Throughout the course of baseball history, there have been nearly 20,000 men who have taken the field at the professional level. Many wash out after a cup of coffee, while a select few go on to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Needless to say, quite a few players are simply going to be lost to history. No players deserve to be forgotten, but when’s the last time you heard a rousing discussion about Hipolito Pichardo?
However, one would think that a player that won a Cy Young award and finished 2nd twice in a span of 3 seasons in the last decade would be brought up every now and then, right? Sadly, that’s not the case for one Brandon Tyler Webb. Mentions of the former D’Backs ace (in the media or elsewhere) are few and very far between these days, and it’s a damn shame.
Webb, a victim of shoulder bursitis and nagging rotator cuff problems, fell off the MLB map at arguably the top of his game. He took the hill a mere one time in 2009, got roughed up (by the opposing offense and physically), and never played a Major League Baseball game again. Within a year or two, the former ace was largely forgotten about outside of Arizona. Around the same time, a contemporary with a ton of promise, a brief period of dominance and a debilitating injury, was still getting a ton of press. His name? Mark Prior.
Now, why would a guy like Prior, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the bigs since 2006, still be fresh in the casual fan’s mind whereas Webb only manages to elicit an “Oh, I remember that guy! D’Backs right? Who’s he with now?”. A few reasons likely: First, Prior pitched in Chicago, a huge media market and as such was a fixture in sports news while Webb pitched for the relatively small-market Diamondbacks. Fans on the east coast probably had even fewer memories of Webb, given that the bulk of his games only came on at 10:05pm locally. Second, Prior was a more mighty hurler, racking up great strikeout numbers with an overpowering arsenal of a mid-90s fastball, curveball and slurve. Webb, on the other hand, relied upon his sinker which led to many groundball outs and unspectacular K totals.
Webb was always considered to be a quality pitcher, but when you take a closer look at his numbers, they paint a picture that would project a Hall of Fame-type career had he stayed healthy. For qualifying starters (1000+ IP from 1918-2012), Webb holds the #4 all-time spot for Adjusted ERA (ERA+). Looking at the table below, you can see he was in some pretty good company.
An elite club, n’est-ce pas? About half of these players overlapped with Webb, so let’s take a look at how he stacked up against his contemporaries from 2003-08 (discounting ’09 due to only 1 game played):
He ranked 2nd in rWAR among pitchers (3rd in fWAR) in that time span, and you’ve all let him fade away from your memory. Tsk, tsk. In that same span, he also finished 2nd in Quality Starts, notching 132 “Webb Gems,” good for 22 a season.
These numbers are all well and good, but what they have failed to illustrate is that those were Webb’s first six seasons as a pro. He burst on the scene in 2003, notching 6 WAR, and never looked back. Three years later, he was named to his first All-Star team and took home the Cy Young award. In 2007, he threw 42 straight scoreless innings, including 3 complete game shutouts. His first six years rank 9th-best in MLB history (seen below), surrounded by Hall of Famers and fringe candidates. Furthermore, his Wins Above Replacement per 200 innings ranks 4th all-time among pitchers with 25+ WAR in their first six seasons, just a shade beneath Tom Terrific (top 5 players are italicized).
Once again, we find Webb rubbing statistical elbows with some of the greats. Tack on a few more years of this elite level of production and he would be a bona fide Cooperstown candidate. From looking at the data, you can certainly draw a parallel between Webb and Teddy Higuera, who was sort of the Brandon Webb of the late 80s, putting up six stellar seasons before fading away from the game and collective memory. Now, let’s not quite count Brandon Webb out. He’s only 33 and a comeback wouldn’t be out of the question, although it would be quite the tall order. If April 6, 2009 serves to be the last time Webb played a major league game, then so be it. He left one hell of a legacy, whether you were aware or not.
Postscript: In case you were wondering why I took the time to delve into the case of Brandon Webb, I did so after I brought him up in a conversation with a mix of casual and diehard fans and the bulk of them had completely forgotten this man. Also, after reading Hall of Nearly Great (which we here at HHS cannot recommend enough), I felt the need to celebrate his fantastic, albeit short career, one which I hope will never be lost to history.