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August 22, 2012

The Lineup Card

Nine Memorable Late-Season Call-Ups

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Bob Hazle
With a stat line of .403/.477/.649 over the final third of the season after a late July promotion, arguably no position player has ever impacted a pennant race like Bob "Hurricane" Hazle did with the eventual world champion Milwaukee Braves.

A 26-year old left-handed-hitting outfielder, Hazle had a brief stint with the Cincinnati Reds in 1955, and was hitting .279 at the Braves' Wichita affiliate when recalled. Manager Fred Haney shifted eventual MVP Hank Aaron from right field to center field after regular center fielder Bill Bruton suffered a season-ending injury in mid-July. The club, after missing out on the 1956 NL title to Brooklyn by a single game, was in the midst of a tight pennant race again; five teams were within five games of the lead on July 28. Haney had been tinkering with his lineup in the preceding two weeks, shifting All-Star catcher Del Crandall to right field for four starts, while losing Aaron and Andy Pafko for five games each due to injury.

Milwaukee trailed St. Louis by percentage points for the NL lead on the day Hazle debuted, July 29, and two weeks later, the race was essentially over. Inserted into the lineup's sixth spot on July 31, Hazle hit .586 (17-for-29) as the club won 10 straight games from August 4-15 and amazingly picked up nine games over a nine-game stretch as the formerly first place Cardinals lost nine in a row.

Hazle, using former teammate Chuck Tanner’s bats, was 34 for his first 67 (.507) and batted .417/.549/.789 with 10 multi-hit games in 19 August starts as the Braves surged to a 38-18 record in their final 56 games with a run differential of +103. Hurricane Hazle started 37 of those games, and despite only playing the final third of season, had a 1.9 WARP.

The Braves, in the midst of an eight-year stretch where they finished first or second seven times, went on to capture their franchise's first World Series in 43 years—and its only one in Milwaukee—by defeating the New York Yankees in seven games. Hazle started four of the seven games and had two hits in the Fall Classic's deciding game before a crowd of over 61,000 at Yankee Stadium.

For his extraordinary contribution and impact on the NL pennant, Hazel finished fourth in Rookie of the Year balloting, even garnering one first-place vote. Sadly, Hazle's luck turned rotten the following year, as two beanballs and an ankle injury significantly limited his production, and he was traded in May of 1958 to the Tigers. He never played in the majors again; a few years later, he retired at age 31.

"I have been in professional baseball for over 60 years and never saw anyone have two months like Bob Hazle," Crandall said at a recent SABR meeting in Los Angeles. "It was really amazing, as it seemed like he got two or three big hits every night. It's my favorite year in baseball, as Braves fans supported us so incredibly." (Milwaukee, despite a population of approximately 750,000, led the National League in attendance with 2.2 million fans, averaging 28,403.) —Dan Evans

2. Fernando Valenzuela
In September 1980, the Dodgers brought up a chubby 19-year-old left-hander whom they had found in a Mexican farming community of 150 people called Etchohuaquila just over a year before: Fernando Valenzuela. Armed with a screwball taught to him by Dodger reliever Bobby Castillo, the young southpaw led the hitter-friendly Texas League in strikeouts (162) during his first full season of professional baseball, going 13-9 with a 3.10 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine for Double-A San Antonio. He debuted on September 15 for a Dodger team that was running neck-and-neck with the Astros, and yielded two unearned runs in a two-inning stint of a 9-0 blowout.

He was just getting started. Over the next two and a half weeks, Valenzuela would make nine more appearances and throw 15 2/3 scoreless innings, with 15 strikeouts and just 12 baserunners. He notched one save and two wins in relief, the second of which came at the outset of a season-ending three-game series against Houston—a must-win series for the Dodgers, who entered trailing by three games. They won all three, and wound up tied with the Astros at 92-70, necessitating a one-game playoff.

As legend goes, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda considered starting the rookie in the tiebreaker, but instead he turned to Dave Goltz, a former 20-game winner who had proven to be a free-agent bust, coming in with a 7-10 record and a 4.28 ERA (an 82 ERA+). To be fair, Goltz had reeled off five quality starts out of six in September and October en route to a 2.56 ERA for the month. Alas, he got his ass handed to him by the Astros, yielding eight hits and four runs in three innings before being replaced by a pinch-hitter. Valenzuela did pitch a scoreless sixth and seventh inning, but the Dodgers lost 7-1. The following year would be a different story, however; on Opening Day, Valenzuela replaced scratched starter Jerry Reuss and threw a five-hit shutout against the Astros. He would go on to throw seven complete games and five shutouts in his first eight starts—good for a 0.50 ERA—as Fernandomania swept the baseball world, and ultimately helped the Dodgers to a world championship in the strike-torn 1981 season. —Jay Jaffe

3. Bob Milacki
I remember getting Bob Milacki’s 1989 Topps baseball card, looking at the back and getting really, really excited. I wasn’t even an Orioles fan, but who wouldn’t get excited about a guy who went 2-0 in three starts with a 0.72 ERA with a complete game shutout in 1988?! Based on that baseball card, and solely on that baseball card, 10-year old me predicted incredible things for the 23-year-old September callup for one of the worst teams in baseball history (the Orioles started 1988 0-21).

