March 8, 2017
On Pianists and Prodigal Sons
Tyler O’Neill Plays the Piano
By Nathan Bishop
He talks like this.
With a baseball bat he can do this, which I’m sure a few other baseball players can do, but I have never before seen:
A cursory glance at O’Neill reveals a young, extremely muscular, talented, confident athlete. He is, we assume, a jock. A meathead. A vapid collection of sinew and synapse, born in a sweaty, loud gym, designed to hit a baseball very, very hard.
I am a thirty-five year old real estate agent. While I played baseball through high school, it’s highly unlikely any three balls I hit combined will travel as far as O’Neill can hit the ball off a tee. I am flabby, and my hairline is beginning to retreat from time’s inexorable offensive. But, as many do, I have armed myself against the superiority of talented youth. Among my defenses, along with my liberal, open-minded ideology that allows me to view the baseball player as a delightfully earnest curio, is my background as a trained, classical pianist. Playing Chopin Nocturnes and Mozart Sonatas in my home reminds me of the comforting platitudes of childhood, which assure me that we all have worthwhile, unique gifts.
But, as adulthood reminds us time and again, childhood is a lie. Tyler O’Neill plays the piano. Not the guitar, the analog dating app of former generations, but the piano. He is classically trained, and, while his favorite pieces to perform (O Canada, and The Lord of the Rings) are no Beethoven or Liszt, video provided by the Mariners reveals a man with at least a respectable modicum of talent.
It is easy to view baseball players as characters, to create personalities based upon our preconceptions. They are the soldiers, we the scholars. And yet the Venn diagram between myself and Tyler O’Neill leaves me only with flab, while he still gets to hit those dingers.
Gagne But Not Forgotten
Eric Gagne is, sort of, back. He’s pitching in the World Baseball Classic on behalf of Team Canada, at a spritely 41 years old. He last pitched in the majors in 2008 for the Milwaukee Brewers, but is reportedly eyeing a comeback with the WBC serving as a springboard. Gagne officially retired in 2010, prompting Dodgers announcers Charley Steiner and Rick Monday to comment that he’d be attempting to return after seven years away from the game. This raises (not begs) the question: How long are the longest stints between MLB appearances, and how do those who finally make it back generally fare?
The first question is actually a bit fraught and depends on the guidelines one requests for a query. To wit, the title for “longest time between MLB appearances” belongs to Paul Schreiber, who debuted at 19 years old for Brooklyn in 1922, throwing one inning, returned for 15 innings the following season, disappeared for 22 years, and returned at age 42 for the Yankees in 1945. He was actually a batting practice pitcher and coach for the Yankees, but squeezed in the 4 ⅓ innings due to a roster that was depleted by World War II.
This doesn’t quite get at what we’re trying to get at with Gagne, though. Neither does filtering the search results to a more modern era, let’s say the by-gone Effectively Wild’s preferred cutoff of 1988:
That is every player who had a gap of at least seven years between MLB stints from 1988 onwards. I’ll be honest—it’s more than I expected, but by and large we’re talking about fringe players who never quit and subsequently received a second cup of coffee. They’re good stories, but they’re also, mostly, Triple-A players who found themselves on teams bad enough to need them more than once. It happens.
No, to get at the (potential) Gagne parameters, we need to look at retired players, specifically pitchers, who spent a significant amount of time away from the game. We’ll also need to expand our search past 1988, instead setting the line of demarcation at 1960. Fortunately that information is readily culled from our previous query:
/! SMALL SAMPLE SIZE WARNING /!
It was inevitable, even with extending our parameters, that the number of guys returning from layoffs of five-plus years would be minimal. It’s just an extremely hard thing to do. And before we draw any conclusions from an overly small sample to begin with, I’d like to note two caveats, both related to Jose Rijo.
Two out of the three pitchers managed meaningfully good seasons in their returns, though they totaled 34 innings between them, in doing so. To no one’s surprise, longevity is not a forte of the rusty, as only Rijo has his 77 innings of 84 ERA+ managed a second season after returning.
The lesson? Probably there is none, but between the variance inherent in relievers and a Gagne comeback isn’t nearly as ill-fated as one might assume it would be. Besides, we have to decide for ourselves what constitutes a successful comeback, especially one that spans entire presidential terms. What do you require of Eric Gagne? Forty innings of above-replacement, yeomanlike middle relief? Or is a single three-run inning, a single day with the jersey on, enough?
Special thanks to Rob McQuown for his assistance with this article.
Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @cdgoldstein