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No, this is not about a pitcher that gets better with age. This is simply about how a fan favorite and team ace can, in just a couple of years, become forgotten and seemingly disappear.
Brandon Webb’s career started with a bang, debuting in New York in 2003 and out-dueling Tom Glavine with seven scoreless innings and ten strikeouts. He finished his rookie season 10-9 with an ERA of 2.84. He was spectacular.
His sophomore season was a struggle. He battled control all season, leading the league in losses (16), walks (119), and wild pitches (17). In his defense, there was no defense behind him (Alex Cintron and Scott Hairston were his middle infielders) and the team was terrible. Even still, his ERA was a solid 3.59.
After a much improved 2005 campaign, he earned himself a $28 million contract.
With his new contract, Webb became a star in 2006, winning the National League Cy Young award with 16 wins, three shutouts, and only 50 walks. His sinker was considered the best in baseball.
The 2007 season saw him continue as an ace, but on a magical team. The Diamondbacks won their division and made it to the NLCS, all while sporting one of the youngest teams in the league.
Webb also put together his own magic, running a streak of 42 consecutive scoreless innings. I personally remembered the Orel Hershiser 1988 streak and how magical that was for me as a Dodger fan at the time.
I saw a lot of parallels between Webb and Hershiser. Both threw incredible sinkers, although Hershiser threw his a little harder and was called a “sinking fastball” as opposed to a “sinker” because it was thrown harder. Both wore No. 55 (Webb changed to 17 in ’07), both had amazing streaks, and both played for teams that overachieved to make the playoffs (I was in awe of how similar the ’07 D-backs were to the ’88 Dodgers and thought at the time that it was going to be another special championship year. It could have been).
Webb was the team’s best player and was loved by Phoenix fans not only for his performance, but also for his small-town charm and overall likability.
However, something happened during the 2008 season.
It was arguably his finest season, even when the team could not hold it together after a torrid start. He went 22-7 with an ERA of 3.30, and many believe should have won his second Cy Young. He finished second, behind Tim Lincecum.
Amid the success he had, things changed. The team began to negotiate contract extensions for him and for teammate Dan Haren. Everyone knew that it was going to cost a lot, but that he would get one done.
Oddly, Haren got his extension first. Then, strangely, negotiations with Webb were “tabled” for unknown reasons. This was after the framework was reportedly in place for a three-year, $54 million deal.
Since the reasons were kept quiet, some fans started talking about how he was trying to cash in and being selfish. Webb was hurt by this, and even went on the radio to plead his case.
Although he never came out and said it, nor did his performance go down, he seemed hurt by how things were handled.
There was also an ESPN The Magazine feature on him and his off-day routine. It did one of two things for fans. It either made him look amazingly talented that he didn’t work out much, didn’t study video or scouting reports, and played around between starts, or it made him look lazy.
The fact that he did not end up winning the Cy Young award seemed to bother him, too. He frequently mentioned his win total and how no one with his amount of wins had not won the award unless another had that many as well.
The 2009 season lasted four innings for Webb. Shoulder tightness took him out of the game and he hasn’t pitched for the team since.
Not long after this, it was leaked that the reason for his contract talks being tabled was because of abnormalities in his shoulder, meaning his contract could not be insured.
Then, the shoulder issue went from not missing a start, to a few weeks, to no surgery needed, to yes, he needed surgery. Of course, surgery didn’t happen until August so five months passed that were essentially wasted.
The local media and fans wondered why it took so long for the decision.
When his shoulder surgery happened I was reminded again of Orel Hershiser who had reconstructive shoulder surgery in 1990 just two years after his magical 1988 season. He was never the same dominant pitcher he was, but he went on to win another 107 big league games and was a very good player.
The team decided to exercise the $8.5 million option for the 2010 season, citing that basically they had no choice if they wanted to compete as a team. That turned out to be a very poor business decision.
Move forward to 2010 spring training and there was hope that he would be ready to pitch early in the season. No progress was made.
He missed the start of the season, hoping to pitch for the team by June. Then July. Then six-to-eight starts total. Now it is doubtful he will pitch again this year. At this point, it would actually surprise me if he pitches another big league game ever.
The worst part is that there has been nothing physically wrong with his shoulder for months. He just hasn’t been comfortable and has been fighting mechanics.
It hasn’t been a loud clamoring but there have been whispers by fans and media that he is just sitting on his option money. Louder has been the criticism of his mental toughness and dedication (which leads us fans to believe the ESPN The Magazine feature was an indictment of his laziness or lack of toughness).
It really is a shame. Webb was a true ace, a streak-buster, a guy you could send to the hill and feel all but certain of a victory. He was a difference-maker. He goes down, and the team falls apart.
Now he is a dead man walking (at the very least, he should be a dead man pitching or should have been one of the trades). No one sees him the way they once did. He is not exactly despised, but he is basically an afterthought, something puzzling with a former ace.
I wonder what will happen in the future. Obviously, there will be no big contract coming. If he comes back and is the Brandon Webb we all saw from 2003 and from ’05-’08, then we can figure that there was something personal going on with him and the team or something.
From the perspective of a baseball fan in general, I hope that Webb makes a full recovery and can dominate like he once did.
From the view of the Diamondbacks fan, I secretly hope he is never the same because then it would mean all of it was real and not some spiteful way of getting back at the team for not giving him the extension to begin with.
On the bright side, there is a young pitcher in Barry Enright that reminds me of Webb’s rookie year. I may be way off the mark but with two years of terrible baseball in Arizona and wasted money (Webb, Eric Byrnes, Bobby Howry, the GM/manager combo), I’m looking for anything to grasp onto.