Baseball can be a paradoxical sport. The pitchers with the greatest longevity sometimes hit their strides late, seemingly every generation having its Dazzy Vance or Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. And often, the brightest young phenoms flame out early. Here are 10 hurlers who threw their last pitch before age 30, ranked in order of magnitude of collapse:
1. Denny McLain: In 1968, a 24-year-old McLain became the most-recent pitcher to win 30 games, and he followed that in 1969 with another Cy Young season. Within three years, he’d be out of the majors.”How could this have happened?” his SABR biography notes. “McLain claims to have suddenly lost his fastball in 1970, but one couldn’t help but notice that he was putting on ten pounds of fat a year. At the time of his release, he was 29 and looked 45.”
2. Mark Fidrych: At his height, Fidrych was a 21-year-old rookie who talked to the ball on the mound and was nicknamed Big Bird for his awkward, goofy mannerisms, on his way to a 19-9 season with a 2.34 ERA. But throwing 250.1 innings in a debut campaign can take its toll, and Fidrych didn’t manage that the rest of his career combined, retiring four injury-plagued years later.
3. Mark Prior: Of all the men on this list, Prior may be the one who could still pitch, just 30 at this writing. But he hasn’t played in the majors since going 1-6 in 2006, possible overuse by his manager on the Chicago Cubs, Dusty Baker to blame. Certainly, Prior was never the same after Baker’s first year in town, 2003, when the 22-year-old ace went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and the Cubs came within one game of the World Series.
4. Herb Score: Early in his career, Score looked like the next Bob Feller, going 36-19 with a 2.68 ERA and 508 strikeouts over his first two seasons with the Cleveland Indians. Score’s fortunes shifted a few months into his third year in the majors when he took a Gil McDougald line drive to the face. Though Score pitched another five seasons, he won just 17 more games after his injury and retired in 1962 at 28.
5. Bugs Raymond: Raymond had seemingly ideal circumstances for his career, joining a dynasty at the height of the Deadball Era. He went 18-12 with a 2.49 ERA in 1909 but drank his way off a World Series-bound New York Giants club two years later and was dead barely a year after that.
6. Gary Nolan: For someone who was done at 29, Nolan offered surprising longevity, his 110 wins lifetime second among these men to McLain’s 131. Five times, Nolan won at least 14 games, and he finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 1972 when he went 15-5 with a 1.99 ERA for a Reds team that went to the World Series. One can only wonder how much longer Nolan would’ve lasted without a debut as a young flamethrower or later, a manager, Sparky Anderson who urged him to pitch through arm pain.
7. Wally Bunker: Bunker was enough of a hit with the Baltimore Orioles early on that the pitching mound in Memorial Stadium was renamed Bunker Hill. He went 19-5 as a 19-year-old rookie in 1964 but developed a sore arm late in the season and was never again as effective, even if he stuck around the majors seven more seasons.
8. Tony Saunders: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Saunders the first pick in the 1997 expansion draft, though he pitched just two years for them before his injury-related retirement at 25. Jose Canseco wrote in one of his books that Saunders wore out his arm through excessive steroid use.
9. Dave Nied: The second of three men here selected in expansion drafts (the next guy was as well), Nied came to the Colorado Rockies as their first overall pick in November 1992. But expansion duty in the light air of Denver may have been too much for even a once-heralded Atlanta Braves prospect. Nied lasted parts of four seasons before bowing out in 1996 at 27 with a 17-18 lifetime record and 5.06 ERA.
10. Jay Hook: Hook went 29-62 with a 5.23 ERA in eight mostly-forgettable seasons between 1957 and 1964. He’s notable for winning the first game in New York Mets history, entering the majors as a Bonus Baby years before, and earning the nickname of “Professor” from Mets manager Casey Stengel for attending Northwestern in the offseason.