Kenny Rogers will likely fall short of Cooperstown, but his career is worth remembering. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.
If you're left-handed and can get batters out, you can survive in baseball for a long, long time. Blessed with an impressive arm but barely a baseball player when he was drafted out of high school at age 17, Kenny Rogers stuck around the game for more than a quarter of a century, spending 20 eventful years in the big leagues.
Rogers seemed to have more lives than a cat. His career went through multiple phases and didn't lack for ups and down. He served three separate stints with the Rangers, surviving the crucible of triple-digit heat and a ballpark that inflated scoring levels at a time when they were already at an historical high. Initially typecast as a reliever, he didn't join the rotation on a regular basis until he was 28. He tossed a perfect game in 1994, was the subject of many a Bronx cheer in 1996-1997, and threw the fateful losing pitch in the 1999 NLCS. He battled back from thoracic outlet syndrome to earn All-Star honors in three straight years in his late 30s and early 40s. His 2005 All-Star appearance was surrounded by controversy as he appealed a 20-game suspension for an altercation with a cameraman. He became a staff ace at age 41, finding a measure of redemption – and even more controversy — in the World Series.
With his rollercoaster ride all said and done, Rogers doesn't have any kind of real case for Cooperstown, but he stacks up better than you'd think, particularly when compared to one of the ballot's more notable pitchers. He's likely one-and-done after this year's vote, but his career deserves a closer look as he passes through the process.
|Avg HOF SP||72.6||50.2||61.4|
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Rogers was a military brat until his father retired and bought a strawberry farm in Dover, Florida. He was so busy helping his parents on the farm that he only played baseball his senior year of at Plant City High School, and that as a rightfielder. Luckily, two scouts from the Rangers who showed up to watch future Cubs first-round pick Stan Boderick came away impressed by his arm. As Tim Kurkjian told the story in a 1994 feature in Sports Illustrated:
His good fortune began in 1981 when Ranger scout Joe Marchese saw Roger; make a strong throw while playing short stop in a recreation league before his senior year at Plant City ( Fla.) High. Marchese made a note about Rogers's arm strength, and during spring training in '82 he talked Klein into leaving a Ranger workout to watch Rogers throw before a high school game. Fifteen scouts were or hand, but only Klein and Marchese were there to see Rogers, who was warming up in rightfield. "His first throw went over the third baseman's head, and so did the second one," Klein says. "His third throw went over the backstop. His fourth hit the backstop. Joe said to me, 'We should sign him in the 50th round as a pitcher.' We didn't even stay for the game."
The Rangers used their 39th round pick of the 1982 draft to tab Rogers despite his lack of experience and size (he was just 135 pounds). When he showed up at the team's rookie league outpost, he didn't know how to throw from the stretch; he threw just three innings in his first professional season, and later told SI, ""I believe the only reason [Sarasota manager Tom Grieve] didn't release me the first couple of years was that I brought the coaches strawberries from my father's farm."
Rogers moved slowly through the Rangers' system, missing his share of bats but making uneven progress up the ladder; he spent parts of 1986, '87 and '88 at Double-A Tulsa while being hit for a 5.39 ERA. Even so, instructors Tom House and Dick Egan saw a diamond in the rough, and Rogers broke camp with the big club as a reliever in 1989, making his major league debut on April 6 with a four-pitch walk of Detroit's Matt Nokes. The 24-year-old southpaw made 73 appearances out of the bullpen that year, striking out 7.7 per nine and finishing with a 2.93 ERA.
Rogers spent three more years pitching primarily in relief for the Rangers, mostly in higher-leverage duty. For the four year period he averaged 72 appearances and 90 innings with a 3.78 ERA (105 ERA+) and 7.0 strikeouts per nine. He notched a total of 28 saves in that span, with a high of 15 in 1990; in 1992, he led the league with 81 appearances. During that time, the Rangers briefly experimented with him as a starter, but he was cuffed for a 7.53 ERA while walking 6.5 per nine in nine starts in 1991.
In the spring of 1993, rookie manager Kevin Kennedy put the 28-year-old Rogers in the rotation, and pitching coach Claude Osteen told him to throw his fastball more often. He wound up winning 16 games and throwing 208 1/3 innings of 4.10 ERA ball (102 ERA+). On July 28, 1994, he became the 14th pitcher in major league history to throw a perfect game, retiring all 27 Angels in an outing at The Ballpark in Arlington, aided by rookie centerfielder Rusty Greer's diving ninth-inning catch.
