Thank goodness for Julia over at Julia’s Rants; otherwise, I’d never know when the newest MLBlogs “Latest Leaders” list had come out. I’d boycotted Mark’s blog until Albert Pujols was no longer named at the top.
It’s not something I necessarily strive for – being on the leaderboard – but it’s something that’s definitely humbling, and which I very much appreciate.
For those of you unfamiliar with Julia, she’s basically the MLBlogs team captain. She roots us all on, comments on very nearly every blog, and has an enormously-catchy enthusiasm that helps many of us get through the slow times, when we begin to debate whether or not we truly want to do this. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you check her blog out.
Upon hearing the news that I was #20, I was thrown into a quandary. There have been several players to don the number for the Astros, including the longest-tenured #20 in club history, Tony Eusebio, a backup catcher that probably only a true Houston fan could love – and who all true Houston fans love.
But I opted to go a different way, and began to write a long apalogue about Cesar Geronimo, who I had watched growing up – in his Cincinnati years, after he’d left Houston – and whose signature had graced the glove I’d worn in Little League. My father had always joked that Cesar couldn’t catch because he wore four Gold Gloves. I didn’t get the joke at the time, but it stuck with me.
Then I realized that my glove had actually been signed by another Astro who had gone to the Reds and won multiple Gold Gloves – Cesar Cedeno. By the time I was old enough to go to and remember Reds games, Geronimo was either in Kansas City or out of the league entirely.
Other names flashed through my memory – Lee Maye, Dave “Soup” Campbell – but I kept coming back to one man. The only Houston Astro to be inducted to the Hall of Fame wearing #20. Who – if there was a Hall of Fame for white afros – would be in on the first ballot.
Sutton didn’t spend much time in Houston. He signed as a Free Agent before the 1981 season, and in late August the following year, we was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino, Mike Madden, and cash. Anyone who has read my About Me knows that, without that trade, I might never have become a Houston fan at all.
To top it off, he helped pitch the Brewers to their only World Series appearance (though he was shelled by the Cardinals in the Series), playing with current Astros skipper Cecil Cooper.
Houston’s pitching staff in the strike-shortened 1981 season was insane. In addition to Sutton, the rotation boasted Joe Niekro, Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, lefty Bob Knepper, and Vern Ruhle. The bullpen had Billy Smith, Dave Smith, and Joe Sambito.
No starting pitcher that year had an ERA over 3.00. Ruhle’s 2.91 was the highest, and the average ERA+ was 139. With a full year of baseball, there’s no telling how well this team could have done, despite a questionable offense led by Tony Scott, Jose Cruz, and then-first baseman and former Gold Glove outfielder Cedeno (not Geronimo.)
Sutton threw 158.2 innings that year, going 11-9 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.015 WHIP (with three fewer hits or walks, he would have had a WHIP under 1.00… coincidentally, three is the exact number of intentional walks he was asked to issue). He walked just 29 batters – the fewest ever in his career, including 1988 when he walked 30 despite pitching just 87.1 innings with the Dodgers – and struck out 104 (also the fewest in his career, but who’s counting?)
Old Black & Decker followed up his 1981 campaign by going 13-8 in 27 appearances in 1982, pitching 195 innings and striking out 139 to 46 walks, a 3.00 ERA and a 1.103 WHIP before being traded to the Brewers.
For all intents and purposes, the Astros have always had an ace. A dominant pitcher who could be given the ball every fifth game and be expected to shut down the opposing team as often as not. In 2001, a skinny, unseemly right-hander from Weir, Mississippi was called up in May and asked to do just that. Less than a month later, he was entered into the starting rotation, and the team won the next eight games he started, with him collecting the W in six of the eight games.
He went 12-2 as a starter that year, with three complete games including a shutout. He threw 127.2 innings as a starter, with 130 strikeouts, 17 walks, a 2.82 ERA, and a 1.03 WHIP. He was second in Rookie of the Year voting, fifth in Cy Young voting, and 22nd in MVP voting.
Eight seasons later, Roy Oswalt is the undisputed ace of the Houston rotation, but in 2001 – despite the tremendous year by Wade Miller – the ace was Shane Reynolds, who went 14-11 with a 4.34 ERA. Not ace-type numbers, but Reynolds had been the de facto ace since his 16-win campaign in 1996. Though Darryl Kile and a young Mike Hampton also pitched well for that team, Reynolds was clearly the leader.
Before Reynolds’ emergence, most people would probably have pointed at veteran Doug Drabek. Before that, Pete Harnisch. Mike Scott. Nolan Ryan.
Other teams, on the other hand, have trouble defining an ace. Specifically, the Pittsburgh Pirates – an intradivisional foe – have had a string of seriously bad luck with their aces.
In 2006, after a 14-win campaign, Ian Snell was annointed with the “ace” title. Entering the 2009 season, he has only managed 16 wins in the two years since then. In 2007, Tom Gorzelanny was the 14-game winner on the roster, and now he finds himself in minor league camp.
It seems that, as an organization, the top of the Pirates’ rotation has been befuddling at least since Oliver Perez’s Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde act from 2004-2006. This year, their hope lies in the left arm of Paul Maholm.
Maholm is a sinkerball pitcher who has gone 19-24 over the past two seasons with 244 K and 112 BB in 384 IP. Over that time, he has an ERA of 4.31 and a WHIP of 1.35. His DIPS was 4.26 and his DICE was 4.18. By almost any metric, saber or otherwise, he’s at best an above-average pitcher.
And last month, they awarded him with a three-year, $14.5m contract to avoid arbitration.
That’s a lot of money for a guy who had 2.7 Value Wins a year ago. So does Maholm have ace-type stuff, or is he merely benefitting from being part of a weak pitching staff?
Maholm’s VORP in 2008 was 40.8 – 30th in the majors among pitchers with a minimum 100 IP. Roy Oswalt’s 43.3 was just five spots ahead at 25th. It was almost double the next-highest VORP on the team, reliever John Grabow with 22.3, and far away above Zach Duke, who had the second-highest VORP among Pirates starters in 2008 with 5.3.
Compare that to Gorzelanny in 2007, whose 41.5 VORP was 31st in the majors and just 0.2 ahead of rotation-mate Ian Snell. In 2008, Gorzelanny’s VORP had tumbled to -13.2; in other words, worse than a replacement-level player. Snell’s was “better” at -3.9, but hardly good. There is some indication that Snell, at least, was the victim of bad luck, as his BABIP was a hefty .360, compared to Maholm’s .298.
But Pirates coaches believe Maholm has the mental makeup of an ace, which can of course be important. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who used to work with the Yankees and the Red Sox, told Sporting News “If you’ve seen him throwing on the side, see his understanding of the
game, the understanding of his craft — pitching — you can tell he has
a great idea,” Kerrigan said. “He’s a coach’s dream. The effort he puts
into the side sessions, his bullpen sessions, is translated into the
That’s great, but it doesn’t exactly make him an ace.
Maholm has been coolly efficient this spring, going 2-0 with a 0.46 ERA, 12 K, and 1 BB in 19.2 IP. He’s run out of innings in games well before hitting the maximum pitch count set aside by his coaches this spring.
Considering the rapid falls from grace many of the Pirates’ other “aces” have seen in recent years, it’s definitely too early to give Maholm the title – and as of right now, he is being vastly overpaid – but there’s certainly room for hope for the Pirates, who need as much as they can get.