The careers of most major league players are brief and unremarkable. Of 15,403 retired players who debuted since 1901, only 5,102 (33%) posted careers of 200 or more games, and just 2,745 (18%) managed 500 contests. Yet, even among the other 82% of players can be found those who showed promise of becoming successful major leaguers in extended careers, promise that, for one reason or another, went unfulfilled. It is to those players that this post is dedicated. More after the jump.
This post will identify a team of players who briefly achieved notable success, but whose careers were ultimately quite short, whether due to injury, tragedy, age, circumstance or simply not playing well enough to stay in the majors. The pool of players I’ll be choosing from are those retired players who were selected as All-Stars during careers of:
- fewer than 500 games for position players (19 such careers)
- fewer than 100 games for pitchers with starts in 60% of games (7 such careers)
- fewer than 250 games for pitchers relieving in 80% of games (13 such careers)
For players active from 1901 until the All-Star Game was instituted in 1933, I’ll be looking at the best WAR results for the same length careers. For consistency with the period since 1933, I’ll be looking for players with performance in one or more seasons that might have attracted All-Star recognition if there had been an All-Star Game at the time. This pool of players includes:
- 20 position players with 5+ career WAR
- 9 starting pitchers with 5+ career WAR
- 10 relief pitchers with 1+ career WAR
Players with lower career WAR than shown above were also considered, but this gives you an idea of the size of the player pool.
Our team will include:
- 5 starting pitchers
- 7 relief pitchers
- 5 outfielders
- 6 infielders
- 2 catchers
- 1 designated hitter
So, without further ado, here we go.
Let’s start with the big Tiger right-hander Mark Fidrych. As a 21 year-old in 1976, Fidrych was an instant sensation, posting a 19-9 record, leading the AL with 24 CG, and leading the majors in ERA and ERA+, results that yielded RoY honors, a 2nd place finish in CYA voting, and an All-Star Game starting assignment. Fidrych was named an All-Star the next season as well, but did not play after feeling his arm go “dead”1 in an early July game against the White Sox. Fidrych never regained his form, and appeared in only 17 more games the rest of his career.
Like Fidrych, Jose Fernandez made a big splash in his Marlins’ debut season at age 20, winning the 2013 RoY, placing 3rd in the CYA vote, and earning All-Star selection on the strength of a majors-leading H/9 result, a WHIP under one and a 176 ERA+ in 172.2 IP. Fernandez was dogged by injury his next two seasons, but was healthy again in 2016 when he led the majors in SO/9 while posting a 16-8 record and earning a second All-Star nod. Tragically, Fernandez was killed in a boating accident in September of that year.
Lanky Texan Monty Stratton gets the next rotation spot. Stratton’s breakout year came at age 25 for the 1937 White Sox with a 15-5 record and 2.40 ERA (193 ERA+) that included league-leading WHIP and BB/9 results. After compiling 14 CG and 5 SHO over his first 18 starts, arm soreness limited Stratton to just 8.1 IP over the final two months of the season. A biceps injury in spring training the next year delayed Stratton’s season debut until mid-May but he still posted a 15-9 record in 1938 with 123 ERA+ over 186.1 IP. During the following off-season, Stratton was hunting rabbits with a sidearm when he accidentally shot himself in the leg when returning his gun to its holster. When gangrene set in, forcing amputation of the leg, Stratton was fitted with a wooden prosthesis. After two seasons on the White Sox coaching staff and a year managing in the low minors2, Stratton amazingly returned to the mound when the East Texas League resumed operation in 1946, posting an 18-8 record in 218 IP for Class C Sherman, and logging a further 125 IP in the low minors before retiring after the 1950 season at age 38.
Bill James (no, not that Bill James) had shown some promise as a 21 year-old rookie in 1913, but nothing that foreshadowed what came next. In 1914, James and fellow righty Dick Rudolph each logged 26 wins to lead the upstart Braves, 5th place finishers the year before, to an improbable pennant and a shocking sweep of the mighty Philadelphia A’s in the World Series. James’s 26-7 record was good for a league-leading .788 W-L% to go with a 1.90 ERA over 332.1 IP and a 3rd place finish in the MVP vote. In the World Series, James blanked the A’s on two hits in game 2, outdueling veteran Eddie Plank, then won game 3 as well, pitching the last two frames of that 12-inning contest on one day of rest. James suffered from a sore arm (likely a rotator cuff injury) throughout the following year, a condition that did not improve over the off-season, leading to his voluntary retirement in 1916. After multiple shoulder surgeries3, James returned to the mound for several minor league seasons, mostly in the Pacific Coast League, but managed only one more game in the majors, in 1919.
