As part of SB Nation United, you're going to be seeing some new voices at Bluebird Banter, SBN featured site contributors writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. We're beginning this week with Michael Bates, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage.
By Michael Bates
You don't need me to tell you that Ricky Romero's 2012 has been the stuff of nightmares: Thirteen losses and a two no-decisions in his now-infamous mid-season stretch of 15 starts (June 27 to September 19), underscoring a 5.77 ERA, and 105 walks allowed in 181 innings overall. A young pitcher who looked like he was on the verge of becoming one of the best pitchers in the American League turned in a horrific performance. Romero finishing his season early thanks to a knee injury only adds insult to one of the most baffling seasons in recent memory. It probably should have been called off even earlier, but with the meat grinder the Jays endured with their starting staff this year, it's entirely understandable that they left Romero out there to take his lumps, hoping he'd find a glimmer of his former self.
Alas, he never did, and so we're coming to a close on what has been one of the worst seasons in the Blue Jays' 36 seasons. But is it the worst? If it's not, it comes pretty damn close. Here are the worst 10 seasons in Blue Jays history:
10) Erik Hanson, 1996: 13-17, 5.41 ERA (93 ERA+), 102 BB, 156 K, 214.2 IP, 1.607 WHIP.
Hanson signed a three-year deal with the Jays in December of 1995, coming off an All Star campaign with the Red Sox, but things quickly disintegrated after a solid debut. Hanson gave up at least four runs in each of his next seven starts and never really found his groove. His walk rate jumped by 36 percent while his home run-rate rose and his strikeout percentage dropped. It was later discovered he had been pitching with a torn labrum all season. Hanson tried to come back in 1997 and 1998, and pitched a grand total of 64 innings across the two seasons, but wound up hurting his elbow and retired.
9) Dave Stewart, 1994: 7-8, 5.87 ERA (82 ERA+), 62 BB, 111 K, 133.1 IP, 26 HR.
Stewart was a legend when he signed as a free agent with the Jays in 1993, and was useful for a year. But the strike-shortened 1994 started rough for the former ace, as he was arrested in February for allegedly punching a police officer at a nightclub. Then Stewart's forkball stopped sinking and he was pounded by AL hitters as offense exploded league-wide. He got in a few starts with Oakland in 1996, was even worse, and retired.
8) Pat Hentgen, 1998: 12-11, 5.17 (89 ERA+), 69 BB, 94 K, 177.2 IP.
It's clear Pat Hentgen was overworked in both 1996 and 1997, when he led the majors each season in innings, complete games, and batters faced, averaging around 114 pitches per start (we only have pitch count data for 63 of his 70 starts in that span). In 1998, all of Hentgen's major indicators went in the wrong direction. Homers and walks were way up, strikeouts continued to plummet. You won't be surprised to learn that Hentgen complained of a "twinge" in his elbow during spring training, but Tim Johnson never rested him and declared his former ace healthy by late April. Hentgen would average 112 pitches per start from May through August. Later that season, Hentgen complained of pain in his shoulder, but pitched through that too, never missing a start until September, when he was shut down with tendinitis. He would remain no better than league average and was injury-prone for the rest of his career. We could make a case for his return engagement in Toronto, when a spent Hentgen posted a 6.95 ERA in 80 innings, but that didn't seem like enough playing time.
7) Chris Carpenter, 2000: 10-12, 6.26 (81 ERA+), 83 BB, 113 K, 175.1 IP, 30 HR.
Carpenter had a tender elbow in 1999 that kept him out of most of June and September, and may have still be suffering from the problems when 2000 began. Or perhaps he was suffering the precursor to the torn labrum that would shelve him for half of 2002 and all of 2003. Regardless, his walk rate jumped, and he couldn't keep the ball in the ballpark. In July, with his ERA at a devilish 6.66, he complained "I'm battling with [opposing hitters] and trying to figure out what's going on but it's not working. I'm going to figure something out just to get something different going." The Jays tried him in the bullpen, then put him back in the rotation. He improved (a 5.40 ERA in 55 more innings), but not enough to be terribly encouraging. He was also cracked in the face by a line drive in September. He did, however, bounce back in 2001 to throw more than 200 innings that were well above league average.
6) Phil Huffman, 1979: 6-18, 5.77 ERA (75 ERA+), 68 BB, 56 K, 173 IP, 1.665 WHIP.
