Flash in the Pan
BY DEB SEYMOUR
Sometimes, the most hyped prospects don’t end up having long baseball careers, while others who either get a random, unexpected call-up to the majors or were selected in the late rounds of the draft turn out to be All-Star or MVP caliber players.
No one is a sure bet to succeed in the professional baseball leagues, and certainly not at its highest level of play.
One of the most often cited examples of unexpected success is Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, who was selected by Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda as a favor to Piazza’s father in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, 1390th overall.
Others selected in the very late rounds of the 1988 draft went on to become All-Stars (Damion Easley, 30th round; Aaron Sele, 37th round; Scott Erickson, 44th round; Fernando Vina, 51st round), but Piazza is the only one selected in an extremely late round to also become a HOF’er.
Sustained success in the major leagues over the period of an average career isn’t easy to achieve; and then there are all the players throughout the course of baseball history who’ve essentially been “career minor leaguers.”
Often overlooked in casual conversations about professional baseball is the need for every minor league team to carry a roster large enough to play a full season. Though the minor league season is shorter than the major league season, these teams still require a full roster to keep the team going throughout the season.
Hence, teams usually carry a number of players who are talented enough to play professionally – but who will never actually make it to the majors. Only 66 percent of those drafted even in the first round of the MLB draft will ever make it to the majors, and some just for the proverbial “cup of coffee.”
It would be going off on a significant tangent to talk about why the need for a minor league players’ association was so dire for so many years. Career minor leaguers have typically earned too little income to support a family on that job alone, for one thing. And yet, without them, the minor leagues would basically collapse; there’s no way every single “prospect” playing at every level of the minor leagues is going to one day become a major leaguer.
There are examples of other players, besides Piazza, who were later round draft selections and yet went on to have HOF major league careers; although Piazza remains the lowest draft pick since the draft was initiated in 1965 to have actually reached the HOF.
Nolan Ryan was taken in the 12th round of the 1965 draft, the 226th overall pick, by the New York Mets and went on to play 27 seasons across four teams in the majors. (One surprising fact about Ryan: despite his incredible trend-setting success as a pitcher, he never won the Cy Young award.)
Jim Thome #25 of the Cleveland Indians bats during a Major League Baseball game circa 1993 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Thome played for the Indians from 1991-2002 and in 2011. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Jim Thome was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 13th round of the 1989 draft, the 333rd overall pick, and played 22 seasons with six different teams in the majors. (Thome is perhaps most recognized for his prolific years with the then-Indians, though his career did not end with them.)
Ryne Sandberg was chosen by the Philadelphia Phillies in 20th round of the 1978 draft, the 511th overall selection, and went on to play 15 seasons in the majors (only 13 games of which were with the Phillies; Sandberg went into the Hall as a Chicago Cub).
John Smoltz was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft, the 574th overall pick, and played 22 seasons in the majors, primarily with the Atlanta Braves. (Smoltz was both a starting pitcher and a closer in his career, and was dominating in both roles.)
These are some solid success stories; and who doesn’t love the tale of a supposed underdog who reaches that highest pinnacle of achievement – HOF status – in any sport?
But then we have the flash in the pan stories, as well. The one hit wonders of the sport, if you will, who looked like they would become all-time greats and yet somehow, never did.
There are too many of these players over the course of baseball history to describe them all here, so we’ll consider some of the more recent or well-known ones. (Importantly, these are all players whose careers are now over. There are some current players who look like they may be flash in the pans, but their stories are still being written – so it wouldn’t really be fair to group them in with this bunch.)
Former pitcher Kerry Wood, who played for the Cubs, Indians, and Yankees, comes to mind when we talk about flash in the pans, although he did play on and off in the majors from 1998-2012. Wood’s is a story of a pitcher with all the potential in the world, who simply could not stay injury free.
1998: Kerry Wood #34 of the Chicago Cubs in action during a spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Hohkam Stadium in Mesa, Arizona.
Wood holds the record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game, along with Roger Clemens and Max Scherzer, at 20 SOs. He was also NL Rookie of the Year in 1998 and a two-time All-Star (2003 and 2008). You may say that a flash in the pan player is one who was only a great performer for a season or two in his career; but I’d counter that by saying there are players for whom the potential was forecasted to be so high, even a few good seasons didn’t come close to meeting expectations.
Wood started, relieved, and at times, closed throughout his career. His stuff was electric – you need only have watched him pitch in one or two games to see it. But myriad injuries over the 15 years of his MLB career caused him so many shut-downs and rehabs and overall, so much missed time, he never came close to amounting to the aspirations the Cubs had for him when he came up to the major leagues.
A perhaps somewhat better Cubs example might be Mark Prior, also a starting pitcher. Prior was taken in the first draft round – twice. In his sophomore year in the majors with the Cubs (2003), Prior went 18-6, was an All-Star, and struck out 245 hitters in 211 innings. The Cubs made the playoffs that year, and Prior threw a complete game two-hitter in the NLDS.
The Cubs, however, had a fateful collapse in the NLCS that year, and Prior only pitched three more seasons in the big leagues – suffering from injuries and underperformance. Although he continued to pitch in the minors and independent leagues for various teams till 2013, he never managed to live up to the hype that surrounded him as a rookie and a sophomore in 2002 and 2003.
Kevin Maas #24 of the New York Yankees bats during an American League game at Yankee Stadium circa 1990 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Louis Requena/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Kevin Maas is a name you’ll often hear from Yankee fans as one of those flash in the pan players. Big time prospect, huge expectations. Though Maas was taken in the 22nd round of the 1986 draft, in 1988 he hit 28 home runs with a .271 batting average and a .382 on-base percentage in the minors. Typical old-school Yankee, right? All about the OBP.
By mid-way through 1990, Maas was called up to The Show, and the Yankees thought they had found their heir to the Don Mattingly throne of leading slugger.
Maas crushed ten home runs in his first 72 big league at-bats (sound like Shane Spencer, anyone?). In one series against the Rangers in Arlington, Maas homered off the likes of Kevin Brown, Bobby Witt, and Nolan Ryan.
And then the sophomore jinx set in. Maas was a dead pull hitter and was thoroughly scouted by 1991. The entire 1991 season, he hit 23 home runs and he hit just .220 overall. Maas rapidly became a fringe player after that and bounced between the majors and minors for several teams – until he hung up his North American pro cleats by 1996 and played in Japan that year.
Chase Headley might be another name familiar to BallNine readers. Headley was a second round draft pick who came up to the majors in 2007 with the San Diego Padres. By 2009 he was a regular in the Padres’ lineup, hitting about .265 with 9-12 home runs per year.
Outfielder Chase Headley #16 of the San Diego Padres bats against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on July 27, 2008 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
That is, until 2012. In 2012, Headley hit 31 homers and finished the year with 115 runs batted in, good enough to lead the NL that year. He finished fifth in MVP voting, won a Silver Slugger award, and won the NL Gold Glove award at his position.
Headley looked like he’d found something, and was set to become a superstar in the NL, if not in all of MLB. And then, in spring training 2013, he was injured; and Headley never quite found the same stuff again. He went on to play for both the Padres and the Yankees till 2018, but never had a repeat of that 2012 success again.
For that one year, though, he had the career year dreams are made of.
As noted earlier, there are, of course, names of current, active players who look like they may one day be added to lists like this one – but that just wouldn’t be fair to them; their stories are still playing out.
And yet, you can be sure there are players in the minor leagues who would give anything to just have a run like some of the flash in the pan players mentioned here.
After all, even one hit wonders still have a song that gets sung all the time.