He’s a future star! Just look at his first season! (Or, maybe not.)—pt. 4.

In this, the fourth installment of this series, I expanded the definition of ‘great’ first full seasons to include those that were at the very least promising. Let’s take a look at some more players from the past 20 or so years who started off well, but never quite lived up to what we expected.

Rogers owns 141 home runs at all levels. (Wikipedia).

Former Brewers first baseman Jason Rogers’ ascension to the major leagues took a while, as he didn’t debut until he was 26 or play his first (nearly) full campaign until he was 27. The 2010 32nd-round draft pick hit .301 at Single-A in 2012, but by then he was already 24; likewise, his 22 home runs at Double-A the next year don’t look so impressive, as he was older than the average player in his league.

But the production followed him wherever he went. In his first try at Triple-A in 2014, he hit .316 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI in 57 games. The Brewers promoted him in September, but he had just one hit in eight at-bats.

Though he began 2015 with Milwaukee, he hit just .236 through June 30. The Brewers sent him to the minors for more Triple-A experience but he proved he was experienced enough—in 33 games with Colorado Springs, Rogers slashed .344/.449/.607 with 8 home runs and 24 RBI in 33 games. The production could not be denied, so Milwaukee called him back up in August.

And that month was also rough, as he hit just .235 in 17 at-bats. But an otherworldly September in which he slashed .435/.500/.630 with 2 home runs, 9 RBI and 20 hits in 46 ABs saved his season … and his batting line. On the back of that killer run, he hit .296/.367/.441 in 169 at-bats over 86 games that year.

With his stock high, the Brewers traded him to Pittsburgh for outfielder Keon Broxton and minor league pitcher Trey Supak in the offseason. The change of scenery wasn’t to his benefit.

With his first hit a triple, his 2016 campaign started off promising—but from that point on, he hit .045 in 22 at-bats. He spent most of the season at Triple-A, where he hit just .263. Partway through the next year, the Pirates released him so he could play in Japan. He hit .283 with 7 home runs and 32 RBI in  49 games there.

But his performance drew no major league interest. He joined the independent ranks in 2018, 2019 and 2021, and even spent time in Australia, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Now 33, he hit .295 with 16 home runs and 60 RBI for the indy Gastonia Honey Hunters this season.

Smith was 11-11, 3.84 in his career. (Wikipedia).

Like Rogers, former Marlins pitcher Chuck Smith was an old rookie—a really old rookie, as he debuted at 30 years of age.

Undrafted out of Indiana State University, he was signed by the Astros and began the snaillike trudge up the minor league ranks. Through 1995, he had pitched just 6 innings above Single-A; that year, he was 10-10 with a 2.69 ERA, but was also nearly 3.5 years older than the average player in his league. He was in the White Sox system by that point, having been taken in the Rule V Draft.

He reached Triple-A for the first time in 1996—for a single game—then went 0-3, 8.81 at that level in 1997. Chicago ditched him and he spent most of 1998 in indy ball, with a couple games in Taiwan and a handful in Mexico. Texas signed him for depth in 1999—when he was 29 years old—and kept him at Triple-A through the beginning of 2000.

To fill out a pitching staff that included, at that point, uninspiring names like A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny, Reid Cornelius and Jesus Sanchez, the Marlins traded for him on June 9 in exchange for outfielder Brant Brown.

By June 13, he was starting for Florida and through July 5, he had a 2.76 ERA in 5 starts. He finished the season by going 5-2 with a 2.71 ERA through his final 9 games. On the year, he was 6-6 with a 3.23 ERA in 19 starts; in 122 2/3 innings, he had 118 strikeouts and allowed just 6 home runs. The Marlins were 64-98 in 1999—in part because of Smith’s great pitching, they were able to improve to 79 victories in 2000. He tied Juan Pierre and Lance Berkman for sixth place in Rookie of the Year voting.

And he began 2001 equally well, tossing 8 innings of one run ball in his first start on May 6 and carrying a 3-0, 2.83 line through his first 35 innings. From that point forward, however, his mark was 5.94; on the year, he was 5-5 with a 4.70 ERA in 15 starts. That was his final big league season.

The Rockies purchased him in March 2002, then he bounced around Triple-A for a few years before playing in Korea in 2005 and Taiwan again in 2006 to wrap up his career.

Though technically still active, relief pitcher Robert Stock has yet to live up to the promise he exhibited with San Diego as a 28-year-old rookie in 2018.

It’s unlikely teams will invest in this Stock in 2022. (Wikipedia).

Like Rogers and Smith, his trek to the majors was long and winding. Drafted as a catcher by the Cardinals in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft, ahead of DJ LeMahieu and Patrick Corbin, Stock struggled at the dish in A-ball and converted to pitching. It didn’t save him—he was released by St. Louis in December 2014 and signed with Pittsburgh.

After a poor year between three teams in their system, he was let go and joined the indy ranks, where he had a 2.85 ERA and 11.0 K/9 IP ratio in 52 relief appearances for the New Jersey Jackals. The Reds signed him for 2017 but kept him in their organization for just a year.

