press

    Age: 39

    Key Stats: 147 G, 617 PA, 135 H, 232 BB, 45 HR, .362 AVG, .609 OBP, .812 SLG, 263 OPS+

    Even knowing about the less-than-wholesome nature of it all, what Barry Bonds did between 2001 and 2004 still boggles the mind.

    That four-season stretch began with a record-setting 73-homer campaign in '01, which effectively shortened the scouting book on him to one line: "For the love of all that is good, don't pitch to him."

    So after breaking Babe Ruth's record for walks in a season in 2001, Bonds broke his own record in 2002 and again in 2004. The latter featured nearly twice as many intentional walks (120) as his previous high, which in turn helped him become the only player in history to finish a year with an OBP north of .600.

    Oh, and the San Francisco Giants legend also notched his fifth straight campaign with at least 45 long ones. So never mind just a great season for a 39-year-old. There's a compelling case to be made for Bonds' 2004 campaign as maybe the best offensive season by any player at any age.

Hank Aaron, 1973

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    Associated Press

    Age: 39

    Key Stats: 120 G, 465 PA, 118 H, 68 BB, 40 HR, .301 AVG, .402 OBP, .643 SLG, 177 OPS+

    Some 31 years before Bonds was more or less impossible to get out in 2004, Hank Aaron achieved what is still one of the greatest power-hitting seasons ever by a 39-year-old. 

    After averaging 153 games per season between 1955 and 1970, Aaron's durability began to slip as he played in only 139 games in 1971 and 129 games in 1972. It slipped again in 1973, when he played in a career-low 120 games.

    And yet Hammerin' Hank still clubbed 40 home runs for the eighth time in his career—this occasion also marked the first-ever 40-homer season by a player who was 39 or older. The feat has since been replicated only once, by Bonds in 2004.

    But whereas Bonds homered once every 13.7 plate appearances in '04, Aaron went yard once every 11.6 PAs in '73. In theory, he could have hit a whopping 54 home runs if he'd been able to stay healthy for all 162 games that year.

David Ortiz, 2016

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Age: 40

    Key Stats: 151 G, 626 PA, 169 H, 80 BB, 38 HR, .315 AVG, .401 OBP, .620 SLG, 164 OPS+

    As rare as great age-39 seasons are, great age-40 seasons are rarer still. And while Willie Mays, Darrell Evans, Sam Rice and others were still going strong at that age, what David Ortiz did in 2016 reigns supreme.

    Big Papi was one of the top hitters in baseball that year, as he led all of MLB in doubles, slugging and OPS. If not for the leaderboard hogger known as Mike Trout, he also would have led the league in OPS+.

    Ortiz's final season with the Boston Red Sox was also unlike any that a 40-something hitter had done before. His 38 home runs are the most ever by a player in his 40s. The same is also true of his 87 extra-base hits and 333 total bases. His 164 OPS+ is likewise the best ever by a 40-something.

    Though his 541 home runs (17th all-time) and legendary postseason resume obviously take precedent, the brilliance of Ortiz's swan song will surely be noted when he appears on the 2022 Hall of Fame ballot.

Ted Williams, 1958 and 1960

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Ages: 39 and 41

    Key Stats for 1958: 129 G, 517 PA, 135 H, 98 BB, 26 HR, .328 AVG, .458 OBP, 584 SLG, 179 OPS+

    Key Stats for 1960: 113 G, 390 PA, 98 H, 75 BB, 29 HR, .316 AVG, .451 OBP, .645 SLG, 190 OPS+

    Unlike Ortiz, Ted Williams didn't round out his career with the Red Sox with a spectacular age-40 season. His experience at that age was more of a drag, as he played in just 103 games and mustered only a 114 OPS+.

    On either side of that season, though, Williams certainly padded his reputation as the greatest hitter who ever lived.

    At the age of 39 in 1958, the Splendid Splinter won his sixth American League batting title and led the majors in on-base percentage for a 12th time. As a 41-year-old in 1960, he would have had the majors' highest OBP yet again if only he'd had enough plate appearances to qualify.

    As it is, it's not often that a hitter authors two .300/.400/.500 slash lines after turning 39. Though Cruz may yet add his name to the list, Williams is currently the only hitter to ever do that.

Phil Niekro, 1978

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    Rusty Kennedy/Associated Press

    Age: 39

    Key Stats: 44 G, 42 GS, 334.1 IP, 295 H, 248 K, 102 BB, 142 ERA+

    Phil Niekro's 1978 campaign wasn't his last "old guy" season in the majors. Far from it, in fact, as he continued to pitch into his age-48 season in 1987.

