As you must know by now, I am fond of at least a couple things in life: Bill James quotations and Die Hard references. As for the latter, I have a suspicion that we might see one again soon; as for the former, I will provide one of my favorite Bill James quotes, one I've probably used before:
James actually intended this sentence as a comment on Jeff Fassero, who by the (aborted) end of the 1994 season had exceeded expectations for four consecutive seasons in the majors, after a late start to his career. But I prefer to think of the statement as an insight on baseball itself.
They say a baseball season is in essence a determination to see who does what after allotting each team sixty wins and sixty losses. There are exceptions, of course (one can only hope the 2006 Washington Nationals, contrary to their early-season pace, are not one), but generally-speaking the truism holds up, as far as truisms go. Its validity holds up because, on a given night, even the most unassuming of opponents has a real opportunity to defeat the biggest and baddest of opponents.
It stands to reason that this truism applies to individual performances, too. Sometimes, for instance, an unknown, unassuming pitcher will shut down even the league's best team. This won't happen all of the time, or even most of the time, but it happens---and, when it happens, we are surprised not by bewilderment but by joy.
Tonight, Mike O'Connor defeated the New York Mets, a team that came into the game leading the division by six games on the second day of May. In the process, O'Connor, a 25-year-old lefthander who had advanced only as far as High-A ball by the end of last season, earned his first big league victory.
"Arms and legs coming after you," New York's star third baseman, David Wright, reflected after the game. "[O'Connor] threw a solid game."
With his mother and girlfriend in attendance, the former George Washington University hurler dominated the Mets for seven innings, allowing two hits and only one run, on a Paul LoDuca homer in the bottom of the first. O'Connor walked two and struck out six in a 101-pitch outing.
By the conclusion of tonight's start, O'Connor's second in the majors, he had actually raised his ERA to 0.75. However, this start must be considered a substantial improvement on his debut last Thursday in St. Louis, in which he allowed a three-run homer in the first inning (enabled by Ryan Zimmerman's error, such that all runs were unearned); O'Connor settled down but nevertheless had to pitch around four walks in five innings.
Not only is O'Connor two-for-two in avoiding disaster, but tonight's performance represents an affirmative statement, one that announces he can do more than just get by in a pinch. As I write this, I have not seen any post-game quotations from Frank Robinson or Jim Bowden concerning O'Connor's performance, but I have to suspect he has pitched himself into an extended stay in the Nats' rotation.
If O'Connor's effectiveness is not a revelation, if his success is not a surprise, then you haven't asked Nationals' management. As noted in a Washington Post article this morning, the team does not view O'Connor as much of a top prospect. The organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2005, O'Connor nevertheless did not even rate among the Nats' top thirty prospects, according to Baseball America. In BA's Prospect Handbook, O'Connor does not even appear in the organization's depth chart for lefty pitchers, which includes guys not making the top-thirty cut. Whether this is an accidental omission or a reflection of O'Connor's pedestrian velocity (or his advanced age for a High-A ball pitcher), I cannot really say. Nevertheless, he has the reputation of a crafty pitcher---which, truth be told, means nothing (or, rather, is a black mark) unless the pitcher is an established big leaguer.
O'Connor's not yet established in the majors, to be sure, but now---surprisingly enough---he's there. Can he remain? I'll be honest and say that, while I am rooting like crazy for O'Connor (he is, after all, a fellow former Foggy Bottomer), I don't have the first clue whether he has much chance of future success. Looking just at his minor league record, O'Connor looks decent enough:
YEAR LVL IP HR BB K
2002 SH-A 43 2 27 66
2003 A 70 6 35 83
2004 A 103 5 42 104
2005 A+ 168 14 48 158
Before 2004, O'Connor was "wafered"---the organization made him a starter. His control improved while, predictably enough, the borderline-ridiculous strikeout rates fell more in line. O'Connor maintained the impressive ability to keep the ball in the park (0.63 HR/9IP during the four seasons).
Those are fine-looking peripherals, but then the reality sets in that O'Connor got his start as a 21/22-year-old in short-season A-ball. He repeated Class A ball; he didn't even make it to advanced A-ball until he was age-24. What is more, those stupendous home run rates at A-ball were compiled in a league where the long ball is pretty rare. That's the reality of it: O'Connor is not a very good prospect.
But is that indeed reality? In a certain undeniable sense, of course not. The process of judging a prospect is an evaluation of indicators and red flags and probabilities. These things are born of years of experience and observation, and they are accepted as reliable enough on which to base an evaluation. But they accumulate just that: an evaluation. And an evaluation is not a guarantee of future success or a consignment to impending failure.
To demonstrate this---and to bring this entry full-circle, as you perhaps anticipated I would---what do you think the evaluation of Jeff Fassero was in 1984? A twenty-second round selection of the St. Louis Cardinals, Fassero began his professional career in a rookie-league ball. He posted a 4.59 ERA---as a 21-year-old. By the spring of '87, Fassero made his debut at Double-A; by mid-season '89, Fassero debuted at Triple-A. Fassero was 26 by this point, and he struggled to a 5.22 ERA. He was probably a step away from professional extinction; if that was the first time, it was the first of many, many such occurrences. Fassero spent the entire 1990 season at Double-A. Although he had a fine season as a lefty reliever, it was a step back. After pitching well for a month at Triple-A Indianapolis to start the '91 season, Fassero finally made his big league debut, on May 4, 1991.
Fassero was 28-years-old, and he had tossed more than 800 innings in the minor leagues. This very franchise, the former Montreal Expos, gave him a chance.
Fassero was an excellent lefty reliever for the Expos that season and the next---not just your contemporary lefty one-out-guy ("LOOGY"), but an honest to goodness reliever as God intended them, going well more than an inning per appearance. Fassero started the 1993 season in the bullpen, but something compelled the Expos to give Fassero a try as a starter on July 10.
Fassero gave up a run in five innings. Then no runs in 5.1 innings. Then none in six innings. Then one earned run in six. Then one run in 7.1 innings. And so forth. Fassero made fifteen starts---a couple poor ones but most, as you can perceive, quite good. In those fifteen starts, he matched his ERA for the entire season, 2.29.
In the midst of the fifteen-start run, Fassero made one relief appearance, on September 11, 1993. It was his last relief appearance until 1999, when a 36-year-old Fassero lost enough of his stuff to become a disaster and once again had to pick up the pieces of his career.
Despite making his big league debut in his age-28 season, Fassero has now stretched out a sixteen-year career, a 120-game winner. One can certainly question the wisdom of a team turning to a 40-something pitcher to round out its pitching staff, but the fact of the matter is that Jeff Fassero has made something of himself.
Did anyone see that coming in 1984? Or 1985? Or 1986? Or 1987? Or 1988? Or 1989? Or 1990? Or at the outset of 1991?
Did anyone see a 30-year-old lefty middle reliever turning into a No. 2- or 3-quality starter for the next five or six seasons? Not likely.
Every season is a relevation, every success a surprise. May it be for Mike O'Connor, too.