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mulder and wiser

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etymology online is a particularly useful companion in advance of today's ballgame. viz.:

  • washed up dates to 1923: "theater slang, from notion of washing up one's hands at the end of a job"
  • has-been has been around since 1606: "one who has outlived his fame"
  • bust became shorthand for "sudden failure" in 1842
  • fizzle originated all the way back in the mid-1500s -- "to break wind without noise," probably altered from Middle English fisten, "break wind" (see feisty). Sense of "failure, fiasco" is from 1846, originally U.S. college slang for "failure in an exam."
  • fiasco has a particularly engaging backstory:
    1855, theater slang for "a failure," by 1862 acquired the general sense of any dismal flop, on or off the stage. Via French phrase fiare fiasco, "turn out a failure," from Italian far fiasco, "suffer a complete breakdown in performance" -- lit. "make a bottle," from fiasco "bottle," from L.L. flasco, flasconem (see flask). The reason for all this is utterly obscure today, but "the usual range of fanciful theories has been advanced" [Ayto]. . . . . O.E.D. makes nebulous reference to "alleged incidents in Italian theatrical history." Klein suggests Venetian glass-crafters tossing aside imperfect pieces to be made later into common flasks. But according to an Italian dictionary, fare il fiasco used to mean "to play a game so that the one that loses will pay the fiasco" -- in other words, he will buy the next bottle (of wine). That plausibly connects the word with the notion of "a costly mistake."

in other words, jock not only got taken by billy beane in the mulder trade, but now he owes the sob a case of chianti to boot . . . .

ok, enough. i'll try to be positive -- even after wallowing in not one but two statistical breakdowns of mulder's washed-uptitude, both courtesy the cardinal diaspora.

while history is not destiny, it is at least a paved and well-lit road. i've been driving it this eve'ng, looking for a precedent -- a pitcher who a) displays mulder-like dominance early in his career; b) suffers a lapse such as mulder is now in the throes of; and c) eventually reverts to his former dominance. to define the terms a bit further, "mulder-like dominance" means having as many of the following as possible:

  • sev'l consecutive era's that beat the league average by a full run or more (mulder had three in a row, 2001-03)
  • one or more high finishes in the cy young voting (mulder came in 2d, 2001)
  • high placement on leaderboards for wins, complete games, shutouts
  • all-star and playoff appearances

since we're told mulder's health is sound, i exclude any case in which an injury caused the loss of effectiveness. we want only those cases in which a pitcher simply stops getting people out. how often (if ever) does such a pitcher resume his former dominance?

the obvious place to start is at baseball-reference.com's list of mulder's 10 most similar pitchers. sure enough, a few striking analogs inhabit that list, beginning with a former rotation-mate:

barry zito, 5th most similar: excellent case for comparison. like mulder, zito posted three consecutive ERAs that were more than a run better than the league average -- and, conveniently enough, did it the same years as mulder (2001-2003). then both pitchers were supplanted by alien pods and posted league-average (roughly) era's in 2004. so far this year, zito-pod has turned in a 3-8 record and 4.41 era, 0.13 worse than league average. mulder's 4.75 checks in at nearly half a run (0.46) worse than league average . . . .

kind of incredible that two guys from one pitching staff would have such identical career arcs, no? baseball's answer to synchronized ovulation . . . . since zito's in the exact same boat as mulder -- hoping for a comeback --we can learn nothing from him. so let's move on to

freddie garcia, 6th most similar: garcia displayed mulder-like dominance in 1999 and 2001 -- led the league in era one year, finished 3d in the cy young voting, was the ace pitcher on the winningest team in mlb history. then he and his team went pffffft. for two years (02, 03) garcia was barely a .500 pitcher and posted era's just worse than league avg. last year he started pitching well again -- beat league-avg era by 0.80 -- and he's sustaining that level of performance this year. he's now a #3 starter, not a staff ace, but he is very effective -- so there's a hopeful precedent, a well-lighted road for mulder to follow. let's just hope he covers the mileage faster than garcia, who took two full seasons to right himself. (caveat: i have a vague recollection that garcia had a shoulder ailment not unlike morris' last year and had an procedure done one offseason to fix it . . . . anybody?)

no other pitcher on mulder's list of comparables followed this type of hot-cold career path. britt burns came close, but he had injury problems and is thereby excluded; ditto ray halladay, who took a one-year hiatus from acedom last year with arm trouble. mark buehrle also hit a one-season bump in the road (2003), but his era's have all been within a variance of 1.00 of each other -- not the kind of dramatic change we seen in mulder, whose era has skyrocketed a run and half between 2003 and 2005.

with the list of comparables exhausted, i started looking at comparables of the comparables and then simply scanning era leaderboards. looked at a lot of career lines -- steve avery, derek lowe, chan ho park, kevin appier, juan guzman, el duque, aaron sele, andy pettite, tom glavine, ken hill, andy benes, livan hernandez, pete harnisch, wilson alvarez. then went back a generation to guys like dennis martinez, mark langston, scottie mcgregror, john denny . . . . . none really fit mulder's profile. i found only three other pitchers while trolling around who seem like meaningful case studies. one is

mike boddicker, a dominant force for the orioles in 1983 and 1984. he went 16-8 the first of those years, finished 2d in the league in era (1.18 better than league avg), and led the league in shutouts -- then threw complete-game shos in his only two postseason starts. sounds like an ace to me. the following year he led the al in era and wins and finished 4th in the cy young race (check out the voting -- he wuz robbed). and then . . . . he simply stopped getting guys out. era spiked more than a run in 1985 to league-average level, spiked another half-run in 1986 to well below average. he remained a workhorse pitcher, good for 200+ innings come hell or high water, but he only had one truly good year left; he was finished by age 35.

chuck finley, who filled in admirably for stl in 2002 after darryl kile's stunning death, was for two years (1989-90) among the elite pitchers of the american league. both years he finished 2d in the league in era, 4th in wins, 3d in complete games; both years he blew the doors off the league avg in era (by 1.25 one year, 1.44 the next). in 1991 his era ballooned 1.40, to right around the league avg; it stayed there in 1992. in '93 he got the era back down nearly a run, to 3.15, 6th-best in the al; led the league in complete games, 5th in strikeouts and shutouts. in other words, the old chuck finley resurfaced -- but just for one year. he remained a very good pitcher thereafter, finished his career with 200 wins. . . . finally there's

dave steib, whose story offers the most hope. from 1982 thru 1985 he finished top-5 in the league in era, made four all-star teams and had three top-10 cy young finishes; was a perennial on leaderboards for complete games and shutouts. then something went wrong in 1986 -- steib's era rose by two and a half runs, his hits per innings soared, his strikeout total withered; he was slightly better in 1987 but still just a shell of his former self. and then, as if he'd never missed a beat, steib returned to dominance in 1988; though no longer a 9-inning pitcher, he was again a slam-the-door ace. (caveat: again, i cannot establish whether or not an injury was involved here. anybody know anything about steib?)

every case is different; mulder's will play out in its own way. but if he starts pitching anywhere near his 2001-2003 form before this season is out, his will be a rare case indeed. it's more likely that, given time to make adjustments, mulder will eventually re-establish himself as a good, if not great, pitcher -- not in 2005; maybe in 2006. or maybe at some point thereafter, by which time mulder may very well be pitching for another organization.