What Could Have Been
While thinking about Stephen Strasburg’s injury, I began thinking of other pitchers who sustained injury or other medical conditions that cut their careers short. The top five I came up with were:
1) Mark Prior
2) Kerry Wood
3) Jim Maloney
4) Smoky Joe Wood
5) Sandy Koufax
1) Prior’s injuries began in 2005, and by the end of the year, his career was all but over. A look at his numbers through the 2005 season reveals a dominant pitcher. He was 40-21 with an ERA of 3.09. In his most dominant campaign, he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts. For his career, he compiled a surprising 13.1 WAR in just a few short seasons. There is no accurate way to predict how good Prior could have been if injuries hadn’t wrecked his career. However, at only 25 when his career essentially ended, it’s probably a safe bet that he would have made many more All-Star appearances and competed for multiple Cy Young awards.
2) Kerry Wood was one of the most dominant young pitchers in history, much like Strasburg has shown to be so far. With 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings pitched, Wood made himself known in 1998. Then there was the 20 strikeout performance. Yet, Wood’s career was significantly derailed in 1999 when he underwent elbow surgery. He was never the same. While Wood has still had a long, relatively successful career, he could have been legendary. With a ridiculous 12.58 K/9 ratio, a K% of 33.3, and A FIP of 3.16 in 1998, Wood could have been one of the best strikeout pitchers of all-time. Instead, he struggled through six more seasons of starting before finding a home in the bullpen.
3) Jim Maloney never had a chance to throw for The Big Red Machine during the 1970’s. His time with the Reds was concentrated to the 1960’s and he was dominant. From 1960-1970, Maloney had 74 complete games and 30 shut-outs. He threw two no-hitters and struck out 200 or more batters four times. Unfortunately, Maloney severed his Achilles tendon early in 1970 and was never able to fully recover. He only pitched one more season before hanging them up at 31 years old. Had Maloney stayed healthy it is easy to picture the Reds winning more titles than they already did. Maloney would have only been 32 and at the height of his career during the 1972 season. His blazing fastball, stamina, and guts surely would have helped the Reds and probably would have landed Maloney in the Hall of Fame.
4) Smoky Joe Wood’s career was cut short by foot and ankle injuries. He continued to pitch as long as his lower legs would hold up, but peaked in 1912. Ty Cobb called him one of the best pitchers he ever faced. And he could have been better. Wood won 34 games in 1912, finished his career with 121 career complete games, and a 2.03 career ERA. Yet, he wasn’t able to start more than 18 games after the 1912 season. His ERA+ was 146 and he absolutely baffled hitters. Injuries probably kept him from being a 250-300 game winner and kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
5) Sandy Koufax, unlike Jim Maloney and Smoky Joe, overcame his injury shortened career and is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Had it not been for arthritis and injuries, though, Koufax could have been the greatest of all-time. He threw four no-hitters, including one perfect game. He has a career ERA of 2.67 and an ERA+ of 136. He won three Cy Young awards, and he struck out 2,396 batters. All this was accomplished by the age of 30. Had it not been for injury, and accounting for a likely reduction in production as he aged, Koufax could have struck out 4,000 batters, could have won 300 games, and could have piled up even more no-hitters and Cy Young awards.
There are countless stories of pitchers whose careers were cut short by injury. We will never know what could have been, but with these five players, their early career results speak for themselves.