The line from a pithy sportswriter was legendary in both its smarminess and its eventual inaccuracy.
“He would be a great pitcher,” the words from a now yellowed news clipping said, “if the plate was high and outside.”
Sandy Koufax barreled into the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers with a prized left arm but with absolutely no control over it. The next pitch could be a perfect strike or end up in Secaucus.
Koufax, before he became arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, started his career with six seasons of trying to gain dominion over the strike zone. It was epic in its scope.
Koufax and the strike zone was baseball’s Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.
But unlike Ahab’s elusive whale, Koufax’s demon stared him straight in the face, mocking him. The strike zone was hidden in plain sight during Koufax’s early years with the Dodgers.
Compiling Koufax’s statistics from his rookie year of 1955 thru 1960, it’s discovered that Sandy averaged 4.6 walks per nine innings pitched. You could get to first base with Koufax easier than you could with the town floozy.
Then something clicked, and from 1961 thru the end of his career in 1966, Koufax dominated National League hitters and surrendered just 2.4 walks per nine innings. Koufax had become the reverse Clint Hartung.
Clint Hartung died a few weeks ago at age 87. His legend will live on, and I’m about to make sure of it.
Hartung was a 6’5”, 210-pound pitcher/outfielder from Hondo, Texas. With a town called Hondo and in a state like Texas, being 6’5” must have been a requirement.
Hartung was a blue chip prospect, a can’t-miss kid. The Minneapolis Millers of the old Northern League signed Hartung in 1942. He was shortly thereafter drafted into WW II, where he played on military teams against other drafted pros.
As a pitcher, he went 25-0 during the war years, striking out an average of 15 batters per game. As an outfielder, he batted .567.
The New York Giants signed him in 1946 for a then-high sum of $35,000.
Sportswriter Tom Meany said, “Rather than stop at the Polo Grounds, they should have taken him straight to Cooperstown.”
Clint Hartung was supposed to make Northern Manhattan go crazy as a modern day Babe Ruth: a player whose pitching prowess was only matched by his hitting acumen.
Instead, Hartung became the poster child for the overhyped rookie.
Hartung pitched just 511 innings in the big leagues, compiling a 29-29 record and a 5.02 ERA. In 378 at-bats, he hit .238 and struck out 112 times.
Koufax was the reverse Hartung because he started as a flop and then earned his hype. The lesson? You never really know with prospects, do you?
The can’t-miss kid exists in every big league organization.
He’s somewhere—whether in the lowest of the minors, or in Double-A, or maybe even on the 25-man major league roster. He’s young and sleek and wows the scouts and general managers with his “tools.” If he’s a pitcher, he’s said to have stuff that’s “nasty” and “filthy.”
The can’t-miss kid is a blue chip prospect that holds up trades between big league teams on an annual basis—right about now, as a matter of fact.
The inter-league, non-waiver trading deadline in Major League Baseball is upon us. As I bang on my keyboard, the deadline for making trades between the two leagues without the necessity of players clearing waivers is about 15 hours away.
Big names have been mentioned as destined to be wearing different uniforms come Sunday morning. The usual pre-deadline rumor mill, churning as briskly as ever.
Whether these big names get moved will largely depend on certain GMs and their hesitancy to trade their so-called can’t-miss, blue chip prospects.
There are still a bunch of Clint Hartungs lurking in every big league organization. And they are going to determine the fate of pennant races in both leagues—either by their being traded, or by their GM’s reluctance thereof.
Matt Wieters is a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles who was supposed to be the next coming of Johnny Bench—or at the very least, Joe Mauer. Wieters’ debut with the sad-sack Orioles was looked forward to with almost biblical anticipation.
Wieters is 6’5”—there’s that measurement again—and bats left-handed. He’s 24 years old and was the Orioles’ first-round draft pick of 2007. He was touted as the organization’s designated can’t-miss kid.
Wieters debuted for the Orioles in May 2009 against the Tigers. In his second game, Wieters had a double and a triple and scored a run.
But after 28 at-bats, Wieters had just four hits.
His year-end numbers were OK: .288 BA, nine HR, 43 RBI in 354 at-bats.
Hardly numbers that make your eyes pop out.
This year, Wieters is hitting .248, striking out every five at-bats and the Orioles are still lousy.
Yet if it had been suggested a couple years ago that the Orioles trade Wieters for an established big league player, the suggester would have been tossed into the Potomac.
Hey, remember Cameron Maybin?
He was the Tigers’ designated can’t-miss kid from a few years back. Maybin, an outfielder, was said to have all the “tools” that baseball people fawn over.
Maybin was practically an untouchable prospect—a blue chip that would never be seriously considered to be played at the blackjack table.
The Tigers rushed him to the big leagues in 2007 and plopped him into the lineup in Yankee Stadium during an important August series. That’s not a debut, that’s a blood-letting.
Maybin proved to be not ready for the majors.
In December, 2007, the Tigers did the unthinkable and traded Maybin, along with pitcher Andrew Miller, to the Florida Marlins.
Slugger Miguel Cabrera wouldn’t be performing feats of mass destruction as a Tiger had GM Dave Dombrowski not played the Maybin blue chip.
Maybin has compiled very pedestrian numbers as a Marlin since 2008. Currently, he’s batting .225 with a truckload of strikeouts, while Cabrera flirts with a Triple Crown and MVP contention.
Prospects are just that, while established big league players are also just that.
Give me an established player over a prospect any day!
Suck it up, trade the can’t-miss kids if they’ll net prime time players, and go get more prospects. That’s why you’re paying your scouting staff, right?
Oh, the trades that could be made if can’t-miss kids were included in deals more often. So few GMs have the guts.