An iPhone text came in around 9 p.m. Wednesday. It read: “Wonder what Jose Fernandez is thinking?”
And you could probably add Lucas Sims, Lucas Giolito, Jameson Taillon, Julio Urias, Archie Bradley, Henry Owens and Kohl Stewart to that list of young pitchers who went to bed dreaming of a seven year, $215M contract that almost everyone felt made sense for a Clayton Kershaw who’ll earn that money from ages 26 through 32, who is one of three pitchers ever to lead his league in earned run average three straight years (hello, Greg Maddux, Lefty Grove) and who—and all those who dream should note this—is as reliable, sound and decent a human as one can find.
How Kershaw impacts Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields, Justin Masterson, David Price, et al over the next couple of years is to be determined. But barring the freak occurrence—look, Ted Williams said Herb Score was the best lefthander he ever faced and all it took was one line drive to change Score’s life and place in history—the Dodgers know what they have in Kershaw, and why they can rely on him. The Tigers knew that when Justin Verlander got his, the Mariners knew that when Felix Hernandez got his. Same for Cole Hamels and Matt Cain.
Which brings us back to the winter of 2008-2009 and the first pitcher “megadeal,” the $161M CC Sabathia received from the Yankees. Was it worth it? For those who felt it was merely a matter of paying the cost to be The Boss after missing the post-season in 2008, Sabathia immediately helped brand the new Yankee Stadium with a world championship. He went 59-23 and threw 745 innings the first three years of the deal. In his first five years he’s started fewer than 30 games once, and then, 2012, it was 28 starts. The Yankees redid his contract in the opt-out year.
Yes, there are elbow, hip and weight concerns, but he’s been everything in what he’s brought to reliability and the clubhouse and every kid he could help that the Yankees expected, especially after watching him make his final three starts with the Brewers in 2008 on three days’ rest, placing Milwaukee’s place in the post-season ahead of his impending free agency.
Things happen, but the medical and conditioning world is far more sophisticated today. The understanding of rest and recovery is the new wave of baseball science, both in the world of pitch counts, but in a world they hope is post-PEDs.
Thankfully, the Dodgers have a tremendous medical staff, as do teams like the Indians, Pirates, Astros, Red Sox, and on and on; in the cases in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston and Boston, the focus is on developing the next $200M starters, rather than paying them in their mid-thirties, when bodies start bending and breaking and are not freaks of nature or happenstance.
At this point in his career, Kershaw is historic. But so was Frank Tanana.
Tanana turned 23 on July 3, 1977. He beat the Athletics on his birthday, and at that point in his career, from his age 20 season in ’74 through that win on his 23d birthday, he’d made 121 starts. He completed 67 of them. He threw 976 2/3 innings with a 2.58 earned run average and an 854-262 strikeout-walk ratio.
Tanana also pitched in the same rotation as Nolan Ryan, a freak of another kind, a freak to be forever admired. But Nolan liked to pitch on three days’ rest. Tanana was not Nolan and needed four days of rest and recovery, and in the first half of the 1977 season, with a manager’s neck on the line, he made eight starts on three days’ rest.
After that July 3 win, Tanana was 12-6, 2.15. Then came the Allstar Break, and after the break he was 3-3, 3.47, and the next season the arm problems began. He was traded to Boston for Fred Lynn, and eventually learned to pitch like Jamie Moyer. He shut out Toronto 1-0 on the final day of the 1987 season to put the Tigers in the playoffs. He pitched until he was 40.
But Frank Tanana should be in the Hall of Fame. Instead, he is remembered as good. Score was the victim of fate, Tanana the victim of abuse with the sub heading, “they just didn’t know better.”
So, just for fun, look at Frank Tanana’s numbers in his age years 20 through 23, and thank the Nationals for caring about Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers about Kershaw, the Rays about Price, the Mariners about Hernandez, and hope that the Marlins will keep their eyes on Fernandez, the Dodgers on Urias, the Red Sox on Owens, the Diamondbacks on Bradley.
In case you’re wondering, Tanana threw 241 1/3 innings in 1977 and did not make a start after August.