Young Pitchers’ll Break Your Heart, part 3.5

November 26, 2016

Actually, I did remember to goof around with the names last time. www.billjamesonline.com/young_pitchersll_break_your_heart_part_three/   (I’ve appended the tables of players’ names from Part 3 at the end of this article, with live links, for your easy reference.)  I just couldn’t find a good spot in Part 3 to fit in my inane random memory associations, and I know how you missed that.  It’s surprising to discover just how much any list of players’ names from the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s will spark memories. (And don’t get me started on the 1960s—that was the decade that got my brother offering to throw me from the driver’s seat of my car at 70 MPH, if you’ll recall, so full was I of memories and anecdotes and assorted fecal matter). This last list of names was no different, except for one name that totally didn’t register on me at all, and that name is the subject of the final few paragraphs of this article. Skip ahead if actual baseball content is what you’re looking for, because the next half-dozen or so paragraphs are just my free associations with these players’ names.

I hadn’t looked at most of these players’ bbref pages in years, if ever, and the first thing I noticed was that these guys were my exact contemporaries. As it happens, two guys listed consecutively on the 1970s pitchers’ list are exactly my age and lived in my neighborhood, John Candelaria and Pete Falcone.  Falcone seems to have graduated from my high school, and he appears to be in my high school class, but I don’t remember him. (We had 998 kids in my graduating class.)  My brother had a buddy who played schoolyard ball against Candelaria, mostly some tough basketball games. Candy was 6’7" and was better known in those days as a hoops guy than as a pitcher.

Lafayette High School in Brooklyn had a lot of talent, mostly pitching, over the years—I think I’ve mentioned some, besides Falcone (the Candy Man went to Catholic school):  John Franco, and a guy named Fred Wilpon who apparently was good enough to start over his friend Sandy Koufax. (Koufax played first base—I can’t imagine Fred ever gets tired of telling people who he beat out for the #1 pitcher’s slot in high school.)  And some hitting talent, too—my next door neighbor dated Bobby Aspromonte, whose brother Ken also had gone to Lafayette.  I still see my former next-door neighbor from time to time these days, incidentally—she’s a very perky 81-year-old living down the block from me again in Delray Beach, Florida, who makes a brief appearance in Larry King’s autobiography (King attended Lafayette with Koufax, Wilpon, and Aspro) as the sexiest girl in the neighborhood.  Apparently, the nerdy King had been dared to ask her out on the high school steps in front of everyone, and she turned him down flat, as any self-respecting jock-dating glamour girl would do.  King was devastated. The story takes up pages 129, 130 and 131 of When You’re From Brooklyn, Everything Else is Tokyo.    The anecdote, or King’s hopeless lust for Iris Siegal anyway, also appears in a 2015 New York Times magazine article on King,  which refers to Iris in somewhat cruder fashion:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/magazine/larry-king-is-preparing-for-the-final-canc​ellation.html?_r=0  Sixty-something years later, King (then Larry Zeiger) is still re-living in the newspapers the agony of being rejected publicly by my next door neighbor.

It was mostly the names of these young players that fascinated me about the 1976 group: two guys nicknamed Butch, Metzger and Wynegar, one whom had a rare middle name that he shared with the 32th President of the United States, and the other of whom was eventually a teammate of another player on this list who shared a perhaps even rarer middle name with the 33rd President of the United States.

In addition to the two Butches, there was also a profusion of Jerrys on the 1976 list, Mssrs. Remy, Turner, Mumphrey, Royster, and Augustine, only three of whom were actually named "Jerry" (Turner is "John Webber Turner," and Royster is "Jeron Kennis Royster"—the others are all Geralds, no Jeromes) and two eventual Hall-of-Famers who bore the nickname "The Kid," making at least four Hall-of-Famers with that nickname: Yount and Carter on this list, plus Ted Williams and Charles Augustus Nichols.

