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A "brief" history of star-crossed players, Part I

Many players have given us a fleeting glimpse of their future, only to dash our hopes upon the rocks of reality. Until now, though, there's never been a definitive database of all of them.

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Oswalt excelled for many years, but still fell short.
Oswalt excelled for many years, but still fell short.
Bob Levey

Jim Fregosi's death a few weeks ago elicited a burst of remembrance from the baseball community. Many people were familiar with his work as a manager, or might have been cognizant of his time on the diamond, but most didn't realize just how good he was. Here at BtBS, Ryan Potter looked back on Fregosi's career and noticed that, for a part of it, he played quite well:

Jim Fregosi was arguably the best shortstop of the 1960s. Though he didn't play his first full season until 1963, Fregosi accumulated more fWAR (34.2) during the 1960s than any other shortstop.

Despite this, Fregosi is not in the Hall of Fame. This can be attributed to a series of injuries that plagued him during the seventies and limited him to 9.5 fWAR during that decade. After a 6.8-WAR output in 1970 (his age-29 season), he was afflicted with a foot tumor and a broken thumb; never fully convalescing from these maladies, he accrued a lowly 2.6 WAR for the rest of his career. Overall, he certainly had the potential for enshrinement, but it seems fate had other plans.

In every era, these players seem to come up — the ones with all of the ability, who give us a look at their potential, only to disappear too early or arrive too late. However, I have yet to see a compilation of these players throughout history; because I am the famous fox who does not reach the grapes, I will do just that.

First, we need to define a "deserving" Hall of Famer. When Dave Cameron wrote of the Hall in December, he noted that of the 12,392 eligible players, 208 (1.7%) are in Cooperstown. When we set 50 career rWAR as the minimum for induction, we get 297 Hall of Famers out of 18,174 players overall — a 1.6% rate that's right on par with the overall proportion of enshrined players.

If 50 rWAR is the standard for HOF status, what should the minimum for HOVG status be? For this exercise, I selected 30 rWAR — high enough to ensure a sustained level of success at the major-league level, yet low enough to include quite a few players (793, to be exact). This gives us a pool of 496 total players that can be defined as "borderline."

Out of these, we want to separate the ones who had the potential to be sure-fire enshrinees. This means players who, like Fregosi, were very good at some point or another. A 5-WAR season is generally considered an impressive accomplishment, so I went with that. Anyone can luck into a five-win season or two, though — it takes continued skill to put up four of them.

So, to reiterate: Players with between 30 and 50 career WAR and at least four 5-WAR seasons are the ones we want. Two trips to the Play Index later*, we've got our men.

*Really, Play Index? You're gonna make me look up hitters and pitchers separately? REALLY? Also, thanks to Stuart Wallace for loaning me his account.

There are 71** in total — 42 hitters, 29 pitchers. For now, we'll focus on the hurlers; the position players will be covered later. Some of them were very good; a few of them even made the Hall. They all share one trait, though: They fell short of their potential, because of a late start, a premature exit, injuries, other factors, or some combination of these.

**Well, not exactly — a few players snuck through who were active or whose early-career success was cut off by the Play Index's 1901 minimum date.

Now, without further ado: the table, entirely sortable:

