Good Luck, Mark Mulder: You’ll Need It

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
Carlos Pulido 8 2004
Jim Bouton 7 1978
Vicente Romo 7 1982
Danny Boone 7 1990
Efrain Valdez 6 1998
Mike Norris 6 1990
Jim Crowell 6 2005
Ken Ray 6 2006
Joe Winkelsas 6 2006
Adam Pettyjohn 6 2008
Brad Thomas 6 2011
Chuck Hartenstein 6 1977
Jose Rijo 5 2002
Larry Luebbers 5 2000
Brandon Knight 5 2008
Ravelo Manzanillo 5 1995
Brian Sikorski 5 2006
Justin Thompson 5 2005
Mike Kinnunen 5 1987
Jose Alvarez 5 1989
Kevin Hickey 5 1991
Kip Gross 5 2000
Steve Fireovid 5 1992
Marc Kroon 5 2004

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
Jim Bouton 7 1978 5 29.0
Mike Norris 6 1990 0 27.0
Jose Rijo 5 2001-02 9 94.0
Justin Thompson 5 2005 0 1.2

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:

paco_motion

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:

mulder_motion_oak

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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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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Steve
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Steve
2 years 6 months ago

Just the fact he’s pain free is probably a win…

Although the fact that he gets to play long toss with his buddies at his daughter’s birthday party makes him hard to relate to.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 6 months ago

Your second statement was judgmental and unnecessary.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
Antonio Bananas
2 years 6 months ago

Imagine having two above average big leaguers playing catch at your birthday…

JayT
Guest
JayT
2 years 6 months ago

In what way does playing long toss with a friend make him hard to relate to? That seems like an extremely easy thing to relate to if you have ever played catch with someone.

jim
Guest
jim
2 years 6 months ago

right?? what an asshole, hanging out with friends!

Jon C
Member
Jon C
2 years 6 months ago

I hope Mark succeeds. On, another note, doesn’t this study suffer from small sample size syndrome?

MikeS
Guest
MikeS
2 years 6 months ago

It could be argued that the small sample size is an indicator that he is unlikely to succeed, which is kinda the point.

Look at it from another angle. Think of all the people that never even attempted a comeback after being out of baseball for five years. That’s a pretty big sample.

Jon C
Member
Jon C
2 years 6 months ago

Nah. The ones that didn’t try to comeback aren’t a valid metric to use. The methodology in the article is the best to use.

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

What about the pitchers who attempted comebacks and didn’t even make it to the big leagues? As crazy as it sounds, there’s an element of “survivor” bias in these results.

Jon C
Member
Jon C
2 years 6 months ago

Ian, you’re right, I failed to consider survivor bias.

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

You couldn’t, really. You’d have to pull together stats from independent leagues, winter leagues, foreign leagues, affiliated minors and regular and extended spring training, all of which are varying degrees of unreliable – and that’s if you could find them in the first place.

Still, the fact that only a handful even made it that far, and none were very good, doesn’t say much for Mulder’s chances.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 6 months ago

I think the idea is more to find out if it has even been done before.

It’s hard to make any sort of estimate of probability, considering there is no standard reason why it would be feasible for a pitcher to attempt a comeback after 5 or more years off. In other words, given what we know about Mulder – he “retired” due to injury, he changed his mechanics, he is back to his former velocity, he’s 36 – there are few players who have enough in common with him to be comparable at all.

The fact that there are few other cases suggest it is unlikely, but we don’t know how many other pitchers could manage 87-92 mph after having missed so much time. Perhaps the reason it is unlikely is that most pitchers cannot manage that velocity after so much time off.

BMac
Member
BMac
2 years 6 months ago

Dave Stieb. It was 4 years instead of 5, but I think the comparison is still apt.

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=1012532&position=P

With the knowledge of pitching now, esp. the heavy ball program the Jays use now, this outcome could definitely improve. It is interesting to see that after being a coach for a few years, he cut the walks down when he came back, but gave up more homers (perhaps as a result).

Jon C
Member
Jon C
2 years 6 months ago

Nice comparison. The thing to remember though is Stieb made a comeback in his age 39 season, and Mulder is younger at 36. I don’t think a WAR of .5 to 1.0 is unreasonable to expect.

Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles
2 years 6 months ago

I think expecting him to make the MLB roster is “unreasonable” to expect let alone being above replacement in value.

Jon C
Member
Jon C
2 years 6 months ago

You’re right, there is a high likelihood of him failing but I wouldn’t bet against him.

dougiejays
Guest
dougiejays
2 years 6 months ago

I was waiting to interject Steib as well. And if you eliminate his CWS career (22 IP, 6.04 ERA), it pretty much was five years.

will
Guest
will
2 years 6 months ago

Great story. I’ll re-read this after the Hall of Fame elects nobody but Maddux

AC of DC
Guest
AC of DC
2 years 6 months ago

Possibly the most important takeaway is that there was a Major Leaguer named Steve Fireovid. I expect Cistulli to jump on this one in these days of thin material.

joser
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joser
2 years 6 months ago

I don’t think an excess of material has ever stopped Cistulli from jumping on something like that.