What kind of impact did he have? Well, he did beat the Tigers twice and the Yankees once, and they were in a dogfight for the AL East (indeed, the Tigers would finish just a game behind the Red Sox). But more importantly, as far as I’m concerned, is that it taught me my first lesson in small sample sizes. You will be shocked to learn, as I was, that Milacki did not go on to superduperstardom. Instead, he pitched 243 innings the next year, averaging around 102 pitches per start. redictably, his shoulder started to bother him in 1990, and he never threw more than 200 innings or had an ERA+ over 100 again (except for a 16-inning stint in 1993). So while September is a nice time to dream on prospects, be careful out there: Guys are going to get only a few PAs or a few IP to make an impression, and a lot of the time they're going to do it against other September callups who are way worse than Milacki. —Michael Bates

4. Marty Bystrom
The Phillies had gone through an exciting yet frustrating four-year stretch from 1976-79. They qualified for the postseason for the first time since 1950 when they won the National League East title in 1976 but would suffer the first of three consecutive NLCS losses, falling to the Reds in '76, then the Dodgers the next two seasons. In 1979, the Phillies watched while the intrastate rival Pirates won the World Series, a crown that had eluded Philadelphia since 1883.

Thus, the Phillies were hungrier than ever in 1980, when then the NL East featured a tight three-race at the start of September; the Pirates held a half-game lead on the Phillies and Expos. Then up came a right-hander from Triple-A Oklahoma City named Marty Bystrom. The 22-year-old made his major-league debut with one perfect relief inning at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 7. Three days later, he threw a five-hit shutout against the Mets at Shea Stadium and went on to win all five September starts while posting a 1.50 ERA. The Phillies won the division title on the penultimate day of the season, then beat the Astros in the NLCS and the Royals in the World Series for their first world championship. Bystrom wasn't a major factor in the postseason, making two starts and one relief appearance, posting a 3.18 ERA in 11 1/3 innings. His career had already reached its zenith, too; he was plagued by arm problems and finished his career with a 29-26 record and 4.26 ERA in parts of six seasons. However, Bystrom had an unforgettable September in 1980, and the Phillies almost certainly wouldn't have won their first World Series trophy without him. —John Perrotto

5. Gregg Jefferies
He finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting. That may not sound like much, but based on the fact that Gregg Jefferies didn’t make his debut until August 28, it’s pretty impressive. The Mets were in first place, well on their way to their second division title in three years, when Jefferies joined the lineup. His run over the final 32 games of the season were epic. And who knows, had he not finished 3-for-21, maybe Jefferies would have been higher on a RotY list that included winner Chris Sabo, Mark Grace and Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar.

But really, the last month of 1988 was about Jefferies and the Mets. In his first 22 games, Jefferies hit .364/.400/.705. The Mets closed strong, going 24-8 after Jefferies was added, but they lost to the Dodgers in the NLCS.

Not surprisingly, the expectations for Jefferies were through the roof based on his extended trial, and he never matched that run again. In his first full season, the switch-hitter played in 141 games, posting a 706 OPS and finishing third in the Rookie of the year race, making him the only player to receive Rookie of the Year votes in consecutive seasons. —Mike Ferrin

6. Jaret Wright
Had Jose Mesa nailed down the save in the ninth inning of Game Seven in the 1997 World Series, Jaret Wright's name would still be spoken in hushed, reverential tones around Cleveland. Wright started that Game Seven on short rest over a fully-rested Charles Nagy... only to watch Nagy surrender Edgar Renteria's game-winning hit in the 11th. But for a 17-year-old Indians fan living in a (still) championship-starved town, Wright made it fun getting there. He was young, cocky, and 21. He was everything that Charles Nagy—who always "looked scared" on the mound—wasn't. Wright looked like the ever-elusive "ace" for whom Cleveland ached.

What gets lost in the aftermath of Game Seven was how much Wright, being a good, if slightly lucky (.261 BABIP), starter meant to the Indians rotation that summer. When he debuted in late June, the Indians, so invincible in '95 and '96, were treading water at 38-33, thankful to be in a weak AL Central. Past Nagy and 38-year-old Orel Hershiser, who provided steady, but mostly unspectacular, results, there was what remained of Jack McDowell's career, and... well, Chad Ogea started Games Two and Six of the World Series that year. Wright was a gift from the baseball gods: an alpha male in a town with an inferiority complex on a team that almost had to turn to Albie Lopez. And when Wright single-handedly (OK, not really) beat the Yankees in the ALDS, there was a feeling that from nowhere, a savior had arrived.

