Seeing Masahiro Tanaka struck with a ball lined off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton yesterday was a little disconcerting for anyone who saw it.
Many of us have seen careers ended by players being struck by baseballs: Dickie Thon and Tony Conigliaro come to mind as players whose careers – likely Hall of Fame careers – were derailed after being hit by pitches.
And because we can now measure exit velocity, we know that baseballs leave the home plate area significantly faster than they come in and that the risk may be even worse for pitchers.
See; Florie, Bryce. Like Thon and Conigliaro, Florie returned to baseball after a horrific injury, his the result of a line drive off the bat of Mario Diaz. But also like Thon and Conigliaro, he wasn’t the same player upon returning.
All of this reminded me of Herb Score, possibly the biggest “what if?” in sports history. If you aren’t familiar with Score, you should be. He wasn’t a promising pitcher – he was a dominating pitcher whose career was derailed by a line drive up the middle that struck him in the eye.
I was fortunate enough to have a father who told me about Score when I was young. My father was a huge Yankees fan and had seen Score pitch against the Yankees many times and often told me how great he was. Then when I became a Strat-O-Matic baseball addict, I had the 1956 season and played countless games with the teams from that season against the teams from the 80’s.
And I’m here to tell you, that on a Cleveland staff that featured Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and a late-career Bob Feller – Score was the best on the staff. And over the stretch of 1955-56, it wouldn’t be hard to argue he was the best pitcher in the American League (a league that in addition to his aforementioned teammates, featured Whitey Ford, Billy Pierce, Frank Lary, and Bob Turley).
In 1955 as a 22-year-old rookie, Score led the league with 25.1 K% and had a 9.3% K%-BB%, which was second-best in the AL. For some perspective, the league average K% in 1955 was 11.3% and the league average K-BB% was 1.3%. So when we do some quick math, his K% was 2.2 times better than league average and his K-BB% was 7.2 times better than league average.
In 2019, Max Scherzer led the NL in both K% and K-BB% (we’ll stick with the NL because the 1955 AL did not have a DH yet). Scherzer’s K% was only 1.5 times better than the league average and his K-BB% was only 2.1 times better than league average.
Simply put, when adjusted for era, Score was significantly better than Max Scherzer at striking batters out and preventing free passes – and Scherzer was the best in his league last season.
Score also finished 4th in the league in FIP and 5th in ERA+, made the All-Star team, and won the Rookie of the Year Award in ’55.
Then, in 1956, he actually got better.
At age 23, he again led the league in K% and K-BB% and this time led the AL in both FIP and ERA+. He was clearly the best pitcher in the American League in 1956.
And if you want to compare him to 2019’s best pitcher again, his 1956 K% was 2.1 times better than league average and his K-BB% was 7.7 times better. Again, when adjusted for league averages, significantly better than Mad Max’ 2019 league-leading numbers.
Score started off 1957 with the almost identical production as his ’55 and ’56 seasons, but on May 5th of ’57, was struck in the eye by a Gil McDougald line drive. He missed the rest of the ’57 season, returning in 1958.
Here are Score’s numbers up to 5/5/57 and then after:
(If you’re new to ERA+, higher is better and 100 is league average – so 155 is 55% better than league average and 86 is 14% worse than the league average. FIP is set to a similar scale as traditional ERA – lower is better.)
|IP||ERA+||FIP||K per 9||K/BB|
To be fair, Score said on numerous occasions that the eye injury certainly didn’t help, but it was not the reason for his decline – he had been already suffering from elbow pain before being struck by McDougald’s line drive.
I think it’s safe to say that Score was being modest and didn’t like making excuses. That precipitous of a drop-off – after resting the arm for almost a year – was unlikely the result of elbow pain. That would be a rather odd and large coincidence if it were.
Score is a reminder to me of how mentally tough MLB players are to get in there. Just standing in the box with a ball coming at you in the vicinity of triple digits, or being on the mound with it coming back even faster takes some serious courage.
It’s also a reminder of how fragile careers can be. Score, Thon, Conigliaro – hell, even Stanton himself was severely injured by a pitch to the jaw – and all MLB players are all just one pitch away from it all ending.
Hoping Tanaka comes back healthy and 100%. I say this out of concern for his health obviously, but also as a selfish baseball fan who loves watching him pitch. Hopefully, we’ll see him again soon.
Did I miss something? Let me know.
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