Rogers continued to flourish under Kennedy's successor, Johnny Oates. In the strike-shortened 1995 season, he earned All-Star honors and went 17-10 with a 3.38 ERA in 208 innings, good for a 144 ERA+ and 5.8 WAR; all of those marks ranked in the top five of the league. He parlayed that big season, his last before free agency, into a four-year, $20 million deal with the Yankees, who chose him over Chuck Finley, a pitcher later renowned for his success against the Yankees.
Rogers went 12-8 with a 4.68 ERA for the Yankees in 1996, still good for a 107 ERA+, but he walked 4.2 per nine while striking out 4.6, a perilous ratio. The Yankees won the AL East, and Rogers was part of the team's postseason rotation, albeit as the weakest link. He started the fourth game of all three series, totaling seven innings while allowing 11 runs, yet somehow the Yankees won all three games. The last of them was the classic Game 4 in which the Yankees clawed back from 6-0 thanks in part to Jim Leyritz's three-run homer in the eighth inning of Atlanta's Mark Wohlers, then won in the 10th inning.
The Yankees went on to win that series, but for Rogers things only got worse. He was in and out of the rotation in 1997, finishing the year with a 5.65 ERA in just 145 innings. After the season, he was traded to the A's for a player to be named later who turned out to be 1998 World Series MVP Scott Brosius. Rogers pitched well enough in Oakland to set a career high with 7.5 WAR (second in the league), that off a 3.17 ERA (third in the league) across 238 2/3 innings. He wasn't quite as sharp the following year, but the Mets dealt two players including outfielder Terrence Long for him on July 23. Reunited with his first manager on the Rangers, Bobby Valentine, Rogers put up a 4.03 ERA in 12 starts down the stretch, helping the Mets win the Wild Card.
Alas, when the postseason came around, the Gambler was still a shaky bet. He lasted just 9 2/3 innings while allowing eight runs in Game 2 losses against the Diamondbacks in the Division Series and the Braves in the League Championship Series. He found a bit of redemption with two scoreless innings of relief in the Mets' 15-inning Game 5 win (the Robin Ventura Grand Single game), but when summoned in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 6, things didn't go as well; Rogers yielded a leadoff double to Shawon Dunston, and after a sacrifice, issued intentional walks to the next two hitters to load the bases for Andruw Jones. On a full count, Rogers threw a high changeup that Jones took for ball four, forcing in the winning run and sending the Braves to the World Series. "Everything you've done in the past, they'll forget about and remember this. That is just the way it is," he lamented afterwards. Mets fans still haven't gotten over that pitch, never mind the fact that their team even came back to tie the game after Al Leiter allowed five first-inning runs without retiring a batter.
Rogers moved on, signing a three-year, $22.5 million deal to return to Texas. He threw 227 1/3 innings of 4.55 ERA ball (110 ERA+) in 2000, but struggled in the first half of 2001 before being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a circulatory problem that requires the removal of a rib. He underwent the surgery — the first major leaguer to do so — and returned to throw 210 2/3 innings with a 3.84 ERA the following year; his 5.0 WAR ranked ninth in the league.
Rogers rejected a two-year, $10.2 million deal to return to Texas, but was able to secure just a one-year, $2 million deal from the Twins in what was widely suspected to be a return of collusion to hold free agent salaries down. Though he helped the Twins win the AL Central in his lone year in Minnesota, he returned to Texas via a two-year, $6 million deal the following winter, and responded by delivering a combined 4.14 ERA (115 ERA+) and 8.5 WAR while making the All-Star team in both seasons, just the second and third times he'd done so in his career — not too shabby for a pitcher in his age 39 and 40 seasons.
Though he pitched better in the second season of that deal than the first, Rogers' 2005 was marked by escalating controversy. In the spring, he began boycotting local media after a report that he threatened to retire if not given a contract extension. Pulled from a June 17 start against the Nationals in which he allowed 12 baserunners in 6 1/3 innings but yielded just one run, Rogers spiked a baseball when manager Buck Showalter removed him, then proceeded to break a bone at the base of his right pinkie after punching a water cooler in frustration. News of the fracture wasn't revealed until after he was shelled in his next start, after which Showalter announced that he would miss at least one turn. On June 29, when being filmed before a home game, he shoved one cameraman while telling him, "I told you to get those cameras out of my face." He then wrestled a camera from a second cameraman, threw it to the ground and kicked it; that cameraman was treated for injuries by paramedics. In an understatement, Rangers general manager John Hart said, ""Kenny is having anger issues right now."
