Over the next week or so, we’re going to learn who gets into the Hall of Fame and (likely) the results of Alex Rodriguez‘ suspension appeal. Those are the kinds of stories that tend to bring out a lot of ugliness around the game, so it’s important that we take the opportunity to focus on smaller stories that remind us why we spend so much time following this sport in the first place — things like Mark Mulder signing a contract with the Angels on New Year’s Day, attempting a comeback after not having appeared in the bigs in the previous five seasons.
It’s incredibly unlikely to work, for reasons we’ll get to in a second, but it’s pretty easy to see why the Angels are willing to give this a chance. Mulder’s deal reportedly has zero guaranteed money, making it entirely performance-based, so the risk is low, and despite the well-received additions of Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs in the Mark Trumbo trade, the Los Angeles rotation is still thin. Jered Weaver and his terrifying trends remain at the top along with C.J. Wilson, and Garrett Richards figures to slot in somewhere. Joe Blanton will likely be cut loose one way or another, and the Angels may yet be the most likely landing spot for Matt Garza, but for the moment, their improved rotation is one that could still use some help.
So, fine, it’s a chance worth taking. But can Mulder make this work? Has anyone, ever?
Thanks to the appreciated assistance of Jeff Zimmermann, we can dig into the data and find that there have been 24 pitchers since 1960 who have appeared in the bigs, then failed to do so for at least five consecutive seasons before making it back:
|Name||Seasons Missed||Final Played|
That’s maybe more than I might have thought, but then again, a lot of these guys aren’t great comparables. Joe Winkelsas, for example, faced six batters for the 1999 Braves, then saw action in seven innings for the 2006 Brewers after years of bouncing around the minors. Carlos Pulido has the record for longest gap for a pitcher — not including obvious stunts like 58-year-old Satchel Paige popping up for the 1965 Kansas City Athletics — but he had only 111.1 career innings, and spent most his time away from the majors pitching in the minors and independent leagues. There’s not a lot we can learn from those cases.
So let’s run this again, this time restricting it to starting pitchers only who had at least one season of 200 innings pitched and 3 WAR before their hiatus, as Mulder did.
Now we’re getting somewhere, because only four pitchers aside from Mulder fit that criteria, although the results aren’t exactly encouraging:
|Name||Seasons Missed||Comeback Year(s)||Post-Hiatus GS||Post-Hiatus IP|
Bouton barely even counts here because he did a few stints in the minors in between, and came back as a knuckleballer, which is a different beast entirely; Norris had a single great season (2.53 ERA and 24 CG in 284 IP in 1980) before drug issues helped sidetrack his career, and he pitched sporadically in the Oakland minor league system while he was away from the majors. Thompson had back-to-back four-WAR seasons for the Tigers in 1997-98 and, like Mulder, dealt with shoulder injuries for years before making a cameo for the 2005 Rangers, but since he hadn’t actively retired like Mulder, his path is more along the lines of a Mark Prior.
Instead, it’s Rijo that’s the closest — and perhaps only — real comparable here. Like Mulder, Rijo was a formerly great starter who made his final appearance in an injury-shorted age-30 season, eventually retiring after being unable to overcome serious arm injuries. (In this case, his elbow.) When he eventually made it back, he was more or less replacement-level in the limited innings he was able to throw.
None of this is encouraging, really. Over the last 65 years, almost no one similar has made it back, and of those who have, none lasted all that long. And while we’ve been saying that Mulder “missed five seasons,” even that’s underselling it. He managed only 13.2 innings in 2007-08, so he hasn’t been a regular big leaguer in the last seven seasons. In 2006, he pitched 93.1 innings, but he was awful, with a 7.14 ERA. So it’s now actually been eight full seasons since the last time Mulder was any good, back in his first season with St. Louis in 2005. It was the first season baseball had been gone from Montreal. It’s been a long time.
Still, we’re hearing scouts tell Ken Rosenthal that Mulder is throwing “87-92 MPH with good sink and good change,” and Mulder apparently plans to come back with new pitching mechanics, as related to Jerry Crasnick:
“I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am,” Mulder said by phone Tuesday. “To be honest with you, I never anticipated this five or six weeks ago. It was just a flat-out fluke that came from me trying to imitate Paco Rodriguez in my living room.”
A fluke viewing of Rodriguez on TV apparently changed that. Mulder had always separated his hands at his delivery at his midsection, but tried raising them near his head similar to the way Rodriguez does. He became convinced he was onto something after playing catch with former Cardinals teammate Kyle Lohse on Oct. 27, when they were hanging out at a birthday party for their daughters. The two pitchers threw from a distance of 150-200 feet, and Mulder was encouraged when Lohse told him he looked like his former self.
Really, if all the numbers above didn’t get the point across about how long Mulder’s been gone, perhaps this will: When I tried to do a visual comparison of what he was and what Rodriguez is, it turned out to be difficult, since Mulder’s last appearances pre-date what I can get out of the MLB.tv archives and forced me to dig up some 2002 ALDS footage from YouTube.
So if you’ll forgive the difference in quality, we can take a quick look at what Mulder means. Here’s Rodriguez from Game 3 of the NLDS against Atlanta last October:
You can see that he separates his hands right around his collarbone, though I can’t imagine Mulder is intending to go the full Paco and stick the ball straight up in the air after that. Mulder, at least back in 2002, broke his hands closer to his waist and swung the ball below his belt on its way back up:
It remains to be seen if that actually makes any difference, though Mulder seems to think it will. (Rodriguez has one of the more unique pitching motions in the game; either way, after dominating for five months with a 1.88 ERA and .399 OPS against, Rodriguez was so bad in September and October [when Mulder apparently saw him] that he was left off the NLCS roster in favor of Carlos Marmol.)
Obviously, every pitcher is a unique case, and Mulder isn’t Bouton or Rijo or Thompson, so just because this didn’t work out especially well for them doesn’t mean it can’t for him. Still, if he even sets foot on a big-league mound again, it’ll be a success. If he’s valuable, eight seasons after that was last the case, it’ll be closer to a miracle. Pragmatically, it might be more likely to be like Jim Palmer, who attempted a comeback after six years off and never made it out of spring training. But even for those of us with no connection to the Angels, it’s hard not to root for him. It’s the kind of story that makes baseball great.
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