San Diego gave Stock a shot, inking him to a contract for 2018. Now in his tenth professional season, he reached Triple-A for the first time, but he wasn’t in the minors long—the Padres promoted him and on June 24, he made his big league debut.

Though he initially had a rough go of it—he surrendered 4 earned runs in 2/3 of an inning in his 5th appearance—the hurler settled down and posted a 1.50 ERA in 27 games the rest of the way; in 36 innings, he allowed just 26 hits and had 32 strikeouts. On the year, he had a 2.50 ERA and 155 ERA+ in 32 appearances. Both marks were among the best on that 66-96 team.

But he fell apart soon after. In 10 relief appearances in 2019, he had a 10.13 ERA; in 2020, his mark was 4.73 with Boston. And this year, he has posted an 0-2 record and 8.00 ERA in 3 starts between the Cubs and Mets.

And as he is currently on the 60-day injured list with hamstring issues, that might be it for Stock. His chances of returning this season are slim and whether any team takes a flier on him in 2022 is up in the air—though unlikely.

In the three years since his excellent, though abbreviated, campaign with San Diego, he has pitched for four teams and gone 1-3 with a 7.36 ERA in 23 games (3 starts). In 33 innings, he’s allowed 27 walks, 40 hits and 5 home runs. Not very inspiring.

But, then again, what do you expect. Stock, and Rogers and Smith, beat the odds by reaching the major leagues at their advanced ages. Then they beat the odds by having unexpectedly excellent seasons.

They all wilted as quickly as they bloomed. You can beat the odds only so much.

Born to run: Sandy Piez, baseball’s first pinch runner.

Sandy Piez. (Wikipedia).

Sandy Piez did not have a long professional career, or a long stay in the major leagues, or a long life.

But for one year, he set about establishing a role in baseball that became the calling card of men like Terrance Gore, Matt Alexander and, most famously, Herb Washington. In 1914, he became major league baseball’s first full-time pinch runner.

Suiting up for the New York Giants that year, Piez appeared in 37 games, debuting on April 14 as a pinch runner for slow-footed catcher Chief Meyers.

And it was because of the likes of Meyers that Piez stuck with the team. Manager John McGraw determined he needed someone who could run for the club’s slow-as-snails backstops (they used four) and Piez was chosen for the job. He had swiped 73 bags in the Virginia League in 1913, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

And, for all intents and purposes, it was.

He appeared in 31 games, scored 8 runs and stole 4 bases before having his first official at-bat. That came on September 16, when he was a defensive replacement for outfielder George Burns.

Earning his first and only starting opportunities in a doubleheader on the last day of the year, October 6, Piez impressed by going 2-for-4 with a triple and 3 RBI his first game and 1-for-3—as the leadoff hitter, no less!—in the latter match. Both were losing efforts against Philadelphia.

Piez’s final career line: 37 games, 8 at-bats, 9 runs, 3 hits, 4 stolen bases, .375 batting average.

How quirky.

Of course, pinch running was not invented by Piez. But he was the first to do it almost exclusively and regularly and while few players to this day have held the positional title of pinch runner (most still have a job on the diamond), many have made pinch running into an artform.

Terrance Gore, for example, spent 102 games in the major leagues from 2014 to 2020, but had just 67 at-bats. Often, he was used as a defensive replacement; and frequently, he was called on to run.

And boy could he. He stole 40 bases in his brief career and was so adept at it, the Royals, for whom he played, kept him on their postseason roster and used him exclusively in that role in the 2014 and 2015 playoffs.

If any four players could be described as consummate pinch runners, they would be Herb Washington, Matt Alexander, Don Hopkins and Allan Lewis. They were all Athletics experiments.

Washington was a world class sprinter signed by A’s owner Charlie Finley specifically to steal bases in the mid-70s. With Oakland in 1974, he appeared in 92 games, stole 29 bags (and was caught 16 times) and scored 29 runs. At-bats: Zero.

Though largely a non-factor in that year’s postseason, he did appear in a few games and took home a World Series ring. The A’s brought him back for 1975, but “Hurricane Herb” stuck around for only 13 more games.

Alexander forged a nine-year career in the 1970s and early ‘80s. With the Athletics in 1975, he became one of two “designated runners” once Washington left, appearing in 63 games, stealing 17 bags and scoring 16 runs … while managing just 11 plate appearances.

It was a role he fulfilled skillfully throughout his whole career—in 374 games, he stole 103 bases and scored 111 runs; at the dish, he had 36 hits in 168 at-bats for a .214 mark. After leaving the majors, he played in Mexico for a few years. At 36 years old in 1983, he stole 73 bases.

Hopkins spent two years in the big leagues, 1975 and 1976, and both were with Oakland. In ’75, he appeared in 82 games, had 21 stolen bases and scored 25 runs; he had only 1 hit in 6 at-bats. He played briefly the next year and that was it.

Before those three, however, there was Allan Lewis. Playing for the Athletics from 1967 to 1970 and from 1972 to 1973, Lewis appeared in 156 games, had 44 stolen bases, 47 runs scored … and just 6 hits in 29 at-bats. And he wasn’t just a novelty—his services helped the Athletics to two World Series rings.