In 1977, Huffman was the 36th-overall pick in the amateur draft. At 20, he established himself as a prospect by jumping to Double-A and dominating until he was traded to Toronto as part of a deal for Rico Carty. He came to Spring Training lauded for being a brash young kid with his act together (and who didn't smoke pot, unlike other young players). "If I go to Syracuse, I'll be back. There's no darn way I won't be here...'cause I want to be here. And I will be here!" he vowed. And he was there all season long, mostly because the Jays didn't have anybody else (they'd finish 14th in a 14-team league in runs allowed). Huffman walked more batters than he struck out, allowed 50-percent more homers than the average major league pitcher, and led the league in losses. The next year, he returned to Triple-A Syracuse ("And I will be here!" one imagines him saying) and stayed there through 1981, when he was dealt to the Royals for be-spectacled and be-mustachioed infielder-of-leisure Rance Mulliniks, who would proceed to class up Toronto for many years hence. Huffman didn't make it back to the majors until 1985, when he pitched 4.2 absolutely abominable innings for the Orioles.
5) Juan Guzman, 1995: 4-14, 6.32 (75 ERA+), 73 BB, 94 K, 135.1 IP.
It doesn't seem like Juan Guzman was abused, but he definitely was a high-labor guy who walked and struck out a lot of batters. After three strong seasons, Guzman had a two-year stretch around the player strike that he was absolutely horrible. Reports had him battling shoulder problems in 1994 and elbow issues in 1995, but he missed only two starts in both of those years. Guzman bounced back in 1996 to lead the American league in ERA and strikeout-walk ratio thanks to uncharacteristically impeccable contro. He would stay effective for another three seasons before more shoulder problems ended his major league career at just 31.
4) Joey Hamilton, 1999: 7-8, 6.52 (75 ERA+) 39 BB, 56 K, 98 IP.
One of the worst acquisitions in Blue Jays history, Hamilton was acquired from the cost-cutting Padres for Woody Williams and two prospects. Williams would go on to have two decent seasons in San Diego, while Hamilton gave up 15 runs in his first two AL starts, was shut down for more than a month, and didn't reenter the rotation until June. He also missed all of September with a sore shoulder. In all, he was more than a win below replacement level in two of his three seasons in Toronto (and in the other one he pitched only 33 innings), for which he was paid $17 million. His 2001 was just as bad, but I figured it'd be cruel to include him twice.
3) Jack Morris, 1993: 7-12, 6.19 (70 ERA+), 65 BB, 103 K, 152.2 IP.
I can't imagine that Blue Jays fans think much about Black Jack's Hall of Fame candidacy, after a thoroughly pedestrian 20 win campaign, his embarrassing postseason, and then this stink bomb. Through June 11, he had a 9.91 ERA and had allowed fewer than 4 runs in a start once when he finally broke through with a shutout against the Twins. He managed a much more reasonable 4.23 ERA over his last 16 starts, but finished with what was by far the worst season of his nearly-finished career. The Indians let him embarrass himself further for 23 starts in 1994, but he was done.
2) Ricky Romero, 2012: 9-14, 5.77 ERA (74 ERA+), 105 BB, 124 K, 181 IP.
Romero's 2012 is far from the worst season by the numbers that a Blue Jays starter has endured, the most frustrating thing about it is how unexpected it is. Romero came into 2012 as one of the best young lefties in the AL, but is leaving it as damaged goods. There's seemingly no single explanation for what the problem is and why he's falling apart all at once. Eno Sarris of Frangraphs explained the effects, but not the cause of Romero's struggles in June, while RJ Anderson of Baseball Prospectus talked about a lack of swagger and a potentially missing release point, but nobody's really sure what went wrong.
Gosh, do I want to make this the worst Blue Jays season of all time, but I can't do that in good conscience, thanks to:
1) Dave Lemanczyk, 1978: 4-14, 6.26 (62 ERA+), 65 BB, 62 K, 136.2 IP.
Lemanczyk was an original Blue Jay, plucked from the Tigers in the expansion draft. After a superficially impressive season as Toronto's de facto ace (said "ace" actually led the AL in earned runs allowed and threw 252 innings), the righty cratered. After posting an 8.52 ERA in his first 11 starts, he lost his spot in the rotation and was somehow even worse out of the bullpen. The Jays put him back in the rotation, where he managed to not embarrass himself for another nine starts, but an unspecified injury (possibly his back) forced him onto the disabled list. He never got his spot back. Lemanczyk would bounce back to pitch well in 1979, and even made the All Star team, but experienced numbness in his left leg due to a nerve inflammation in his back in August and was shut down for a month. He made one September start, was knocked around, and was shut down again. He played one more major league season and retired from baseball at 29.
So, what does this teach us? While acknowledging there's nothing systematic about this look at bad pitching porn, it's interesting to note that five of the nine other players on the list never pitched effectively again and six were masking or pitching through some kind of injury that ultimately did them in (while Stewart and Morris were simply old). I imagine we'll find out sometime this offseason about what was really bothering Romero for the last six months, whether that was the knee he couldn't pitch through on Saturday, or some other problem he hasn't yet revealed or discovered.