How Roy Oswalt's MLB Peak Got Far Less Credit Than It Deserved

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How Roy Oswalt's MLB Peak Got Far Less Credit Than It Deserved
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With very little fanfare, Roy Oswalt will retire after 13 seasons pitching for four different teams, according to ESPN's Buster Olney.

It seems like a fitting end considering how low-key the right-hander was throughout his career. But that doesn't mean we can't look back and appreciate just how great he was at his peak. 

Oswalt came up with the Houston Astros in the middle of the steroid era, debuting at the age of 23 on May 6, 2001, in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. His first eight appearances in the big leagues were out of the bullpen. 

His first career start came on June 2 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, going six innings with just two hits allowed, one earned run and four strikeouts. That performance would set the tone for his career. 

A staple in Houston's rotation from 2001 until he was traded to Philadelphia in 2010, Oswalt battled injuries and age for the last three years of his career, moving from the Phillies to Texas (2012) and Colorado (2013). 

Even though his overall numbers aren't good enough to get Hall of Fame consideration, Oswalt established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball almost immediately.

His career peak may not have gotten the attention it deserved while it was happening, but now that we have a chance to look back at his entire body of work, it's quite impressive. 

 

Advanced Metrics

Wins Above Replacement is not the only measure that should be used when evaluating a player's added value, but it does provide a good jumping-off point to examine what made him good or bad. 

Looking at Oswalt's peak years (2001-10), you won't find a lot of pitchers who were better during that same period. 

MLB Pitching Leaders WAR, 2001-10
Player WAR Total FIP IP
Roy Halladay 57.0 3.18 2,066.1
CC Sabathia 47.6 3.58 2,127
Johan Santana 45.8 3.31 1822.2
Roy Oswalt 45.5 3.34 2,015
Randy Johnson 43.9 3.22 1,636.2

FanGraphs.com

That is a special peak, one that appeared to ensure Oswalt a spot in Cooperstown with a little luck in his later years. That didn't happen, of course. 

Thanks to my colleague Jason Catania, who posted this little nugget about Oswalt on Twitter shortly after the retirement announcement. 

In case you were wondering, the four pitchers ahead of Oswalt in ERA+ during the last decade were Johan Santana (148), Roy Halladay (147), Brandon Webb (142) and Pedro Martinez (139). 

If you like fielding independent pitching (FIP), which takes into account everything a pitcher has direct control over (home runs, walks, strikeouts) and takes out the defense behind him, Oswalt ranked eighth in baseball with a 3.34 mark (min. 1,000 innings). 

Oswalt's numbers look even better when accounting for park factors. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Minute Maid Park favored hitters from 2001-07. 

He was an excellent control pitcher, too, finishing his career with 3.56 strikeouts for every walk; that's better than Zack Greinke (3.48), Adam Wainwright (3.35) and Felix Hernandez (3.24). 

All of the advanced numbers love Oswalt, especially in the prime of his career, but there is one other reason to appreciate his greatness. 

 

Awards Recognition

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The biggest mistake Oswalt made was pitching in the National League at the same time as Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens at the height of their powers in the early 2000s. 

If not for those three, Oswalt would have at least one Cy Young on his mantle. He finished in the top 10 of NL Cy Young voting six times from 2001-10, including five top-five finishes from 2001-06, more than Schilling had in his entire career (four). 

Johnson and Schilling finished 1-2 in 2001 and 2002. Oswalt only made 21 starts in 2003, then finished behind Clemens and Johnson in 2004 and had two consecutive fourth-place finishes in 2005 and 2006. 

Oswalt is like baseball's version of Peter O'Toole, who was nominated for an acting Oscar eight times without winning. 

Despite not winning the awards, Oswalt's name was a staple on ballots every year from 2001-06, with one more appearance in 2010. It's a testament to the high level of consistency he showed that voters made it a point to find a spot for him on the ballot. 

These weren't just fluky win-inflated vote totals, either. Oswalt led the league in starts twice (2004, 2005), threw more than 210 innings six times (2002, 2004-07, 2010) and had more than 180 strikeouts four times (2002, 2004-05, 2010). 

 

The Decline

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

One reason Oswalt's greatness isn't appreciated now is because our society is so focused on what you have done lately. He's only pitched in 26 games the last two years, posting a 6.80 ERA in 91.1 innings. 

His last great year was in 2010, when the average cost for a gallon of gas was $2.80. We live in a world where news moves at a rapid-fire pace, and if you aren't worth talking about, people aren't going to remember you. 

Another problem that Oswalt faced was how rapidly the decline came. He finished sixth in Cy Young voting after the 2010 season, made just 23 starts in 2011 and was basically done as a valuable pitcher after that. 

Another problem was Oswalt became a star long before the deeper analytics (sabermetrics) became widespread in evaluating player performance, preventing a lot of fans from looking up numbers and comparing them to other great players from the era. 

Now, with sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Reference being used by casual fans, we can look at what a player like Oswalt did in his peak and realize that we should have been paying closer attention. 

There won't be a ticker-tape parade, or an elaborate Cooperstown campaign in his future, but if/when the Astros retire Oswalt's number, it will provide us an opportunity to give a proper farewell to one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball over the last 15 years. 

 

Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 


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