This was a great bunch for nicknames, which can fit into several categories: the largest one is nicknames that the player was actually called by and known by in preference to his given name:  either of the Butches, for example, or Buddy Bell.  Goose Gossage, too, though with the Goose, I was at least aware of his given name. I couldn’t have told you Metzger’s, Wynegar’s or Bell’s real name with a gun to my head.  Another sub-category are those nicknames that the player was occasionally, but not usually, called by broadcasters or his teammates: "Dewey" Evans or "Bird" Fidrych or "Mex" Hernandez, for example.  Another sub-category would be derogatory nicknames that were actually used, though not to the player’s face, unless you were trying to start a fight: Camera Carter or Mr. May, for example. Ron Jackson’s nickname sounds as if it might be one of these derogatory ones: it was "Papa Up," which seems only a little better than, say, "Strike-a Out." I don’t know for sure—I was following a different R. Jackson more closely in 1976, and I don’t actually remember Ron Jackson being addressed in that way at the time.

"Mr. May" might fall into another category of nickname altogether, that applied to him by others (in Winfield’s case, by George Steinbrenner) but not used much in actual practice: typically these nicknames begin with "The," as in "The Yankee Clipper" or "The Splendid Splinter" or "The Kid" or "The Bird" or "The Goose."  "One Tough Dominican" would fall into this category. Andujar was also known as "Walking Underwear," I forget by whom originally. I assume that calling someone "Walking Underwear" is a way of deflating his desired projection of personality. If you give yourself the nickname of "One Tough Dominican," as I presume Andujar did to proclaim his proudly competitive nature, it seems only natural that someone will re-dub you "Walking Underwear" just to bust your chops.

And then of course there are nicknames that fans like me enjoy privately endowing players with, like Greg "Ew!" Gross or Tom "Leave-the-Light-On-For-Ya" Poquette. From reading his full bbref entry, I learned that "Ew" might not even be that much of a stretch, since Gross’s middle name is "Eugene." Regarding unusual middle names that I was wholly ignorant of before compiling this list, Gary Thomasson survived boyhood despite having the middle name of "Leah." I can see why he might not have advertised this fact during his playing days, and why he chose not to be called by his middle name, though personally I’ve always felt that Leah Thomasson was great in the "Back to the Future" trilogy.

And, in an attempt to sneak in some actual discussion of baseball here:  this list, and all these previous and future lists, were compiled using arbitrary cutoffs, as noted, some out of laziness of my part in not wanting to deal with hundreds of names of every player under a certain age who played an inning of MLB in a given year, but mostly in an attempt to list players who passed a low threshold of major league ability, including players who had established themselves tentatively as MLB stars (Gooden, Clemens, Brett, Fidrych, Tanana, all of whom had WAR greater than 5.0 at an early age) as well as players who had only arguably shown any potential whatsoever, barely making my minimal 1.0 WAR cutoff at all.

Obviously, these players differ tremendously in ability, potential, and trade value, even at this stage of their careers. What they have in common, though, is not having established themselves firmly at their level of ability. Those who have shown great potential sometimes will go on to fulfill that potential (Brett, Clemens), or they will fulfill it in part (Tanana, Gooden) or they will fulfill it not at all (Fidrych), Similarly, players with WAR at the low end of the scale, such as the two Kids (1.4 and 1.5 WAR), can end up in the Hall of Fame, or just out in the hall. Carter, for example, had been the previous season’s Rookie-of-the Year runner-up, but in 1976, he broke his thumb in mid-season (banging into Pepe Mangual in the outfield), and had an awful year with the bat, hitting .219 with only 6 HRs in 91 games, shuttling between the outfield and catching. Now we understand Carter’s potential for greatness, but back then he could have been great or he could have been a one-year wonder. He hadn’t established which path he was on, not yet. That’s what this is a list of, players whose potential is still an open question, and often available for trade at the right price. Some players’ price is pretty steep, others’ much less so.

Players can get 1.0-type WAR by being great but very briefly, or by being mediocre for a longer period, or by anything in between those extremes. All a 1.0 WAR signifies is that they’ve shown enough quality of play to be able to assess provisionally their potential development.  If a team wants to pry away a 1.0-level player from another team, they probably don’t have to offer very much of a package, and if they want to pry a Gooden or a Clemens or a Fidrych away, they probably have to offer the moon.

