Watch Esteban Loaiza pitch this year, and the question isn't how he's managing to succeed, but why he wasn't one of the best pitchers in the league to begin with. Loaiza throws everything hard, topping out at 94 mph on the radar gun, but rarely falling below 84.
His fastball moves, his cutter darts, his slider bites, and when he's on, Loaiza hits the outside edges of the strike zone routinely. The F-word -- you know, the one that rhymes with juke -- is the furthest thing from anyone's mind with Loaiza.
Loaiza's improvement isn't totally without reason.
Long cursed with the label of Upside Potential, Loaiza fought his toughest battles off the field last year: a messy divorce case, and a rare injury to his girlfriend's spine, incurred during the birth of his son, that threatened to leave her paralyzed. This year, the divorce is behind him, his girlfriend's prognosis has improved, and Loaiza is pitching with newfound confidence and focus.
Throw in an extra weapon to work with -- the cutter is new to his arsenal -- and his results speak for themselves. Loaiza has been the second best pitcher in baseball according to our Support Neutral W-L statistics, trailing only Tim Hudson, and is all but assured of finishing near the top of the Cy Young Award balloting.
Loaiza's success reminds us just how thin the line between success and failure can be for a pitcher. Next time you get the chance to see Loaiza pitch, imagine that one pitch out of 10 doesn't go where he wants it to: a slider hangs, a 3-2 fastball misses outside. The baserunners begin to pile up in a hurry, and since the offense gets extra outs to work with, so do the runs.
If you want to get fancy about it, you can say that pitching is non-linear: the outputs (runs) increase exponentially with the inputs (a few extra hits and walks). Or, if you prefer -- rarely is it clearer that baseball is a game of inches than when watching the before-and-after versions of a pitcher like Loaiza.
All of which is to say that this isn't the first time this has happened; baseball has always had its share of unexpected Cy Young contenders.
So we fired up the trusty Prospectus databases, and looked for pitchers with the lousiest track records prior to a season in which they finished in the Top 3 of their league's Cy Young balloting.
The pitchers on the list that follows are ranked by their career ERA+ entering their breakout season. (ERA+ is ERA relative to park and league average; a score of 100 is average, and higher scores are better).
We set a minimum of 800 career innings pitched, so that we don't get a list full of up-and-coming youngsters, for whom breakout seasons are far more common.
* Won Cy Young Award
Some interesting names on that list, but not all of them are good counterparts for Loaiza. In a number of cases, the pitcher had already had a season of comparable quality, but it hadn't been recognized by the Cy Young voters because of strong competition, or because his W-L record wasn't what Cy Young voters demand. In other cases -- Catfish Hunter, for example -- the pitcher had already established himself, but was still paying off the debt from a series of poor seasons at the start of his career. For one or both of these reasons, we needed to eliminate half the pitchers on our list. Bibby, Hunter, Krukow, Law, McCormick, Niekro, Richard, Reuss, Sutcliffe. Head for the showers, boys, you guys are off the team!
That leaves us with nine pitchers who are worth examining in a bit more depth.
Even as a kid, I knew there was something fishy about the fact that Mike Scott endorsed the Wiffle Ball. The Wiffle Ball, of course, broke at all sorts of angles and directions that an official ball never could; so, during the 1986 season, did Scott's splitter. In any event, Scott had easily the worst track record of any pitcher ever to take home the Cy, but his 1986 was dominant (18-10, 2.22 ERA) as he took full advantage of the Astrodome and his petroleum jelly dealer. Scott followed up his breakthrough campaign with solid seasons in 1987-1989.
One-hit wonder. Caldwell had only three seasons in which he managed an ERA better than league average, including his 1978 campaign (22-9, 2.36 ERA), which might have won the Cy Young if not for Ron Guidry's dominant season. Like Scott, Caldwell was accused at various times of throwing a doctored ball.
What a strange season Stone had in 1980. At age 32, he posted a career-best 3.23 ERA, and a formidable 25-7 record, but his most important peripheral numbers -- strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate -- were almost exactly in line with his unimposing career averages:
Stone was aided in part by his fielders -- the Orioles teams of the '70s and '80s consistently had great defenses -- and by the advice of pitching coach Ray Miller, who reminded him to work quickly and stick with his best pitches. Even so, his results were better than what you'd expect from his raw numbers. If I didn't like him so much as a color analyst, I'd suggest he was a little bit lucky.
Unfortunately, the heavy workload took its toll on Stone as he threw 250.2 innings, and he reported to spring training the next year with a bum elbow, and managed only 62.2 more big-league innings before retiring.
