The Pain of TNSTAAPP
The axiom that There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect is often credited to Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckaby in the 1990’s. As an Atlanta Braves fan from the beginning, this was not news to me. I may not have come up with the acronym TINSTAAPP, but it was a lived reality for me ever since 1966. That first Atlanta Braves team featured returning 25 game winner Tony Cloninger, but I was also excited about young Wade Blasingame. As a 21 year old in 1965, he won 16 games. I was confident we could look forward to many more such seasons from the young lefty. Turns out that Blasingame won a total of 8 games for the Braves in ’66 and ’67, with ERA over 5 both years, before he was traded. Despite his promising start, he only won 18 games more games before he was done, ending up with a career bWAR of -3.3.
Blasingame was the first of countless disappointing young pitchers in my Braves fandom. Here are the pitchers that the Braves drafted in the first round between 1966 and 1979: Al Santorini, Ron Broaddus, Preston Hanna, and Tim Cole. Broaddus and Cole never made it to MLB, and Santorini accumulated only 0.8 WAR in the bigs (and that only after the Braves traded him). Hanna was tantalizing, pitching parts of 8 seasons for the Braves, but never fulfilled his promise, ending up with only 1.5 WAR.
I could mention other young Braves pitchers of this era who got my hopes up—Mike McQueen, Jimmy Freeman, Jamie Easterly—but the fact that you’ve never heard of these guys tells you what you need to know about their ML careers.
Braves One Year Wonders: Larry McWilliams and Craig McMurtry
Despite this futility, the Braves did have two very good rookie starting pitchers during their first twenty years. They are so closely connected in my mind that I can’t help but write about the two of them in one post. They are Larry McWilliams and Craig McMurtry (or is it Craig McWilliams and Larry McMurtry?—no, I think that’s someone else). Both were starting pitchers from Texas; both were drafted out of Texas Junior Colleges; both stood 6’5″; both had very good rookie years (McW in 1978, McM in 1983); and neither ever did anything positive for the Braves after those rookie years. They even looked a lot alike.
The Atlanta Plagues Strike Again
By 1978, the team was mired in the plague years that I referred to in my last post. But there were some signs of hope for the future. Dale Murphy wasn’t yet Dale Murphy, but he was just 22 and if you squinted you could see a major league hitter. 20 year old Glen Hubbard showed promise in 44 games. And 20 year old Bob Horner, after being drafted first overall in June, came straight to the big club and went on to become Rookie of the Year.
As usual, the starting rotation after Phil Niekro was horrific. Knucksie himself had one of his finest years: 42 starts, 19 wins, 22 complete games, ERA of 2.88, and an astounding WAR of 10.1 (the remainder of the pitching staff contributed only 7.8 WAR total).
Braves One Year Wonder, Larry McWilliams
But in mid-July they called up 24 year old Larry McWilliams. In 15 starts the rest of the way, the lanky lefty went 9-3 with an ERA of 2.81 (slightly lower than Niekro’s). He contributed 3.1 WAR in less than half a season, second on the staff. Most memorably, McWilliams was on the mound when the Braves broke Pete Rose’s 44 game hitting streak. He and Gene Garber held him to 0 for 4, including a liner up the middle that McWilliams stretched and speared. I was watching that game on TBS; when Garber struck him out to end the game, I felt like the Braves had won a playoff game (which as you know they would not actually do for another 13 years).
Anyway, the Braves had finally developed a young pitcher that would contribute for years to come, right? I should have known better. Over the next four years, McWilliams’ ERA was over 5, and in 1982, even though they were in a pennant race for the first time since God was young, they traded him to Pittsburgh for some guy named Pascual Perez.
To McWilliams’ credit, he turned it around with the Bucs. In 1983, he finished 15-8 and fifth in the NL Cy Young balloting, and he was just as good if not better in 1984. That was about it, though; although he hung around for six more years, his cumulative WAR from 1985-1990 was right at 0.
Braves One Year Wonder, Craig McMurtry
Speaking of the 1983 NL Cy Young balloting, you know who finished 7th? 23 year old Braves rookie Craig McMurtry. (He was second in the ROY voting to Darryl Strawberry—no shame in that—Craig even got six first place votes.) McMurtry made the rotation out of spring training, and went on to start 35 games, going 15-8 with a 3.08 ERA. Of course this was a much better team than the 1978 squad; they were the defending division champs, and led the Dodgers for much of the ’83 season, only to fade in September.
*By the way, I need to correct myself. Earlier I said that Larry McWilliams didn’t do anything positive for the Braves after 1978. Pascual Perez (remember the trade?) was almost as good as McMurtry for the 1983 Braves, also winning 15 games.
Back to McMurtry. I don’t remember whether it was his elbow or his shoulder, but he was never the same after that stellar rookie year. He had three poor years with the Braves, then three in relief for Toronto, and apparently hit the end in 1990. But Craig toiled away in AAA for the next five years. He finally made it back to the big leagues in 1995 for the Astros. He made 11 relief appearances as a 35 year old. It’s true that his ERA that year was 7.84, and his career was finally over, but you’ve got to admire the resilience.
So thanks to Larry Dean McWilliams and Joe Craig McMurtry. You helped me realize, as Sansho says, that athletic performance is not a constant, but that dedication and resilience can carry you after the first blush of fleeting success.
Thanks for reading on Braves One Year Wonders, Craig McMurtry and Larry McWilliams. If you enjoyed this piece, you can find all of our Braves Wankers and Wonders here.