The data gathered so far suggests that offering the moon for a young Roger Clemens bears the risk that you will get a Mark Fidrych in return and that the risk is about 50% higher with pitchers than with batters. I’ll run a few more years besides 1996, 1986, and 1976, and see if those studies confirm this data, but first I’d like to dispel the notion that the players on the non-star end of the spectrum, with WAR close to 1.0, have little trade value.

Since I followed baseball closely in the mid-1970s (devouring the sports pages on a daily basis, typically at a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Broadway and 110th as I devoured a 3-piece meal, which formed the first inroads against my trim and athletic body—for some reason I have an intense memory of sitting in that KFC, reading about the Yankees signing Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter), I recognized most of these players’ names and could supply numerous details about their careers at first sight. It’s appalling, actually, how many details I could cough up about any random MLB player of the 1960s, 70s or 80s. So I found it odd that one name was completely new to me.

Great name for a relief pitcher, too: Fred Holdsworth, WAR 1.3 in 1976. A middle reliever for parts of seven seasons, mostly in the AL, Freddy had only that one outstanding year, but he showed a lot of potential, or at least a lot of good numbers in 1976: he earned his only career saves in that season, pitched above .500 ball for the only time in his career (4-1), had an ERA under 3.00 for the only time in his career (2.04), and gave up only 24 hits (and 0 HRs) in 39.2 IP.  Pretty good little season, wouldn’t you say?

Not having been a fan of the Orioles that year (I went to grad school in Baltimore in 1979-80, when I followed their championship year more than a little bit) and not remembering old Freddy at all, I can’t say for sure how Baltimore’s fans or front office perceived his performance from those numbers, but I can take a guess: those numbers probably made pros and amateurs alike overvalue Fred Holdsworth’s potential to be a big league star.

We know now, of course, that Fred Holdsworth wasn’t fated to be a big league star—we know now that his lifetime WAR was a full point lower than his 1.3 in 1976. But at the time, winter of 1976-77, almost any player the O’s could have gotten in exchange for this 24-year-old pitcher would have been a steal. I know how I feel as a fan when my club trades for a young pitcher with numbers like that: I’m over the moon with ecstasy, and I usually don’t care about the player or the prospects we had to deal to acquire a Fred Holdsworth. 4-1! 2.04 ERA! 0 HR in almost 40 IP! This guy could be a star for us! For a decade to come, maybe!

Of course I’m an idiot to feel that way, or at least an idiot to be admitting it in public, but that’s how a lot of teams and fans would have felt about acquiring Fred Holdsworth in the winter of 1976-77. I imagine if the O’s had offered Holdsworth to the Texas Rangers that winter, they might have gotten a nibble. Why the Rangers? Holdsworth beat them for two of his four wins, getting a save in his only other appearance against Texas, pitching a total of 7 innings and giving up no runs, 4 hits and no walks.  Hell, if I was the Rangers I’d have bid on him just for the sake of preventing him from pitching against us ever again.

I’m making the case, in my quiet understated way, that guys with a 1.3 WAR sometimes have a lot of perceived potential value, and that almost all the guys on these lists have WAR better than 1.3.  Opposing teams, of course, consider potential as more than just the numbers, and much more than just the numbers for the past few months (Holdsworth spent the first part of 1976 in the minors).  But those numbers are enough to interest people in making a deal, and any time you can deal someone like Fred Holdsworth off, getting a commensurate position-player back, I think you stand a good chance of pulling off a master deal. Over the long run, young pitchers’ll break your heart.

Further studies to follow.

 

 

 

Pitchers under 25 in `1976

War

Career WAR

Dennis Eckersley

  2.9

 62.5

Mark Fidrych

  9.6

 11.4

Rick Jones*

  1.1   

   1.1

John Candelaria*

  2.4

 40.1

Pete Falcone*

  3.2

 10.2

Paul Hartzell

  2.3

   5.9

Frank Tanana*

  7.5

 57.5

Tom Underwood*

  1.6

 11.1

Joaquin Andujar

  1.2

 16.8

Jerry Augustine*

  2.8

   4.1

Larry Demery

  1.6

   2.4

John Denny

  4.8

 31.2

Mark Littell

  3.2

   6.8

Rick Rhoden

  2.0

 30.2

Bruce Sutter

  2.5

 24.5

Bill Travers*

  4.5

   7.6

Jim Umbarger*

  2.7

   2.0

Adrian Devine

  1.8

   3.0

Rich Gossage

  2.9

 41.8

Fred Holdsworth

  1.3

   0.3

Frank LaCorte

  1.0

   0.0

Butch Metzger

  1.4

   1.1

Eric Rasmussen

  1.4

   5.8

Pat Zachry

  3.6

 11.8

24 MLB pitchers

69.3   / 2.9

389.2   / 16.2

 