    Yet Niekro's '78 campaign was surely his last as a truly great pitcher, and he made it count.

    True to his usual form, he led the majors in starts and innings that year. For that matter, it was his second of three straight seasons of at least 330 innings. The third of these, from 1979, is also the last instance of a pitcher logging that many innings in a single season.

    Of course, Niekro's ERA was also 42 percent better than average in 1978. There have been other seasons with at least 330 innings and a 140 ERA+ throughout MLB history, but none by a pitcher as old as Niekro was in '78.

Randy Johnson, 2004

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    DAVID KADLUBOWSKI/Associated Press

    Age: 40

    Key Stats: 35 G, 35 GS, 245.2 IP, 177 H, 290 K, 44 BB, 176 ERA+

    Randy Johnson won four straight Cy Young Awards between 1999 and 2002. But after he pitched to only a 110 ERA+ over 18 starts in 2003, it might have been easy to think that he was finally washed up.

    Thoughts of that nature were put to rest by the time the Arizona Diamondbacks ace hurled a perfect game on May 18, 2004. He's still the only 40-something to ever hurl a perfecto, though the rest of his 2004 season also deserves its due.

    To wit, Johnson's '04 campaign is the last time a pitcher finished a year with as many as 245 innings and an ERA+ as high as 175. While he isn't the oldest pitcher to ever do so, he ranks second to only a 41-year-old Cy Young in 1908.

    Mind you, the scoring environment in 2004 was a bit less friendly to pitchers than the one in 1908. In the latter, teams scored 3.4 runs per game. By the former, they were up to 4.8 runs per game.

Roger Clemens, 2005

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    PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

    Age: 42

    Key Stats: 32 G, 32 GS, 211.1, 151 H, 185 K, 62 BB, 226 ERA+

    Just a year after the Big Unit set a new standard for 40-year-old pitchers, Roger Clemens did him one better as a 42-year-old.

    Clemens' age-41 season in 2004 was outstanding in its own right, as he won his seventh Cy Young Award on the strength of a 145 ERA+ over 214.1 innings. Yet he found still another level in 2005, shaving more than a run off his ERA and finished with MLB-best marks for hits per nine innings and ERA+.

    What's more, Clemens became one of only 10 pitchers to finish a season with an ERA+ as high as 225 while also qualifying for the ERA title. And the others did so at a younger age. Before Clemens, the oldest to do it was a 32-year-old Bob Gibson in 1968.

    Granted, whether Clemens' 2005 season was on the level is subject to some scrutiny. It nonetheless happened, and it's not likely that another season like it will be seen any time soon.

Nolan Ryan, 1989

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    Doug Sheridan/Associated Press

    Age: 42

    Key Stats: 32 G, 32 GS, 239.1 IP, 162 H, 301 K, 98 BB, 124 ERA+

    While we're on the topic of Texas-raised fireballers who pitched deep into their 40s, we'd be remiss if we didn't consider at least one Nolan Ryan season for this little exercise.

    Two of Ryan's greatest final acts happened in 1990 and 1991, respectively, when he recorded the last of his record-setting seven no-hitters. On the whole, though, his 1989 campaign was a truly excellent year relative to his own standards and those of 42-year-old pitchers.

    Amazingly, '89 marked the first time that Ryan had crossed the 300-strikeout threshold since he did so as a 30-year-old in 1977. And despite Johnson's best efforts in the early 2000s, Ryan is still the oldest pitcher to strike out 300 batters in a season.

    By finishing 1989 with more than 230 innings and an ERA+ over 120, Ryan also joined a club of 42-year-olds in which Warren Spahn is the only other member.

Mariano Rivera, 2009-13

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Ages: 39-43

    Key Stats: 264 G, 233 GF, 260 IP, 198 H, 239 K, 42 BB, 227 ERA+

    Going strictly off ERA+, Mariano Rivera's returns actually did diminish as he got into his late 30s and 40s. He also missed most of 2012, his age-42 season, after tearing his ACL in May.

    Rivera nevertheless carried on as the greatest closer in baseball history during the final years of his career. So much so that we found it impossible to pick just one season as his best after he turned 39 in 2009.

    In five seasons between '09 and 2013—his final one—Rivera collected the last 170 of his record 652 career saves. He also became the only pitcher to do better than 250 innings and a 200 ERA+ after his age-39 season.

    By doing so, Rivera was able to keep his career ERA+ safely over the 200 threshold. It may be a lesser-known record, yet his 205 mark is indeed the best ever by any pitcher who's logged as many as 1,000 innings.

         

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.