What’s more, Lewis was the only one of the four to clobber a home run … and it wasn’t inside the park. It was a solo shot off Angels pitcher Greg Garrett on September 27, 1970.

And though those four might have been some of the best at pinch running regularly, Piez was the first.

But just like that, he was gone. After 1914, he returned to the minors, playing for the International League’s Rochester Hustlers in 1915. Following that campaign, in which he stole 17 bags, his professional career was over.

As the passenger of a car driving through Absecon, New Jersey on December 29, 1930, his life ended abruptly when the vehicle hit an ice slick on a bridge and skidded into the water. Unable to save himself, he drowned at the age of 41.

He’s a future star! Just look at his first season! (Or, maybe not.)—pt. 3.

In part three of this series on 21st century what-might-have-beens and what-never-weres, let’s take a look at a couple sluggers who are still playing and hoping to regain their former glory, as well as a couple others who flamed out just a few years after reaching the majors.

Miguel Andujar slugged .128 in 2019. (Wikipedia).

Yankees left fielder Miguel Andujar is currently on the 60-day disabled list, riding a .253/.284/.383 line in 45 games this season, and coming off two years in which he batted a combined .193 with a 30 OPS+ in 33 games.

Not quite what the Yankees were expecting after his 2018 rookie season. After a brief cup of coffee in 2017 wherein he had four hits, including two doubles, in seven at-bats, the then-third baseman smashed 27 home runs with 92 RBI in 144 games for New York the next year. He knocked 47 doubles, good for second in the American League, and slugged .527, good for seventh.

Finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Shohei Ohtani, Andujar looked poised to be a dominant one-two punch with fellow young infielder Gleyber Torres—who finished third in the ROY vote—for years to come.

As the days pass, that’s looking more and more unlikely, as Torres has struggled since his first two incredible seasons, as well.

But at least he had more than one good campaign.

Andujar, who began his professional career at 17 and was in the majors at 23, hasn’t even managed that.

And that’s despite his high pedigree. Major League Baseball and Baseball America both named him a top prospect going into 2018, as he hit .316 with 16 home runs and 82 RBI in 125 games—about half played at Triple A—the year before.

Even the experts seem to get it wrong a lot, don’t they?

Andujar might still rebound, of course. He’s only 26. But his current career trajectory is not a positive one.

The same year Andujar was tearing it up in New York, Daniel Palka was doing the same, though more quietly, with the White Sox.

The 26-year-old rookie cranked 27 home runs and had 67 RBI in 124 games in 2018, leading the club in big flies and finishing fifth in Rookie of the Year voting.

Palka was a beast in the minor leagues, hitting 20-plus home runs three times, including 34 between two clubs in 2016. But he was more or less a pure-power hitter, offering little offensive skill outside of clobbering home runs. Sure, he had an aberration of a campaign in 2015, when he stole 24 bases in addition to his 29 dingers, but his minor league batting average and on-base percentage were just decent—nothing extraordinary.

That might explain why the White Sox were Palka’s third professional team. Drafted by Arizona in the 3rd round in 2013, he was traded to Minnesota in 2015 for catcher Chris Herrmann, then was selected off waivers by Chicago in 2017.

And by 2018, he was the White Sox top home run hitter. But his .240 average and .284 on-base percentage were not inspiring.

So after he began 2019 in an 0-for-32 skid—not getting his first hit until April 17—he was demoted to the minors, making only a couple return stops along the way. Chicago called him up in late June; he was 0-for-10, making him 1-for-45 on the year, and sent back down. A September promotion didn’t help much, as he began his third try by going 0-for-11.

That’s correct, Daniel Palka spent most of his 2019 season with 1 hit; by the time he managed his second, he was 1-for-56, a 0.018 batting average. From September 12 onward, he hit .267 in 30 at-bats, but still couldn’t bring his season mark to .100. He finished at .097.

On the bright side, he hit another 27 home runs in the minors.

And that is where he remains today. After a season in Korea in which he batted .209, Palka is toiling away in the Nationals system in 2021. With 16 home runs and a .283 average at Triple-A Rochester, he might earn a call up this year.

He sure wants to redeem himself.

Reimold’s .365 OBP led the 2009 Orioles. (Wikipedia).

There will be no redemption for Nolan Reimold, unfortunately. Another former top prospect, twice so-named by Baseball America, the former Orioles outfielder slugged his way through the low- and mid-minors. With Double-A Bowie in 2008, he had 25 home runs and 84 RBI; in his first taste of Triple-A the next year, he hit 9 home runs in 31 games for a .743 slugging percentage.

He was ready for Baltimore.

On May 14, he made his debut. On May 20, he slugged his first home run, an ultimately inconsequential shot off Yankees Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera. He finished the year with 15 dingers and 45 RBI in 104 games.

Though shades of his 2009 self cropped up later in his career, Reimold never stayed healthy enough or played enough to match his early potential. In 2011, he managed a 111 OPS+—just five points lower than his ’09 mark—but he played only 87 games and hit .247. In 2010, he hit .313 and slugged .627 … in just 67 at-bats.

