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The Diamondbacks’ Worst Contracts: #3, Todd Stottlemyre

Hard to live up to a contract when you can’t stay on the field.

Todd Stottlemyre #30
  • Date signed: November 1998
  • Length: four years (1999-2002)
  • Cost at time: $32 million
  • Adjusted 2022 cost: $100.80 million
  • Production: 1.3 bWAR
  • Negative value: $90.40 million

How the player got there

Stottlemyre is a rare player to be picked in the first round of the draft twice... in the same year. For up until 1986, as well as the June draft, there was a January one, for high school and college players who graduated in the winter. Todd was the first overall pick in January 1985, but did not sign (his brother, Mel, went at #3 and did become an Astro). He re-entered the draft for the larger June phase - there were only 69 players chosen in January - and Todd went #3 overall there, selected by Toronto. It was, frankly, a dreadful draft class. Outside of Stottlemyre, only one other player selected in the first round had a positive bWAR for their career.

He reached the majors in 1988, and was part of the Blue Jays teams that won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993. However, his only Fall Classic start was a disaster, a two inning, six ER outing in Game #4 of 1993. Toronto still managed to win what remains one of the most insane games in World Series history, scoring six runs in the eighth inning for a 15-14 victory. Another amusing incident from his time in Toronto saw him and future D-back GM Dave Stewart arrested in a Florida nightclub, after a fight allegedly over Stewart’s refusal to pay a $3 cover charge. But he was almost the definition of an average starting pitcher there, going 69-70 over seven seasons through age 29, with a 4.39 ERA (95 ERA+).

He took a pay cut in free agency, signing a $1.8 million deal to pitch in Oakland, and won 14 games, despite a 4.55 ERA (95 ERA+). With an arbitration pay-rise looming - the system was different in those days - he was dealt to St. Louis for four prospects, Jay Witasick being the only one of note. He pitched two and a half seasons for the Cardinals, before being dealt to the Rangers at the 1998 deadline with another future Diamondback, Royce Clayton, for Darren Oliver, Fernando Tatis and a PTBNL. All told, from 1996-98, he had his best spell, earning a total of $13 million, and peaked with a 118 ERA+ for a $4.9 million salary in 1998, his age 33 season.

Which brings us to the D-backs pursuit of Stottlemyre. Arizona were off their 98-loss rookie season and were not happy about it. Said Jerry Colangelo, “With Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson, Stottlemyre is right behind those two in the free-agent market... You add Stottlemyre to it, that strengthens us considerably.” Which, frankly, makes me wonder what Colangelo was smoking. He may have been the third-best starter on the free-agent market that winter, but the gap after the top two was approaching the size of the Grand Canyon. Let’s play the usual game, shall we? Here’s info on three pitchers at the point Stottlemyre was signed. Can you guess who they are?

  • Player A: Four-time All-Star, two top three Cy Young finishes, 2016-18 ERA+ 172
  • Player B: Five-time All-Star, four top three Cy Young finishes, 2016-18 ERA+ 155
  • Player C: Never an All-Star, never mentioned on a Cy Young ballot, 2016-18 ERA+ 118

Of course, eight days later, the D-backs signed Johnson to a four-year deal as well, for $52.4 million. That one... went reasonably, I think we can agree. :) But looking back at things now, it’s hard to justify the signing of Stottlemyre to a similar length deal, for $8 million per year. For comparison, in 1998, the average MLB salary was under $1.4 million, and in modern dollars the Stottlemyre contract works out at $20 million per year. Through age 33, Baseball Reference reckons his closest comparable was Pat Hentgen, with Dick Ruthvan, Brad Penny and Steve Trachsel also in the mix. None of them exactly had stellar careers from age 34 on, and were not paid $20 million a year to pitch.

