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June 19, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Inglorious Bastards

by Steven Goldman

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The Strasburgians: Fourteen pitchers have been taken #1 overall since the draft began in 1965. Perhaps Stephen Strasburg is the best prospect of the lot. Given that the hopes of turning around their franchise will be pinned on his arm, not to mention quite a lot of money, the Nationals had best pray that he is, because the history of such picks is not encouraging. With the high expectations attendant on these picks, clubs tend to treat pitchers taken so high differently, working them harder and pushing them faster, often with deleterious results. Top-drafted pitchers have become above-average starters in the majors, but there have been no Hall of Famers in the mix, nor even a single Cy Young Award. If you were to pick one word to describe the 13 pitchers that preceded Strasburg, the word would have to be "disappointment." Of course, prospects don't always disappoint merely on their own-quite often they have help. Thus if there is one lesson to be learned from this litany it is this: bad teams make bad decisions.

In the following pitcher capsules, the numbers in parentheses show the pitcher's career Support-Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Above Replacement (SNLVAR) or his WXRL if he was a reliever, followed by his peak SNLVAR or WXRL along with the corresponding year. The last 50 starting pitchers to win the Cy Young Award have averaged an SNLVAR of 8.2 in their winning campaigns.

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1973: David Clyde, LHP, to the Texas Rangers. (4.3 SNLVAR career/2.1 SNLVAR in 1978)
Eight drafts went by before a pitcher was selected with the first pick in the June draft. The Rangers earned the choice with their 54-100 1972 club, also known as the team that drove Ted Williams out of baseball. An 18-year-old prep pitcher with a well-developed fastball and curve, Clyde had dominated teenage competition, going 18-0 with five no-hitters his senior year, striking out 328 batters in 148 innings. He allowed three earned runs all season.

Naturally, with a talent like Clyde's, you nurture it, but the Rangers did the opposite. With the club dying at the gate-the Rangers were working on another 100-loss season-owner Bob Short rushed Clyde to the majors. He wasn't the first player from the 1973 draft to make it up, as college player Dave Winfield jumped right from the draft to The Show. However, Clyde was the first high school player to make it, and forever after he would pay the price. His June 27 debut against the Twins was a rousing success. He pitched five innings, allowed one hit (a home run), walked seven, and struck out eight. Clyde got the win and the Rangers got a rare sellout. Subsequent results were mixed, and he finished the year with a 5.01 ERA in 18 starts. From then on, his career was a downward spiral of snarled mechanics, injuries, and dealing with the damage done by his exposure to a hard-drinking big-league lifestyle before he was mature enough to cope with it.

Finally sent down in 1975, he pitched well but lost most of the next season to shoulder surgery. After Clyde posted a 5.84 ERA in the Pacific Coast League in 1977, the Rangers gave up on the then 23-year-old and dealt him to the Indians. He showed enough early signs of life that year that Sports Illustrated breathlessly reported that "Clyde's off the schneid," but he quickly fell back on again. Injuries hit again the next year, and Clyde only appeared in a few midseason games. A second shoulder surgery knocked him out for the entirety of 1980, and a 1981 comeback in the Houston system stalled at Triple-A. His career was over at 26.

1976: Floyd Bannister, LHP, to the Houston Astros (38.4 SNLVAR career/6.7 SNLVAR in 1987)
Brian Bannister's daddy had been paying attention. The lefty was a strikeout machine for Arizona State University, and he seemed like a good bet to jump right to the majors. Bannister didn't think that was a good idea. "I want to go to the minor leagues first and prove myself there," he said. "I've seen too many cases of people starting out in the big leagues and having it hurt them." After a tough negotiation, Bannister had time for only seven games, but those were all he needed to prove himself. He went 2-0 with a 1.05 ERA in 43 innings spanning three levels, allowing only 26 hits, walking 19, and striking out 53. He made his debut as part of the Houston rotation the following April.

A solid big-league career ensued, though Bannister never became an ace and was constantly subjected to second-guessing for his results and his attitude. He got the strikeouts, twice leading the league in strikeout rate and once in strikeouts, and he even developed solid control, something that is usually difficult for hard-throwing young lefties to come by, but he also allowed an awful lot of home runs for the day, and was criticized for a lack of aggressiveness and an unwillingness to pitch inside. The Astros quickly traded him away (to Seattle for Craig Reynolds), which resulted in three years toiling for very poor Mariners teams, a situation in which no pitcher was going to look good (though he was selected to the 1982 All-Star team).

