Derek Jeter and The All-Time Best Baseball Players Over 40
Derek Jeter turned 40 today. The Yankee legend and Hall of Famer has been struggling this year, suggesting his decision to retire at the season’s end was a prudent one.
However, there have been a handful of big league stars who continued to produce into their fifth decade. Baseball’s 15 best 40-and-over performers are below.
Fisk slugged 72 home runs and posted an OPS+ of 119 (meaning he was 19 percent better than the average hitter) in his five seasons after his 40th birthday. Even more amazingly the Hall of Fame catcher squatted behind the plate for most of those 537 games. His best post-40 year came at 42, when he hit .285 with 18 homers and came in 15th in th AL MVP race
Henderson played to age 44, and saw his batting average drop to .228 during his last four years. (Although he still managed to get on base at a decent clip.) But the all-time leader in runs and stolen bases was still excellent in his age 40 year, hitting .315 with 12 homers and 37 SB.
In 1960, the greatest hitter who ever lived had the greatest hitting year for a man over 40. The 41-year old posted an .OPS 1096, which would have led the league by almost 150 points if he had had enough plate appearances to qualify. Despite having just 310 at bats, Teddy Ballgame slugged 28 homers. It would be his last year, but we suspect if there had been a DH back then Williams would have been leading the league in offensive categories well into his forties.
Yeah, it may have been chemically-aided, but Clemens won 50 games after his 40th birthday. The Rocket snagged his record seventh Cy Young in 2004 as a 41-year old. He was probably even better then next year, leading the National League with paltry 1.87 ERA. The next year the 43-year old had 2.30 ERA in 19 starts and would have easily led the league if he had pitched enough innings to qualify.
The Big Unit had 72 wins after his 40th birthday. While he wasn’t as effective as Clemens throughout most of those years, he was still firing as 40-year old, posting a 2.60 ERA and leading the National League with 290 Ks.
Not only did Ryan win 71 games after his 40th birthday, but his 3.33 ERA over that time period was just a tick above his career mark of 3.18. The old man managed 19 post-40 complete games, led the league in strikeouts four times, and threw two of his record seven no-hitters in his fifth decade. Then there was the time when, at 46, he beat up Robin Ventura after the young whippersnapper had the audacity to charge the mound.
Spahn won 75 of his lefty record 363 games after his 40th birthday. Twice in his fifth decade he topped 20 wins and four times he led the league in complete games.
It’s become clear that there is a certain type of elite pitcher who can continue to throw at a high level well into his 40s. This was first made apparent by Cy Young, the pitcher whom all others are still compared to. After posting a 1.99 ERA as a 40-year old, Young pitched to a 1.26 clip, the lowest ERA of his career and 93 percent better than the average pitcher that year. The next two years the graying legend had ERAs of 2.26 and 2.53.
Molitor lost a good deal of time early in his career to injuries. So to accumulate his Hall of Fame-clinching hit total of 3319 the offensive machine had to really turn it on in his late 30s and early 40s. He hit .341 in 1996, the season he turned the big 4-0, and led the league with 225 hits. He followed that up with a .305 season and 164 more hits.
41-year old Willie Mays struggling to play center field for the New York Mets has long been used as a cautionary tale for players who hang on too long. But you really can’t blame the Say Hey Kid for wanting to play more. He was quite good as a 40-year old, leading the league in on-base percentage and swiping 23 bases (along with 18 homers) for his original team the Giants.
An ageless freak who was getting regular at-bats at 48, Franco was one of the better hitters in the league at 45. That year he hit .309 with a .818 OPS in 363 plate appearances.
Knuckleballers are a different breed, obviously, when it comes to the aging curve. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro took full advantage of this, winning a record 121 games after his 40th birthday. Post-40 highlights include 11 shutouts, 2 All-Star appearances and two years with Cy Young votes.
While the .357 average Cobb posted as a 40-year old was a bit off his .366 career mark, it was 34 percent better than the average player that year. The Georgia Peach also scored 102 runs and swiped 22 bags. The next year he “only” hit .323, prompting his retirement.
Rivera kept it simple with one pitch, and this probably aided the closer as he aged. The all-time save leader’s ERA after 40 was 1.95, even lower than his amazing 2.11 career mark. Most impressively he came back at 43, after missing almost an entire year, to post a 2.11 ERA with 44 saves in his final season.
Like Clemens, he probably didn’t do in naturally, but big-headed Bonds posted an amazing .480 OPS as a 42-year old, leading the league in walks and hitting 28 home runs. It was an improvement from his still-league leading .454 .OPS the year before.