From 2010 on, Reimond batted just .234 with 41 home runs and 129 RBI in 376 games. He last played for the independent Long Island Ducks in 2017.

Clint Robinson might be stretching the parameters of this piece, but since he did have an initial full season that was substantial better than the rest of his career, I threw him in here.

Robinson, was a minor league slugger who finished his career with 159 dingers on the farm, but his big league career was just 243 games over four seasons.

After a couple largely uneventful cups of coffee in 2012 and 2014, Robinson—already with his fifth major league organization and third big league team—latched on with the Nationals in 2015 … as a 30-year-old rookie.

And he did well for that 83-79, second place club. In 309 at-bats, he slashed .272/.358/.424 with 10 home runs and 34 RBI as the team’s top bench guy. But he was painfully slow-footed, stealing only 14 bases in his professional career and none at the major league level.

Such a player works with a perpetually short leash, and after another full season on Washington’s bench in which his batting mark fell to just .235 in 196 at-bats, he was sent packing.

But not away from the Nationals organization. They brought him back to play at Triple-A in 2017. And after 18 home runs and 74 RBI there, they sent him packing for good.

While major league success sometimes seems easy to achieve, it is exceedingly difficult to hold on to.

And for those who can’t keep it, well, they don’t end in Halls of Fame, they end up footnotes, profiled on some random guy’s blog.

Fly-by-nighters: Relievers who had one great season, part three—Jim Austin.

Jim Austin pitched three seasons, posting a 3.06 ERA in 83 games. (Wikipedia).

You’ve probably never heard of Jim Austin or, if you have, he’s a memory deep in the back of your mind, a name you vaguely recall but are not sure where from.

That’s reasonable. He spent just three seasons in the majors in the early 1990s, playing for the Brewers—a team bouncing between mediocrity, excellence, and being downright awful—from 1991 to 1993.

His first season, he pitched just five games, walking 11 batters in 8 2/3 innings. His last, he threw just 33 frames, posting a 3.82 ERA. A fair mark, but not one to turn any heads.

In the minors, back when he was a Padres farmhand, he was a decent pitcher, but gave San Diego no reason to expedite him to the majors. In his first professional season, 1986, he had a 2.26 ERA. The next year, he threw 20 wild pitches.

Traded to Milwaukee in February 1989, he flubbed his first year in their system, but tore up Double A in 1990, going 11-3 with a 2.44 ERA. At Triple A in 1991, his mark was 2.45 in 44 innings. On Independence Day he made his debut; a couple weeks later, he was back in the minors.

The 1992 Brewers featured a few excellent performances by relievers who otherwise underwhelmed in their careers. Mike Fetters had a 1.87 ERA in 50 games; he had a career mark of 3.86.  Darren Holmes had a 2.55 mark in 41 games; for his career, he had a 4.25 ERA.

Austin did his part, too. In 58 1/3 innings over 47 games, he went 5-2 with a 1.85 ERA, allowing just 38 hits. Behind Cal Eldred’s 1.79, his ERA was the best on the team. He rarely surrendered the longball, just 0.3 per nine innings.

It was the type of season that any team hoping to compete would ask for. Every cog who could perform to that level, no matter how unknown, would be fostered and utilized, because individual success breeds a successful whole.

Austin helped the Brewers win 92 games that year.

But his WHIP, that’s walks and hits allowed per inning pitched, was alarmingly high at 1.200. Though he allowed just 5.9 hits per nine innings, he also walked about that many. In fact, he had more walks than strikeouts, 32 to 30.

An issue though that might’ve been, the Brewers put him in their bullpen for 1993 and, after a rough patch early on, he finished the season with a 2.45 ERA over his final 29 games. The baseball encyclopedias, nevertheless, show his mark rose nearly two points over the year before.

But whatever momentum Austin had, it was forced to a halt by that killer of so many major league careers, an arm injury. He pitched his final game for the Brewers on July 20, 1993.

And didn’t play at all in 1994. He pitched three innings in the Indians system in 1995, allowing four earned runs. He made 10 appearances in the Red Sox system in 1996 and had a 9.00 ERA.

After spending 1997 in Mexico and Taiwan—where he did well, with a 3.04 mark in 77 innings—his professional career was over.

He’s an interesting bit of trivia, Jim Austin is. Who owns the shortest career of any pitcher with an ERA below 2 in his second season, minimum 40 games pitched?

Someone might guess 1870s star Jim Devlin, who won 72 games in three seasons before being banned for gambling. But he spent a few years as a first baseman before taking the mound.

Jim Austin, that’s the answer.

Maybe you’ll remember him now.

He hit better than three Hall of Famers—and lasted a year.

Harlin Pool batted .303 in his brief big league career. (Wikipedia).

Harlin Pool had a name that could’ve fit just about anything. He could have been the main protagonist of a gritty detective novel, a comic book character, a movie star.

But more than anything, he had the perfect baseball name. Harlin Pool—that just rolls off the tongue. It’s the name of a guy who might’ve been discovered playing ball on some dusty sandlot amongst fields of corn in Iowa somewhere.

