a story that hit earlier this week made me think of a cardinal.
jay cutler, quarterback for the chicago bears, left the NFC championship game in the third quarter after injuring his leg. cutler was promptly derided by almost everyone who'd ever been near a football field, for lacking "toughness."
i suppose people can debate whether cutler has "toughness" - relative to me he certainly does. in amongst his online critics are surely any number of obese 40-somethings who drive the five blocks to the grocery store, so they don't have to walk.
the question i would pose is whether "toughness" is always a good thing. i would suggest "toughness" always has to be balanced against some basic respect for your body's limits. that line is probably very hard for professional athletes to draw, but it's an important one.
meet jay hanna "dizzy" dean. one of the all-time great cardinals. frequently forgotten because of the era in which he played, dean put together an amazing, if brief career in the 1930's. to give you an idea of how brief, sandy koufax pitched 400 innings more than dean.
dizzy had a stunning fastball. he also had a larger-than-life persona, bragging about what absurd feats he would accomplish as a pitcher, and then accomplishing them. he had a raw, will rogers-like, everyman style, prone to exaggeratedly countrified turns of phrase.
dizzy debuted in a single game for the cardinals in 1930, but joined the team full time in 1932 as a pitcher. in the middle of an era of very few strikeouts and absurdly high batting averages, dean was a master. he led the majors in strikeout rate in both 1932 and 1933: it says something about the era that the winning strikeout rates were 6.0 k/9 and 6.1, respectively.
dean put together 5.1, 4.6, 8.1, 7.1, 6.3, and 4.5 WAR in his first six full seasons, 1932 to 1937. 35.6 WAR in just six seasons.
in his pinnacle year, 1934, he had an ERA of 2.66, which sounds good, but not so impressive out of context. his ERA+, however, was 159. he pitched in 50 games, started 33 of them, and finished with a 30-7 record. no one has won 30 games since.
he went on to the world series that year and pitched 26 innings in 7 games, starting game 1, game 5, and game 7. he earned an ERA of 1.73 for the series. during that same series, in game 4, he stepped in front of a double play throw to first, taking it off his head. he was knocked unconscious (his subsequent check-up led to the maybe-not-completely-true story of a newspaper headline "X-ray of dean's head reveals nothing"), yet he started game 5.
in the 1937 all-star game, dean's toe was broken by a comeback liner off his foot. dean tried to return two weeks later. in order to accommodate his still broken foot, he switched up his mechanics, and began throwing a different array of pitches.
pitching hurt, with altered mechanics, led quickly to serious bursitis in his throwing arm, as his arm strained to compensate for the lost power in his stride. at age 27, dean's famous fastball was gone. note that the 4.5 WAR he put up in 1937 came in a season in which he pitched less than 200 innings and spent half the season with a broken toe. the cardinals traded him to the cubs in the offseason, seeking to shed a then-expensive contract for a pitcher in serious decline.
dean had a few declining seasons with the cubs never again able to pitch 100 innings in a season, let alone keep the 300-inning workload he'd handled in his prime. he did manage a 1.81 ERA in 1938, pitching only 75 innings. he was out of baseball before the japanese bombed pearl harbor and before his 32nd birthday. he returned only for a single game in 1947, after he audibly complained (probably correctly) on a radio broadcast that he could pitch better than anyone in the browns' rotation. he pitched four innings and gave up three hits and a walk, but no runs.
the theme here, other than just reminding people of what an amazing pitcher dean (briefly) was, is that "toughness" is over-rated. not that it has no place: there's a lot of guys that wouldn't get out of bed, much less onto a baseball daimond, if they didn't have the ability to overcome pain. still, that toughness has to be balanced against something, and unrelenting toughness is not something anyone should strive for.
who here wishes that dean had taken the second half of 1937 off, and come back healthy in 1938? maybe pitched at least a few more full seasons of his amazing career? maybe five or six more seasons?
i can admire the mindset that drives someone to pitch on a broken toe, but i don't particularly like it. and i'm not going to criticize a player who walks (or hobbles) off the field and says he's injured. it's frustrating to watch a player like brad penny or carl pavano make a ton of money to sit on the DL. but, in the absence of evidence of malingering, we have to let athletes be human and give them the benefit of the doubt.
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near-miss: a million years ago, when we were trying to sign matt holliday to a long-term deal, one of the serious options proposed - not at this website, mind you - was that the cardinals could always sign jason bay. matt holliday signed with us for 7 years and $120M. bay signed with the mets for 4 years at a minimum of $66m. while it is way too soon to start popping corks over the holliday contract, i can say i'm glad that we didn't sign bay to that contract.
the bottom fell out of bay's bat this season and he was worth 1.4 WAR. it would be nice to blame Bernie Madoff Field, but his home/away SLG splits? .459/.354.
ouch. he's slugging like skip schumaker on the road.
now, he could well just be slumping rather than crashing. it's still way too early to write the epitaph on his career. but he's long been a very inconsistent player. his WAR totals for the last four seasons now look like 1.4, 5.0, 2.9, -0.7. . he's a terrible defender. the only reason he had any value in 2010 is that he still can take a walk. he's basically a one-tool player.
after being worth less than $6m in 2010, is anybody going to take the over on bay earning $20M of value each of the next three seasons? anybody?
i can't say i'm looking forward to finding out what holliday looks like in 2016, but i'm glad i'm not writing bay's checks right now. i am not sure why anyone thought he could be holliday-lite.