The list, though, is chock-full of tragic, heart-breaking, bizarre, and overall fascinating cases of abbreviated and compromised potential. This is it, here:
9. Rick Ankiel
8. Ray Fosse7. Pete Reiser
6. Lyman Bostock
5. Herb Score
3. J.R. Richard
2. Bo Jackson
I did get the suspicion, however, that generally the upside of these players was being exaggerated for dramatic effect, beginning with Ankiel. Ankiel famously came down with his acute case of Blass Disease shortly after the regular season ended in his age 20 season. It was an impressive season at that young an age to be sure, at least insofar as the results demonstrated. His ERA+ was a robust 134, that season, though his peripherals suggest he may have been the object of some good fortune. In what can be seen now as a bit of foreshadowing, a sharp-looking 26% strikeout rate was marginalized by a very ominous 12.6 walk rate.
Still, 175 innings of 3.50 ERA in the heart of the steroid-era is nothing to scoff at. And to really gain an appreciation of how rare a feat like Ankiel's was, I sought to put together a list of players with at least 130 ERA+ at age 20 or younger since 1900. What I did not expect, however, was the girth of tragedy that awaited me in the results, as nearly everyone of the unknown names here had a tear-jerker to tell.
I've included a number of era-adjusted numbers here for historical reference, including a Strikeout percent plus and Walk percent minus alongside ERA+ and FIP+, and the difference of the pitchers BAbip and HR% from their respective league averages.
We can see that Ankiel's peripherals rank towards the bottom of this group. His walk rate is clearly the worst of the bunch with the exception of possibly Feller, who, unlike Ankiel, had the benefit an ungodly strikeout rate to balance it out. Ankiel's crowd, with the notable exceptions of the venerable Mathewson and Eckersly, offers up some interesting, if not unfamiliar names. A note of warning: buzzkill ahead.
Harry Krause had a marvelous start to his career, going 11-1 in his first few games as a 20 year-old, with 10 shutouts, and setting the ERA record for an AL rookie which still stands today. Until he very quickly began to report symptoms of "sore arm" and was soon out of the majors by 24. His immediate excellence and abrupt departure recently had him comped to Strasburg by Kieth Olbermann.
Don Gullet came out of the gate kicking some ass as a 20 year-old. He returned to post ERA's below league-average in his two subsequent seasons, but then rebounded with an ERA+ of about 120 for the remainder of his career, including a stellar age-24 season in which he topped an ERA+ of 150. At 27, however, shoulder and rotator-cuff problems ended his career.
Wally Bunker came up at 19, immediately endearing himself to the fans of Baltimore and quickly became the ace of the staff. He would ultimately earn the Sporting News Rookie of the Year award. Yet at one point late into the summer of this miracle rookie season, during a cold night in Cleveland, he felt the first symptoms of "sore arm", which sidelined him to part-time duties for the rest of his career. From 1956-1971 he posted an ERA just barely above league-average. He was done with baseball by 27.
It's tough to say what happened to Jerry Walker. He had a superb rookie outing at 20, posting a FIP+ 120. But in the following years his walk and strikeout rates traded places and as a consequence his ERA gained a run each season:
He was out of baseball by 26.
Dave Rozema went on to have a bit of success in Detroit after his remarkable rookie season, at least insofar as his ERA tells us, but he never again topped 150 innings in a single season. Mostly relegated to long-relief, after 1978, it seems a good chunk of his success was attributable to the Tiger defense at the time, as his defense-independent numbers were rarely very impressive. From 1981-84 the Tigers led the Majors in defense according to Total Zone, by saving 62, 77, 80, and 52 runs above average in each of those years respectively. Rozema repaid his second baseman by gashing his head with a broken bottle. Trammel got 47 stitches.
FIP may not be nearly as useful in the first half of the century as it is now, but it may help to filter out some of the more flukier seasons. The list of pitchers that posted a 130 FIP+ before they could drink is a lot tidier than it's ERA counterpart:
For me, only Bob Moose really falls under the suspicion of flukiness here, mainly because I had never heard of him. Feller and Blyleven are both Hall of Famers, and Fernandomania lasted for another six seasons, until taking a sharp dive into mediocrity in his age-27 season. And the Doc made the National League look silly for nearly a decade until shoulder issues and probably, um, other issues took their toll.
But after his impressive rookie season in 1968, The Moose did not disappoint in his encore season at 21. In fact he managed to post an even more impressive ERA+ once the mound was lowered. Moose's ability to strikeout hitters began to slip as the seventies rolled around, up until a surgery was required to removed a bloodclot in his throwing shoulder. The procedure had an obvious adverse effect on the pitcher, as his production lagged in the next few seasons up until a car accident abruptly ended his life on his 29th birthday.
Who needs a drink.