Bannister had his best moments after joining the White Sox as a free agent for the 1983 season. At the All-Star break he was a miserable 3-9 with a 4.76 ERA, but he was dominant in the second half, going 13-1 with a 2.23 ERA in 121 innings as the Sox went to the playoffs. His sole post-season start against the Orioles was less successful, and he left after six innings, trailing 4-0 after giving up a home run to Gary Roenicke (who was selected by the Expos seven picks after David Clyde in the 1973 draft).

Bannister had his best year for the White Sox in 1987, a season which included a no-walk, one-hit shutout of the Mariners, but his strikeouts had dropped off precipitously the year before, signaling that the end was near. Nonetheless, the Sox were able to sucker the Royals into giving up four players for him. The Royals got a middling season from Bannister before surgery, and he went on to a sojourn in Japan, and finally some mop-up work for the Angels and Rangers.

1981: Mike Moore, RHP, to the Seattle Mariners (41.8 SNLVAR career/7.1 SNLVAR in 1989)
Though he twice led the AL in losses, losing 19 games in 1987 and 15 in 1995, Moore was a solid pitcher, and probably a little better than he appeared at the time. Considering that he began his career with the Mariners at their most pathetic, and finished with a dying Tigers team, it became difficult to separate him from all of the losing going on around him. However, he had a fistful of seasons in which he was able to rise above, and at his best he was good enough to lead the staff of the 1989 Oakland A's to a championship, not only leading the rotation in SNLVAR, but going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in the World Series. Moore finished a very distant third in the Cy Young voting that year.

The Mariners earned the right to acquire his services through the exploits of their 1980 team, a 59-103 club which featured Floyd Bannister as staff ace and, circles within circles, also had as its DH Willie Horton, who had been traded from the Rangers with David Clyde two years earlier. More spectacularly, this was the club that gave the world the chance to experience the managerial stylings of Maury Wills. Moore, out of Oral Roberts University, jockeyed for position in the Mariners' hearts with Yale's Ron Darling. Money made the call an easy one, as Darling hired an advisor and expected a large bonus, while Moore conducted his own negotiations. The Mariners picked Moore, while Darling dropped to the Rangers at ninth overall.

As with so many other pitchers on this list, Moore was rushed to the majors, making his debut after just 14 minor league starts. He wasn't ready for the Mariners and the Mariners weren't ready for him; the two combined for a 20-39 record and a 5.02 ERA over the pitcher's first three seasons. Moore improved faster than did the franchise, so his won-lost records were rarely reflective of his pitching. He had a few terrific games in his career, including a 16-strikeout performance against the Yankees on August 19, 1988, and a one-hit shutout of the Royals on July 25, 1993. His free-agent move to the A's before the 1989 season was his career's salvation-having gone 18-34 in his last two years with the M's despite an above-average 4.25 ERA, in his four years with Oakland he went 66-46 and dropped his ERA to 3.54.

1983: Tim Belcher, RHP, to the Minnesota Twins (47.5 SNLVAR career/6.7 SNLVAR in 1996)
The parsimonious Twins failed to sign Belcher, so the Yankees snagged him in the now-defunct winter phase of the draft. At that time, free-agent compensation meant not a draft pick, but a player from another team's roster-sort of a mini-expansion draft every year, complete with protected lists. Belcher was signed five days after the Yankees submitted their protected list. The A's then selected him from the compensation pool, because the Yankees hadn't protected him. The commissioner's office upheld the move. The A's laughed, but not last, because in September, 1987 they traded Belcher away to the Dodgers for veteran lefty Rick Honeycutt. To give Oakland all due credit, Belcher didn't look like a prospect at the moment they traded him. He spent 1985 through 1987 pitching at Double- and Triple-A; in 349 2/3 innings, he allowed 338 hits, walked 254, struck out 251, and had an ERA of 4.76. The worst component of this came after an injury cost him the first four months of 1986; in 1987, Belcher's control had vanished, and he walked a Pacific Coast League-leading 133 in 163 innings.

The Dodgers ignored all of this, bringing him right up to the bigs, and with the amazing facility they had for crafting pitchers in those days, the control problems disappeared; in six games that fall, he walked just 1.9 batters per nine innings. Though Belcher was never consistent-he was a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and slider) in his early days-he hit a quick and wholly unexpected peak for the Dodgers, first pitching in a swing role in 1988, winning 12 games and saving four more, and winning three games in the postseason, including one in the World Series against the A's. The next year, he led the league in complete games (10) and shutouts (eight) while striking out 200 in 230 innings. Despite this, Tommy Lasorda dropped him from the rotation for a month at midseason in favor of John Tudor, who was making a cameo appearance in between trips to the DL. An insulted Belcher struggled in the pen, losing two games in eight appearances, but dominated once liberated, posting a 2.20 ERA in 15 starts over the rest of the season.