Player Career WAR Years 5-WAR Seasons HOF? Career Summary Explanation
Roy Oswalt 49.9 2001-2013 5 NYE The vast majority of Oswalt's career WAR (48.8) was compiled from 2001 to 2010 as a 23- to 32-year-old. After that, however, he was decidedly worse, putting up a mere 1.1 WAR from 2011 to 2013 before retiring this offseason. Age (he debuted at 24), a few different injuries, and a desire to spend time with his family led to Oswalt's early exit.
Babe Adams 49.5 1906-1926 4 No In his age-24 and 25 seasons (1906 and 1907), Adams didn't do much (-1.5 WAR). After not pitching in the majors in 1908, he returned with a bang, putting up 23.3 WAR over his age-27 to 31 seasons (1909-1913). Then from 32 to 36 (1914 to 1918), he gradually declined, earning a measly 6.0 WAR, before coming back for one last hurrah from ages 37 to 40 (20.4 WAR from 1919 to 1922). Following this, he rode off into the sunset (1.3 WAR) over the last four years of his career. While Adams' meandering career path can't be attributed to one factor, starting earlier certainly would have helped him along.
Wilbur Cooper 49.0 1912-1926 4 No From 1912 to 1915 (ages 20 to 23), Cooper wasn't much better than a replacement (3.4 WAR). From 1916 to 1922 (ages 24 to 30), he completely flipped the script (38.1 WAR). From 1923 to 1926 (ages 31 to 34), he regressed to his previous performance (7.5 WAR). By all accounts, Cooper had good health over the length of his career, so this was probably just a pitcher's natural, albeit precipitous, decline.
Wes Ferrell 48.8 1927-1941 6 No As a 21-year-old rookie in 1929, Ferrell put up the fifth-best WAR (6.1) in the American League. That kicked off an eight-year, 49.2-WAR stretch of hegemony for him. He deteriorated in 1937, though, when his WAR was a measly 1.2. From there on out, he was a replacement-level pitcher (-1.9 WAR) until he retired in 1942 at the age of 33. After pitching effectively through shoulder pain for several years, Ferrell finally crumbled in 1937. Had he been born in a later era, one with actual medical technology, his career might have been saved.
Nap Rucker 47.9 1907-1916 5 No From his 22-year-old rookie year in 1907 to his 28-year-old year in 1913, Rucker accrued 45.9 WAR. After that, however, he dropped off, to the tune of his 2.1 WAR over the last three years (1914-1916) of his career. At age 29, Rucker's arm began to tire, such that he could only pitch well when given the ball every other week. This conspired with other ailments to remove him from the game.
Mel Harder 47.9 1928-1947 5 No After some middling age 18-21 seasons (2.7 total WAR), Harder broke out with 5.8 WAR in 1932. Over the next three years, he accumulated 20.5 wins, giving him 29 career WAR before he turned 26. This success was ephemeral, though; while he would remain decent (18.9 WAR over the next 12 years), he wasn't the same. Although the arm injury that beset Harder in 1936 wasn't fatal for his career, it certainly was for his dominance, as it transformed him from ace to innings-eater.
Frank Viola 47.4 1982-1996 4 No As a 22- to 26-year-old (1982-1986), Viola didn't blow anyone away with his 8.0 WAR. His 8.1 WAR as a 27-year-old  and the 31.5 WAR from age 28 to 33 (1988-1993) certainly did the trick. After that, he essentially vanished (-0.2 WAR from 1994 to 1996). Tommy John surgery in 1994 was a blow from which Viola could never recover. As for the late start to his success, he had to learn the circle change after struggling early on; this pitch took a while to master.
Bob Friend 47.0 1951-1966 5 No Friend's career was comprised of two runs of dominance: 1955-1956 (11.7 WAR), and 1960 to 1963 (20 WAR). From 1957 to 1959, he didn't do much (6.4 WAR); the same could be said for before (4 WAR from 1951 to 1954) and after (4.9 WAR from 1964 to 1966). A trailblazer in American indolence, Friend battled weight issues for many of his early years. While this alone might not have led to his bimodal career, pitching for god-awful teams and being in the center of manager-GM feuds/power struggles probably played a role.
Burleigh Grimes 46.9 1916-1934 4 Yes Grimes was another fickle pitcher 14.6 WAR in his age-26 and 27 seasons (1920 & 1921), then didn't top four wins again until his age-34 and 35 seasons, when he put up 10.8 combined WAR. Afterward, he was forgettable (4.7 WAR). Burleigh Grimes, or "Grimey", as he liked to be called, taught us that a man can triumph over adversity. And even though Burleigh's agonizing career was tragically inconsistent, I'm sure he's looking down on this right now...
Hippo Vaughn 46.6 1908-1921 5 No Vaughn crossed the five-win threshold in five of his 14 seasons: as a 28- to 32-year old, from 1916 to 1920. Prior to that, he was respectable (1133.0 innings, 14.5 WAR), but he definitely wasn't at his previous level. From what I can tell, there weren't any significant alterations to speak of the only thing that changed was Vaughn's team. As humorous as it may sound, Vaughn seemed to have an affinity for pitching for the Cubs.