Rogers was charged with misdemeanor assault, suspended for 20 games and fined $50,000. Upon appeal, he was allowed to participate in the All-Star Game. When the appeal was finally handled — and rejected — by commissioner Bud Selig instead of being heard by MLB vice president of rules and on-field operations Bob Watson, the players' union filed a grievance, which went before arbitrator Shyam Das, who reinstated Rogers after missing 13 games.
Still going strong and in greater demand than ever, Rogers inked a two-year, $16 million deal with the Tigers in December 2005. Under new manager Jim Leyland and in front of a rotation featuring 23-year-olds Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, he emerged as a staff leader, starting on Opening Day, going 17-11 with a 3.84 ERA in 208 innings and helping the team — which had lost 406 games over the previous four seasons — win the AL Wild Card. He earned All-Star honors for the third year in a row, picked up his 200th win with a June 18 victory over the Cubs, and even received Cy Young votes for the only time in his career, finishing fifth.
Contrary to expectations given his career 8.85 ERA in the postseason to that point, Rogers dominated the postseason, throwing a combined 23 scoreless innings while allowing just nine hits and striking out 19 in starts against the Yankees, A's and Cardinals. The last of them, however, was not free of controversy. In the first inning of Game 2 of the World Sereis, television cameras captured a brown substance at the base of his thumb, believed to be pine tar. After the inning, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa asked the umpires to make Rogers clean his hand. Unfazed, he continued with an eight-inning, two-hit performance in the only game of the series that the Tigers would win; afterwards he claimed the substance was "a big clump of dirt."
Rogers wound up spending two more seasons in Detroit with diminishing returns; he was limited to 11 starts in 2007 due to a blood clot in his shoulder that required surgery in the spring and then elbow inflammation later in the summer. Though healthy enough to take the ball 30 times the following year, his age 43 season, he was roughed up for a 5.70 ERA. He never formally retired from baseball, but he didn't return.
Rogers' raw statistics don't measure up as Hall of Fame caliber, but what's striking is the similarity they bear to fellow 2014 candidate Jack Morris once you account for scoring environment:
|Avg HOF SP||72.6||50.2||61.4|
After adjusting for park and league scoring levels, Rogers was about two percent better at run prevention relative to his league than Morris was — a small margin, but a favorable one nonetheless. He received slightly lower run support relative to the league (5.6 percent above the park-adjusted average for Rogers, 6.4 percent above for Morris) and yet his teams won his starts with nearly the same frequency (.570 for Rogers, .574 for Morris), and he himself had a slightly better winning percentage. Not that I actually advocate such a stat as a particularly worthwhile means of comparing two pitchers, but given that the foundation of the argument for Morris is The Wins, it bears mention. Furthermore, for all of Rogers' October struggles, his postseason ERA (4.12) was 0.15 runs per nine lower than his regular season ERA, a slightly wider margin than that of Morris (3.80, 0.10 lower), though he won just one ring to Morris' four, and like Morris in 1992 with Toronto (four starts, 7.43 ERA) was more of an impediment to winning in that particular postseason than a help.
Carrying this further, Rogers only made four All-Star teams to Morris' five, received Cy Young consideration in one season to seven for Morris, and didn't crack the statistical leaderboards with nearly the same frequency. Even with a 5-0 whitewashing in the Gold Glove department, Rogers scores 66 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor to Morris' 122, but he trumps him once we turn to the advanced metrics.
Even while throwing roughly 500 fewer innings, Rogers accumulated 7.3 more WAR in his career than Morris, and 2.8 more WAR over his seven-year peak, for a JAWS that's 5.1 points higher. While still a long ways off, he's slightly closer to the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher on all three fronts, and ranks 113th to Morris' 159th. Both pitchers had eight seasons of at least 3.0 WAR, but Rogers had more of at least 5.0 WAR (four to three) and was the only one of the pair to have a season above 6.0 WAR.
Morris, who has been imbued with an impressive mythology due to a selective memory of his accomplishments, received 67.7 percent of the vote in 2013, though he'll be hard-pressed to go over the top in 2014, his final year on the ballot. Rogers, who so often played the bad guy in the minds of the media and fans, is likely appearing on the ballot for the first and last time. Neither pitcher deserves Cooperstown by my measure, but the convergence of their bodies of work suggests that the latter should be held in higher regard than he has been.