In reality, he was born, died and is buried in California. The truth always gets in the way of a good story.

No matter. Pool was a real man and he did play baseball—even spending a couple years with the Reds in the mid-1930s.

Though the leftfielder started in Arizona, hitting .409 in the dry air of the desert his first campaign, the formulative years of his career were spent with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.

After a couple middling seasons in 1931 and 1932, he had a solid year in 1933, batting .328 with 219 hits, 48 doubles and 10 triples. It’s a stunning line by today’s standards, but he didn’t even top his own team in hits—Frenchy Uhalt did, with 221—and he finished nearly one hundred behind the league leader, Ox Eckhardt. In 189 games (the PCL played loooong seasons), Eckhardt had 315 knocks and a .414 batting average.

On May 22, 1934, the Reds shipped outfielder Art Ruble* to the Oaks in exchange for Pool, who had been batting .329 in 170 at-bats through 50 games. Though Pool could hit the ball well, he couldn’t hit far—he hadn’t hit a home run all season and had just five in 630 at-bats the year before.

*Ruble, for his part, was also a minor league star. He batted .350 and .385 his first two seasons, respectively, then had a .376 average in 1932. He hit just .207 in 145 big league at-bats.

Instantly, Pool found success in the big leagues. In his first ten at-bats, he had six hits including three for extra bases; he had hits in six of his first seven games and in 10 of his first 13.

On July 8, in his 79th game of the year, he hit his first home run—a grand slam!—off of 21-year-old Cardinals wunderkind Paul Dean, brother of Hall of Famer Dizzy. Just a few days later, on July 12, he slugged his second dinger of the season … and, as it turns out, the final one of his career.

As slow-footed as he was powerless, Pool didn’t steal his first base until July 18. He stole another on September 2 and a third on September 25, then no more in his time in the major leagues.

The home runs couldn’t have come at a better time. After his hot start, his production dipped, with his average falling into the low .200s during one particularly rough patch. It was a stretch that would last more than a month—from June 14 to game one of a July 25 doubleheader, he batted just .267.

But it was a stretch that would be quickly forgotten. Starting in the second game of that two-game set, he began an eight-game hitting streak in which he went 19-for-33—that’s a .576 batting mark—and had no fewer than two hits each game. His season average rose 50 points in just over a week. Though he hit .277 through the first 25 days of July, he finished with a .395 mark for the month as a whole.

The hot hitting continued. In August, he batted .326, rattling off one 12-game hitting streak in which he batted .354 and another six game streak in which his mark was .440.

He cooled off with the September temperatures, but still hit .306 for the month and worked another pair of hitting streaks. The first was for six games, but in it he didn’t even bat .300. To finish his season, he put together a nine-game run in which he batted .455.

From the first game of his resurgence in July to the end of the year, Pool had 78 hits in 222 at-bats for a .351 average. He walked only 10 times, but he whiffed just nine times, as well.

On the year, the 26-year-old rookie hit .327 with 117 hits in 99 games. Sure, he had issues in the field—his 10 errors in the outfielder were among the most in the league—but his hitting acumen could not be denied. He led the Reds in batting average and on-base percentage, outperforming Hall of Fame teammates Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey and Ernie Lombardi.

But his big league run would last just a couple months more. Within that short span, he would play in the first night game in history, against the Phillies, on May 24, 1935. It was the last notable moment of his career.

Despite his hot hitting the year before, Pool was relegated to bench duty to begin the next season, not playing a complete game until May 1. After an 0-for-4 showing on May 5, his batting average fell to .176; even a 3-for-6, three run game on May 8 couldn’t save him.

After hitting .222 in limited action in April, he batted just .172 in May with his season average slipping below .200 for good on May 29.

On June 2, against Pittsburgh, Pool appeared as a pinch hitter for Reds starter Paul Derringer in the bottom of the fifth. He grounded out weakly to pitcher Jim Weaver to end his career.

From his beginnings in some desert league in Arizona to that last weak dribbler to finish his career in an Ohio city an entire country away, Pool carried a stick that rarely missed the ball, swung by arms that barely propelled it or legs that hardly propelled him.

Whether it was because of a lack of power or speed or some other factor, Pool’s career at the highest level of baseball ended almost exactly one full year after it began.

But for that first go-round in 1934, that run of not even 100 games in which he rose so quickly, then tumbled, then rose even higher, Pool made a name for himself.

And boy, Harlin Pool … what a name it was.

***

After he left the major leagues, he returned to the farm and played in cities like Toronto, Dallas, Seattle, and really where it all started, Oakland. His average never dropped below .329 again. In 1939, he appeared in three games with the San Francisco Seals, collecting four hits in seven at-bats to conclude his career.

He’s a future star! Just look at his first season! (Or, maybe not.)—pt. 2.

In a continuation of a piece I wrote a few days ago, let’s look at some more 21st century ballplayers who burst onto the stage in their first full seasons, only to flame out not long after.

It’s a plight that often affects relief pitchers.

Brayan Villarreal was the Tigers best reliever in 2012. (Wikipedia).

