Making the rounds right now is the news that Stephen Strasburg will likely have to undergo Tommy John surgery, meaning he would miss the rest of 2010, but also all of 2011. This is bad not just for Strasburg and the Nationals, but for baseball as well. The most hyped prospect since, well, another pitcher who will show up on this list, he was set for great things.
Instead, we are left wondering if he will be the same after his injury. This is not an uncommon occurrence, sadly. Many pitchers started off with amazing careers, only to befall injury and have to retire early, or perhaps worse, pitch on as a shell of their former selves. Ten pitchers in this list had great starts to their careers, but fizzled out quickly due to various reasons.
It's a list that Strasburg, we are all hoping, will not end up on.
Mark Prior is probably the most famous example of a flame-out. In 2002, he made his major league debut and had a fairly solid season for the Cubs. In 2003, he was amazing, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts. Unfortunately, this was the highlight of his career.
Thanks partially to throwing 120+ pitches a game on many occasions, Prior wound up on the disabled list more times than I can remember. He struggled through 2004 through 2006, and after a 1-6 record in 2006, prior underwent shoulder surgery, and while he is still trying to make a comeback, it seems that he pitched his last major league game.
Statline (record/ERA/K's): 42-29 / 3.51 / 757
Herb Score was looking to be one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time. In his first season, 1955, he led the league in strikeouts with 245, going 16-10. The following season, he topped himself, going 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA, nine shutouts, and 263 K's.
In 1957, everything changed after he was hit by a line drive against the Yankees' Gil McDougald. He said this injury wasn't what ruined his career, but rather a tendon injury he suffered later on. In either case though, he only won 19 more game in his career after his amazing first two seasons.
Most of you probably have no clue who Dave Stenhouse is, and I can't really blame you; all three seasons were spent with the "psuedo" Washington team that became the Texas Rangers. Despite playing for a 100-loss team, his rookie season showed great promise. He threw 123 strikeouts, had a 3.65 ERA, and made the all-star team. However, he developed arm trouble as well, and he was done by 1964.
He pitched in AAA a few more seasons, but due to his injuries he could not find that greatness he had in 1962.
Statline: 16-28 / 4.14 / 214
Wally Bunker was a key part of the Orioles' youthful pitching staff in the 1960s, which included Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, among others. In 1964, at the age of 19, he went 19-5 with a 2.69 ERA and 96 strikeouts, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting (behind Tony Oliva, who had an amazing year as well). He was also a key member of the Orioles' 1966 World Series Championship team.
Bunker, however, was also the victim of arm trouble, and was relegated to part-time starts for most of his career. His career rebounded to an extent with the expansion Royals in 1969 as he went 12-11 with a 3.23 ERA, but he could never recapture the magic of 1964, and he was done at the age of 26.
Statline: 60-52 / 3.51 / 569
We all know this story.
From his 1998 season (13-6, 3.40, 233) to his continuing arm trouble, to his move to the bullpen, to missing all of 1999 and most of 2006, to failing as a closer, Wood's career has been a roller coaster, mostly going downhill.
He was still able to pitch semi-effectively after his Tommy John surgery, and is probably the closest example to Strasburg; having a great rookie year and missing year two.
At least he is still actively pitching though, so there's hope for Strasburg yet.
Statline: 82-68 / 3.49 / 1503
Dwight Gooden should've been a Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, drug problems and injuries render him this generation's "what-if" story. He was incredibly hyped when he entered the league, and had a great season in 1984, throwing 276 strikeouts. His 1985 season was even more amazing, as he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, winning the Cy Young Award.
His win-loss record at the age of 28 was 154-81, but there were already problems forming before that, as Sports Illustrated noted in 1993, saying that he had become a phantom. After being suspended for most of 1994 and all of 1995, his career never came close again to that early dominance.
Statline: 194-112 / 3.51 / 2293
The late, great Mark Fidrych, better known as The Bird, had a great personality and was also a top pitcher in 1976, going 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games, finishing second in Cy Young voting and winning the Rookie of the Year.
The next season, he tore his rotator cuff, though it went undiagnosed. He made handfuls of starts the next four years, but he was one-and-done, his career over at 25.
Statline: 29-19 / 3.10 / 170
Darren Dreifort never had the dominance that others on this list did at their peak, but nonetheless had bad luck with injuries.
After 27 relief appearances as a rookie in 1994, he missed the entire 1995 season due to injuries, and later moved from a reliever to a starter. He finally began to improve, and in 2000 he had his best season, going 12-9 with 164 strikeouts.
After getting a nice contract in 2001, he pitched about half the season, but then needed elbow reconstruction surgery, causing him to miss all of 2002. Two years of inconsistent pitching followed, and he quietly retired.
Statline: 48-60 / 4.36 / 802
Jose Rijo's story is somewhat different than others, as he was a solid pitcher for 12 years before his sudden flame-out. In 1995, a year removed from his first All-Star appearance, Rijo had pitched 14 games before being sidelined with an elbow injury. Rijo tried to come back from the injury, then tried again, and again...
Finally, in 2001, six years after the injury, Rijo returned to the mound, and pitched two more years for the Cincinnati Reds. He won the Tony Conigliaro Award in 2002 for his comeback story. Unlike many of the others on this list, he at least had a complete career.
Statline: 116-91 / 3.24 / 1606
The historical "what-if" pitcher is Smoky Joe Wood. He started his career as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and in 1912, his fifth year on the team, has one of the best pitching seasons in baseball history: 34-5, a 1.91 ERA, 10 shutouts, and over 300 innings pitched. His 1915 season was nearly as good as well, finishing the year with a 1.49 ERA.
Unfortunately, he had been pitching in pain the last three years due to a thumb injury, and could no longer recover quickly to pitch games. He made a handful of appearances for the Cleveland Indians and tried to come back as a hitter, but retired after the 1922 season.
With how great his stats had been so far, imagine if he hadn't gotten hurt. He's one that we know would have been amazing.
Statline: 117-57 / 2.03 / 989
These aren't the only ten that have had injuries or other problems. They are just a sample. Here are a few others:
Doug Brocail - He missed three full seasons after Tommy John surgery, but recovered to pitch in the majors until he was 42.
Matt Riley - He had Tommy John surgery twice. The first time, he missed three seasons, then pitched in three for the Texas Rangers.
Wade Townsend - First-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays had Tommy John surgery in 2005 and never really got his career off the ground.
David Clyde - First overall draft pick who was nearly as hyped as Strasburg was. His arm was very overworked, and injuries ruined any chance of his career being special. His career is worth reading up on, sad as it was.
Denny McLain - His flameout was not due to injury entirely, but a combination of arm trouble, overwork, and gambling problems. He went from leading the league in wins to leading it in losses in two years.
Karl Spooner - In his first two professional starts in 1954, he allowed no runs and struck out 27. Due to injury, he only played one more season.
J.R. Richard - (missed him on first draft). Had been pitching great baseball and had finally became the Astros ace in 1980, until he suffered a stroke after having arm trouble for a couple weeks. He attempted a comeback but had already pitched hsi last big league game