September 13, 2000
Doctoring The Numbers
The Doctor Returns
It's good to be back.
It's good to be anywhere but within the clutches of the Russ Branyan Fan Club, actually. These were no benevolent captors, let me tell you. You don't know pain until you've been forced to watch every one of Rey Ordonez's 2,212 career plate appearances. I tried to put on a brave face, and when it was concluded I even tried to fake nonchalance. "Is that all you guys are capable of?" I dared them.
I immediately regretted my bravado, but that didn't stop them from dragging out the David Howard tapes. The horror. The humanity.
Thankfully, just as they promised me they would "get Rafael Belliard on your ass," John Hart acquiesced to their demands and Branyan was recalled from Buffalo. It has taken me nearly two weeks to recover from the trauma, but I trust you understand.
And now, on with the countdown.
Just Call Him "Dazzy" Smith
When the Marlins discarded Brant Brown in a three-way trade for Chuck Smith earlier this season, then called up the 30-year-old journeyman Smith, it was hardly a unique event. After all, one of the pitchers he joined on the Marlins' staff was Joe Strong, who had just reached the majors for the first time as well--at age 37.
But unlike Strong, who has pitched sparingly for the Fish and has a 7.32 ERA, Smith has become one of the pivotal members of the Marlins' staff. After matching Randy Johnson on Sunday night in a game the Marlins would go on to win, Smith is 4-5 with an impressive 3.47 ERA in 16 starts. Smith also has 95 strikeouts in 104 innings of work. Since 1900, only two players who debuted at age 30 or older have struck out at least 100 batters in their first season:
Name Year Age K
(Categorizing Masato Yoshii as a rookie in 1998 is, frankly, an insult to the caliber of play of Japanese baseball.)
With at least three more starts left, Smith may still pass Yoshii and rank behind only Wayne LaMaster on the list of late-blooming strikeout pitchers.
LaMaster reached the major leagues out of desperation on the part of the Phillies, who for much of the century were by far the worst team, year in and year out, in all of baseball. The Phillies had finished above .500 just once (1932) since 1917, and were in the midst of a 13-year stretch (1933-45) in which they finished seventh or eighth (in an eight-team league) every year. In 1937, LaMaster led the Phillies with 15 wins, but led the entire league with 19 losses.
One of his teammates that year was Hugh Mulcahy, the only player in recorded history whose nickname was "Losing Pitcher". The following season, LaMaster went 4-8, 7.32 and dropped out of sight; the Phillies finished 45-105, 43 games out of first place and 24 1/2 games out of seventh! Only two teams since 1900 (the 1916 A's and 1935 Braves) have finished deeper in the cellar.
The Marlins, who still have a chance to finish at .500, are certainly no relation to the Phillies, who by the way finally finished over .500 again in 1949. (If the Phillies had lost two more games in 1932, they would have finished under .500 for 31 consecutive years.) And Chuck Smith, whose ERA is more than a run better than the league average, is no Wayne LaMaster.
Who does Smith resemble? Well, in 1922, a 31-year-old rookie pitcher came up with the Brooklyn Dodgers and had an outstanding season, going 18-12, 3.70, leading the league with five shutouts and 134 strikeouts. He doesn't qualify for our list above, because he had made a start for the Pirates in 1915 and made a few appearances with the Yankees in the interim, but no one expected a damn thing from Dazzy Vance when he was given a shot by manager Wilbert Robinson.
And Vance was hardly finished. Beginning in 1922, Vance led the NL in strikeouts for seven consecutive seasons, a record that is still unmatched. He led the league in ERA three times, the last time coming when he was 39. And in 1924, Vance had one of the most dominating seasons ever recorded by a pitcher, going 28-6, 2.16 and winning the MVP award. That season, he struck out a career-high 262 batters. This came in an era of lively balls and batters choking up six inches on a bat, when pitchers averaged just 2.8 whiffss per nine innings and the entire Phillies staff recorded just 349 strikeouts.
This was the NL leader board in strikeouts that season:
Name Team K
Only one other pitcher in the entire league had even one-third as many strikeouts as Vance. Aside from Babe Ruth, who hit three times as many home runs as the third-place finisher in 1920, 1927 and 1928, I dare you to find another instance in which one player so thoroughly dominated his league in any significant category.
Vance would finish his career with 197 wins, every one of them after his 31st birthday. Only five pitchers in history won more games after they turned 31. Vance was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1955.
That's not to say that Chuck Smith is likely to develop into one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball over the next ten years. But in a game in which anything can happen, remember that not only is it possible, but it's been done before.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.