You Can't Keep Them On The Mound

This is not to be considered a continuation of the Stephen Strasburg Story. At least, one would hope not. No one wants to see Strasburg become another obviously talented pitcher who can't stay on the mound for extended periods of time. And there have been more than a couple of those, many of them in recent years.

Although Strasburg's problems may come first to mind at the moment, the real impetus for looking into this subject was the announcement today that the Diamondbacks are bringing… are you ready for this… Mike Hampton up from the minors. It is to be assumed that Hampton is not being brought up to pinch-hit, although he's one of the best hitting pitchers of the past 15 years, but to once again attempt pitching (albeit as a reliever) in the major leagues.

Hampton is hardly the only example of a talented pitcher who can't stay on the mound. The name Rich Harden begs to be mentioned. Ben Sheets, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Jason Schmidt, and even Curt Schilling… as well as less recent medical cases like Steve Ontiveros, Larry Christenson and, as mentioned last time, maybe the most dramatic case of all, Smoky Joe Wood (at least Wilbur had a long career among pitchers named Wood). Most of these guys started out like the proverbial gangbusters, and not just for a couple of games like Karl Spooner or Von McDaniel. They were great for a short while, but they eventually ended up more like Ghostbusters after crossing the streams… they blew up, or otherwise self-destructed, despite their best efforts to stay on the mound.

To re-run Smoky Joe's stats, only this time including what happened after his big year… (remember, the first two years were in the minors)…

Year     Age      IP         W-L     ERA

1907     17         196       18-11    N/A

1908     18         178       7-12      2.38 (plus 23 major league innings)

1909     19         161       11-7      2.18     

1910     20         197       12-13    1.69

1911     21         276       23-17    2.02

1912     22         344       34-5      1.91

1913     23         146       11-5      2.29

1914     24         113       10-3      2.62

1915     25         157       15-5      1.49

1916     26         Zero – he retired for the year

1917     27         16         0-1       3.45

1918     28         Zero – he played the outfield

1919     29         1          0-0       0.00

1920     30         2          0-0      22.50    

He was still a fine pitcher – he led the American League in ERA in 1915 -- but he couldn't stay on the mound.

Steve Ontiveros also led the AL in ERA, 2.65 with the A's in 1994. His career record was only 34-31, but with an ERA+ of 113. However, he only pitched in 10 major league seasons between 1985 and 2000; 207 games, 662 innings. He never pitched as many as 160 innings in a season as a professional. He couldn't stay on the mound.

Christenson was a super prospect for the Phillies in the early 70s… he was pitching in the major leagues at the age of 19. Although he pitched for the Phillies in every season from 1973 to 1983, he seldom pitched very much… maybe more than Ontiveros, but he still spent a lot of time on the DL, and was finished before his 30th birthday.

Year     Age      IP

1973     19         34

1974     20         23

1975     21         172

1976     22         169

1977     23         219

1978     24         228

1979     25         106

1980     26         74

1981     27         107

1982     28         223

1983     29         48

Due in part to his spending so much time trying to come back from injuries, his career ERA+ was just 99, although he did go 83-71 in 243 games (an average of just 22 per year) and 1403 innings (and average of 128 per year). The Phillies certainly expected more than that, although maybe they would have been wiser not to let him throw 447 innings in 1977 and 1978, and he sure shouldn't have been run out there for 223 innings in 1982, after three years when he pitched a total of 287 innings. Although he did have those three seasons as a regular starter, he couldn't stay on the mound in the long run.

It would appear at this point in time that Schmidt is through… he hasn't pitched anywhere in 2010, after pitching just 44 major league innings from 2007 to 2009 (none in 2008)… after wangling a $45 million contract from the Dodgers for those same 2007, 2008, 2009 seasons. Although Schmidt had six seasons where he pitched more than 200 innings, they were bunched in 1998/1999 and 2003 to 2006. When he was healthy, he was something, leading the National League in ERA, won-loss percentage, shutouts, WHIP and ERA+ in 2003 (with 17 wins), plus he struck out 251 and won 18 the next year. When he wasn't (2000/2001, and 2007/2009), he spent more time in rehab starts than in major league starts. He still ended up 130-96 with a 111 ERA+ over 14 major seasons. But, imagine his numbers if he'd been able to pitch in 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008 and 2009 like he did in 2003 and 2004.

