A year and a half ago, one of baseball's top pitchers was a Long Island Duck.
A good starter for two seasons seemingly undone by injuries, Rich Hill bounced around as a reliever with exceptional career persistence and little else. He was reborn as a starting pitcher in the independent Atlantic League at age 35 and, within two months, became arguably one of the five best starting pitchers in the majors. He might have quit five years ago; last month, he signed a contract that guarantees him $48 million.
That's quite a career path. If you graphed it, it'd look ridiculous. Well, OK, now we have to graph it:
So which active player's career path is the most interesting, the most surprising? It's Hill's title to lose. Here are the contenders to unseat him:
Candidate 1: Mike Trout
Category of interestingness: Nobody Could Have Predicted This
Case for: Trout's career graph wouldn't look like Hill's, dancing haphazardly like a Plinko chip. His graph would be a straight line up, from high draft pick to top prospect to best young player to best current player to in the conversation for best player ever. It's easy to get lulled into the predictability of a straight line, but remember that each of those leaps was unexpected. If you'd told a team drafting in the first 23 picks of the 2009 draft that you were from the future and that Mike Trout was going to turn into perhaps the greatest player in the history of the sport, they wouldn't have even let you stick around to tell them about the 2016 election. Put another way, Mike Trout has outperformed his projections every year, usually by large margins, despite those projections getting to reassess him each time based on his extraordinarily consistent greatness. Here's PECOTA (a metric for forecasting players' performances) vs. his performance:
The difference between 27.1 wins and 46.6 is massive. I don't know that any player has made PECOTA "miss" by a larger cumulative margin over the past five years than Trout.
Case against: The arc, such as it is, is in our expectations for him and our understanding of him. Trout hasn't really changed since the first month of his rookie year, and his minor league performances were so dominant that he probably hasn't actually changed much since the day he was drafted.
Candidate 2: Jose Bautista
Category of interestingness: The Extremely Deferred Superstar
Case for: When he was 27, Bautista was traded by the Pirates for a player to be named later, who turned out to be a Robinzon Diaz, a catcher hitting .244/.266/.336 in Triple-A. Bautista had recently been optioned to the minors, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review led its news story on the trade by acknowledging Bautista's career had already been long and frustrating. "Four years after he took a winding road back to the Pirates," it began, referring to the year in which Bautista had been plucked in the Rule 5 draft and then traded three separate times. He had never produced an above-average offensive season to that point, and he wouldn't in his first full season with Toronto, either. This is when teams give up on players, especially former 20th-rounders who had never been top prospects.
"This guy isn't like Mike Schmidt," Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi said the day the trade was made. "He's not going to come out and hit 40 home runs."
He hit 54 home runs at age 29. He hit 43 the year after, and he hit 40 at age 34. From ages 29 to 35 -- his most recent season -- Bautista hit 249 home runs, more in that age span than all but 12 players in history. Alex Rodriguez hit fewer from 29 to 34 than Bautista did. So did David Ortiz. The 12 players ahead of him on that list (including Mike Schmidt) had hit, on average, 198 home runs through age 28, while Bautista had hit 59.
Case against: When he was 27, Bautista briefly went to Triple-A. Big deal. Rich Hill pitched in the minors at age 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34 and 35.
Candidate 3: Joe Nathan
Category of interestingness: The Relievers
Case for: Nathan was drafted out of a Division III university as a shortstop, hit .232/.320/.345 in his first pro season, committed 26 errors in 54 games (at a level where official scorers are, anecdotally, known to be forgiving), and left baseball for a year rather than convert to the mound, as the Giants wanted him to do. He earned his business degree, then returned to baseball -- Giants GM Brian Sabean making him write a letter explaining why he wanted to return. Nathan worked his way to the majors as a reliever, survived shoulder surgery, was one-third of one of the most lopsided trades ever, and immediately became a relief ace in Minnesota. From 29 to 34, he was arguably the best reliever in baseball, better even than Mariano Rivera. Indeed, there has probably never been a reliever better from ages 29 to 34:
So that's at least two, maybe three, fascinating twists in his story, and he's only 34 to that point. Next came Tommy John surgery, a couple more All-Star appearances, and then a second Tommy John surgery, at age 40. In 2016, at age 41, he made 10 appearances and didn't allow a run.
Most pitchers don't make it to age 32. Of those who have, only 5 percent -- 51 pitchers, total, since 1950 -- made it to age 42. That Nathan, a pitcher who has twice gone under the knife in the past 10 years, might, is just the latest exclamation point in a remarkable career. And it might not even be the last: With one more solid season, he'll pass Trevor Hoffman by Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement model. He's already ahead of Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter.
