Endangered Species: The Arms That Lost the Races

While we’re on the subject of the Strasburg Plan, it might be wise to hark back to past young guns whose careers—or, more accurately, the lack thereof, for most—may or may not have factored into the Washington Nationals’ thinking. (Manager Davey Johnson, who’s absolutely on board with the Strasburg Plan, happens to know about at least one of those guns directly.) They didn’t all have fractured comebacks from Tommy John surgery (though a few of them could have used it, if the procedure had been around), but they did have work use or other physical  issues in one or another way that turned them from brilliant or burgeoning youth to gone, or at least nothing near what they first seemed they’d be, before they should have been in prime.

Shutdown time looms for Strasburg . . .

The complete list may be longer than I’m presenting here. But what follows is a roll of pitchers I can recall who started young enough, fast enough, or at least furious enough, and with baseball just about at their mercy, or close enough to it. I’ve written about a few of these cases before, perhaps recently, but it’s hard not to think about them with Strasburg’s pre-planned closure on the horizon. The Nats are being smart to do it; they planned it from the season’s outset. If they’ve been bitten in the rear at all by it, it’s because, well, almost everyone figured the Nats would have a respectable 2012 but almost nobody figured they’d own the National League East and steam toward the postseason.

These pitchers should prove a powerful lesson even now. But to teams without the thinking depth the Nats have shown, they probably won’t. For every Stephen Strasburg who’s being handled wisely following major elbow trouble and reconstructive surgery, there have been, and there will always be, dozens more who won’t be handled that way—whether it’s by playing when ailing (hello, Johan Santana), pitching an unconscionable workload even by the standards of the ancients, an unexpected injury that fouls up just about everything else, a little too much of the spotlight causing a little too much more disorientation, or other troubles.

Rex Barney—Teen phenom with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Harnessed his impossible-to-see fastball by 1948 and won fifteen; had a no-hitter on his resume. End of season: leg fracture in two places sliding into base. Following season: 48 walks in 33 innings, pitching, as one sportswriter phrased it, as though the plate were high and outside. Gone at 25.

Ewell, the whipped . . .

Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell—Six-time All-Star for the postwar Cincinnati Reds. Snapping sidearm motion on a 6’6″ pitcher earned Blackwell his nickname and an image, as one writer put it, of “a man falling out of a tree.” Age 24: Led the National League in wins, strikeouts, complete games, strikeouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and almost equaled Johnny Vander Meer’s double no-hit feat. By age 28: Arm trouble, plus kidney removal and appendectomy. By age 30: A spare part on a couple of Yankee pennant winners and, other than an abbreviated comeback with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, gone at age 32, a shadow of what once terrorised hitters.

Joe Black—1952, as a 28-year-old rookie: Rookie of the Year, finished a league-leading 41 games, first black pitcher to win a World Series. Next season: Told he needed more stuff, including a curve ball his finger tendons made impossible to throw, Black was a wreck. Never won or saved more than six again; done at 33.

Karl Spooner—Turned a 1954 cup of coffee into three squares at 23: back-to-back shutouts toward season’s end, in the first of which he struck out fifteen, for a rookie record that stood until J.R. Richard smashed it. Struck out 27 over the two games. Spring training 1955: Came into a game without a proper warmup and blew his arm out. Struggled through the season, never appeared in the majors again following Game One of the 1955 World Series. “Sooner with Spooner,” the saying Dodger fans came up with over his stupefying 1954 debut, took on a sinister meaning after that.

Herb Score—At 22: Rode bullet fastball to Rookie of the Year honours, 245 strikeouts, and a 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine rate, leading the league. At 23: 20 wins, five shutouts, 268 strikeouts, another league-leading strikeouts-per-nine rate (9.5). At 24: Hit in the face by Gil McDougald’s liner in his fifth start; gone for the year. At 25: Ruptured a tendon in his pitching elbow on a rainy afternoon (he surely could have used Tommy John surgery, had it been invented at the time), tried to adjust his mechanics to compensate, and was never again the pitcher he looked to have been after missing almost two full seasons. By age 29 and a number of faltering comebacks: Finished on the mound, headed for a second career in the broadcast booth.

Steve Dalkowski—Minor league phenom whose heater may have made Score’s seem like a changeup. (What the hey, Ted Williams himself said he couldn’t see it.) Finally harnessed it enough to make the Orioles in 1963 spring training, at age 24 . . . and blew his elbow out pitching to Yankee rookie Phil Linz. Bounced back to the minors; drank himself out of baseball by age 26. Would the Orioles have won their first World Series sooner with a healthy Dalkowski?