Former Tigers reliever Brayan Villarreal began his professional career as a starting pitcher and, in the early going, had some success. At Single A in 2009, he had 118 strikeouts in 103 1/3 innings to complement a 2.87 ERA; the next year, he Ked 136 batters in 129 1/3 frames.

But the wheels fell off when he reached Triple A in 2011, as his ERA rocketed to 5.05 and his K/9 ratio fell to 5.5. When he earned a big league promotion—and, despite his poor showing, he did get the call that year—Detroit placed him in the bullpen and he struggled again, posting a 6.75 ERA in 16 games.

The script flipped in 2012, however, and Villarreal became the Tigers’ most lights-out reliever. In 50 appearances, he posted a 2.63 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings and he allowed just 38 hits; his ERA+ was 162, even better than that of Justin Verlander. No other relief pitcher on the club with at least 20 appearances had an ERA under 3.50. Only one, Joaquin Benoit, had more strikeouts.

But control issues hampered him. He averaged 4.6 walks per nine innings in 2012. And the scourge followed him into the next season—not even a midseason trade to the Red Sox, an enormous deal that involved the likes of Jake Peavy, Avisail Garcia, Jose Iglesias and Frankie Montas, could save him. Between the two clubs, he made just 8 appearances and lasted only 4 1/3 innings. He surrendered 10 earned runs on 9 walks and 8 hits, for an ERA of 20.77. And that was it for Villarreal.

*In an improbable twist, the only other Brayan in big league history, catcher Brayan Pena, played at the same time as Villarreal. Even more unlikely—they were teammates in 2013, and fate so aligned it that Brayan the catcher caught Brayan the pitcher just once, on April 17.

Despite a great rookie season, Zach Braddock lasted just two years in the majors. (Wikipedia).

Two seasons earlier, the Brewers’ Zach Braddock came out of nowhere to help anchor that struggling team’s bullpen. Like Villarreal, he was a strikeout ace in the minors and that skill followed him to the big league stage.

Debuting at 22 years old, he appeared in 46 games in 2010 and posted a 2.94 ERA, while striking out 41 batters in 33 2/3 innings. Overshadowed by star closer John Axford and fellow reliever Kameron Loe, Braddock’s performance was largely unsung.

But he, too, walked too many batters, averaging 5.1 free passes per nine innings. They haunted him into 2011, as he surrendered 11 in 17 1/3 innings, helping elevate his ERA to 7.25. Though he was signed by a couple big league clubs and bounced around indy ball for a few years, he never pitched in the majors again.

After an underwhelming, hitless cup of coffee in 2003, Athletics shortstop Bobby Crosby burst onto the scene the next season, slugging 22 home runs with 64 RBI, 34 doubles and 130 hits. Beating out names like Zack Greinke and Alex Rios, he won the American Rookie of the Year.

Poised for a repeat performance in 2004, Crosby slashed .276/.346/.456—all better numbers than the prior year—but played only 84 games.

Bobby Crosby spent eight years in the big leagues. (Wikipedia).

Though he spent five more seasons in the majors, Crosby never reclaimed his glory and hit just .229 with 31 home runs in 501 games the rest of the way. But, perhaps it’s not too surprising, after all. Even in his rookie campaign, he batted just .239.

To a degree, Crosby just followed in his father’s footsteps. The elder Crosby, Ed, was also a shortstop who arrived with a bang—well, relatively—and left with a whimper. In his first campaign, 1970, he hit .253 in 38 games as a 21-year-old for the Cardinals. Returning to the minors for 1971, he resurfaced with St. Louis in 1972 and spent five more seasons in the majors, hitting only .215. Ed Crosby was the consummate defense-first shortstop—in 677 career at-bats, he didn’t hit a single home run and stole only 1 base.

In Bobby’s defense, he—like his father—was primarily defense-minded. Though he committed his share of errors, as many as 19 in a season, his .971 fielding percentage at shortstop ranks among the best all-time.

But that doesn’t make fans forget his breakout 2004 campaign.

While most players fade away soon after their stars fall, others trudge along for years, trying to right themselves and regain respectability. Sometimes it works, but for many of them, they just become every day, painful reminders of what could have been.  

Fly-by-nighters: Relievers who had one great season, part two—Eddie Yuhas.

Eddie Yuhas began his professional career in the Yankees system in 1942, a 17-year-old youngster clearly overmatched that first campaign.

Pitching for the Fond du Lac Panthers of the Wisconsin State League, he made 19 appearances, going 5-12 with a 4.30 ERA in 134 innings. He didn’t give up many hits – just 104 – but walks were his downfall, as he surrendered 123, or about one per frame, on average.

His nation called upon him in 1943 to serve in World War II, and he remained in the Army until 1946. Returning to the ballfield as a Cardinals farmhand in 1947, he spent most of 1948 and all of 1949 to 1951 in Triple A, as a starter.

The Redbirds finally gave him his chance at the big league level in 1952, using the 27-year-old rookie as part of a dominant bullpen duo alongside Al Brazle. Brazle, for his part, won 12 games and led the league with 16 saves, but he was a 38-year-old veteran, so success was expected.