Jaret Wright never quite did turn into what we fantasized he might be, but for a midseason callup, he made 1997 so much fun that the heartbreak was that much deeper at the end. —Russell A. Carleton

7. Salomon Torres
Trevor Wilson and Bud Black started the second and third games of the 1993 season for the Giants, but in August, both pitchers were injured and unavailable. So the Giants called up Salomon Torres, a 21-year-old Dominican who would be named the 22nd-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America a few months later. Torres was slight and slender, and he had thrown 189 innings already that season when he got the call, just in time to assure that he would be eligible for the postseason. That sounds like a lot of innings to us these days, but Torres had actually thrown 210 innings in his first year of pro ball, at age 19. Regardless, if he was gassed it didn’t immediately show. He struck out six in seven innings to get a win in his first big-league start, on Aug. 29. Then he went eight innings to win his second, and by Sept. 20, he had a 2.89 ERA in four starts. He would make four more, though, clearing the fourth inning in just one of them.

Going into the final day of the season, Dusty Baker tapped Torres to pitch a do-or-die game that would determine whether a 104-win Giants team would get a playoff or whether a 103-win Giants team would go home. By this point, Torres had thrown 230 innings. The final start came on just three days' rest. Torres was terrible, and the Giants lost big to the Dodgers. It seems to me that game was the toughest loss the Giants suffered between the last game of 1962 and the penultimate game of 2002. And it took a decade before Torres had any sort of useful career again, as a reliever in his old age. Giants fans may debate who should have started that game, but the truth is probably that there was no good option. This story isn’t really about a good decision or a bad decision; it’s about how hard baseball makes you work to win, or lose, anything in this stupid game. —Sam Miller

8. Francisco Rodriguez
Before there was David Price sneaking onto a post-season roster, there was a 20-year-old kid dubbed "K-Rod." Francisco Rodriguez's career as a starter was felled due to elbow and shoulder injuries, so he switched to relief in 2002 and blazed through 83 1/3 innings of relief work between Double- and Triple-A. 

At the major-league level, the Angels were in the midst of a pennant race, but soon injuries took their toll on the bullpen, and Anaheim was scrambling to find a bridge to closer Troy Percival. Rodriguez got the call and made his major-league debut against first-place Oakland on Sept. 18. He saw action in four more regular-season contests, tossing 5 2/3 innings of scoreless ball and stating his case for a spot on the Angels' post-season roster.

Of course, there's the rule in order to be eligible for the postseason, a player must be on the major-league roster by Aug. 31. However, manager Mike Scioscia could thank his lucky stars that there is a loophole that allows for those who aren't on the roster prior to Aug. 31 to take the place of an injured player. Rodriguez made the cut, and after allowing two runs in his first appearance against the Yankees in Game One of the ALDS, he looked almost unhittable until Game Six of the World Series against the Giants. K-Rod carved hitters up with his heater and curve, striking out 28 hitters in just 18 2/3 October innings while allowing just five runs, five walks, and 10 hits.

The Angels won their first, and only, World Series title on the back of Rodriguez's electric arm and some timely hitting. K-Rod's 2002 heroics helped him to break camp with Anaheim in 2003, though he remained in Percival's shadow as a deadly set-up man until he got his first chance to slam the door in 2005. —Stephani Bee

9. David Price
The top prospect in all of baseball, David Price, came up at the tail end of the 2008 season. The Rays had a set rotation at the time and therefore had no need for another starter, even one of Price's pedigree. (He did start two games in September, but he also relieved in three.) That freed Price up to come out of the bullpen in important points in the game. Which he did. He made his post-season debut against Boston, getting Jacoby Ellsbury to line to left field to end the Rays' 2-0 Game One win. He got the win in Tampa's Game Two extra-inning win, keeping the game tied in the 11th inning so the Rays' offense could win it in the bottom of the inning. Which they did.

But Price's signature moment came in Game Seven of the ALCS against Boston. The Red Sox had come back from a three-games-to-one deficit to tie the series. In the top of the eighth inning of Game Seven, the Rays were ahead 3-1. Indeed, the Red Sox had amassed only two hits off Rays pitching, one a Dustin Pedroia solo homer. With starter Matt Garza still in, Alex Cora reached on an error. Garza was taken out and a series of pitchers followed, the end result of which was the Red Sox loading the bases with two outs. Down two runs, a single could have tied the game and an extra-base hit could have given the Red Sox the lead. Left-hand hitting J.D. Drew was up. David Price was called in from the pen. He struck Drew out, ending the threat and, effectively, the Red Sox' season.

Price pitched twice in the World Series against Philadelphia. He threw 2 1/3 innings in the Rays' Game Two win and an inning in their Game Five loss. In the end, the Rays lost the series, but they wouldn't have made it that far without the electric pitching of David Price. —Matthew Kory

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