Bucky Walters 46.4 1934-1950 4 No Walters was a solid starter for three years (7.0 WAR from 1936 to 1938). In his age 30 season, he took a huge step forward, posting 8.2 WAR in 319.0 innings the first of three straight six-win campaigns (1939-1941). He was decent again after this (15.6 WAR), but never at the level of his peak. Walters was done in by a late start to his career. Drafted as a position player, he debuted at shortstop at age 22, but didn't move to pitcher until 25, and didn't qualify for the ERA title until 27. Even then, it took him a while to really get going.
Noodles Hahn 45.9 1899-1906 6 No From ages 20 to 25 (1899 to 1904), Hahn banged out 45.8 WAR a Troutesque average of 7.6 wins per year. In 1905, he dropped off the face of the earth, accruing only 0.1 WAR in 119.0 innings before retiring the next year at the ripe old age of 27. Hahn's god-like value came at a cost: 1910.1 innings, the 27th-most ever for a pitcher before his 26th birthday. Succumbing to an inevitable arm injury during the 1905 season, he was never the same.
Addie Joss 45.9 1902-1910 4 Yes Of the nine seasons Joss pitched, his lowest WAR was 2.3 in 1910 in 107.1 innings. Other than that, he topped 4 WAR in every season and was generally awesome. Sadly, the primitive medicine of the day couldn't save Joss from injury (he tore a ligament in the aforementioned 1910 season, which led to its brevity) or an untimely demise (he died at the beginning of the 1911 season from tubercular meningitis).
Brad Radke 45.6 1995-2006 4 No Radke's rookie year (1995, at age 22) consisted of an unspectacular 1.6 WAR; his next six years (30.5 WAR) were the opposite. After an abbreviated 2002 (0.6 WAR in 118.1 innings), he could only regain his success in 2004 (5.8 WAR), and ultimately called it quits as a 33-year-old in 2006. Although Radke wasn't phenomenal in 2006 (1.7 WAR), he could have continued to pitch, but nagging shoulder problems  which also contributed to his overall depreciation  were too much to bear.
Vida Blue 45.0 1969-1986 4 No Volatility was the name of Blue's game. As a 21-year-old rookie in 1971, he accrued 9.0 WAR, the Cy Young, and the MVP. The next three years (1972 to 1974) were mostly forgettable (4.8 WAR); the next four years (1975 to 1978) were unforgettable (21.6 WAR). A one-year meltdown in 1979 (-0.9 WAR) foreshadowed another exemplary year in 1980 (5.8 WAR). This was the beginning of the end, however, as he only gained 6.1 WAR over the next five years (1981 to 1986) until his retirement. Blue felt he deserved a raise after eating planets in 1971; ownership felt differently. Holding out for the majority of 1972, he was never the same. Plus, y'know, an addiction to cocaine, which probably wasn't good for a pitcher to have.
George Uhle 44.4 1919-1936 4 No Uhle was one of the more inconsistent pitchers of his day he gained 5 WAR when he was 24, 27, 31, and 32 (1923, 1926, 1930, and 1931, respectively), but he only topped four WAR in one other year (1924, his age-25 season). A late-career meltdown (sub-replacement level from his age-34 season on) certainly made matters worse, but the inability to sustain his success was Uhle's undoing.
Herb Pennock 44.1 1912-1934 4 Yes Debuting at age 18, Pennock pitched as one might expect from someone of that age: not well. His career WAR at age 28 stood at 9.8. Then, over the next six years (1923 to 1928), he was exceptional (31.9 WAR), before being just as unexceptional (2.8 WAR) over the next six years (1929 to 1934). The magical elixir known as True Yankeedom healed that which ailed Pennock. When he pulled a Babe Ruth in the 1922 offseason (i.e. eschewing Boston for New York), his career took off.
Javier Vazquez 43.3 1998-2011 4 NYE Vasquez started off poorly, posting -1.2 WAR as a 21- and 22-year-old in 1998 and 1999. Following success (19.4 WAR) as a 23- to 26-year old (2000 to 2003), he was mediocre for three years (7.4 WAR from 2004 to 2006). As a 30- to 32-year-old (2007 to 2009), he recaptured the magic of his youth, only to devolve once more (2.2 WAR in 2010 and 2011). Vasquez's issue, like that of so many, was finding consistency. Being traded five times probably didn't help him in that department.
Sam McDowell 42.9 1961-1975 4 No After some early-career hiccups (-1.2 WAR from ages 18 to 20), McDowell settled in nicely, accumulating 43.5 WAR from ages 21 to 28 (1964 to 1971). Over the next four years (1972 to 1975), he was replacement-level (0.6 WAR), before retiring as a 32-year old in 1976. McDowell clashed with his owners in Cleveland, who traded him to San Francisco after the 1971 season. That turned out to be a fiasco of Slocumbian proportions: He battled alcoholism and shoulder, neck, and back injuries, while Gaylord Perry gave the Indians 27.5 WAR over the next three years alone.
Claude Passeau 42.8 1935-1947 4 No Passeau was quite good when he did pitch from 1936 to 1945 (his age 27 to 36 seasons), he gave his team at least three wins eight times, and crossed the five-win plateau four times. Apparently, Passeau was more concerned with "getting a college education" than with being in the Baseball Hall of Fame. How else can one explain his four years spent in college and 27-year-old rookie season?