Brought to Oakland from Seattle in 1989 -- he is still the Mariners' all-time losingest pitcher -- Moore's breakthrough season is a testament to just how much context matters. Blessed with a better defense and a more favorable ballpark, Moore gave up dramatically fewer hits on balls hit into play, and nearly halved his home run rate from its Kingdome-inflated average, enough to produce a 19-11 record and a 2.61 ERA. Moore had one more great season with the A's (1991), but once he left for the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium in 1993, he turned back into a pumpkin.
I hesitate to include him here. At 24, McLain's breakout came at a far younger age than any of the other pitchers. He had been pitching in the big leagues from the time he was a teenager, and had shown flashes of brilliance before. But his 1968 numbers are simply too dominating to ignore: a 1.96 ERA, more than four strikeouts for every walk, and -- more famously -- a 31-6 record.
It's safe to say McLain's breakout had more to do with his state of mind than any improvement to his physical ability. To put it mildly, McLain was a temperamental man who loved the good life. In 1968, perhaps buoyed by a strong start to the season, he kept his focus on the field with manic intensity, and put together one of the greatest pitching years of all-time.
After another Cy Young in 1969, however, the rock star lifestyle began to take its toll on McLain. He missed much of the 1970 season with suspensions for bookmaking and gun possession, the start of a downward spiral that eventually found him traded to Washington, sent to prison on racketeering and drug possession charges, and most recently, serving Slurpees at a 7-Eleven as part of a rehabilitation assignment.
McLain's teammate with the Tigers, Lolich was the everyman to McLain's megalomaniac. Lolich played drums, rode motorcycles, had a beer gut, and was best known for his consistency: he won between 14 and 19 games in seven consecutive seasons beginning in 1964.
But Lolich's 1971 was something special. He tossed a remarkable 376 innings, leading the league in strikeouts while lowering his walk rate, accumulated 25 wins, and finished just behind Vida Blue in the Cy Young balloting. Lolich followed up the season with an even lower ERA in 1972 before reverting to his usual likeable, above-average self.
Every knuckleballer has his run, and Purkey's came in 1962, when he picked up 23 wins alongside a 2.81 ERA to tie for third in the Cy Young race. Purkey's strikeout and walk rates improved only marginally in '62, and he had no season before or after that matched its success.
Pitching in the big leagues despite a subpar fastball, Denny was one of those pitchers that hangs on by the thinnest of threads. The 1983 Phillies were a good fit for the journeyman: they played fine defense, allowing him to challenge hitters with his changeup and keep his walk rate down, and gave him plenty of run support. Denny sparkled to the tune of a 19-6 record and a 2.37 ERA. He was on his way to another great season with the Phils in 1984 (a 1.55 ERA in his first nine starts) before a nerve problem in his elbow cost him two months. He was never quite the same once he came back, and was out of the league by 1986.
Best. Case. Scenario. Johnson's unique physical advantages were always there, but were undermined early in his career by poor command. After picking up some tips in his famous chat with Nolan Ryan following the 1992 season, Johnson turned his career around, first getting on the Cy Young map in 1993, and then maturing further to pull off one of the best pitching runs in history. Johnson's walk rates tell the whole story:
Hardly a fair comparison for Loaiza, I know. But some of the time, the improvement sticks.
Can anything be learned from this motley crew of scuffers, knuckleballers, convicts, and first-ballot Hall-of-Famers? It's certainly safe to say the group didn't have very much in common before their surprise seasons.
But perhaps we can say something about how likely Loaiza is to sustain his breakout. Let's take one more look at our group of pitchers, evaluating their performances before, during, and after their big years:
There are really only four pitchers -- Johnson, Scott, Denny and Lolich -- who were markedly better after their breakout year than they were before it. Three of those four displayed very large increases in their K/BB ratio during their breakout seasons. While there are no guarantees here -- McLain also improved his K/BB ratio significantly, but flopped -- that bodes well for Loaiza, whose K/BB has improved dramatically and is approaching dominant levels.
Any time a pitcher exhibits a sudden change in his performance level, I like to put him through a two-stage process to see whether the improvement is for real. First, since ERAs can be highly volatile, check to see whether the change is reflected in his peripheral numbers. As we've observed, Loaiza passes that test with flying colors. Second, see if you can tie the improvement back to other, more tangible factors. Loaiza does well there, too: he's developed a very good new pitch, and has put a distracting private matter behind him. If there's a third stage, it's personal observation, and Loaiza has looked to me like a bizarre mutation of Greg Maddux. While he doesn't change speeds as well, Loaiza has the same great movement on his pitches, the same knack for pitch selection, and is developing the same great command.
Pitching is a precarious activity; the same things that can propel a guy to unexpected glory can leave him crashing and burning in a hurry. But it sure looks like the White Sox have a good one on their hands.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com.