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Brandon Webb: What might have been?

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The career of the Diamondbacks’ best home-grown pitcher came to a sudden end. But where could it have gone?

Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

On Opening Day 2009, there was little reason to be anything but optimistic about Brandon Webb’s future. He had just come off his third consecutive top two finish in the Cy Young voting, and over those three seasons, had thrown a total of 698 innings, going 56-25 with an ERA+ of 150. Almost nobody expected that the day would be the last time anyone would see Webb take the mound in a major-league game. He lasted four innings, allowing six earned runs and went on the DL with shoulder bursitis. Despite strenuous attempts, he never returned, Webb’s Cy Young winning MLB career ending less than six years after it had begun in April 2003.

About the only people who might have seen it coming were the Diamondbacks’ insurers. The previous year, Arizona and Webb were closing in on a three-year contract extension, plus a team option season, estimated to be worth around $54 million. Although Webb passed the team’s physical, their insurance company saw enough red flags, that they advised the D-backs they would not be able to provide insurance. The deal was withdrawn, causing some consternation to fans at the time, until the reason for it was eventually announced - not long after what would turn out to be Brandon’s final outing.

How might Webb’s career have gone, if it had not been derailed by that pesky shoulder? To find out, we’ve taken a look at the ten pitchers who provided production closest to Webb, over their ages 25-29 seasons. How did they fare thereafter? Obviously, these ten men represent a range of styles and pitchers, some more closely aligned to Webb than others. You can pretty much pick whichever one you want, but they provide a range of possible alternative trajectories for Webb’s career. Some soared; others faded. But all were, obviously, better than the reality of one more start, and four underwhelming innings.

Webb’s production from 2004-08 sets a very high bar. Over that time, Webb was arguably the best pitcher of ANY age in the National League: his 27.4 bWAR led all men on the mound, with only Roy Oswalt (26.3) and Carlos Zambrano (25.2) coming within five wins of Webby. If we expand the timeline to cover the expansion era, from 1961, up until 2008 - which will then give us at least nine subsequent years from any candidates - Webb was 12th among all pitchers for production from ages 25-29. This chart shows the stats for Webb and the ten closest in bWAR to him [It skews more below than above, but that should help give us a conservative assessment]

Brandon Webb comparisons, age 25-29

Player WAR W-L IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP ERA+
Player WAR W-L IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP ERA+
Jose Rijo 29.0 67-39 1042.0 896 350 306 291 893 2.64 2.92 149
Roy Halladay 28.6 77-31 1000.0 942 391 352 185 707 3.17 3.30 146
Brandon Webb 27.4 77-53 1135.0 1054 486 416 365 891 3.30 3.50 140
Steve Carlton 27.4 86-71 1457.2 1313 591 520 543 1138 3.21 3.13 117
Rick Reuschel 26.4 72-66 1229.1 1234 545 482 342 742 3.53 3.19 113
Tim Hudson 26.3 75-40 1094.0 1038 432 388 303 713 3.19 3.65 137
Orel Hershiser 26.1 83-49 1192.1 1007 427 366 351 828 2.76 3.05 129
Nolan Ryan 26.0 93-78 1425.0 970 527 465 836 1592 2.94 2.85 114
Mike Mussina 25.6 82-43 1072.1 1000 458 431 256 854 3.62 3.78 131
Jim Palmer 25.6 93-51 1354.1 1104 418 366 438 803 2.43 3.17 141
Roy Oswalt 25.3 79-42 1038.2 1033 389 361 237 818 3.13 3.34 139

I want to stress once more that, as we saw with Webb, past performance is absolutely no guarantee of future success. I should also mention that coming in at 135th on the above list, with just 13.7 bWAR from ages 25-29 (basically the same as Keith Foulke), was some guy called Randall David Johnson, who clearly was never going to amount to anything much... With that caveat in mind, let’s look at the ten pitchers above, whose overall production (as measured by bWAR) paralleled Webb’s most closely to that point in their lives. How did things go over the rest of the careers?

The first name provides perhaps the closest parallel, for Jose Rijo’s career, which had been brilliant to that point, was like Webb’s about to be derailed by arm issues. While he never had a top three Cy Young finish, Jose was MVP of the 1990 World Series for the Reds, where he went 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA. But in his age 30 season, it all came to a halt. He left a July game with elbow pain, and three subsequent comeback bids failed. Rijo did finally make it back - six years later, after five operations, including Tommy John, becoming one of the few people to pitch in the majors after appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot. It was a short return and he was done the following season.

