Where have you gone, Mike Mussina?
Mussina was the last first-round draft pick out of Stanford to ultimately realize a storied major league baseball career. After being selected as the 20th overall pick by the Orioles in 1990, Mussina went on to win 270 games throughout his 18-year career, as the right-hander racked up five All-Star Game appearances.
The only other Stanford alumnus to come close to Mussina’s legacy is Jack McDowell. Drafted fifth overall by the White Sox in 1987, McDowell celebrated three great big-league seasons, culminating in an American League Cy Young Award in 1993, after which the big right-hander was never the same.
Now with the spotlight on Stanford senior Mark Appel — who figures to be a high first-round pick as the Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft gets underway today at 4 p.m. in Seacaucus, New Jersey — the point begs to be made that starting pitchers drafted out of Stanford hardly ever go on to successful big-league careers.
“I don’t really know (why that is),” said Greg Reynolds, a 2006 first-round selection. “I can’t really speak for the other guys. It’s a tough game. There’s a very select few that end up making a career out of this. I’m not sure I can put into words what separates everybody. I don’t really know.”
For Reynolds, the problem has been injuries. After joining Steve Dunning (1970) and Bob DiPietro (1974) as a second-overall pick — the highest in Stanford history — Reynolds immediately fell prey to serious arm injuries. He underwent shoulder surgery in 2007, then back-muscle surgery in 2009.
The right-hander out of Terra Nova is currently attempting to resurrect his career at Reds Triple-A affiliate Louisville, where he is off to the best start of his professional career. After throwing seven shutout innings Tuesday to earn the win against Norfolk, Reynolds upped his record to 6-0, and currently paces the International League with 78 innings pitched.
But to this point, Reynolds has been one of the myriad Stanford greats to disappoint in the Major Leagues. Other than Mussina and McDowell, the most successful was Stanford 1992 first-rounder Rick Helling, who won 20 games in 1998 en route to posting a 93-81 career record. Entering this season, all Stanford pitchers drafted in the first round since Helling — of which there have been 10, including Appel who did not sign after being selected eighth overall by Pittsburgh last year — had combined for less wins than Helling’s career total.
Only Jeremy Guthrie’s fast start with the Royals this season allowed the group, which now totals 96 wins, to eclipse Helling’s career total. Now a journeyman veteran who has played for four teams since being drafted 22nd overall by the Indians in 2002, Guthrie won his first five decisions this season, but has scuffled ever since, posting a 0-3 record in his last four outings.
Guthrie was the only first-round pitcher other than Reynolds to spend his entire Stanford career under the tutelage of former Cardinal pitching coach Tom Kunis. Stanford reached the postseason six times during Kunis’ seven-year tenure, including four trips to the College World Series.
“He was excellent,” Guthrie said. “Probably one of my favorites. Just a great attitude, worked well with all of us young kids. We gave him a lot of trouble, but he was always there. He really broke it down very simple for each one of us, and you can see by the way the guys pitched how important he was for us.”
The Kunis era wasn’t synonymous with big-name pro prospects, but it was the last great span of Cardinal teams to reach Omaha. Since his departure in 2007, Stanford has reached the College World Series one time in 2008.
Kunis produced some serious results from collegiate-ceiling arms such as Mark Romanczuk and John Hudgins. Neither went on to prolific pro careers. But they both emerged as dominant arms during Kunis’ last trip to Omaha in 2003, on a team that included current A’s infielder Jed Lowrie.
“I remember distinctly my freshman year, [Hudgins] pretty much took us to the World Series,” Lowrie said. “He was the guy we needed to win on that Friday night, and he was the guy to get it. He never really overpowered anybody. But he was just better than everybody. He battled, had a great changeup, and a good enough fastball to get guys out.”
The first name of this century’s collegiate ranks in terms of overpowering stuff is Stephen Strasburg. The phenom’s dynamic 100-mph gas, while notching a 13-1 season as a junior at San Diego State en route to becoming the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, brought an unprecedented spotlight to college baseball. Case in point: The only time Schott Stadium has ever sold out a Santa Clara baseball game was in 2009 the night Strasburg pitched.
That season was also Rusty Filter’s final year as the pitching coach at San Diego State, before he took the same position at Stanford in 2010. Filter watched Strasburg mature into a premier amateur pitcher, who went from an out-of-shape prep basketball enthusiast to a standout closer as a college freshman. Two years later he bypassed an opportunity to spend the summer playing for Team USA, opting instead to pitch in the New England Collegiate Summer League. It was there he added over five mph to his fastball.
Just a year after being drafted by the Nationals, however, Strasburg blew out his elbow and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. Such an injury begs the question: Is there such a thing as too much fastball?
“That’s crazy,” Filter said. “It’s circumstance. If you look at major league baseball, high-school baseball, I think injuries are a part of the game. You try to avoid them at all costs and do the best that you can. It’s not something you can really foresee. … You know, rosters are full of guys that are recovering from injuries, and pitchers are making great recoveries.”
This week during the Regional playoffs, ESPN commentator Kyle Peterson editorialized that overuse and misuse of pitchers has become a scourge in college baseball. The point was raised during North Carolina’s epic 13-inning win over Florida Atlantic to advance to Super Regional play, when Tar Heels manager Mike Fox opted to use pitcher Kent Emanuel as a late-inning reliever after the junior had thrown 124 pitches two days previous.
Peterson was a first-round draft pick out of Stanford in 1997. The one-time Cardinal all-time strikeout king went on to post a 5-9 record in the big leagues, after throwing just shy of 400 innings in three years are Stanford.
“I think at this point, that it makes sense for the NCAA to start to look at a pitch count, a mandatory amount of rest for kids based on the amount that they pitch, and you take it out of the hands of coaches,” Peterson said on Monday’s broadcast. “I think coaches are put into tough positions, I understand it, because of the conditions they’re put under. But I think it’s time to take a look at it.”
As for now, the man of the hour is Mark Appel. And as his name is called today, quite possibly as the top overall pick in the 2013 draft, the question that has been asked for over two decades will once again begin to resonate. Will Appel be the next Mike Mussina?