Jim Bouton—Age 23: Yankee comer with a hard fastball delivered just as hard. Age 24: Yankee 21-game winner. Age 25: Improving strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP while winning 18 for the last of the old-guard Yankee pennant winners. Age 26: Shoulder and arm miseries begin, never again an effective starter. By age 31: Marginal relief pitcher and gone, mostly because he’s lost whatever was left, though the controversy around Ball Four didn’t help. Brief, memorable comeback with the 1978 Atlanta Braves, including a pitcher’s duel with J.R. Richard in which neither got the decision.

Jim Lonborg—At 25, put it together following his first two warmup seasons with a Cy Young award, the league leadership in wins, starts, and strikeouts. 1967 World Series: Wheeled out on two days’ rest for Game Seven and couldn’t hold his own. Offseason: Knee injury in a skiing accident. Next season: Late start, disoriented mechanics, never again anywhere near the pitcher he was in 1967 despite forging a long enough career. Reversed Casey Stengel’s professional path and became a dentist after his baseball career.

McLain—too many innings and too many controversies equal finished at 28 . . .

Denny McLain—Twenty-game winner at 22. Thirty-one-game winner at 24; 24-game winner at 25. Next season: Suspended over gun carrying. Following season: Arm still wrung by too many innings pitched (he averaged 290 innings pitched over the span; pitched over 320 innings in each of 1968 and 1969) and maybe too many complete games (he pitched 51 of them in 1968-69), he lost 22 for the 1970 Senators and had no arm left by age 28. That proved to be the least of his problems as life went on, alas.

Mark (The Bird) Fidrych—At 21: Rookie of the Year with 19 wins, a small truckload of strikeouts, and an unlimited future. The following spring: dinged his knee, came back too soon, shredded his shoulder, and then made the first of numerous premature comebacks from the shoulder miseries. Finished at age 29. Learned only around his finish that he’d had a frayed rotator cuff made worse by all those undiagnosed comebacks. Went back home, farmed and worked on heavy equipment, died in a freak accident.

Randy Jones—After a frightful (22-game losing) start at age 24, went back-to-back 20-game winning at 25-26, including a Cy Young Award. Slop-tossing righthander. He also threw 600 innnings in those two (1975-76) seasons. 1977: His arm committed suicide; he’d hang in until he was 32 but never had a winning season after 27.

John Candelaria—At 23, he was a 6’7″ hulk leading the majors in earned run average and winning 20 in the bargain. Would have only one 15-win season over the next sixteen in which he managed to hang on. What got the Candy Man? The usual verdict was (and may remain) too much fame.

The Candy Man—sweet to sour too soon . . .

Frank Tanana—From ages 20-24, Nolan Ryan’s rotation second. Led the league in ERA and shutouts at 23. Age 25: Arm and shoulder trouble turned his near-Express-like heat into a candle. Forged a journeyman career as a junkballer and finished a .500 pitcher, though his array of offspeed stuff earned him the nickname the Great Tantaliser—a long way from being known as the Top Tanana.

Wayne Garland—At 25, emerged as a 20-game winner with an ERA under 2.70, and landed himself one of the early yummy multi-year free agency contracts. The following spring training: Hellbent on living up to that then-monster deal, Garland blew his rotator cuff, tried pitching through it anyway, and led the league in losses with 19. Hung in for half of the ten-year deal, eventually earned a friendly reputation for pitching with guts, but he stands as the classic example of what pushing too hard can do to the unsuspecting.

Mike Flanagan—Cy Young winner at 27. Didn’t know his own limits; pitched an astouding 157 straight turns, never missing a start, while hurt. Never won as many as 17 the rest of his career; won 15 or 16 only twice more. Eventually joined the Oriole front office; committed suicide in 2011.

J.R. Richard—Took his time to become the National League’s mound terror, and he was still only 29 after he broke the National League record for strikeouts by a righthander. Age 30: Stroke, career dead. Hit rock bottom before going into the ministry.

Steve Stone—Took the steady ride to the top and bagged the 1980 Cy Young Award. The following season, he was gone after fifteen games, at 32. The verdict: His curve ball destroyed him—he threw it too often for his own good and took it to fever pitch in 1980. Became a broadcaster.

Mike Norris—What the curve ball was to Stone, the screwball—plus 24 complete games in his 22-game winning season at age 25, not to mention that he may have been a screwball—proved to Norris. They still debate which went south first and faster, Norris’s arm or his off-field life.

Steve McCatty—Wins and ERA champ done in by too many complete games. Don’t think for one moment that his experience on that ill-fated Oakland rotation of 1981-83 hasn’t had a factor in formulating the Strasburg Plan even if he didn’t have Tommy John surgery: McCatty these days is the Nats’ pitching coach.

Vukovich—guts, glory, gone: Pitching hurt does nobody any favours even if you’re helping to win a pennant.