At the other end, is Nolan Ryan, who would muster four more top-five Cy Young positions, five All-Star appearances and over two hundred further wins. Indeed, he’d get more major-league victories following his 32nd birthday than before it, Ryan’s career finally ending after his last start for Texas, at the age of 46. It’s probably safe to say that, save for his shoulder, Webb’s career would have fallen somewhere between those two extremes. Below, is a table showing what all ten comparable pitchers did from age 30 on - the figure after their name, is the number of seasons they pitched.

Brandon Webb comparisons, age 30+

Player IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA ERA+ WAR
Player IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA ERA+ WAR
Jose Rijo (3) 163.0 184 87 80 21 51 112 4.42 97 0.9
Roy Halladay (7) 1413.0 1335 536 497 119 259 1175 3.17 132 33.7
Steve Carlton (14) 3021.2 2704 1286 1121 258 1048 2412 3.34 113 44.1
Rick Reuschel (12) 1953.0 1983 808 727 122 502 1018 3.35 112 33.0
Tim Hudson (10) 1694.0 1629 731 683 134 470 1066 3.63 110 22.9
Orel Hershiser (12) 1930.0 1925 933 842 169 650 1181 3.93 104 25.8
Nolan Ryan (17) 3451.0 2584 1421 1243 211 1615 3629 3.24 113 54.9
Mike Mussina (10) 1994.0 2008 916 848 210 416 1660 3.83 117 45.1
Jim Palmer (9) 1758.1 1566 681 614 150 542 842 3.14 119 29.6
Roy Oswalt (6) 832.0 825 374 356 85 197 682 3.85 107 13.0
Average 1821.0 1,674 777 701 148 575 1,378 3.47 114 30.3

We can average out these numbers to give us an idea of what we could perhaps have expected from a healthy Webb: that’s shown in the last line. [Note: the ERA+ there is not a “true” value, it’s the average ERA+, weighted by IP, but should be good enough for most purposes] Based on the other ten pitchers’ subsequent career, Webb would be projected to have given us a little over eighteen hundred further innings, at an ERA of close to 3.50, and worth a little over thirty wins. It would have given him around 63 total bWAR for his career, and a shot at the Hall of Fame - pitchers with lower career bWAR in Cooperstown include, say, Juan Marichal.

For amusement, we can break it down further. Let’s presume Webb had ten more seasons. That would be the exact mean of the comparables - and also, among them, four had less than ten seasons, four more than ten, and two exactly ten. I’ve figured out the average of the comparables, for each of the age 30 through age 39 seasons, to show us what Webb could have done every year. [Note: due to the “long tail” of Nolan Ryan, who had a further seven seasons of pitching to come, the total here will be less than the average above. Also, because of the small sample size, there will be random fluctuations. This is just a bit of pre-season fun, please remember!]

Brandon Webb projection, age 30-39

Age IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA ERA+ WAR
Age IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA ERA+ WAR
30 229 210 95 85 17 79 167 3.33 123 4.3
31 198 184 79 74 14 58 149 3.36 121 3.9
32 189 164 70 62 14 54 141 2.95 138 4.4
33 150 143 61 55 13 40 108 3.29 119 2.5
34 160 143 64 58 13 47 123 3.24 128 3.3
35 148 140 66 60 13 45 114 3.65 113 2.1
36 141 123 58 53 12 47 102 3.36 124 2.9
37 138 135 65 57 13 38 107 3.71 109 1.7
38 130 130 62 55 10 38 91 3.82 105 1.5
39 118 112 52 48 9 36 79 3.64 105 1.5

You can see the gradual decline over age, as gradually, the comparables fall by the wayside and drop from the majors. But it gives you a bit of insight into what we could, perhaps, have expected from Webb. It may actually be selling him a little short. The expected first season, of 229 IP at an ERA+ of 123, may seem unlikely - after all, the D-backs haven’t had anyone reach even 210 innings in any of the past six seasons. But Webb’s average over the previous four years was 232 innings and an ERA+ of 143. It’s easy to forget just how great he was at his peak, before suddently being snatched away from us by a bad shoulder.