Case against: Pretty much every great reliever falls into it as a backup plan after failing somewhere else. There are a lot more converted position players and failed starters and busted prospects than there are Huston Streets, groomed for the job from college. Nathan's surprising career is practically routine for the role.
Candidate 4: Bartolo Colon
Category of interestingness: The Resilient Old Men
Case for: In the spring of 2010, after four years of being terrible and hurt and large, Bartolo Colon underwent a surgery that none of us had heard of and that the league hadn't yet approved. His doctor, Joseph Purita, was more realistic than reality was:
"I was the biggest skeptic of all," Purita said. "When they told me about this, I don't mind doing this case, I don't mind helping him, but don't expect this fella to go back to playing ball. He's 36, 37 years old, elbow and a shoulder injury, in a pitcher? Let's be realistic here."
But after missing all of the 2010 season, and convincing most of us he was retired, Colon began racking up accomplishments that only an extremely old pitcher qualifies for: He led the league in shutouts at 40! Best walk rate in baseball at 42 and 43! An All-Star at 43! Suspended PED user and still among the most beloved players in baseball! More WAR after turning 38 than, oh, Matt Garza has in his entire career! His first career walk (and first career home run) at age 43. And he only throws one pitch! And he almost never touches first base! And he's just so fun!
The day he signed with the Yankees, post-surgery, in 2011, the New York Post's headline for the news was "Fat Chance." He has been more valuable than all but 27 pitchers in baseball since then. He's only one win above replacement behind Stephen Strasburg, who at the time might have been the best pitching prospect in history, and who would debut that same season.
Case against: To somebody less forgiving of PED usage, there's nothing all that remarkable about his career: Top prospect became a top pitcher until age and injuries withered him; late-career resurgence coincided with chemical assistance.
Candidate 5: Matt Shoemaker
Category of interestingness: Was Supposed To Be Nothing
Case for: In the 43rd round of the 2008 draft, the Rangers took Cody Eppley and the Orioles took Oliver Drake. Each signed and each has produced 0.1 WAR in his career to date. The draft went 50 rounds that year, but Eppley and Drake were the last players chosen and signed who have produced positive WARs in their careers. Clubs sat around naming hundreds of young men who would contribute nothing, while Matt Shoemaker sat at home disappointed. "But I don't understand," he told his dad.
It's not unheard of for a player to go undrafted yet find his way to the majors. Shoemaker's journey was fitful even by undrafted standards. In 2011, at age 24, he was the (Double-A) Texas League's Pitcher of the Year, and the Angels' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, but when the big league club's rotation was crumbling, they wouldn't call him up. (They instead went so far as to sign Jerome Williams, who had been out of the majors for almost five years and who could justify his own candidacy in this article.) Shoemaker's chance seemed to be past him: He got pounded in Triple-A for the next 2½ years, before he was suddenly summoned to the Angels' major league rotation in 2014. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, went 16-4 to lead the league in winning percentage, was terrible in 2015, was even worse over the first two months of 2016, got demoted back to Triple-A, got recalled, then ripped off a stretch of 20 dominant starts in the majors:
Corey Kluber, 20 most recent starts: 2.73 ERA, 135 innings, 148 Ks, 39 walks
Shoemaker, 20 most recent starts: 2.83 ERA, 130 innings, 121 Ks, 17 walks
And then his season ended on a line drive comebacker in September.
Over the past eight years, then, there have been multiple long stretches when it was not clear that Matt Shoemaker was good enough to pitch in the minors and multiple long stretches when he might certainly be an ace in the majors. These stretches intermingle with one another, different-colored beans in the same soup. His next five years might be the least predictable in all of baseball, even harder to predict than Hill's.
Case against: I'm not sure there's a case against him for this title. Ultimately, the major leaguer with the most interesting career depends on what you find interesting. I'm probably most interested in the players who are told, at 22, that they're just not very good -- and who keep persisting, onstage, in public, in defiance of this expert assessment. I'd have never had the guts. We all age at different rates, and Shoemaker either developed courageous self-confidence earlier than many of us do, or he developed a sense of realistic resignation much later than many of us do. Whichever it was, the fact that he is not a teacher right now makes his the most interesting career path in the game. That fact alone makes the next two months a season for optimism and hope, rather than a season of cold actuarial tables.