Yuhas, fresh from the farm, went 12-2 with a 2.72 ERA in 54 games; his six saves were seventh in the National League, and his 54 appearances ranked third. He even made two starts, allowing just two runs in 7 1/3 innings for the win against Pittsburgh in his first try. Take two was much worse: He lasted just 1/3 of an inning against the Boston Braves, surrendering six earned runs.

But from that point on, he was the pinnacle of dominance – over his next 75 innings, he was 10-0 with a 1.68 ERA, with opponents batting just .227 against him. So great was his performance, he received Most Valuable Player support, sparse as it was (he finished 31st in the voting).

With fellow rookie Stu Miller (6-3, 2.05 ERA) dominating in the rotation and Stan Musial the perpetual anchor of the offense, Yuhas was poised to be part of a team built for excellence. But it wasn’t to be. He developed tendonitis in his shoulder the next year, made just two more appearances (posting an ERA of 18.00) and was gone from professional baseball for good.

And the Cardinals – well, by 1954, they had a losing record and didn’t finish above .500 again until 1957.

Fun facts: Ted WilliamsJoe DiMaggio and Eddie Yuhas are the only three players to receive MVP votes in all but one of their big league seasons. He also holds the major league record for most consecutive wins to end a career, with 10.

Fly-by-nighters: Relievers who had one great season, part one—Lee Gardner.

Lee Gardner toiled long and hard in the minor leagues and earned his time in the spotlight – though it lasted only one season.

Never drafted, he was signed by the Devil Rays as a free agent in 1998 and began the slog through their system. He had an impressive debut his first professional campaign, striking out 57 batters to just five walks in 39 2/3 innings – but that’s what happens when you’re a year older than the average player in your league.

By 2000, he was in Triple A, and by 2002 he was in the major leagues. In 12 appearances, the 27-year-old went 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA. Certainly not a bad cup of coffee, but one not unlike hundreds and hundreds before him.

Back at Triple A in 2003 and 2004, the pitcher saw only middling success, averaging more than a hit allowed per inning, while losing 10 games and surrendering 17 home runs in just 133 1/3 frames.

He returned to the Devil Rays briefly in 2005 and had another ho-hum line of five appearances and a 4.91 ERA. His June 11 appearance was particularly notable. In a blowout against the Pirates that saw Pittsburgh win 18-2, Gardner tossed the last two frames and surrendered only one earned run. On its face a decent appearance, but looks can be deceiving.

In a disastrous bottom of the 8th inning, he allowed a single to catcher Humberto Cota, before batter Tike Redman reached on an error. That set into motion the follow series of events: Groundout, single, single, triple, single, walk, all in a row. Five runs scored, but none were earned, giving him the unsavory line of two innings pitched, seven hits, one walk and six runs allowed.

Suffice it to say, to that point, nothing suggested major league success was in the offing.

After moving to the Tigers system in 2006, he had a solid season at Triple A (30 saves, 2.92 ERA), but that wasn’t enough for Detroit to keep him around. And, for Gardner, at least, that was the best decision a big league club ever made.

Latching on with the Marlins for 2007, he spent only nine games on the farm – and 62 with the big club. Over the final three months of the season, he had a 0.79 ERA and batters managed a meager .216 mark against him; he posted a 1.94 mark for the year.

While the pitching staff crumbled around him – former star hurler Dontrelle Willis was 10-15 with a 5.17 ERA, Scott Olsen lost 15 games with a 5.81 mark, five pitchers had ERAs over 10 – Gardner was steady and reliable from beginning to end. And the end, overall, was unfortunately very near. After just 10 appearances and a 10.80 ERA with Florida in 2008, his professional career was over. He retired after the 2008 campaign.

Fun facts: Gardner was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 2017, alongside longtime Indianapolis Indians general manager Max Schumacher. He had 107 saves over part or all of six seasons in the league. He is also the only major leaguer born in Hartland, Michigan.

He’s a future star! Just look at his first season! (Or, maybe not.)

The one-year wonder is not a rarity. He’s not unique or unusual and, in fact,  some of the most recognizable names in baseball’s history had just one great year.

Joe Charboneau. Kevin Maas. Dontrelle Willis.

Sometimes players who struggled their whole careers suddenly figured it out, putting it all together, for a season at least, until the magic was lost. It took Darin Erstad until his fifth season, 2000, to have his career year, when he hit .355 with 240 hits, 25 home runs and 100 RBI. Then he disappeared.

But what happens when a man’s best year is his first, or at least his first with any substantial playing time? Expectations are set … and dashed. It happened to Charboneau and Maas. Phil Plantier batted .331 in 148 at-bats in 1991, just to hit .243 for his career.

Let’s take a look at a handful of modern guys who came up and impressed the world, just to let us down in succeeding seasons.

Brett Oberholtzer had a 2.76 ERA his rookie year.

