Greatness as more than greatness

not how the arm is supposed to be used - Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Harvey is the latest star pitcher to be injured. In times of crisis, the instinct is to look to our own.

Greatness as More than Greatness

Yesterday, an MRI revealed that the Mets' 24 year-old wunderkind Matt Harvey has a partial tear of the UCL, erasing the rest of this season and perhaps most of next year as well. It's a terrible end to a phenomenal year, and along with the 2010 felling of Stephen Strasburg, another reminder of the harrowing mortality of the starting pitcher.

Meanwhile, Felix Hernandez is only a half-dozen starts away from the end of the season, at which point he will officially begin (the second year of his) his seven-year, $175 million contract. Based on the projections, he'll end the season with another win or so in value and, likely, his second time as runner-up in the Cy Young voting. He'll overtake Randy Johnson as the greatest pitcher in Mariners history at some point next season.

Ichiro's 4,000th hit last week was a cause for celebration, and rightfully so. We need milestones to help us appreciate things, because the human mind, so wonderfully skilled at adapting, is also wonderfully skilled at taking things for granted. But in modern times, those pitching milestones seem to get placed further and further apart. Modern medicine and its marvels are paced by high-leverage situations, more strenuous pitches and more efficient bullpens. The New Felix, the one who's striking out more than a batter an inning, will have to keep that up for six full seasons to reach 3,000 Ks. By that same pace, he'll reach 300 wins at the age of 42.

Felix makes it so easy to pencil in those numbers. He has a consistency that Randy Johnson never had. He has the perfect, carefree attitude. His injuries have always been just minor enough for him to seemingly surmount them.

But is Felix destined for the Hall of Fame?

Fourteen pitchers have earned 40 rWAR (Baseball Reference's version of the stat) by the time they reached the age of 28, with Felix on his way.

Rk

Player

WAR

From

To

Age

W

L

IP

SO

ERA+

1

Walter Johnson

82.7

1907

1915

19-27

206

128

2778.2

1889

176

2

Christy Mathewson

58.9

1901

1908

20-27

211

103

2665.2

1635

140

3

Bert Blyleven

54.8

1970

1978

19-27

136

123

2387.1

1910

132

4

Hal Newhouser

49.3

1939

1948

18-27

152

108

2166.1

1439

140

5

Bob Feller

49.2

1936

1946

17-27

138

72

1891.2

1640

138

6

Robin Roberts

48.9

1948

1954

21-27

137

88

2006

983

132

7

Don Drysdale

46.5

1956

1964

19-27

141

106

2266.1

1724

127

8

Roger Clemens

46.3

1984

1990

21-27

116

51

1513

1424

146

9

Wes Ferrell

42.6

1927

1935

19-27

141

81

1824.2

693

128

10

Nap Rucker

41.4

1907

1912

22-27

102

108

1851.2

1019

122

11

Tom Seaver

41.1

1967

1972

22-27

116

66

1641.1

1404

143

12

Bret Saberhagen

41

1984

1991

20-27

110

78

1660.1

1093

128

13

Pedro Martinez

40.3

1992

1999

20-27

107

50

1359.1

1534

156

14

Dave Stieb

40.2

1979

1985

21-27

95

80

1654

942

135

15

Felix Hernandez

39.3

2005

2013

19-27

110

83

1805

1679

128

This is acceptable company. Of the fourteen men above him, eight are in the Hall of Fame and two will or should be. But the four other plays are worth mentioning.

Wes Ferrell led the league in innings pitched between 1935 and 1937, his age-27, age-28 and age-29 seasons. 1936 was the last time he posted an ERA above the league average. His career lasted until the age of 33, but his innings and effectiveness dwindled each year, until he became a shadow. Today Ferrell is perhaps as well known for his hitting prowess (he had a career 100 OPS+, meaning that he was as good a hitter as the average position player).

Nap Rucker was one of the top pitchers of the deadball era, and one who, like Felix, mastered off-speed pitches to combat a fading fastball. Rucker's arm grew sore in 1914, however, and while still effective he required two weeks' rest between starts. In the modern era, he could very well have taken a year off for surgery and hung around for years, but he voluntarily retired at age 31.

Bret Saberhagen is the model for pitcher abuse from the 80s. During his career the joke was that he only played well on odd-numbered years, because baseball hadn't yet realized that he spent the other half his career healing on the job. At his best, he was every bit as amazing as Harvey or Strasburg, but either due to manager or genetics, he couldn't withstand the rigors of the job.

Dave Stieb is most often summoned as an unflattering comparison to Jack Morris, but make no mistake: Stieb was easily the more talented pitcher. At age 27, he stood exactly where Felix did: the centerpiece of a young team, someone who had gone out there every five days without fail. Then, he failed. The arm gave out and it was several years before enough of it returned, and enough craftiness developed, to make him a suitable starter for the first half of his thirties. The result is closer to a Hall of Famer than you'd suspect - and a better case than Jack Morris's, unless you love counting stats - but it wasn't quite enough.

We tend to think of arm injuries happening to the young these days, of mechanics not yet ironed and bodies not yet fleshed out. But pitchers, I've found, are a lot like newborns. You hold them, and they seem fine. But any moment, they could explode. Baseball is littered with UCLs and rotator cuffs, the dismembered limbs of men like Johan Santana, Rick Reuschel, Jose Rijo and Carlos Zambrano. Some of them are overworked. But sometimes, arms just die.

Pitchers, I've found, are a lot like newborns.


Please don't treat the above as doomsaying; there's no reason to assume that Felix can't enjoy a long, healthy career, as many pitchers have done. It's more to lament the collective possession of something wonderful, like Matt Harvey's changeup, and then lose it so suddenly. We live in the age of the GIF, where we can watch the pinnacle of baseball greatness loop, unheedingly, until our eyelids droop. But at the same time, we can rarely hold on to that greatness in real life. Unlike hitters, who tend to blossom over time, the pitcher arrives and then erodes, and we're left to watch them hold on to what they can.

We expect a lot out of greatness. It's more than just having a great pitch or even being a great pitcher. It's about keeping it up week after week, year after year, despite everything life does to impair it. That longevity is a mysterious thing: sometimes it feels gritty and tenacious, at other times a genetic equivalent of triple sevens. We want it to be something special that divides them, something that separates a Bob Feller from a Wes Ferrell, because the alternative is hard to take.

We want Felix to be the Felix we've already planned out. But if things go wrong, if the unthinkable happens, it won't be because Felix failed. It'll be because somewhere, deep on the cellular level, something failed him.

And regardless, he'll always be the Felix we have this second. Now.

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