Saturday, December 22, 2012

Why we root for guys like Jeremy Bonderman

The Seattle Mariners took a flier yesterday and signed Jeremy Bonderman to a minor league contract. While of itself, this is nothing to get too worked up about. Broken down pitchers are signed to such deals every year. Sometimes, like in 2011 with Garcia and Colon for the Yankees, it works out. Most of the time it does not. And to be sure, Tigers fans will probably not root overly hard for Bonderman to make it back to the majors. He became symbolic of failure to that fan base. But for the rest of us, Jeremy Bonderman was not treated very well by baseball and a successful return would be sweet.

Tiger fans will counter that Bonderman made quite a bit of money for his problems, and that would be correct. Bonderman was overpaid by the Tigers his last few years there. But that only seems right because of how his early career was mishandled.

The beginning starts with the Oakland A's and a prominent part in the Moneyball book. Bonderman supposedly was the only high school junior ever drafted in baseball. His draft by Grady Fuson is credited in the book for Billy Beane's famous chair throwing incident. But looking back on that draft somewhat exonerates Fuson. It really was a weak draft in 2001. The top three of Mauer, Prior and Teixeira all were terrific, but the rest of the first round was really a wash. The only case (in hindsight mind you) that Beane has here is David Wright, taken ten picks after Bonderman. And you can probably include Dan Haren, a college pitcher who was not taken by anyone until the middle of the second round.

But it was a mindset by the A's that Beane was supposedly so upset about and that was the odds of a high school pitcher making it were so much higher than a college pitcher or a position player. And Beane was all about the odds. Whether true or not, the A's including Bonderman in a big three team trade a year after that draft was Beane's way of getting even.

And even that was unkind to Bonderman. Sending a young pitcher to the Tigers back in those days was like sending someone to Siberia. The Tigers averaged 96.6 losses a season between 1996 and 2005. This was where Bonderman was thrown. And what is a common theme for a team that has no talent? It is the temptation of pushing talent faster than it needs to be pushed.

And that is exactly what happened with Bonderman. As a nineteen year old in A+ ball in the minors, he was asked to throw 157 innings. And then, inconceivably, the Tigers brought him up the very next year to pitch at the age of twenty in the majors.

The 2003 Detroit Tigers were one of the all-time worst teams ever. They went 43-119 that season. Ouch. And at the age of twenty, Jeremy Bonderman was thrown into that rotation. Predictably, it did not go well. He went 6-19 in 28 starts and 33 overall appearances and pitched 162 innings. He was shut down the last week of the season so he would not reach twenty losses. Which was weird because they did not mind letting the 25 year old, Mike Moroth lose 21. But anyway, that's how it went.

The following season, now twenty-one, Bonderman improved to 11-13 with a 4.89 ERA. But his FIP was 4.27 and his xFIP was below four. The Tigers improved as well and "only" lost ninety games.

The next year was even better as Bonderman went 14-13 with an ERA of 4.57 and a FIP of 3.90. The Tigers still lost 91 games.

But things came together in 2006. Jim Leyland took over for the beleaguered Alan Trammell and the Tigers won 95 games. Bonderman, still only 23 years old, was, according to Fangraphs, the third best pitcher in baseball. He went 14-8 with a 3.29 FIP (this was still in the offensive era). He pitched the game of his life to eliminate the Yankees in the ALDS and extracted some revenge on the A's with a successful start in the ALCS. He again pitched well in the World Series against the Cardinals but the Tigers lost the series.

Bonderman seemed poised to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. And indeed, he started 2007 with a bang. At the end of the first half, Bonderman was 9-1 with a 4.28 strikeout to walk ratio. But all those innings on his young arm must have caught up to him in the second half. He went only 2-8 in the second half with an ERA over seven. He had to have been hurt and sure enough, would lose much of the next two years to injury.

A much weakened pitcher showed up for the Tigers in 2010, his last season in the majors. He did make 29 starts, but was ineffective. His ERA ballooned to 5.53 and his FIP of 4.90 showed that much of it was earned.

After 2010, he disappeared. And he wasn't heard from in 2011 or 2012. This year, he is attempting a comeback and he is only thirty years old. Stranger things have happened (Vogelberg, for example). And the Mariners have taken a chance on him with a Spring Training invitation. The odds are tremendously long. But wouldn't it be cool if he made it? Wouldn't that be fun?

Jeremy Bonderman was not treated very well as a young pitcher. It's all speculation, of course, but that seeming abuse caught up with him in the second half of 2007 and plagued him until his last season in 2010. You have to root for a guy like Jeremy Bonderman. You just have to.


Anonymous said...


Miles said...

119 losses. and I thought the Astros were bad