June 19, 2009
You Could Look It Up
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.
1973: David Clyde, LHP, to the Texas Rangers. (4.3 SNLVAR career/2.1 SNLVAR in 1978)
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)
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)
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 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)
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
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)
1991: Brien Taylor, LHP, to the New York Yankees (0/0)
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)
1996: Kris Benson, RHP, to the Pittsburgh Pirates (25.3 SNLVAR career to date/5.9 SNLVAR in 2000)
1997: Matt Anderson, RHP, to the Tigers (2.8 WXRL career/2.3 WXRL in 2001)
2002: Bryan Bullington, RHP, to the Pittsburgh Pirates (-0.4 SNLVAR career)
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.