To a certain extent, the same was true for Schilling. Although he won 216 games over 20 years, and struck out 3116 with an ERA+ of 128, he lost parts of seven, count ‘em, seven, prime seasons (1994-1996, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005) to various injuries. Considering that, for the heart of his career, he averaged 33 starts per season, he lost approximately 50 starts due to injury in the 1996, 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2005 seasons (he averaged just 23 starts in those years), along with maybe another 15 in the two strike seasons (when he was also injured). Over the course of his entire career, his wins equaled almost exactly half his starts (216/436). Hence, being conservative, he lost about 30 to 35 wins due to injuries. Make him a 250 game winner, and, given his other credentials, there's no doubt he's a Hall of Famer.

The struggles of the Cubs two former Golden Boys, Prior and Wood, are well documented. The former is now trying to make a comeback in the independent leagues, having not pitched in the majors (or even the regular minors) since 2006. His determination is admirable, but no one should hold their breath waiting for him to re-appear in the majors, despite having a 42-29 record with a 124 ERA+. Wood, who started out his career in much the same fashion as Strasburg, has switched to relief pitching, and is currently doing middle inning and mop-up work for the Yankees. Although he has an excellent ERA with New York (0.68), and can still strike out batters (15 in 13 innings), he's been lucky, since he also has a 1.50 WHIP and has walked 10. Like Strasburg, he dazzled with strikeouts as a rookie (in his case, fanning 20 Astros in one of his first starts), and, like Strasburg, he soon hurt his arm, missing the entire 1999 season (his second) after surgery. His major league totals are as follows, noting that he turned to relief pitching in 2007.

Year     Age      IP

1998     21         167

1999     22         0

2000     23         137

2001     24         174

2002     25         214

2003     26         211

2004     27         140

2005     28         66        

2006     29         20

2007     30         24

2008     31         66

2009     32         55

2010     33         33

Some pitchers can stay on the mound, can handle a full-time starting workload, some can't. After the 2002/2003 seasons, in retrospect, it's clear that Wood is one of the ones who can't stay on the mound as a starter.

Sheets and Harden have both tried to come back from injury in 2010, without much success. Sheets has gone back underneath the knife, and Harden is, well, he's Rich Harden, he's hurt again. This guy is 55-34 with 855 Ks in 834 innings, but he's only pitched as many as 150 innings in a major league season once, back in 2004. If there's a poster child for pitchers who can't stay on the mound, it's Rich Harden.

Year     Age      Innings

2003     21         75

2004     22         190

2005     23         128

2006     24         47

2007     25         26

2008     26         148

2009     27         141

2010     28         85

The A's were smart enough to get rid of Harden, yet dumb enough to sign Sheets after he missed the entire 2009 season and barely topped 400 innings total in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Although he did average 225 innings from 2002 to 2004, he hasn't got near that since, and those days are probably long behind him. Ben Sheets can no longer stay on the mound.

Finally, to get back to where this all started… if Rich Harden isn't the poster child for pitchers who can't stay on the mound, well, then it's Mike Hampton. Although he's pitched in the majors for 15 seasons, and won 148 games (ERA+ of 107), he hasn't pitched regularly since 2004, (and hasn't reached 200 innings since 2001) and he missed the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons. Counting the three innings he pitched at Reno this year, Hampton has pitched a total of 220 professional innings (and that's counting a bunch of rehab appearances) since 2005, and has had a major league ERA under 4.25 once since 2003. He can't even get to the mound… no wonder the D'backs are in last place.

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