We need a left-hander for our rotation, and that spot goes to Harry Krause. As a 20 year-old rookie with the A’s in 1909, Krause allowed only 9 runs total over his first 13 appearances, posting a 10-1 record over 102.1 IP, with 10 CG in 10 starts, including 6 shutouts. He came back down to earth for the rest of the season (8-7 with 40 runs allowed over 110.2 IP), but overall totals of 18-8 with a league-leading 1.39 ERA and 174 ERA+ were outstanding results nonetheless. Alas, Krause never approached the same level of performance for the remainder of his big league career, ending in 1912. Instead, Krause amassed impressive minor league totals, almost all in the Pacific Coast league (he was a native Californian), with 251 wins in more than 4000 IP over 17 minor league seasons.
Satchel Paige notches the first spot in our bullpen. After a legendary career over 16 Negro League seasons, Paige made his major league debut in 1948, posting a 6-1 record for the world-champion-to-be Indians, including consecutive shutouts in August, one of six pitchers to record that back-to-back aged 41 or older (Quiz: which pitcher did this most recently?). Paige posted a 2.78 ERA (146 ERA+) over 155.2 IP in two seasons in Cleveland, but his All-Star selections came for the Browns in 1952 and 1953, aged 45-46, logging 255.1 IP with 123 ERA+ and 69 games finished over those two campaigns. Paige logged 100+ IP with ERA under 3.00 in three straight AAA seasons in the Phillies organization, aged 49-51, then famously had a one game cameo with the A’s at age 59, pitching three scoreless frames against the Red Sox.
Another Negro League veteran, Joe Black made his major league debut at age 28 for the 1952 Dodgers. He did not allow an earned run over his first 9 appearances, and went to the All-Star Game sporting a 1.63 ERA over 38.2 IP in 21 games. Black finished the season with a 15-4 record (14-3 in relief) and a 2.15 ERA (171 ERA+) over 142.1 IP in 56 appearances (including a majors-leading 41 GF), earning well-deserved RoY honors. The last two of those appearances were as a starter, in preparation for the World Series when Dodger manager Chuck Dressen made Black his starter for game 1 and, on two days rest each time, games 4 and 7. Black played 5 more major league seasons but never approached the level of performance of that magical rookie campaign.
Jeff Zimmerman made his big league debut at age 26 in 1999, posting a 9-3 record for Texas with a 2.36 ERA (215 ERA+) over 87.2 IP in middle relief, good for an All-Star selection and a 3rd place finish in the RoY vote. He posted similar numbers in 2001 as the Rangers’ closer, but that would turn out to be the final big league campaign of a career cut short by injury, including multiple Tommy John surgeries4.
Lefty Luis Arroyo debuted as a starter for the Cardinals at age 28 in 1955, earning an All-Star selection on the strength of a 10-3 record and 2.44 ERA at the break. The second half of that campaign was less memorable (1-5, 8.19) and Arroyo was dealt to the Pirates early in the following season, where he pitched mainly in relief. But, Arroyo’s place in our bullpen comes from his 1961 season for the world-champion-to-be Yankees, when he led all major league pitchers in G, GF and, had there been such a statistic, in Saves. His totals that year include a 15-5 record, 2.19 ERA (169 ERA+) and 119 IP, all in relief, earning his second All-Star selection and a 6th place finish in MVP voting. That was the last hurrah for the 34 year-old who pitched just 33 more games the rest of his career.
The season before Ichiro Suzuki‘s big league debut, the Mariners imported another Japanese legend, Kazuhiro Sasaki. After 10 seasons in Japan with a 2.31 ERA over 599 IP, Sasaki did not disappoint in Seattle, earning RoY honors in 2000 at age 32 and following that campaign with All-Star selections the next two years. His major league totals over four seasons include 223.1 IP, a 3.14 ERA (138 ERA+), and 129 saves. (Ichiro and Sasaki are half of the four Mariners who have won RoY awards. Quiz: among the 16 pre-expansion franchises, which one has had the fewest RoY winners?)
After 14 minor league seasons, mainly with Fort Worth of the Texas League, 34 year-old southpaw Joe Pate, a Rule 5 draft pick, made his major league debut for the 1926 A’s, posting a 9-0 record and 2.71 ERA (153 ERA+) in 113 IP over 47 games, all but 3.1 IP in relief. When Pate struggled the next season, the A’s sold him back to Forth Worth, where he finished his professional career in 1928.