Pete Vukovich—Another steady rider to the top. Landed a Cy Young award in 1982, at 29 . . . and, after winning nothing to open 1983, missed the rest of that season and all 1984. Pitched hurt helping the Brewers win the 1982 pennant; gone at 33.

LaMarr Hoyt—Back-to-back wins champion at ages 27-28, including a Cy Young Award. At 29: 18-game loser, future drug rehab patient, finished at 31.

Rick Sutcliffe—ERA champ at 26; 20-game winner (including a 16-1 mark in the National League after his trade to the Cubs, leading them to their first postseason since 1946) and Cy Young pitcher at 28. At 29-30: Injuries, 11-22 span thanks to premature comebacks. Occasional flashes of his old self the rest of the way . . . very occasional. He, too, moved to the broadcast booth in due course.

Dwight Gooden—From 19-21 they talked about when, not if he’d make the Hall of Fame having obliterated half the pitching records in the book. Warning sign: the 1986 Mets began throwing salves of doubt into the quietly confident kid, telling him, essentially, he couldn’t live on just that exploding fastball and voluptuous curve ball. Forget the drug issues, Gooden by 25 would be damaged once and for all by shoulder issues. The miracle is that he managed to make a sixteen-year career with a .634 winning percentage, but they’ll never stop calling him the greatest might-have-been of them all, unless the Nats are fool enough to ditch the Strasburg Plan, maybe. (Gooden’s first major league manager: Davey Johnson.) His post-baseball life hasn’t been simple, either.

Boddicker—wasn’t built for his workload or his money pitch . . .

Mike Boddicker—Age 26, after a few cups of coffee and a promising 1983: Led the American League in wins and ERA. The next and last nine seasons of his career: Won more than 15 only once; never again got his ERA under 3.00; never again enjoyed a WHIP under 1.20. Those in the know believed Boddicker was done in by too many innings and too many curve balls, neither of which his body could really withstand.

Generation K—The once-vaunted trio of Met young guns. Isringhausen, Wilson, Pulsipher. Arm and shoulder trouble practically out of the chute. Only Isringhausen would make anything like a long, never mind respectable career, and that when he converted to relief pitching. Which he still does, now for the Los Angeles Angels.

Steve Avery—Want one reason why Scott Boras isn’t in any big hurry to push his client Strasburg to infinity and beyond just yet? He’s been there, done that: Avery at 21 went 18-8 and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting helping the worst-to-first Atlanta pennant winners. By 23: 50-36 record, ERA around 3.20, excellent postseason jacket. At 24: Popped an armpit muscle, never again the same.

Kerry Wood—At 21: A 20-K game and a Rookie of the Year award. At 22: Sitting out a season following Tommy John surgery. By 26: Don’t go by the innings pitched, he was piling up crazy pitch counts as often as not and ended up developing triceps and rotator cuff trouble, among other maladies. He’d make fourteen trips to the disabled list and convert to relief pitching before he finally called it a career this year.

Mark Prior—At 21: mid-season phenom. At 22: 18-game winner, All-Star, third-place Cy Young finisher. At 23: Achilles tendon injury just the first of enough health troubles including two shoulder surgeries that Prior hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2005. Latest comeback attempt in the Red Sox organisation ended with his release last week. What got him? Possibly the same thing that helped get Wood—too many 120+ pitch count games too young—plus his pitching mechanics, which may have put excess strain on his shoulders before anyone caught on.

Going for the guts and glory is one thing. Going there at the expense of a solid long-term baseball life is something else. Maybe nobody expected the Nats to be roaring toward the postseason this soon after building a powerful enough young team, of whom Strasburg is merely the most significant (and most popular?) element, but maybe they’re teaching baseball a huge lesson about sustained future success over immediate gratification. Immediate gratification might get you a World Series ring at most, but ignoring sustained future success might mean that one ring and damaged goods otherwise is all you get with your current array.

The Nats have a deep enough and strong enough team if you remove Strasburg from the equation. Would you like to see what they could become, in postseasons to come, with him? Then let them stay with the plan. Unless you really want Strasburg on a roll featuring not a few pennant-winners over a long, distinguished career but, rather, a roll featuring the sad like of Barney, Blackwell, Black, Spooner, Score, Dalkowski, Bouton, Lonborg, McLain, Fidrych, Jones, Candelaria, Tanana, Garland, Flanagan, Richard, Stone, Norris, Vukovich, Hoyt, Sutcliffe, Gooden, Boddicker, Pulsipher, Wilson, Avery, Wood, Prior, and the walrus-looking gentleman who’s now Strasburg’s and the Nats’ pitching coach.

And if you do, ask what favours going for the guts and glory really did those once-formidable arms and their owners.

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