Shoulder problems derailed a 1990 sequel, but he came back in 1991 to post an excellent rate of 24 quality starts in 33 tries (thanks to paltry run support his record was only 10-9). That November, the Dodgers made a disastrous trade, sending Belcher and John Wetteland to the Reds for Eric Davis and Kip Wells. Belcher was up and down during the rest of his career, deservedly leading the AL in losses in 1994, and putting in one of his better seasons with the Royals in 1996. His ERA after 1991 was 4.74. Had he been able to maintain the 2.99 ERA of the first third of his career, he might have been the only first-pick pitcher to go on to a truly memorable career, but it was not to be.

1988: Andy Benes, RHP, to the San Diego Padres (55.5 SNLVAR career/6.8 SNLVAR in 1991)
Benes was probably the most successful top-drafted pitcher to date. The Padres were in position to select the University of Evansville righty after Larry Bowa's infamous first bout with managing in 1987. The club ran through 37 players and a good deal of vitriol along the way to a 97-loss season. Help for the starting rotation, with its 4.43 ERA (league average was 4.25) and subpar strikeout rate was desperately needed.

The Padres had a lot of choices in what turned out to be a very solid first round. Their primary alternative to Benes was Auburn's Gregg Olson, who ultimately went to the Orioles with the fourth pick. Other picks in the round included Steve Avery, Jim Abbott, Robin Ventura, Tino Martinez, Royce Clayton, Charles Nagy, and Alex Fernandez. There were also two picks that would rapidly become infamous busts, pitcher Bill Bene (fifth overall, to the Dodgers), and second baseman Ty Griffin (ninth overall, to the Cubs). Any of them could have gone to the Padres had Benes not attracted attention to himself three months before the draft by pitching a 21-strikeout game against North Carolina-Wilmington. He continued to pitch well from then on, raising his status from afterthought to top prospect in a matter of weeks.

The reason that Benes had not shown up on the prospect radar before that spotlight game was that he had spent his first two years in college also playing football and basketball. This arguably damaged his pitching career, as he reached the majors with a 95 mph fastball of which he had excellent command, and nothing in the way of secondary pitches. These were always works in progress, and as batters knew they could sit on his fastball, he was always quite vulnerable to the home run. This tendency only became worse as he aged and lost velocity, and when the declining fastball was mixed with an ill-considered move to Arizona's Chase Field, Benes became a home-run machine.

Before that, though, there was a lot of good pitching. Benes spent the post-draft period with the US Olympic team, beginning his pro career in 1989. After dominating at Wichita of the Texas League, posting a 2.16 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 108 1/3 innings, he was promoted to Triple-A Las Vegas and was stomped, giving up 29 runs in 26 2/3 innings. The Padres, however, needed bodies, and so they called up Benes anyway. The going was rough in his first few outings, but he settled down in September. In six starts he pitched 40 2/3 innings, allowed only 31 hits, and struck out 40. His ERA was 2.21.

Benes was an asset for most of the next ten years, though he was never the consistent dominator that the Padres had envisioned. The closest he came was in his shortened 26-game stint with the Cardinals in 1997. That said, he wasn't always well supported; he led the NL in losses in 1994 despite also leading the league in strikeouts and carrying an above-average 3.86 ERA.

1989: Ben McDonald, RHP, to the Baltimore Orioles (30.7 SNLVAR career/6.4 SNLVAR in 1993 and 1996)
McDonald received a three-year, $800,000 split contract to sign with the Orioles after the 6'7" right-hander struck out 202 in his last 152 collegiate innings. He was hit hard at times that year as he fought various injuries, a leitmotif that would recur in the pros. When he came to the majors he threw a mid-90s fastball and a big curve, later augmented by a slider, but he was held back by injuries in 1990, 1991, 1995, and 1997, the last a rotator cuff tear which hastened the end of his career after only 211 games. When healthy, McDonald could be dominant; he pitched two one-hitters in his career and famously shut out the White Sox in his July 21, 1990 starting debut. The flip side was a tendency toward home runs, as he would sometimes fight to locate his overhand curve. Still, he was quite effective when he was actually able to pitch, with ERAs well below league average in each of the final five seasons of his career. It wasn't that McDonald couldn't pitch, but that he couldn't pitch often enough, and it was all over by the time he was 29.