Dizzy Dean 42.7 1930-1947 5 Yes Dean certainly made batters dizzy, at least at first: From 1930 to 1938 (ages 20 to 28), he accrued 41.1 WAR. After that, though, they returned the favor  1.3 WAR from 1939 to 1941 (29 to 31). Oh, and a one-game, 0.4-WAR stunt in 1947. Injuries snowballed to ruin Dean's career: After fracturing his toe in 1937, he adjusted his mechanics, which resulted in an arm injury, which destroyed his velocity and turned him into a scrub.
Jack Chesbro 41.2 1899-1909 4 Yes Though Chesbro took a while to show up, he was excellent when he was here from 1901 to 1907 (his ages 27 to 33 seasons), he put up 39.5 WAR. After that, he disappeared as quickly as he appeared (-0.3 WAR from 1908 to 1909). Chesbro's absence until that point can be attributed to the chaotic nature of baseball as a whole. Before he debuted as a 25-year-old rookie in 1899, he bounced between several semipro and pro teams, many of which folded, before finding a permanent home in the majors.
Carlos Zambrano 38.2 2001-2012 4 NYE From 2003 to 2010, Zambrano put up a superb 36.4 WAR. It all came off the rails in 2011, however (0.8 WAR); when a change of scenery to purgatory Miami didn't improve his performance (0.3 WAR), he was forced into an early retirement. While Zambrano suffered from a few ailments, none were that severe. Perhaps a false age contributed to his harsh decline. Oh, and his temper didn't help his case.
Jeff Pfeffer 38.1 1911-1924 4 No Pfeffer took a while to get started, but when he did, it was worth the wait: From 26 to 29 (1914 to 1917), he contributed 25 wins to his team. After that, though, he declined severely: 13.3 WAR from age 31 to 36 (1919 to 1924). In 1918, Pfeffer decided to forgo baseball to join the Navy...sort of. See, he told his owner that he was ditching the team, only to show up in spring training (to the owner's ire), having taken a job in the Naval Reserves. He ended up getting called upon, however, and only pitched in one game that year; when he returned as a 31-year-old in 1919, he wasn't the same.
Camilo Pascual 37.8 1954-1971 4 No Pascual's outstanding 24- to 29-year-old seasons (32.2 WAR) were preceded by terrible 20- to 23-year-old seasons (-0.2 WAR) and preceded lousy 30- to 37-year-old seasons (5.8 WAR). The maladies Pascual suffered during his 1964 campaign hung with him for the rest of his career; other than that, general pitcher decline did the trick.
Andy Messersmith 37.4 1968-1979 4 No In his first qualifying season (1969), Messersmith didn't disappoint, as his 5.3 WAR set a high standard. He couldn't meet it for a while, though, putting up a satisfactory 7.5 WAR over the next three years (1970 to 1972). He followed that with four magnificent seasons (21.0 WAR from 1973 to 1976), before a swift halt (1.7 WAR from 1977 to 1979). Messersmith's heated contract negotiations led to the Seitz Decision, which essentially created baseball free agency. They weren't without cost, however, as the stress and time they took up probably hurt him in his career.
Preacher Roe 35.1 1938-1954 4 No Making one appearance (a 2.2-inning, -0.2 WAR shellacking) in 1938 as a 22-year-old, Roe was absent for five years. He was then superior for two years (10.3 WAR from 1944 to 1945), then inferior for two years (-0.6 WAR from 1946 to 1947), then superior again for five years (24.2 WAR from 1948 to 1952). Roe spent a half-decade laboring in the minor leagues, where he perfected a pitch that was as effective as it was illegal: the spitball. Once he got it down, the rest was history (except for a two-year spot of struggles, due to a concussion inflicted in the 1945 offseason).
Jose Rijo 35.0 1984-2002 4 No

The mid-80s weren't kind to Rijo (-1.5 WAR from 1984 to 1987), but the late 80s and early 90s certainly were (35.6 WAR from 1988 to 1994). In 1995, he dropped off sharply (0.7 WAR); and a two-year stint in the early 00s didn't amount to anything (0.2 WAR).

Elbow troubles in 1995 forced Rijo to get Tommy John surgery; he could never entirely recuperate from this operation.
Brandon Webb 33.3 2003-2009 5 NYE Over a six-year span in the aughts (2003-2008), Webb was sublime 1315.2 innings, 33.5 WAR, and a Cy Young. Then in 2009, he only pitched one game his last ever. In this case, a Prior-like plethora of injuries did Webb in, fulfilling the prophecy.

Be here soon to catch A "Brief" History Of Star-Crossed Players, Part II — brought to you by Bartley's Rocket Wax!

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference. All biographical information courtesy of the SABR Baseball Biography Project, the B-R Bullpen, and The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.

Ryan Romano writes for Beyond the Box Score, the FanGraphs Community blog, and Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Community, Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC. Cool. Coolcoolcool.