What went wrong

In terms of actual performance on the mound, I’d say that Stottlemyre perhaps actually surpassed expectations. Over his age 34-37 seasons, he had an ERA of 4.77, which is not bad for the heavily offensive period, being an ERA+ of 98. It’s very much in line with the 100 ERA+ figure he had posted in his career to that point. The problem was not the quality of Todd’s outings: it was there quantity. Over the four years, he averaged less than ten starts per season: only 39 all told, for a total of 217 innings. In other words, round about a single year’s worth of work. For example, just in 2001, no fewer than twenty-five pitchers tossed more innings than Stottlemyre managed over the entire duration of his four-year contract.

The problem was arm issues, which dogged Todd almost from the beginning. Not even two months after his first appearance as a Diamondback, he was lifted after four innings of a start on May 17 in San Francisco. He’d woken up that morning with discomfort in his shoulder, and by the time he was lifted that day, his fastball was coming in at just 80 mph. Twi days later, he learned the rotator cuff was 70% torn, with additional damage to the labrum. Cuff issues had ended the pitching careers of both his father and older brother. However, in consultation with team trainers, Stottlemyre opted to try rehab, spending up to six hours a day in the weight room, and changed his mechanics to use his lower body more.

He came back in mid-August, though team physician Dr. David Zeman said, “We told him he may throw one pitch or he may pitch five years,” The latter initially seemed more likely, as he started eight games down the stretch, then threw 124 pitches in Game 2 of the NLDS, beating the Mets. After the game, Stottlemyre reported, ‘’This sounds crazy, but there’s no stiffness, no aches, no pain. Tomorrow, my whole body will be sore, but not my shoulder. I can’t explain it.’’ 2000 started off in similar vein, with 11 starts on his scheduled rotation. But two bouts of elbow tendinitis cost him a total of almost three months, and even when he came back, surgery to adjust the nerve there was still required.

He had that on September 26, but complications resulted. Dr. Zeman explained, “Unfortunately, during the rehab process, Stottlemyre sustained a traction injury to the long thoracic nerve in his right shoulder. This injury was directly related to and caused by atrophy that occurred from the elbow surgery. We anticipated that the elbow and long thoracic nerve would respond favorably to rest of a two- to three-month period. However, the nerve is recovering at a much slower pace and it is my belief that it will require an additional six to nine months of rest to fully recover.” That ended his 2001 campaign before it started, though it did allow him to have labrum surgery.

While Todd returned early in 2002, the results were poor, and he made the last of his 39 starts on May 1, and was placed on the DL two days later. It seemed like the beginning of the end, based on manager Bob Brenly’s comments: “Stott has had a myriad of physical problems the last two or three years. Unfortunately, he has never been able to fully strengthen that right shoulder from all the injuries, and it was getting harder and harder for him to prepare between starts.” He made one bullpen appearance in late June, and went right back on the DL with bone chips in his elbow which required arthroscopic surgery to remove. He never pitched again, and retired at the end of the season.

“Do I wish I could pitch? Yes, I wish I could. If I could get out there and be accountable, I’d be filing (for free agency)... I came up short on accountability to my contract to the club for doing the things I signed to do. ’On the other side of the fence, I grew more as a person off the field in Arizona than probably at any other part of my life.’’
Todd Stottlemyre, October 2002

While the contract was an overpay based on Stottlemyre’s performance to that point. this one seems as much a victim of brutally bad timing. Todd had been thoroughly reliable and had few health problems before he signed with Arizona. If that had been sustained, this would potentially have been considerably lower. If we assume five bWAR over the full contract, that would drop its negative cost down to $60.8 million, just ahead of #8, Eric Byrnes. However, there’s always an inherent risk with health and pitchers: the team perhaps dodged an even worse scenario by not offering Brandon Webb a long-term deal. What happened with Stottlemyre shows the way injury can turn a signing from poor to disastrous.

Biggest lesson to be learned

Pitchers in their mid-thirties with a career ERA+ of 100, coming off a career year, are not a good bet for a long-term contract.