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.
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.
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.
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.