1991: Brien Taylor, LHP, to the New York Yankees (0/0)
A short and sad story. High school phenom from Nowheresville, North Carolina is drafted first overall by the team from the Big City, said team going through a rare losing stretch and needing to make a good impression on the ticket buyers with this pick, and so blowing the lad away with a huge bonus. The next season the kid starts pitching, and he's spectacular. Pitching in High-A, he makes 27 starts, throws 161 innings, and allows only 121 hits, walking 66 and striking out 187. The next year at Double-A he's not quite as good-he still allows very few hits, but his walk rate creeps up and the strikeout rate slides down. No matter, he's going to be at Triple-A in 1994, just a phone call away from the bigs. That winter, the kid is drinking in a bar. He gets into a fight, gets knocked down, and his pitching shoulder is damaged. He misses the entire season. When he comes back, everything he knew about pitching has been lost. In five years of trying to find it, he walks 184 batters in 111 1/3 innings, strikes out just 86, and throws 59 wild pitches. The dream is over. To paraphrase John Lennon, Brien Taylor is a concept by which we measure our pain.

As we move closer to the present day and present failures, we hit the lightning round:

1994: Paul Wilson, RHP, to the New York Mets (13.2 SNLVAR career/4.1 SNLVAR in 2004)
Wilson's 1995 breakthrough season, split between Double- and Triple-A, was extraordinary: 26 starts, a 2.41 ERA, 148 hits, 44 walks, 194 strikeouts. This leaves out Wilson's innings pitched total, 186 2/3, which led the minors, as did his eight complete games. Why the Mets wanted to test the endurance of a 22-year-old super-prospect in this way remains a mystery. His arm was never the same. The Wilson who struggled for seven major league seasons was but a pale shadow of what might have been.

1996: Kris Benson, RHP, to the Pittsburgh Pirates (25.3 SNLVAR career to date/5.9 SNLVAR in 2000)
Many find Benson's pulchritudinous wife more memorable than he is. He seemed to be heading somewhere good after his first two major league seasons-we called him "a future Cy Young contender whom the Bucs should handle a lot more carefully" in the 2001 edition of our annual. We were too late: Tommy John surgery knocked him out for the entirety of 2002, and he hasn't been the same since.

1997: Matt Anderson, RHP, to the Tigers (2.8 WXRL career/2.3 WXRL in 2001)
The Rice University closer threw 100 mph bullets and was drafted in the expectation that he'd develop quickly. He dominated in the minors in 1998 and came up that June. Other than 2001, when he got his walk rate down to 2.9 per nine innings, he was never able to master his control; his career rate stands at 5.5 BB/9. Even when he did get the fastball over the plate, it lacked movement. He's been in the minor leagues since 2005.

2002: Bryan Bullington, RHP, to the Pittsburgh Pirates (-0.4 SNLVAR career)
Bullington wasn't a Pirates signability pick, he was just a plain misjudgment. Then-owner Kevin McClatchy insisted his team draft "safe" college pitcher Bullington instead of B.J. Upton (who went to the Rays with the second pick of the draft), or Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeremy Hermida, Joe Saunders, Khalil Greene, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Denard Span, Jeff Francoeur, or Matt Cain, all first-round picks that year. As we said in the 2006 edition of the annual, "Sure, we've got the benefit of hindsight, but in that crowd you could have hit a future star by playing 'Pin the Tail on the Prospect.'" In McClatchy's favor, Bullington was the consensus best college pitching prospect that year, albeit in a very thin year for college pitchers. McClatchy also paid for the privilege of his convictions, surrendering $4 million to the pitcher after a long holdout. Bullington's minor league performances were never very convincing, as he showed sub-90s speed and a too-low strikeout rate. Dr. Labrum Surgery came calling in 2005, and Bullington's minors performances since haven't been impressive. The Blue Jays briefly called him up to do some relief work this April.

The last two pitchers on this list are Luke Hochevar (Royals, 2006), and David Price (Rays, 2007), of whom perhaps it is too early to say very much except that the latter may prove to be the elusive first overall-pick ace, and that the former probably will not. If there is any conclusion to be drawn from this list, it is that for many of these pitchers, being selected at the top of the draft became a self-defeating prophecy that led to their demise. Teams treated them differently than they would have a pitcher picked in the second round, or even later in the first round, calling them up sooner and pushing them harder, whether their minor league numbers called for it or not.

For the Nationals, the lesson is plain: once Strasburg is signed, forget what you paid him, forget where you drafted him, forget whatever you think he may mean to the credibility of the franchise, the turnstiles, and T-shirt sales. Forget his name and call him Smith, and perhaps pretend that you picked him up in the 42nd round as a favor to a friend. Prepare him slowly and cautiously and take nothing for granted, and a great career may be launched. For the alternative, just read back over the 13 names above.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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