Al Leiter signed a huge two-year extension with the Mets yesterday and will ostensibly remain in New York for some time to come. When I read about this it occurred to just how odd a career Leiter has had. I remember him appearing on a baseball card with "Future Star" (or words to that effect) emblazoned across it when he was around 27. I thought Topps had really outdone themselves. He had been a prospect for over five years most of which he spent on the disabled list and was already on his second organization. They (Topps) must have known something that I didn't because the second half of his career has been pretty good.
He is soon to be 37 and has been in the majors going on 16 years. He also has had 10 sojourns on the DL, two of which were season-ending. Toronto waited all those years for him to be ready, and he finally left as a free agent. Here are the totals for the first half of the last half of his career along with career totals:
G GS CG SHO IP BB SO W-L ERA
First Half 85 55 2 1 339 201 286 22-21 4.75
Last Half 229 229 12 7 1480 646 1268 104-77 3.41
Total 314 284 14 8 1819 847 1554 126-98 3.66
That's quite a difference. Also consider that he never started more than 20 games in a season in the first half of his career, but in the second half he has never started fewer than 27. In the first half he never won more than 9, but in the second he has never won fewer than 11 (excluding this year). In the first half he only had an ERA lower than his league's average twice, but in the second half he has only once had an ERA higher than the league average.
I tried to think of someone who had such a great disparity between the first half of his career and the last. I thought of Randy Johnson and Steve Stone. Johnson did not establish himself as a major-league starter until he was going on 27, but had only one year of inconsistency prior to that. Stone was basically an average pitcher except for one incredible year towards the end of his career. I then thought of Sandy Koufax, who was average for the first half of his career and then unhittable in the last half, but his career was a) very short and b) one of the most unique in baseball history. Could Leiter be almost as unique as the legendary Koufax?
So I then went to Baseball Reference to see just how unique Leiter is. I checked out the players designated as his "comps," i.e., those that are most comparable to Leiter statistically. BR lists comps for each player by his career totals and by his yearly totals through each year in his baseball life. Leiter's comps were an odd crew, mostly guys who were effective when they were younger and then either because of age or injury or both became ineffective and then unemployed. There were guys who were missing years in the middle of their careers due to injury or had droughts due to ineffectiveness. Here are some examples:
Career #1: El Sid Fernandez-Fernandez was a very good pitcher who because of back problems never pitched a full season after the age of 29 though he was still effective when he did pitch.
Career #2: Ray Culp-Another good pitcher who was washed up after 29.
Career #6: Ramon Martinez-A very good pitcher who lost chunks of his career to injury. Also, never pitched a complete, effective season after 29.
Career #7: Alex Fernandez-Another very good pitcher who was washed up due to injury by 29.
Career #8: Tony Cloninger-Won 19 and 24 games back-to-back, missed parts of a couple of years due to injury, came back and was ineffectual, and was washed up after 29.
Career #10: Jose Rijo-A very good, oft-injured pitcher who retired for five years before coming back last year pitching well in relief.
Through Age 25: Mickey Mahler-A very poor pitcher who wracked up a lot of innings early in his career. A pretty good though often injured pitcher later in his career.
Through Age 28: Rich Wortham-Won 14 games at 25. His next highest season win total is 4.
Through Age 29: Bob Walk- Average pitcher who missed most of three season in the middle of his career.
Through Age 30: Donovan Osborne-Good, often injured pitcher who was washed up by 29.
Through Age 32 and 34: Jack Sanford-Good pitcher who didn't establish himself in the majors until 28. Won 19 and 24 games and was in double figures in wins (though not always pitching effectively) until age 34. He pitched until age 38 but only won in double figures one other time.
Through Age 33: Juan Guzman-Very good pitcher who was washed up by 32.
Of the other pitchers, none won in double figures after 35, and there was no one who became effective after 28 like Leiter. I'm sure there is someone else out there, but I can't seem to find him.
I have to admit that I have always pulled for the Leiter-he reminds me of the guy who played Charlie, the teenage kid on Star Trek who made people disappear after Captain Kirk, sans shirt, beat him in a wrestling match and Uhura sang a song about him. He also reminds me of a kid the Phillies had in the late '70s named Jim Wright (#37). I saw him pitch in spring training once and he was overpowering. He was their number one prospect for about three or four years. The Phillies expected him and Carlton to form a left-right tandem, but he was constantly injured. He appeared on two Phillies prospect cards two years apart ('79 and '81) but never made it to the bigs with the Phils. He finally made it up to the majors with the Royals at age 26. He pitched well one year and then was completely ineffective the next and never pitched in the majors again. Each organization must have its own Jim Wrights, a great prospect who due to injury never fulfills his promise. Leiter is the only one went on to become a number one starter. It makes me wonder, given his age and the years of abuse that his arm never had to endure on the mound, how long he can be effective. There is no way to really know given that there is no real mold to which we can compare him.