Swfcdan
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Swfcdan
2 years 6 months ago

I guess Baseball Tonight really was that bad.

OuliarBaseball.com
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Isn’t it always?

fjtorres
Guest
fjtorres
2 years 6 months ago

Mulder is a lefty and breathing.
That mightily increases his chances for a bullpen job.

RC
Guest
RC
2 years 6 months ago

Going to comment on this again, because you guys keep doing this:

The sample for this should be something like “guys who were out of the league from 3-7 years” instead of 5+. By putting it at 5+, Mulder barely qualifies for the sample you’re talking about, and its only marginally likely that the data applies to him.

If you’re talking about and analysing a specific player, he should be the middle of the sample.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 6 months ago

I’m this case particularly, because there is little appreciable difference between 4 and 5 seasons off, for intstance. I think the intention is to capture anyone who returned after “significant” time off, which we could probably define as three or more years.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 6 months ago

Ryan Vogelsong offers some mild optimism. I get that he missed the cutoff because he only missed 4 seasons, but he is no less relevant than anyone else in this sample.

Hurtlockertwo
Guest
Hurtlockertwo
2 years 6 months ago

Two years from now, Barry Zito will discover he still has an 81 mph fastball and will make a comeback. But not for $21 million a year.

Mac
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Interesting complementary study over at Beyond The Box Score:

http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2014/1/4/5268398/mark-mulder-attempts-comeback-with-los-angeles-angels-of-anaheim

Using 3 years as the gap in playing time found only two additional pitchers to compare, Dave Stieb and Salamon Torres. A great point in the BTBS article is that we don’t know how many pitchers have even attempted comebacks like this. Maybe only 48 pitchers since 1960 have ever even tried, for a 50% success rate.

The other sad point that still needs mentioning: Even if Mulder is effective, he’s also a huge injury risk. Remeber that great feel-good Disney movie The Rookie about Jim Morris? Well, Morris went down two months into his career with an arm injury that required surgery.

In any case, will be a fun story to track, hope’s for success firmly grounded in reality.

bjsworld
Guest
bjsworld
2 years 6 months ago

I think the article could be a lot shorter and just say this:

“There aren’t any good comps to Mark Mulder’s situation. As a result, looking at historical information to help predict his future will prove to be a pointless exercise.”

We can all agree that it is a major challenge to come back from all the shoulder woes Mulder faced. In my mind the years don’t really matter – it’s the type of injury. However, if he is really throwing 87-92 with good control and a decent off-speed pitch it seems like he could fill a need in either a rotation or bullpen of some MLB club.

Dan Greer
Member
Dan Greer
2 years 6 months ago

My shoulder hurts just from looking at his old mechanics, yikes.

js2
Member
js2
2 years 6 months ago

You could also reference how long it has been since Mulder pitched based on a clip of playoff baseball during the day.

Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles
2 years 6 months ago

There is still playoff baseball during the day during the Divisional round.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
2 years 6 months ago

I’m not sure I’m remembering this right, but I believe that until Dave Winfield (1990) no player age 35+ had ever returned successfully to MLB after missing a full season.

Triteon
Guest
Triteon
2 years 6 months ago

I assume you’re not counting the war years?

D
Guest
D
2 years 6 months ago

Satchel Paige?

Carl
Guest
Carl
2 years 6 months ago

Gentlemen,

For comps, how about the WWII and Korean War vets? Bob Feller? Warren Spahn? Bob Lemon? Early Wynn? Also, Whitey Ford for Korea. Sure there are several others veterans who missed years from playing baseball in service to their country.

Word
Guest
Word
2 years 6 months ago

That’s a nice idea, but not really analogous. Mulder was out of the majors for health and performance reasons, and the difference between time off and a comeback is pretty substantial. Plus, many of the batters they were facing had returned from substantial layoffs.

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Those guys were all in their early to mid-20s when they missed time, and much earlier in their careers to boot. Heck, Lemon didn’t pitch in the big leagues at all until after he got back. They’re not terribly comparable to Mulder, who missed time due to injuries and ineffectiveness during the decline portion of his career.

Peter
Guest
Peter
2 years 6 months ago

For the sake of baseball and its growing history, I hope Mulder can make a comeback and be effective on the mound. It would truly be a remarkable thing! But I’m in the boat of people who have our doubts. But to his credit he’s still only 36, and these days that’s not too old. And even though he took a break due to injuries, you can also look at it as less miles on the car. If the injuries were due to his previous mechanics, then changing his mechanics might not cause him to have more injuries, and therefore be more effective for longer. If he hasn’t been going through an exercise routine to keep his arm healthy and in shape, and in 2-3 months gets his velocity up to 87-92 with good control and pitch movement, he just might have a fighting chance. Time will tell though… there are just as many reasons for him to fail as there are for him to succeed. Those are not good odds in baseball.

Now I may want to see him succeed for the reasons mentioned above, but the Mariner’s fan in me hopes he doesn’t have TOO much success!! ;)

Jon C
Member
Jon C
2 years 6 months ago

The thing I don’t like is the whole 87 to 92 thing. That’s actually a real big range. Unless he’s being intended for use as a situational lefty, I see an issue. The more data I get the less I like his chances, but I wish the best for him.

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