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Wild Card: Top 10 Flashes in the Pan
As last week's post about 300-game winners focused on year-after-year excellence, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the other side of the coin this week with a top 10 list of pitchers who were great just once in their careers. There's a bit of number crunching behind the list below, but there's no definitive stat behind it, so I'll spare you the detailed explanation. One thing I will tell you is that I limited my list to pitchers who dominated their leagues in their best seasons. I defined that as pitchers with single-season WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) totals of 8.0 or better. This eliminated some popular choices such as Steve Stonez, LaMarr Hoyt, Pete Vuckovich, Wally Bunker, the Yankees' Steve Kline, Kent Bottenfield, Pete Schourek, and Jeff Ballard, as none of those pitchers were truly dominant in their best seasons. With that little bit of business out of the way, here are the flukiest flashes-in-the-pan of the past 60 years.
1. Mark Fidrych
The Bird was the ultimate flash-in-the-pan. Breaking into the league in 1976 at 21, Fidrych went 19-9 for a poor Tigers team, completed 24 of his starts, led the league in ERA, picked up the Rookie of the Year award, finished second in the Cy Young Voting, started the All-Star Game for the AL, and even got a first-place MVP vote. Fidrych wasn't just a good pitcher, he was a cultural sensation thanks to his litany of quirky mound habits and the mop of blonde curls that made him the pitching equivalent of Peter Frampton. It was that very same loopiness and boundless enthusiasm that led to a knee injury in the outfield in spring training the next year, and quite possibly some altered mechanics from that injury which resulted in a torn rotator cuff in his ninth start that year. Fidrych won just four games after his 23rd birthday and his rookie season accounts for more than 75 percent of his career WARP total.
2. Herb Score
In 476 2/3 innings over his first two seasons in the major leagues, the Indians' lefty allowed just 320 hits and struck out 508 men (though he also walked 283). Score won the Rookie of the Year award in 1955 while setting the freshman benchmark for strikeouts with 245. He then went 20-9 with the league's second-best ERA as a sophomore. He was back at it in April 1957 when, with one out in the first inning of his fifth start of the season, the Yankees' Gil McDougal hit a line drive that hit Score in the right eye. He was never the same pitcher, in part because of an altered delivery that had been designed to put him in better fielding position after his follow-through, which had the side effect of taking a few ticks off his dominant fastball. After winning just 17 games over his final five seasons, Score was done at 29.
3. Gene Bearden
Southpaw Bearden was one of many players who got a late start to his major-league career because of World War II. As a 27-year-old rookie for the Indians in 1948, the knuckleballer went 20-7 and led the league in ERA. The Tribe finished that season tied with the Red Sox atop the American League and manager Lou Boudreau handed the rookie Bearden the ball for the one-game playoff against Boston. Said Boudreau: “The reason I started Bearden in what was the most important game I was ever involved in was that he was my best pitcher at the time, better than [Bob] Feller, better than [Bob] Lemon." Bearden won that game and twirled a shutout in Game 3 of the World Series against the Boston Braves (the Indians prevailed in six games), but won only eight games the next season, and only 17 over the next four years combined, which comprised the remainder of his career.
4. Randy Jones
A sinkerballer who compensated for low strikeout rates by limiting walks and homers (much like Chien-Ming Wang, only 20 mph slower), the lefty Jones compiled two dominant seasons for the mid-‘70s Padres. While the Pads lost 180 games between 1975 and 1976, Jones went 42-26 and finished 43 of his starts. He came in second in the Cy Young voting in the first of those two years despite winning 20 games and leading the league in ERA, then won the award the following season. Toward the end of the 1976 season, however, Jones suffered nerve damage in his pitching arm. He never posted another winning record and only once was above league-average in ERA. Six years after his Cy Young season, Jones was done.
