The Blue Jays signed BJ Ryan to a contract for 5 years. Which is a huge surprise.
Or is it?
First, a quick look at Ryan's stats the past few years:
Season IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA 2003 50 11.3 4.8 0.2 3.40 2004 87 12.6 3.6 0.4 2.28 2005 70 12.8 3.3 0.5 2.43Looks like a pretty dominating line and one that's not matched by too many other relievers. But the Jays aren't concerned with how he has pitched, they're more concerned with how he will pitch.
BJ Ryan turns 30 next month so he'll be under contract for his age 30-34 seasons. How have other dominant relievers fared in that period?
This is far from the most scientific way, but I looked at pitchers who consistently had a K rate over 9 prior to their age 30 season.
Trevor Hoffman: Has been dominant in each year that he's pitched. Hoffman only pitched 9 innings in 2003 (age 35) due to injury.
Mariano Rivera: Had a slightly down year in 2002 (age 32) with only 46 innings due to minor injuries, but otherwise has pitched at least 70 innings (not including the postseason) and has been the backbone of the Yankees during his tenure. Rivera turns 36 this week.
Troy Percival: Percival's K rate dropped sharply in 2004, his age 34 season, although he was still able to put up a 2.90 ERA that year. In 2005 Percival struggled to stay on the field and when he was on the field he struggled.
Billy Wagner: While Wagner just completed his age 33 season he's probably the most comparable pitcher to Ryan. And wouldn't you feel safe signing Wagner today to a one year contract? Wagner has been lights out whenever he's pitched. He's had two years when he's had injuries - 2000 (age 28) when he pitched just 28 innings and 2004 (age 32) when he pitched 48 innings.
Eddie Guardado: Everyday Eddie has remained a strong reliever through 2005 (age 34) although he missed some time in 2004 due to an injury.
Roberto Hernandez: Hernandez seemed to hit the wall when was 32 in 1997. Since then he's been an ordinary pitcher for many teams.
Tom Gordon: This probably isn't the best comparison because Gordon started most of his career before heading to the bullpen at age 29 in 1997. In his first full year in the pen Gordon was dominant, but then was injured for most of 1998 and all of 1999 (age 30 and 31). The first 2 years back Gordon pitched slightly over 40 innings good success and since then Gordon has been a workhorse for the Yankees. However, at age 37 Gordon's K rate dropped under 9 which may be a result of all of those innings from 2003-2005 with the Yankees.
Robb Nen: Nen was a dominant reliever through 2002 (age 32) for the Giants but was injured that year. After multiple attempts to comeback Nen recently retired having never pitched since that 2002 season.
Tom Henke: The Terminator first showed a decline in his K rate in the 92 Championship season (age 34). He bounced back in 1993 with the Rangers and was still a contributor when he retired following the 1995 season at age 37 with the Cardinals. (Henke had 36 saves and a 1.82 ERA in 54.3 innings in that final year - why did he retire again?)
Lee Smith: Smith's K rate started to drop under 9 in 1991, his age 33 season. However, he was still effective through his age 37 season in 1999. His innings pitched dropped off after his age 34 season - prior to that he was consistently pitching 70+ innings.
John Wetteland: Wetteland's career started going downhill in the 2000 season (age 33) and he didn't pitch after that point (and I'm unsure why - did he just retire?).
Kazuhiro Sasaki: Sasaki came to the Mariners in 2000 at age 32 after a successful career in Japan. Sasaki pitched well over the next three years before struggling through injuries and ineffectiveness in 2003 (age 35). After that season Sasaki headed back to Japan.
And for those that brought it up, what about Randy Myers?
Randy Myers: Myers pitched effectively through age 34 and then after signing with the Jays at age 35 in 1998 Myers struggled before being claimed by the Padres. Myers was out of baseball after that season.
In recent years both Keith Foulke and Armando Benitez both signed big free agent contracts and suffered significant injuries. Foulke's K rate has been a little under 9 in his career but he had great success prior to this season (age 32) when he had troubles with his knee. Benitez had many strong seasons before tearing his hamstring this season at age 32.
So what does this all mean? Well, only one pitcher crashed and burned (Nen). Several others pitchers suffered an injury of some sort between 30-34, but nothing that lasted more than one season. Most of the pitchers were able to retain their effectiveness through age 34.
Given that Ryan has no real injury history and has had a relatively light workload over his career (381 innings) I don't think the risk involved with a 5 year contract is as worrisome as it might appear at first.