August 18, 2017
Doomed and Determined
On July 5, 2011, the Mariners stood at 43-43. New manager Eric Wedge was steering a previously hundred-loss, veteran team to respectability; the beginning of the youth movement, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak and Michael Pineda flashed copious promise.
Seventeen games later, the Mariners found themselves at 43-60. Twenty-five games after that, stripped of half its rotation through deadline trades, the team sent out a 24-year-old left-hander by the name of Anthony Vasquez.
You should not be expected to know this, or care about it. The 2011 Mariners were made to be forgotten, a gangrenous roster of flawed talent and worse people. Only six years later, just two players remain on the team: Felix Hernandez and then-utility infielder Kyle Seager.
Scattered history remains; a few other players still haunt the league, names like Smoak and Jason Vargas and catcher/reliever Chris Gimenez. But it’s a shockingly empty roster, graced with names of the sadly deceased, incarcerated, expatriated, and retired.
And of them all, no one played worse than the aforementioned Vasquez. In fact, depending on how you look at it, few pitchers have ever been as bad as Anthony Vasquez.
His conventional stat line:
The advanced statistics are not much kinder. Comparing his numbers to the 4,167 pitchers with 25-plus innings in the DRA era:
In only seven starts, the life expectancy of a pint of half-and-half, Vasquez both fulfilled his dream of making the major leagues and was ejected by it in ignominious defeat. Armed with a curveball that didn’t dive or spin so much as resign itself, wielding a slide-step motion like an embarrassed apology, the left-hander was laid on the altar like Isaac, sacrificed for the sins of other men. Only the end of the season called off the bout; his team, equally beaten, had no reason not to throw him to an endless supply of wolves.
He gamely returned to Triple-A Tacoma the following year, waiting to earn another chance that never came. He struggled through shoulder problems, posting a 6.53 ERA in 11 starts before stumbling onto the disabled list.
That fall, as he was trying to work his way back into shape at the team’s training complex, he noticed blurriness in one eye; the result was a 5.5-hour emergency surgery for a “ruptured tangle of blood vessels in the brain,” one of the most fatal-sounding maladies imaginable. He survived, returned to the mound, so many mounds.
This week marks the six-year anniversary of the MLB debut of Anthony Vasquez. Six years of arm pain, six years of late-night bus rides and sparse crowds and fast-food dinners, six years of demotions and promotions and minor-league contracts, six years of doubt, six years of remembering, six years of working.
After Seattle paid him to heal, he joined the Norfolk Tides, then moved on to Reading and Lehigh Valley for two years in the Phillies' system. As the Phillies rebuilt and restocked their high minors, Vasquez moved to Detroit in 2017, assigned to their Double-A Erie club, then got promoted back to Triple-A in the summer.
Everywhere he went, he served as a good soldier, going and doing what was needed, serving as the extra starter, never complaining, never really succeeding or failing, just making sure the hitters had pitches to hit. The fastball is now often 85 mph instead of 90, but his control has improved; he’s now confident to let the fielders do the work when they can.
We recognize these types of pitchers in the major leagues: the Edwin Jacksons and Jeremy Guthries, men so obviously doomed but equally determined. We know them because we still see them. Vasquez is like them, but a rung lower, not quite good enough to be allowed to fail like they do.
Yet so many of those 2011 Mariners are gone: Dan Cortes, the same age, retired in 2014. Chance Ruffin, a former first-rounder, was gone at age 24. Blake Beavan last tried indy ball three years ago. And Anthony Vasquez, now 30, persists.
In a couple of weeks, the September call-ups will arrive, that wonderful impurification of the baseball season. Despite a solid season, Vasquez will almost certainly again be left behind. Luminaries like Buck Farmer, Jairo Labourt, and Kyle Ryan, all on the 40-man roster, stand before him.
All it would take would be one quality start, six innings of batted-ball luck against a moribund White Sox roster already thinking about their own 2018 season, to lift his name from the depths of baseball history into the comfortable anonymity of major league baseball player. One start to provide close to seven, and the 133 in between.
Instead, Vasquez will enter another winter with no idea of his future—no team, after all, wants to admit right away that its system could use an Anthony Vasquez. And yet, likely, one will: perhaps the Marlins, or the Angels. Or maybe a return to Tacoma, another circle completed in a career of circling.
Thanks to Matt Winkelman for his scouting expertise in preparing this article.