In recent weeks, I've occasionally been writing about something I call the Wing of Amazing (italics mine, and always necessary because it's just that brilliant). I introduced the notion here (and nominated Omar Vizquel for membership). My second nominee was Jamie Moyer, and in the same vein we might also consider Julio Franco (though I'm not going to make his case today).
After those first couple of posts, a friend of mine sent me a long list of candidates that included Dale Murphy, Jerry Reuss, and a few other outstanding players who have fallen well short of being elected to the Hall of Fame.
They weren't amazing, though. Excellence is not amazingness. We're looking for players who did things that players just don't do, or weren't supposed to do, or aren't expected to do.
Let me give you an example of a player whose performance, however impressive on its face, doesn't qualify him for membership in the Wing of Amazing ...
He was a pitcher, drafted in the first round in the late 1980s, eighth overall pick. The next spring, he pitched so well in spring training that he opened the season in the big club's rotation, becoming the first pitcher to skip the minor leagues in many years. He also won 12 games that season, setting a record for major league wins by a pitcher in his first professional season.
All of that was impressive, but not quite amazing.
Midway into his career, our pitcher threw a no-hitter ... but you know, a lot of pitchers have thrown no-hitters. He would ultimately win 87 games in the major leagues, which is of course impressive but a lot of pitchers have won more.
Really, the only thing amazing about Jim Abbott was that he was born without a right hand.
Which is plenty. He's in. (Some other time, we can talk about Pete Gray.)
Upon retiring, Abbott said, "My experiences, added up, make me feel like I've had a Hall of Fame career."
Well, no. Not quite. The Wing of Amazing, though? There's never been a better candidate.
Looking for some information about Abbott, I consulted "The Baseball Book 1990," written by Bill James (with a tiny bit of help from Rob Neyer). James noted that Abbott was "the American League's most average pitcher," which was really impressive for a pitcher in his first professional season.
Bill also wrote, "The short-term future for Abbott obviously is very bright."
He was dead right about that. Abbott did struggle some in his second season (1990), but rebounded in his third and fourth seasons. In 1991, he went 18-11 with a 2.89 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young balloting. In 1992, he posted a 2.77 ERA (but suffered abominable luck and went 7-15).
Bill also wrote, "I'm not optimistic about his long-term future."
He was dead right about that, too.
One, Abbott threw a ton of innings before he turned 22.
Two, Abbott's strikeout rate was not impressive, at all.
Three, Abbott's mechanics included a small flaw that would cause problems, eventually.
After 1992, Abbott's strikeout rate went from problematic to nearly untenable. That he was still pitching six years later was due partly to luck, and largely to everybody so desperately hoping he would succeed. In 1996, the Angels let Abbott start 23 games and pitch 142 innings; he went 2-18 with a 7.48 ERA. Three years later, the Brewers let Abbott start 15 games and pitch 82 innings; he went 2-8 with a 6.91 ERA.
Jim Abbott had real problems holding runners on base, and he wasn't much of a fielder, either. You might imagine why. But he would attribute his career slide to losing his good fastball, fairly early on. Which shows up pretty obviously in his strikeout rates.
I'm sure if I looked at more of Bill's predictions, he would miss on plenty. But he's been right a lot, too. And he's rarely been more right than he was about Abbott.