Elder Statesmen Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito In A Strikeout League Of Their Own

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I intended for this to be a section about Billy Wagner. I don't look at Billy Wagner's numbers very often. I seldom have reason to. Today, I had reason to. I was looking at the various playoff teams, so I looked at the Braves. I was looking at the Braves, so I looked at Billy Wagner. My jaw dropped. I don't know why. Wagner's always been terrific, and I've always known that full well. I shouldn't have been surprised.

But there I was anyway, seeing that Billy Wagner is the proud current owner of a 1.32 ERA and a 13.2 K/9. What's more, he's doing this with a ‘baseball age' of 38. Wagner's 39 years old - he turned 39 at the end of July - but I think Baseball-Reference.com uses June 30th as a cutoff. So, as far as Baseball-Reference is concerned, Billy Wagner is 38, and he's having a season for the ages.

What I wanted to do, then, was compare Wagner's performance to that of other old men throughout baseball history. In particular, the strikeout rate. A strikeout rate of 13.2 per nine innings is absurd. A strikeout rate of 13.2 per nine innings for a pitcher Wagner's age is extraordinary. How does this match up against all other pitchers who've ever thrown at least 50 innings at 38 or older? I was curious, so I ran a search.

And this is what I came up with:

First Place: Billy Wagner, 2010, 13.2 K/9
Second Place: Takashi Saito, 2010, 11.6 K/9

Sure enough, Wagner leads the pack, and he leads it by a significant margin. Since 1901, there have only been six seasons in which a pitcher threw at least 50 innings at 38 or older and struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings. Wagner's the only one to exceed 12. He's the only one to exceed 13. Wagner's in a spot all his own.

But the guy in second came as an unexpected surprise. Granted, he's not in second by much. Saito's 2010 K/9 of 11.57 leads Randy Johnson's 11.56 in 2002 by the slimmest of margins. It's just incredible to me that the two highest senior citizen strikeout rates currently operate out of the same bullpen. I don't know what the odds of that are, but I could hazard a guess.

Strikeouts, of course, aren't the be all, end all of pitching, but they help, in that they make things an awful lot easier. And what the Braves are working with are two of the premier veteran strikeout kings in the league. They also have Jonny Venters, who's excellent in his own right, but Jonny Venters is 25. Billy Wagner is 39. Takashi Saito is 40. And those two are going to look to shoulder some critical innings should the Braves indeed go on to the playoffs (note: assuming Saito recovers from his recent shoulder inflammation).

It's amazing to me that Billy Wagner is going to retire after the year. Not because his reasons aren't valid, but because he's coming off one of the better seasons of his career. You don't see many players walk away at the top of their games. Wagner will hang them up, having spent a decade and a half as one of the most underrated pitchers in the league.

Saito, too, belongs somewhere in the conversation. Though he hasn't been around as long as Wagner, his 2.14 career ERA and his 11.0 career K/9 have gone largely unrecognized. Few pitchers are as physically unreliable as Saito, but few pitchers are as good when they're on.

It's weird to think of the Braves as a team you can root for. These are two Braves you can root for. With a combined age of 79, they're outpitching guys nearly half their age, and neither has ever been to the Series. I've heard worse feel-good stories.


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