Monday, August 17, 2015

Top Rookies Who Quickly Faded (1947-1979)

Since 1947, major league baseball has honored its top freshman with a Rookie of the Year Award. The award was combined in '47/ '48 with only one player being chosen from both leagues. Though many recipients have gone on to long, fruitful careers, there are plenty of honorees who faded quickly into oblivion. Over the next several posts, we will take a look at these forgotten "flashes in the pan."

Sam Jethroe- Boston Braves
A speedy center fielder with wide range and strong arm, Jethroe spent most of his best seasons in the Negro Leagues. He was thirty-three years old by the time he reached the majors in 1950. The oldest player to be named Rookie of the Year, he led the league in stolen bases and scored 100 runs in consecutive seasons. In '52 His batting average plummeted to .232 and the Braves dumped him. The Pirates picked him up in '54, but quickly abandoned the project. 

Joe Black- Brooklyn Dodgers
Black developed his skills in the Negro Leagues before making his big league debut at the age of twenty-eight. He took the NL by storm, posting a 15-4 record primarily in relief with 15 saves and a 2.15 ERA. He was a starter In Game 1 of the '52 World Series, becoming the first black player to appear in the postseason win column with a 6-hit gem against the Yankees. In 1953, manager Chuck Dressen urged Black to experiment with a changeup and it seriously screwed up his mechanics. He never posted an ERA below 4.00 ever again. He was out of the majors after the '57 slate.   

Harry Byrd- Philadelphia A's
This right-hander had the misfortune of playing for one of the worst teams in the majors at the start of his career. Still, he would have fizzled in any city. After claiming Rookie of the Year honors with 15 wins and a 3.31 ERA in 1952, he led the league in earned runs, hit batsmen and losses the following year. Over the next three seasons, he played for four different teams, compiling a mediocre 20-19 record.

Don Schwall- Boston Red Sox
The BoSox rejoiced when this towering right-hander (standing 6-foot-6) posted a 15-7 record and a 3.22 ERA in his big league debut. But he was never terribly effective after that. In his '62 follow-up, he accrued a cumbersome 4.94 earned run average and lost 15 of 24 decisions. He was traded to Pittsburgh and Atlanta before disappearing from the majors after the '67 slate. He was one of only six Red Sox players to be named Rookie of the Year. All of the others went on to longer, more prosperous careers.

Ken Hubbs- Chicago Cubs
The Cubs thought they had found an ideal infield partner for Ernie Banks when Hubbs arrived on the scene. The smooth-fielding second baseman collected 172 hits and became the first rookie to win a Gold Glove Award. Though his batting average dropped to .235 in '63, he posted the second highest range factor in the league and was hailed as one of the premier defensive infielders in the game. Realizing that his debilitating fear of flying could endanger his career, he decided to confront it by taking flying lessons. In a tragic turn of events, he died when the plane he was piloting crashed in a storm shortly before the '64 slate.

Mark Fidrych- Detroit Tigers
Fidrych became a media sensation in his debut not only for his pitching performance but also for his peculiar on-field antics. His 19 wins, 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games made opposing teams envious. And his bizarre behavior--which included talking to the ball and grooming the mound with his bare hands--won him legions of fans throughout the baseball world. He was off to another good start in '77 before an arm injury ended his season prematurely. Though he had sustained a torn rotator cuff, it wouldn't be diagnosed for several years. He tried to pitch through it, but couldn't. He was finished in the majors by 1980.

 Butch Metzger- San Diego Padres
In the 1970s, closers were expected to work several innings at a time. Groomed as a reliever in the minors, Metzger ate up 123.1 innings for the Padres in '76, gathering 11 wins and 16 saves while posting a 2.92 ERA. He tied a major league record by winning the first 12 decisions of his career. After his Rookie of the Year effort, he never had another good season. Over the next two campaigns, he went 5-5 with a cumulative 4.30 ERA--way too high to be an effective closer. He converted just fifty-three percent of his career save opportunities.

John Castino- Minnesota Twins
Castino appeared to be on his way to bigger and better things when he captured Rookie of the Year honors on the strength of his .285 batting average and sterling defensive work around third base in '79. His follow-up season was even better as he topped the .300 mark at the plate and led the league in assists. Soon afterward, he began to suffer from chronic back pain. He sat out 61 games in '81 and 45 the following year. Out of the majors by '85, he obtained his Masters Degree and pursued a career as an investment advisor.              



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