Ryan Cook was an All-Star as a 25 year-old rookie in 2012, posting a 2.09 ERA (187 ERA+) in 73.1 IP. He posted similar numbers the next year before control problems and injuries ended his career after only 6 seasons.
First base goes to Ray Grimes, the Cubs’ regular first sacker in 1921 (his rookie year) and 1922, compiling 9.4 WAR for those two seasons on the strength of 142 OPS+ from a .337/.424/.509 slash, including 350 hits, 190 runs, 178 RBI and 145 walks. Grimes was unable to regain his earlier form after injuries suffered in the 1923 season5, leading to an early end to his big league career, though he continued playing in the minors until age 36 in 1930.
Our second baseman is Arizona’s Junior Spivey, who garnered All-Star honors for a 4.3 WAR sophomore season in 2002 that included a .301/.389/.476 slash, 103 runs and 78 RBI. Spivey played three more seasons but never approached that same level of performance.
At third base is Chris Brown who finished 4th in RoY voting as a 23 year-old Giant in 1985 and followed that with an All-Star selection the next year on the strength of a .317/.376/.421 slash. But, that was about it for Brown, who sank to 73 OPS+ in 179 games over his final three seasons.
Shortstop is a notable weakness on this club, with the nod going to Frankie Zak who debuted for the Pirates as a 22 year-old in 1944. Despite not starting a game until June of that season, Zak lucked into the All-Star Game, played that year in Pittsburgh, owing to an injury to Eddie Miller and wartime travel restrictions (in fairness to Zak, he was batting .305 at the break, albeit in only 97 PA), a circumstance leading Time magazine, in 2009, to name Zak the worst player ever on an All-Star Game roster6. Zak ended that season as a .300 hitter in 186 PA, then played in the majors briefly in 1945 and 1946 before finishing his professional career in 1949. Owing to the dubious nature of Zak’s All-Star credentials, Red shortstop Ike Caveney might possibly be a better choice for our club, as he at least has a qualified season to his credit, in 1923, when he started the season on fire, batting .383 at the end of April and still above .300 as late as May 22, before cooling off to the .270s by mid-July. Certainly not All-Star cailber but, as I said, there just aren’t any shortstops fitting the bill for this team.
In left field is Joe Connolly from the miracle Braves team of 1914. Connolly, who did not play professionally until age 24, posted 125 OPS+ and a respectable 2.0 WAR in his 1913 debut season at age 29. The next year, Connolly led his team in just about every offensive category, with a .306/.393/.494 slash and 158 OPS+, good for 3.8 WAR for the world champions. Connolly posted a similar BA the next year but saw his slugging percentage drop almost 100 points as Boston moved from cozy South End Grounds to cavernous new Braves Field. A poor season in 1916 led to a contract offer at half his previous salary, prompting Connolly to elect to retire7.
Centerfield is another weak spot on this club. I’ll give the nod to Tim Hendryx whose lone possibly All-Star worthy campaign came as the Red Sox centerfielder in 1920, one of two 400+ PA campaigns in his 8 year career. Hendryx missed almost a month of the season from mid-June to mid-July but his .345 BA when he went down might have gotten some notice had an All-Star team been chosen. Might have, that is, in many other seasons, but not in the AL in 1920 when Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Sam Rice and even Happy Felsch all had better starts to their seasons. Hendryx played one more year in Boston before closing out his professional career with 5 minor league seasons, mostly in the Pacific Coast League.
In right field is Richie Scheinblum. He made the most of his one qualified season, earning All-Star recognition as a 29 year-old Royal in 1972 for his .300/.383/.418 slash, good for 140 OPS+ and 2.8 WAR. Traded to the Reds in the off-season in the Hal McRae deal, Scheinblum was flipped to the Angels where he posted a .328/.417/.428 slash in the back half of the 1973 season. One more forgettable season, split between three clubs, and Scheinblum’s career was done.
Catching is Greg Olson who garnered an All-Star selection as a 29 year-old Brave rookie in 1990 and was the the primary catcher on Atlanta’s pennant-winning teams in 1991 and 1992. The biggest hit of Olson’s career came in game 6 of the 1991 NLCS; with Atlanta facing elimination, Olson’s two out double in the 9th drove home the game’s only run to keep Brave hopes alive. With “can’t miss” prospect Javy Lopez ready to take the stage, Olson became expendable and was released following the 1993 season. He signed on with the Mets but called it a career when he failed the make the big club coming out of spring training the next season8.
