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Better than you remember: Brandon Webb

A three-year run as baseball's most dominant pitcher
@williamfleitch
May 29, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Previously:

Moises Alou
Carlos Delgado
J.D. Drew
Travis Hafner
Wally Joyner
Terry Pendleton
Darrell Porter
Ruben Sierra
Jason Varitek
Matt Williams

Player: Brandon Webb
Career: ARI, 2003-09
Accolades: National League Cy Young Award, 2006; All-Star, '06-08

It is the age-old question in just about any field, whether it’s sports, entertainment, politics, business or ventriloquism: Is it better to burn out or fade away?

Would you rather be someone who has sustained competence for many years in your chosen profession or be brilliant for a short period of time but never have staying power? In the former, in the world of baseball, think of someone like Jamie Moyer, a man who somehow made his debut in 1986 and left baseball in 2012 but only made one All-Star team and never threw much harder than your average college pitcher. As for the latter, there may be no better example of a candle burning bright then burning out than the D-backs right-hander, Webb. For three years, he was arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball. And then, just like that, it was all gone.

Webb grew up in Kentucky, far from a baseball hotbed, and pitched at the University of Kentucky, where he was known for his fastball. He also loved to experiment with a sinker, which had incredible natural movement, but it was nearly impossible for him to control. Webb had enough stuff to entice the D-backs to select him in the eighth round of the 2000 MLB Draft, and he spent his first three years in the Minors, both striking out and walking a ton of batters as he tried to wrangle that two-seamer, which D-backs coaches were starting to see as a potentially amazing piece of his pitch array.

By 2003, when Webb was 24 years old, he'd corralled it enough to get called up, though it was largely because the D-backs had injury issues and needed a spare arm. (His first appearance was in relief.) Webb's first start was on April 27, and he threw seven shutout innings against the Mets. From then on, Webb wouldn’t miss a start for six years -- which wound up spanning his entire career.

That durability was what was initially so enticing about Webb, who would throw 180 2/3 innings his rookie year, 208 in 2004, and 229 in '05. He was a perfectly respectable starter all those years, still walking too many guys (including 5.1 per nine innings in '04, a season in which he lost 16 games), and he looked for all the world like one of those innings eaters who might unleash a corker every once in a while. Basically, he looked like someone who would reliably take the ball when you needed him to. The D-backs saw enough to give Webb a four-year, $19.5 million extension, a totally reasonable contract for someone who you know could take care of you every fifth day.

And then Webb figured out how to control his sinker.

Webb's 2006 campaign began with near-perfection. He began the season 8-0 and at one point had a 30-inning scoreless streak. His walk rate dropped to the lowest of his career (5.3%), and his strikeout rate rose to 18.7%. Combined with his ability to get ground balls, Webb became nearly unhittable. He was selected to the All-Star Game and pitched one inning, getting Derek Jeter, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez out, 1-2-3. He slowed a little in the second half of the regular season because of elbow trouble, but he still made all of his starts and recovered enough to win 16 games, put up a 3.10 ERA and win the NL Cy Young Award.

Webb ranks No. 1 among D-backs all-time righty starters

In 2007, Webb was even better. He put together an even longer scoreless streak, 42 innings (sixth-longest in MLB history), and won 18 games for a club that won the NL West. He made two postseason appearances, a terrific performance against the Cubs in the NLDS and a less-terrific one against the Rockies in the NLCS, and he'd finish second in the NL Cy Young race that year to the Padres' Jake Peavy.

In 2008, Webb was just as good, with a higher ERA (3.30, still great, particularly for that era) and 22 wins. He made 34 starts, pitched 226 innings and put up a 3.15 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, once again the best in baseball. Webb would again finish second in the NL Cy Young race, this time to the Giants' Tim Lincecum. Three seasons, one Cy Young Award, two runner-up finishes, 56 wins, 101 starts. The D-backs thought they had their ace to build around. But there were warning signs: In his five previous seasons, Webb had thrown a total of 1,135 innings, second-most in MLB in that span.

It was all about to go away.

On Opening Day in 2009, Webb was pulled after four innings against Colorado and put on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis. By August, he ceded to the inevitable and had season-ending surgery. The D-backs were committed to Webb enough that they brought him back in '10, willing to wait out his injury, but it ended up being a mistake. His shoulder problems resurfaced and he didn't return that year either.

The D-backs decided that was enough, and they opted not to re-sign him. Webb ended up joining the Rangers, who had lost in the World Series the year before but thought by signing Webb that they might have a sleeper ace. Then, in Spring Training, Webb had more shoulder issues. He worked his way back to pitch four games in Double-A, but he was hit hard, giving up 13 runs over 12 innings. Then he had surgery yet again.

Webb tried one more comeback in 2013, and it was going well until ... more shoulder problems.

“I felt good going into that offseason and my throwing program. It felt great,” he said just last month. “But then getting to that same point that I got to the previous three years, that’s when I was like, ‘I’m done. I’ve gotten to the same place almost every time. This is just not happening.’”

And that was it. At the age of 33, Webb retired.

For three years, Webb pitched as well as anyone in the game. Then, on Opening Day the next season, he made his final start. Would Webb rather have been brilliant and then disappear, or average and still pitching today?

“I was not even close to being ready to be out of the game,” Webb said. “But what I did, I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish in the short amount of time I feel like I was in the big leagues.”

Moyer was never as good as Webb, but he got to pitch nearly forever. Would Webb have traded his brilliance for that? Would you?