 

Batters under 25 in 1976

WAR

 Career WAR

Butch Wynegar#

   3.3

   26.3

Robin Yount

   1.4

   77.0

Rick Manning*

   3.5

   11.7

Willie Randolph

   5.0

   65.5

Jason Thompson*

   1.5

   24.8

Ellis Valentine

   1.4

   17.0

Gary Carter

   1.3

   69.9

Keith Hernandez*

   3.2

   60.0

Sixto Lezcano

   3.1

   28.1

Jerry Turner*

   2.1

     4.2

Rob Andrews

   1.7

     0.9

Bruce Boisclair*

   1.2

     1.1

George Brett*

   7.5

   88.4

Dave Collins#

   2.3

   15.9

Greg Gross*

   3.0

   12.8

Mike Ivie

   2.0

     7.2

Ron Jackson

   1.8

     7.2

Omar Moreno*

   1.3

     9.4

Jerry Mumphrey#

   1.8

   22.2

Jerry Remy*

   3.2

   14.4

Jim Rice

   2.3

   47.4

Jerry Royster

   1.1

     2.5

Roy Smalley#

   3.0

   27.8

Buddy Bell

   3.8

   66.1

Al Cowens

   1.8

   15.2

Dan Driessen*

   1.1

   20.4

Dwight Evans

   3.8

   66.9

Dan Ford

   2.9

   11.7

Fred Lynn*

   4.5

   50.0

Pepe Mangual

   1.7

     1.4

Tom Poquette*

   1.8

     3.0

John Stearns

   1.3

   19.6

Gary Thomasson*

   1.0

     7.0

Dave Winfield

   5.1

   63.8

34 MLB batters

 86.8  /  2.6

966.8    / 28.4

 

 
 

COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

steve161
They're different cases anyway. Porcello might have been a borderline case of a young pitcher when traded, but there was nothing in his record to suggest a season like 2016--not even 2015 with the same team.

Scherzer, on the other hand, was a well-established #1 (or at worst #2) starter in his prime. And while his two seasons since the trade were among his best to date, neither was a surprise in light of previous performance.

I don't know if any conclusions can be drawn, except that Scherzer (definitely) and Porcello (probably) have nothing to do with Stephen's argument.

Never mind: I may not always agree with Bruce's posts, but I do always enjoy them.
7:19 AM Nov 30th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Dear Detroit Tigers,

Porcello was almost 26 when you traded him to Boston, and Scherzer had turned 30 by the time you let him go, so I don't think they qualify as young pitchers any more. Thanks for trying, though.

SG
8:44 PM Nov 29th
 
evanecurb
Hi Steven,

This research is very thorough. After considering it, and following this practice for several years, we are not convinced it is the right way to go.

Sincerely,

The Detroit Tigers
sans Porcello (AL CY) and Scherzer (NL CY)
4:55 PM Nov 28th
 
flyingfish
Interesting musings there, Steven. One you didn't think of concerns that winter of 1976-1977 you mentioned more than once. It was the coldest, snowiest winter on record for many places in the eastern United States; places like Cincinnati recording their coldest month ever in January 1977, and by a whole lot, not just some; Buffalo getting so much snow that its calculated return frequency (calculated by me) was on the order of 20,000 years if I remember right; and so on. And California had its second dry winter in a row, which got a lot of attention. They don't make winters like that anymore. :) And you're right, pitchers--especially young pitchers--will indeed break your heart.
9:57 PM Nov 26th
 
Mjh821
I read somewhere that John Candelaria
ending up breaking Kareem's NY high school rebounding record.​
5:59 PM Nov 26th
 
 
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