Our DH is Buzz Arlett, a man made for the position, just 50 years too soon. In almost 2400 games over 19 minor league seasons (all but 35 of those games at the then highest AA level), Arlett posted totals including a .341 BA, .604 SLG, 2726 hits, 432 home runs, 598 doubles, 1610 runs and 1786 RBI. Arlett’s lone big league season came in 1931 at age 32 and saw him produce solid offensive stats with 2.8 oWAR from a .313/.387/.538 slash and 139 OPS+. The problem, though, was Arlett’s defense; he made 10 errors in 94 outfield games and had 3 more miscues in only 13 games at first base. With nowhere to play him, the Phillies reluctantly returned Arlett to the minors the next season.
I could well have chosen him to start at third base, but since he played all over the infield, I’ll make Billy Grabarkewitz our team’s super utility player. Grabarkewitz lit up NL pitchers to start his 1970 rookie season, batting over .400 as late as May 27th and still hitting .341 with .944 OPS when he went to his first (and only) All-Star game. Grabarkewitz finished the season with a team high 6.5 WAR, then a franchise record for a rookie and exceeded since only by Mike Piazza in 1993. Despite that success, the Dodgers were dismayed by Grabarkewitz’s proclivity to strike out (he whiffed 149 times) and tried tinkering with his swing in the back half of the season9. The changes did succeed in cutting down his strikeouts a bit (only 58 after the break) but evidently also cut down on his hard contact rate, with just a .232/.346/.404 slash in the second half and only .267 BABIP. The Dodgers snagged Dick Allen to play third base in 1971 and, with Maury Wills at short, there wasn’t much playing time for Grabarkewitz. Same story in 1972, this time with Steve Garvey at third and Bill Russell now at short. With Davey Lopes and Ron Cey set to become regulars in 1973, Grabarkewitz was dealt to the Angels, the first of four clubs for which he would play briefly over his final three seasons.
Our second reserve infielder is Amby McConnell. He debuted in 1908 as the Red Sox regular second baseman and compiled 3.4 oWAR including 31 steals, the first a mark that would stand for 99 years as the franchise record for rookie second sackers, and the second still the franchise record for such seasons. McConnell’s offense declined in his second season, though he still provided speed (26 steals) while improving his defense markedly. In his third season, McConnell got off to a slow start, then suffered a significant injury, resulting in a mid-season trade to the White Sox. While in Chicago, McConnell was unable to cash a paycheck because the bank on which it was drawn had closed. Instead of issuing a replacement check, Sox owner Charlie Comiskey insisted that “his hands were tied” as the bank’s fate was now “in the courts”, and that McConnell should not worry as he would be paid “in due time”. None of this satisfied the combative Irishman who continued feuding with the powerful Comiskey, likely resulting in McConnell’s demotion to the minors where he would remain for the rest of his professional career10.
Our first reserve outfielder is Domonic Brown. In his first season as a Phillies regular, the 25 year-old Brown smacked 27 home runs in 2013, earning his lone All-Star selection. He remained a Philly regular the next year, but his power dropped precipitously, to just 10 homers and a .349 SLG mark. Brown split the 2015 season between Philadelphia and the minors, before signing as a free agent, first with Toronto, then with Colorado, but never making it back to the bigs.
Our second reserve outfielder is Al Wingo. Wingo got his first chance to play regularly as a Tiger in 1925 at age 27. He made the most of his opportunity, with a .370/.456/.527 slash, good for 151 OPS+ and 5.4 WAR. The next season, Wingo lost almost 90 points off his BA and more than 200 points off his OPS, resulting in limited playing time for his final two seasons.
Our backup cather is Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco garnered his lone All-Star selection at age 26 in 2014, on the strength of a 25 HR/80 RBI season for the Reds in only 440 PA, good for 147 OPS+ and 4.9 WAR. Mesoraco hardly played the next two seasons due to injury and, when healthy later, was unable to regain the form of his All-Star campaign. Mesoraco finished his career in 2018, splitting Met catching duties with Kevin Plawecki.
1 Puerzer, Rich. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/mark-fidrych/
2 Sarnoff, Gary. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/monty-stratton/
3 Jones, David. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-james/
4 Caple, Jim. “Former All-Star Zimmerman dreams again of majors“. ESPN.com. 30-Apr-2009. http://www.espn.com/espn/page2/story?sportCat=mlb&page=caple/090429
5 Nowlin, Bill. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ray-grimes/
6 Finoli, David. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frankie-zak/
7 Auger, Dennis. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/joe-connolly-2/
8 Rippel, Joel. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/greg-olson/
9 Skelton, David E. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/billy-grabarkewitz/
10 Bennettt, John. SABR Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/amby-mcconnell/