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Arizona Diamondbacks on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot: Brad Penny

[For some loose definition of “Arizona Diamondbacks”]

St. Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Brad Penny in Arizona

He may never have pulled on a shirt for the team. but Penny was part of the Diamondbacks before there even were Diamondbacks. By which I mean, he was one of the team’s draft picks back in 1996, almost two years prior to the first game at Bank One Ballpark. Indeed. this was before even the expansion draft, which happened in 1997. Penny was picked in the fifth round of that 1996 draft, meaning there are therefore less than a handful of players who can claim to have been an Arizona Diamondback before Brad. Of those, only Nick Bierbrodt ever reached the major leagues, and he ended up below replacement level at -1.1 bWAR for his time there.

Of the 62 players picked by the team that year, Penny has had far and away the best career. If you discount players that didn’t sign with Arizona (such as 54th-round pick Jason Jennings), the only other to be worth even a single WAR was Junior Spivey. Penny put up a total of nineteen bWAR, but as we’ll see, none for the Diamondbacks. However, he did spent three years in the Arizona farm system, beginning as a raw 18-year-old in rookie ball. By 1998, he had progressed through to High-A, playing for the High Desert Mavericks alongside other (minor) future D-backs like John Patterson and Steve Randolph. Penny was the staff ace, going 14-5 with a 2.96 ERA and striking out 207 batters over 164 innings.

Despite being our 1998 minor-league pitcher of the year, more immediate needs came into play. Jerry Colangelo was not hanging around, and as the team made their push for the NL West in 1999, the D-backs worked out a trade in July with the Marlins. Florida were on their way to a 98-loss season, so didn’t really need a closer. Pitcher Matt Mantei was therefore sent to Arizona for a trio of prospects: Penny and two Nunez’s, Vladimir and Abraham. The latter pair can more or less be ignored, each producing below replacement level, both for the Marlins, and overall in their careers. But it’s probably safe to say the Marlins got the better of the deal, simply regarding it as a straight Mantei/Penny swap.

The closer would stay with the team through 2004, and on his arrival, was key in the team’s first division title, setting a franchise record which still stands with 100 wins. But his time in Arizona thereafter was largely dogged by injury and effectiveness. He signed a four-year, $22 million contract before the 2001 campaign, but threw fewer than a hundred innings in total over that period, and only once in those four seasons recorded even a handful of saves. All told, he was worth just 2.7 bWAR during his time in the desert, a poor return for the almost $25 million he received. As for Penny...

Hall of Fame chances

Brad made the Marlins rotation the following spring, and won his major-league debut, tossing seven innings of one-run ball against the Rockies. It was the start of 412 solid years for Penny with the Marlins, culminating in the 2003 World Series. He started Games 1 and 5 against the New York Yankees, winning both with a 2.19 ERA. and was probably on course to win World Series MVP until Josh Beckett’s complete game shutout in Game 6 [there has been only one such thrown there since, by new D-back MadBum in 2014. Oddly, the two WS CGSO’s prior to Beckett were also thrown by current or future Arizona pitchers: Randy Johnson in 2001, and Curt Schilling for the 1993 Phillies]

The following year, the Marlins didn’t immediately enter tank mode, as they did after their 1998 win. Entering play on July 30, they were only 3.5 back in the NL East, and were looking to improve at the deadline. Having lost catcher Ivan Rodriguez to free agency, they wanted to upgrade and worked out a blockbuster trade with the Dodgers. Penny was dealt to Los Angeles with 1B Hee-Seop Choi and Bill Murphy (who’d later play briefly for the D-backs, and was the first player we ever interviewed, in June 2007). In return they got Juan Encarnacion, who has been part of the Marlins World Series winning team the previous year; Paul Lo Duca, just coming off his second consecutive All-Star appearance; and Guillermo Mota.

Our siblings over at Fish Stripes reviewed this trade ten years later, and called it “easily one of the worst moves in the Larry Beinfest era of the Florida Marlins.” This conclusion was reached mostly due to the inclusion of Choi, who had been Baseball America’s #22 prospect in all baseball at the start of 2003. Though he only put up 0.5 bWAR for Los Angeles, and that was the end of his major-league career, so doesn’t seem that much of a loss. Penny continued to be solid for the Dodgers. He picked up All-Star nominations in both 2006 and 2007, and going a combined 32-13 over those seasons. The latter year was Penny’s peak, going 16-4 with a 3.08 ERA, worth six bWAR.

But he was dogged by injury and ineffectiveness thereafter. Over the seven following seasons through the end of his career in 2014, he averaged fewer than 80 MLB innings per year. Penny had an ERA+ of 80 and was worth 1.3 wins below replacement level. There was a particularly disastrous stint in Japan, where he played in just a single game for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, and his signing was called “the worst decision in franchise history” by the local press. He ended his major-league career back where it began, with the Marlins in 2014. Penny then spent 2015 in the minors with the White Sox, and retired the following spring, after failing to make the Blue Jays roster.

Probably the most unusual inning of his career came against the D-backs on September 23, 2006, when he became one of the 41 pitches to strike out four batters in a frame, during the second. That’s getting close to perfect game levels of rarity (23 of those) But what’s particularly odd is, Penny also allowed three runs in the same inning, courtesy of an RBI double by Conor Jackson and two-run homer from Carlos Quentin. Penny was a hard thrower, leading all NL starters in fastball velocity for 2006 and 2007 - though his 93.9 mph peak wouldn’t even crack the top ten in the league this year.

But as the National League’s starter for the 2006 All-Star Game, he reached 99 mph as he K’d Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz in order to open the game (above). Penny finished his career with a 121-101 record, but an ERA+ of just 99 (4.29 ERA) and 18.8 career bWAR. He joins Beckett, a fellow Marlins hero of the 2003 World Series, on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, but may well struggle to receive a vote. However, it’s kinda hard to feel too sorry for someone who dated Eliza Dushku and Alyssa Milano, was engaged to a professional dancer before eventually marrying an OKC Thunder cheerleader, and earned about $50 million dollars over his career.


Will Brad Penny get a Hall of Fame vote?

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