Over the hill but still strong on the hill

Here’€™s a little trivia quiz for you to work on, before the jump … How many major leaguers this season were playing at the age of 40 or more? By which I mean their Age 40 (or later) season, with age determined by the 1st of July; if you’€™re 40 by the 1st of July, you’€™re 40 for the season …

OK, so the answer is seven. And I’€™ll be really impressed if you can name … oh, more than five of them. Because I got five of them without thinking about it real hard.

What’€™s that? You want a hint? OK, here’€™s a hint: Only two of them are pitchers. Here’€™s another hint: Only two of them are Yankees.

OK, here’€™s the whole list in order of at-bats: Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Raul Ibanez, Bobby Abreu, Bartolo Colon, Jason Giambi, LaTroy Hawkins.

And here’€™s the list in order of actually playing well: Bartolo Colon, LaTroy Hawkins, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, Raul Ibanez, Jason Giambi.

Finally, here’€™s the list of good 40-year-plus players this season: Bartolo Colon, LaTroy Hawkins. Which is the point of today’€™s column-length column: Colon and Hawkins, of all people, are the only good oldsters in the majors this season. Oh, you could make cases for David Ortiz and Torii Hunter, both in their Age 38 season, playing well. Or Koji Uehara and Hiroki Kuroda, both 39 and pitching well.

But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I chose the nice round number that gave me something to write about: Namely, the improbability of Bartolo Colon and LaTroy Hawkins being the subject of a column-length column in 2014.

Take Colon. Please. He’€™s not quite six feet tall, but doesn’€™t weigh quite 300 pounds. In his Age 34 to 37 seasons, he went 13-16 in 200.2 innings with a 5.20 ERA. In his Age 38 to 41 seasons, he’€™s gone 48-35 in 674.1 innings with a 3.44 ERA. His 113 ERA+ over these last four seasons is right in line with his career mark (112). He’€™s the only starting pitcher in the majors who throws fastballs more than 80 percent of the time, and he averages only 88.9 miles an hour with his fastball –€“ which happens to rank 80th in the major leagues –€“ and yet he somehow ranks second in the National League in strikeout-to-walk ratio, behind only Clayton Kershaw.

Granted, you can’€™t really argue that Colon’€™s as good as he used to be. Except in some ways he’€™s actually better than he used to be. Which is why it’€™s hardly preposterous that a contending club would trade for Colon this week and happily pay him $11 million next season, too. Even though nearly every good 42-year-old pitcher in history was either a knuckleballer or a Hall of Famer. Or a Jamie Moyer or a David Wells.

And what about 41-year-old closers? When the Rockies signed LaTroy Hawkins and said he’€™d be their highest-leverage reliever, we were all like, "Hey, what could go wrong? He’€™s only 41 and hasn’€™t done this job since 2004. And he’€™s got only two seasons in his whole career with more than 14 saves."

Well, Monday night Hawkins collected his 21st save this season. And the list of 41-year-old closers consists entirely of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers: Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley, and Hoyt Wilhelm. There are only four other 41-year-old pitchers with at least 10 saves … and after Hawkins, the next one on the list (Doug Jones) earned only 13.

How does Hawkins do it? Just like Colon, with lots and lots of fastballs, although Hawkins does throw significantly harder, averaging around 93 miles an hour. And that’€™s the most interesting about him: Hawkins hasn’€™t lost anything off his fastball in a long time now. You’€™re supposed to lose something as you age. That’€™s what they always say, right? But Hawkins threw 93 in 2002 when he was 29, and he throws 93 in 2014 when he’€™s 41. He threw his slider 88 and his curveball 78 in 2004 when he was 31, and he throws his slider 88 and his curveball 78 in 2014 when he’€™s 41.

One more note about Hawkins … As you might recall, he began his career as a highly regarded starting pitcher. Except that didn’€™t work out well, at all. After five seasons that included 98 starts and a 6.11 ERA, the Twins finally shifted Hawkins to relief duties, and in 15 years as a fireman –€“ he hasn’€™t started a single game in the last 15 years –€“ he’€™s posted a solid 3.25 ERA. Of course, many failed starters have enjoyed long careers as relievers. But I’€™m not sure many have done it as dramatically as LaTroy Hawkins. And I’€™m not sure that both he and Colon won’€™t just keep cruising along for another year or three.