By shutting out the Washington Nationals on Saturday night, Brandon Webb extended his scoreless innings streak to 33, the longest by any pitcher this season. If he throws shutouts in his next three starts, Webb’s streak would reach 60, breaking the record of 59.2 set by Orel Hershiser in 1988, one of the most impressive feats of the last generation.
This is, in a word, unlikely. No one in the major leagues has thrown three complete-game shutouts this year. Only one has thrown even two, that being Webb, and he’s done so in his last two starts. (UPDATE: Webb was joined on Sunday by Jeff Weaver. Yes, Jeff Weaver.) Last year, the only pitchers to throw three shutouts were Webb and Chris Carpenter.
Nonetheless, if anyone in baseball can string together a bunch of goose eggs, it’s Webb. In point of fact, the parallels between him and Hershiser are almost eerie.
Start with their repertoires; Webb, like Hershiser before him, relies on a sinking fastball that is so good that, when it is on, he can throw it with impunity on almost every pitch. Hitters know it’s coming, and they still can’t do much with it other than tap one out to the shortstop. According to ESPN.com, Webb’s groundball/flyball ratio this year is 3.32, fourth-highest in the major leagues…and that’s the worst ratio of Webb’s career.
If you were to make a list of the ten starting pitchers of the last 25 years who relied most heavily on their sinker, Webb and Hershiser would likely both be on it.
Then there’s the matter of their track record before they reached the major leagues. A total of 109 pitchers have won at least 200 games in the major leagues, and at most a handful had a less impressive resume prior to their major league debut than Hershiser. He was drafted in the 17th round, and in his first full season pitched in Double-A, where he had a 3.55 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 75 to 59. The Dodgers were so impressed that they sent him back to Double-A the following year, and his ERA climbed to 4.68.
Two years in Albuquerque followed, and both years he had ERAs around 4, gave up about a hit an inning, a homer every 10, and had a K/BB ratio of around 1.5. He wasn’t particularly bad, but wasn’t particularly good either; he pitched as a swingman throughout his minor league career, making over 80% of his appearances in relief. There was certainly nothing about him that suggested he might be a future All-Star, let alone the best pitcher in baseball at his peak.
(Last summer I had a patient come into my office who, after we had talked a bit, mentioned that he had been drafted by the Dodgers back in the day, made it to Double-A before he blew out his arm, and had even roomed with Tom Niedenfuer for a few years. His story would check out, but as I don’t keep a copy of Baseball America’s Draft Almanac in my patient rooms, I had to devise another test to confirm his authenticity. “So, you must have seen Orel Hershiser in the minors,” I said. “Oh yeah,” he replied, “I watched him pitch in instructional league. He sucked.”)
Webb, much like Hershiser, showed few signs of dominance in the minor leagues. An 8th round pick in 2000, Webb pitched in the hellhole that is Lancaster in his first full pro season, and was impressive given the environment, with a 3.99 ERA and a 158 to 44 K/BB ratio. In Double-A El Paso the next season, he had a 3.14 ERA and struck out 122 against 59 walks – and surrendered just four homers in 152 innings. In retrospect, he was pitching very well given the high-octane influences of his home parks, but at the time his performances garnered little attention.
After the 2002 season Baseball America ranked Webb as the 5th-best prospect…in the Diamondbacks organization. Not only was he not ranked in their Top 100 prospects, he didn’t even rank on a postseason listing of the Top 20 prospects in the Texas League. (Not to pick on our friends at BA. I wanted to quote from his player comment in BP 2003, but I can’t, because – gulp – he wasn’t listed in the book at all.)
Despite his modest pedigree, Hershiser was an immediate success as a rookie, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting in 1984 behind Dwight Gooden and Juan Samuel. Webb also finished third, behind Dontrelle Willis and Scott Podsednik, in 2003.
Webb traded in a few hits for some extra walks, but really, that’s about as close as two pitchers can get.
Well before Hershiser spun 59 straight scoreless and carried the Dodgers to a world championship and earned Sports Illustrated’s Man of the Year award, he had given an inkling that he was capable of such a streak: as a rookie, he had put together a streak of 33.2 consecutive scoreless innings, one of the longest scoreless streaks by a rookie in history.
When Webb extended his streak to 33 scoreless innings on Saturday night, he broke the Diamondbacks’ team record…a record he set, with 30 scoreless in a row, last season.
Hershiser’s magical 1988 came in his fifth major league season (ignoring his eight-inning cup of coffee in 1983). Webb is currently in his fifth major league season.
So if Webb keeps putting up round numbers on the scoreboard, then propels the Diamondbacks deep into October, just remember to act surprised.