This post was inspired by Brett Oberholtzer, who debuted with the Houston Astros in 2013. He was one of the few bright spots on that 111-loss team, going 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA in 13 games (10 starts), completing 2 games and allowing just 13 walks in 71 2/3 innings. His 147 ERA+ was among the best on the team, surpassed by two other pitchers who never lived up to their first year billings, Jarred Cosart and Kevin Chapman.

Though players like J.B. Shuck and David Lough did, Oberholtzer received no votes for the American League Rookie of the Year. But it was a season that should have precluded some fine years ahead.

Should have. It didn’t.

Though he was a mainstay in the Astros rotation in 2014, Oberholtzer went just 5-13 with a 4.39 ERA in 24 appearances. After starting just 8 games the next campaign, he was sent to the Phillies in a substantial offseason trade that returned star closer Ken Giles and young infielder Jonathan Arauz.

By mid-August 2016, the Phillies had shooed him away to the Angels, with whom he finished his career … to the tune of an 8.55 ERA in 11 relief appearances.

Cosart loosely fits the parameters of this piece. He was a 38th round pick who worked his way into multiple top prospect lists, so success was expected of him. And he delivered, briefly.

In 10 starts for Houston in 2013, he went 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA, posting a 208 ERA+ in 60 innings. Though he didn’t live up to his first season’s output, he performed pretty well in 2014, going 13-11 with a 3.69 ERA in 30 starts. It was all downhill after that, however, as he spent just two more seasons in the majors, going 2-9 with a 5.19 ERA and 72 walks in 126 2/3 innings between them. Control issues hampered him throughout his career, as even in his initial campaign, he walked 35 batters to just 33 strikeouts.

And let’s give some press to Chapman, as well. Flash in the pan relievers are pretty common, and quite a few of them have their run of success early in their careers. Chapman was no different.

He made 25 appearances for the ‘stros in 2013, posting a 1.77 ERA and 232 ERA+ in 20 1/3 innings. But like Cosart, if you looked closely enough, the writing was on the wall. Chapman allowed 13 walks, or 5.8 per nine innings, and such wildness does not a successful career make.

The following season, he had a 4.64 mark in 21 games; he made just 3 appearances in 2015, and in 2016, his ERA was 9.00 in 9 games (he allowed 15 hits in 8 innings). And that’s all she wrote for Chapman.

Despite forging a relatively long big league career, pitcher Jerome Williams disappointed after his rookie season. With the Giants in 2003, Williams was 7-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 21 starts. In 131 innings, he allowed just 116 hits and 10 home runs, while completing 2 games and shutting out 1.

Jerome Williams disappointed after a promising rookie season.

Over the next 10 seasons, he won 10 games only once; his ERA dropped below 4.20 just once, as well. If you eliminate his first campaign, Williams was just 45-61 with a 4.78 ERA for his career; remove his first two seasons, and he was a meager 35-54, 4.87.

After collapsing early in his career, Williams disappeared from the majors from 2008 to 2010. Returning with the Nationals in 2011, he played seven more seasons, never regaining his footing. He retired after the 2016 campaign.

As an aside, it’s not a rare name by any means, but there have only been two Jeromes in major league history. The other was Jerome Walton, himself a Rookie of the Year with the Cubs in 1989. Within a few years, Walton was a bench player, hitting just .127 with 55 at-bats in 1992. He eventually rebounded to a degree, batting .303 over the final five seasons of his career, but he averaged just 45 games and 76 at-bats per year during that run.

Lew Ford is one guy who never managed to rebound. He was a 12th round pick by the Twins in 1999 and by 2002, he was hitting .318 with 20 home runs and 28 stolen bases in the minor leagues. That prompted Minnesota to give him a look in 2003, and he did not disappoint. In 73 at-bats, he slashed .329/.402/.575, knocking three home runs – including one off future Hall of Famer C. C. Sabathia.

By 2004, he was a regular in the Twins’ outfield. And with his hot hitting – he batted .299 with, 15 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a .381 on-base percentage – boosting the club, Minnesota finished first in the American League Central, losing to the Yankees in the Division Series.

He returned as a starter in 2005, but his OPS+ fell from 114 to 89; his OPS from .827 to .716. From 2006 on, he batted just .221 in 184 games over three seasons.

Unwilling to let his career go out with a whimper after 2007, he bounced around between Japan, Venezuela, Mexico, the independent leagues and Triple A from 2008 to 2011. He delayed that whimper to 2012, when he reappeared in the majors with the Orioles, hitting .183 in 25 games.

Lew Ford flamed out after a solid first full season.

But there’s more to this story! Ford, at 44 years old, is still playing professionally. Since 2013, he has been a member of the independent Long Island Ducks, missing only 2020. At 41 in 2018, he hit .293 in 468 at-bats and in 2019, his mark was .303 in 77 games. As of this writing, his 2021 batting average is .278.

Heck, there might be time for Ford to redeem himself, yet.

…but that doesn’t seem likely. Too often “future stars” become “past disappointments” and Ford, Oberholtzer and the rest rank among them. But perhaps it’s for the best – maybe it is better to rip that bandage off early, rather than forcing fans to wait … and wait … and wait … for a phenom to produce, though he never does.

Something is better than nothing, even if that something is brief – and it never happens again.