5. Jim Kern and Mark Eichhorn
Both relievers were old-school stoppers who pitched 140-plus innings in their dominant seasons. Kern, a quirky 6-foot-5 righty known as “The Great Emu," had been an All-Star fireman for the Indians before being traded to the Rangers for Bobby Bonds and Len Barker after the 1978 season. In his first year in Texas, Kern posted a 1.57 ERA in 143 innings while saving 29 games and winning another 13. His five straight years of more than 90 relief innings caught up with him the next year, as did a return throw from his catcher while he was warming up one day, the latter of which resulted in a significant head injury. Injuries shortened his '81 season as well and, after a last gasp split between the Reds and White Sox in '82, he was never the same. Eichhorn relied on a wild side-arming delivery to post a 1.72 ERA in 157 innings while striking out 166, saving 10, and winning 14 for the 1986 Toronto Blue Jays as a 25-year-old rookie. He put together a solid career as a setup man after that, but nothing that came close to that first season.
6. Ralph Branca
Branca's one of the most famous names on this list, but it's instructive that he's remembered for one spectacular failure -- Bobby Thomson's pennant winning homer in 1951 -- than for his own success. Branca, who made his major-league debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a teenager during the war, had a couple of decent seasons, but only one that was great. That came in Jackie Robinson's rookie year of 1947, when Branca, just 21, finished third in the NL in ERA and second in wins and strikeouts. Branca's two decent seasons were his follow up and, ironically, 1951. He was shipped out of Brooklyn at age 27 and was out of baseball at the age of 30.
7. Mike Scott
If not for Darryl Strawberry's leadoff double and Ray Knight's RBI single in the top of the 16th inning of the sixth game of the 1986 NLCS, Scott just might have pitched the Astros to their first World Series. Scott dominated the Mets and the rest of the National League in '86 on the strength of an unhittable split-finger fastball that, rumor has it, was aided by the scuff marks of second baseman Bill Doran. That season, Scott became just the eighth man in the integrated era to strike out 300 men in a season and picked up the Cy Young award. Not bad for 31-year-old failed Mets prospect. Scott was good for three more seasons, but he was only great for that one.
8. Ewell Blackwell and Ray Scarborough
OK, I'm cheating a bit to squeeze some favorites in. In his second full season, 24-year-old Ewell “The Whip" Blackwell went 22-8 for the 1947 Cincinnati Reds, completing a league-leading 23 of his 33 starts and falling just 14 ERA points shy of the pitching triple crown while finishing second in the NL MVP voting. He had two more outstanding seasons in 1950 and 1951, but never topped that sophomore year and was washed up by age 30. The next year, in the other league, the 30-year-old Scarborough went 15-8 for a Senators team that only won 56 games thanks to his second-place ERA. Scarborough, who had lost the prime of his career to World War II, was never again as good as league-average.
9. Hank Aguirre andDick Ellsworth
Aguirre was a strong lefty reliever for the Indians and Tigers in his late-20s, but in 1962 Detroit moved the 31-year old into the rotation and he took over the league, posting a 2.16 ERA in 22 starts in addition to his 2.40 mark in 20 relief appearances. In retrospect, more than doubling his career high in innings pitched in a single season was probably a bad idea as it took a return to the 'pen five years later for him to regain his effectiveness. Unfortunately, he was 36 by then. Fellow lefty Ellsworth broke in with the Cubs at the age of 18 and by the time he was 23, the year after Aguirre's big season, he was breaking the spirits of NL batters, posting the league's best adjusted ERA and going 22-10 with 185 strikeouts. Three disappointing years later, he was dealt to the Phillies. By age 32, his career as a league-average hurler was over.
10. Mike Caldwell
Caldwell was a subpar lefty swingman for the Padres, Giants, Cubs, and Brewers for most of the 1970s. In 1978, however, he stuck in the Milwaukee rotation and went 22-9, completing 23 games and finishing second in the Cy Young voting on the strength of a miniscule walk rate (1.66 BB/9) and ERA. He stuck around for six more seasons with the Brewers, but after a decent encore in 1979 his performance steadily declined.
Labels: Wild Card
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